Monday 21 August 2017

Favourites in Five: Stuart Ball

I started a brand new series of blogs a couple of weeks ago, asking some of my favourite people to write in about the five most important influences on their lives from the world of theatre, film and television. You can read Sarah Miller Walters' wonderful blog here 
and actress Judy Matheson's super piece is here

Today it's the turn of writer and blogger, Stuart Ball.

Laurel and Hardy

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were my very first comedy heroes and they remain special to me today. As a young lad, I remember watching Stan and Ollie with my late father. They were his absolute favourites and, through laughing alongside him at their on-screen antics, they became my favourites too. When my father was 70, we had a family party to celebrate. Myself and a very dear friend of mine formed a guitar/vocal duo for a time and provided part of the entertainment for the party. We included Laurel and Hardy's famous signature song Trail of the Lonesome Pine in our set and very quickly the whole room was singing along with us. It was a treasured moment  

Laurel and Hardy were the perfect combination really. Stan developed all of their gags and routines and was very much the creative force behind the scenes. Meanwhile, Oliver Hardy, or Babe as he liked to be called, liked to unwind after filming by playing a round of golf. He fully trusted Stan's ability as an all-round filmmaker and knew he would always make sure everything was 100% right. Stan was perfectly happy being left to the creative side and knew Ollie wasn't as interested as he was in that side of things. Babe just liked to concentrate on acting..

On-screen, they were both magical. Stan's supreme skill as a physical comedian was equal to anything that Charlie Chaplin could do. Oliver Hardy's superbly executed mannerisms, such as the exasperated camera look and his bashful tie-twiddle, have become legendary and those moments are often what I look forward to most when watching one of the Boys' films. What always comes across to me when watching Laurel and Hardy is their real-life warmth and obvious affection for each other. I think that is the secret to their long-lasting appeal through a number of generations - genuine warmth and a desire to simply make people laugh.  

Sid James

Those who read my Sid's Place blog and follow the accompanying Twitter page will know of my great admiration and affection for the wonderful Sid James. Although Laurel and Hardy were my very first comedy heroes, Sid was not very far behind. I think the first thing I ever saw Sid in was a TV screening of Carry On Cleo when I was around seven or eight. Of all the stars in that film, Sid was the one who immediately grabbed my attention. The raucous laugh, mischievous twinkle in the eye, roguish smile and wonderfully crinkled features all appealed greatly to my young self. Despite playing the villainous Mark Antony to perfection, Sid still managed to convey a great warmth and humanity, You couldn't help but like him. As a kid, I always rooted for Sid, even when he played villains.

Through writing the Sid's Place blog, I've been lucky enough, and indeed honoured, to get to know Sid's son Steve James  I have also had the pleasure of chatting to some of Sid's co-stars such as the lovely Sally Geeson  When my book A Question of Carry On was released last year, I was fortunate to be a guest on a number of BBC local radio shows across the country. On every show, the one person that everyone wanted to talk about the most was Sid James. That shows the continuing appeal of the man, both as an actor and a human being. 

Sir Christopher Lee

As with my first two choices, Christopher Lee has been a hero of my mine since I was younger. This was back in the day when horror films were, in the main, a lot tamer then they are today and were just fun to watch. I wouldn't recommend letting children watch the kind of horror films they make today but, to utilise the old cliche, 'back in my day' it was all about monsters, old castles and mad professors. 

Christopher Lee had such a magnetic screen presence. He commanded your attention whenever he appeared on-screen, combining his tall stature, continental-style looks (gained from his Italian ancestry) and rich, cultured voice to startling effect. Of course, as the man himself said many times, he was much more than simply a star of horror films. Indeed, when you look at the incredible amount of films he appeared in over his amazing near-seventy year career, horror films account for quite a small percentage. He was one of James Bond's most memorable foes, Scaramanga, in The Man with the Golden Gun, battled Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the form of Saruman and, like his dear friend Peter Cushing before him, became a part of the Star Wars universe as Count Dooku..

Although the Official Christopher Lee Website no longer exists, I still own my premium membership card which I first received over 15 years ago. In addition to the card, premium members received a welcome letter from the man himself, an autographed picture and priority notifications of personal appearances and events.One year, we even received a Christmas card from Sir Christopher and family. To this day, the card never fails to make an appearance on the mantelpiece every festive season.

In 2003, I got to meet the great man himself. All these years later, I can still vividly recall the feeling of excitement mixed with a whirlpool of nerves. Members of the website had been invited to a special screening at the ICA, London of the film Nothing But the Night. Sir Christopher Lee gave a screen talk after the film and then we all got the opportunity to individually meet him afterwards. It is a day I will never forget.

Ronnie Barker

Of the many great comedy actors that Britain has produced over the years, I believe Ronnie Barker to be the greatest of them all. His ability to totally inhabit a character and make that character his own still amazes me to this day. To my mind, his performance as wily old lag Fletcher in the classic comedy series Porridge is the finest in sitcom history. The greatest compliment I can give is that, whenever I watch Porridge, I never think of Ronnie Barker being in it. Instead, it really is Norman Stanley Fletcher on that screen. Compare Fletch with the rascally shopkeeper Arkwight in Open All Hours and, apart from some physical similarities, you really would not think it is the same actor. 

The Two Ronnies were a huge part of my childhood. Saturday night television in the seventies and eighties was a special event and The Two Ronnies show was one of the main reasons for that. Christmas telly was never quite the same after Ronnie Barker retired. I have very fond memories of Christmas evenings spent at my Nan's house, her silver Christmas tree sparkling in the corner as we all sat together laughing at Ronnies Barker and Corbett.

As with many of my choices, Ronnie Barker remains so beloved today because, in addition to being a fine comedy actor and writer, he was simply a nice man. His warmth always shone through, whether he was scheming as Fletcher, devising ways to make money as Arkwright, pispronunciating words as an official spokesman or mercilessly plaguing Ronnie Corbett at a party.  

Sir David Jason

It is such a shame to think that, out of my five favourites, only David Jason is still alive. Of course, David had a long history with Ronnie Barker, whom he affectionately called The Guvnor. When Ronnie retired in 1988, that mantle passed to him. 

Arguably, David Jason is the most beloved British actor of all-time. The British public took him to their hearts many, many years ago and he still retains a place there today. The character of Derek Trotter in the magnificent Only Fools and Horses is right up there with Porridge's Fletcher as the greatest  in history. David Jason has that special ability to make you laugh uproariously one minute and then hold back a tear the next. His physical comedy skills are also of the very highest order. If you are in any doubt about that, just re-watch the famous scene in Only Fools when Del falls through the bar.  

Sir David Jason remains at the very top of my list of people I would like to meet. After writing my first book Trotter Trivia back in 2012, I luckily got to meet, and in some cases become friends with, a lot of the Only Fools cast, The wonderful David Jason remains on my wish list! 

Thanks once again to Stuart for taking the time to write this wonderful blog. You can visit Stuart's blog here: Sid's Place 

And you can follow him on Twitter@sidjamesplace

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan on Facebook and on Instagram

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