Saturday 17 November 2018

Guest Blog: It's Cracker-Jack Douglas! by Alan Stafford

There are very few comedy performers who have made the transition from straight man to funny man.  But Jack Douglas, who enlivened many a 1970s Carry On with his twitchy jittery Alf Ippititimus, is a notable exception.

When TV producer Johnny Downes launched Crackerjack (BBC television’s first children’s variety show) way back in 1955, he was on the lookout for a resident comedy act to support the show’s host Eamonn Andrews.  Eamonn took care of all the games, including Double or Drop, an idea of his own, where correct answers were awarded with armfuls of prizes while wrong answers or dropped prizes were punished with a cabbage.

For the show’s comedy content, Johnny Downes took a gamble on a variety double-act that had trod the boards for a few years but had little television exposure – Joe Baker and Jack Douglas.  They were the perfect comedy combination, short fat Joe and tall thin Jack, but it was only by sheer chance that the two ever got together.

Jack Douglas was following his father’s footsteps, putting on theatre shows and pantomimes.  He had cast Joe Baker as the Mate in Dick Whittington, but the comic playing the Captain took ill just before opening night.  Jack, being the only one who knew the lines, stepped in.  A showbiz agent who was in the audience signed them up immediately after the show.  When he asked them how long they’d been a double-act, Jack glanced at his watch.  ‘About two hours and twenty minutes.’

While researching for my book – It’s Friday, it’s Crackerjack – I was very lucky to meet Alan Fenton, who had not only been a Crackerjack scriptwriter, he had also written sketches for Jack and Joe.  Alan described their onstage relationship to me:

Jack Douglas was this big tall fellow, thick face, and he loved saying things like, ‘I’ll         smash your face in.’  Joe Baker was much shorter, very fat, not the most elegant in   his manners, but he was funny.  They were wonderful in cowboy sketches.  Jack Douglas was the sort of man who kicked the doors open to come in and threatened   everybody – and Joe would be cowering in a corner.

Jack and Joe were required to come up with a new comedy sketch for each episode of Crackerjack, to be performed live to an audience of children at the BBC Television Theatre (formerly the Shepherds Bush Empire).  This was in the mid-50s, when Television Centre had yet to be built – though the Television Theatre continued to be the home of Crackerjack throughout its run until the very last show in 1984.

The scriptwriter was Bill Douglas, Jack’s brother, who would go on to have a long career as a theatre producer and writer under his real name of Bill Roberton.  But, in fact, the scripting was something of an afterthought.  The sketches were devised through improvisation and it was Bill’s job to make some scripted order out of the creative chaos.

Although the straight man of a double-act is often called the stooge, this wasn’t the case with Jack and Joe.  They were both idiots, but Jack was the slightly smarter of the two.  In fact, if anyone was the stooge, it was the third member of the team, a crotchety old man called Mr Grumble.  He was never credited under his real name, which was actually Joe Baker.  Just as Jack Douglas came from a dynasty of theatre producers, Joe Baker’s parents had been a variety double-act themselves, and Mr Grumble was Joe Baker’s dad.

The sketches they did for Crackerjack were mad, manic and messy.  It was one of few BBC children’s shows that had no educational pretentions.  Eamonn said of the show’s origins, ‘All the important things were catered for, and it was our job to find something unimportant.  In the first show Jack and Joe attempted to bake a cake.  In later episodes they built a brick wall, reopened a derelict railway station and went to the seaside.  Whatever the premise, there was slapstick galore and Mr Grumble usually came off worse.

Every show ended with an explosion, when Jack and Joe (dressed as mischievous schoolboys) would hand a suspicious package to Eamonn.  In the first show, Eamonn emerged from a cloud of smoke with a blackened face to say goodbye.  In the final show of the series he sent the package-bearers up to the production gallery and the whole theatre exploded.  Yes, the early days of Crackerjack were one huge orgy of slapstick, anarchy and arson.

Jack Douglas and Joe Baker returned the following year for another series of Crackerjack when there was a slightly different approach to their sketches.  Instead of a domestic setting for the custard-pie capers, there was a vast array of historical events – The Norman Conquest, The Great Fire of London, The Spanish Armada.  Obviously this wasn’t a total change of style.  You couldn’t possibly do a sketch set on a ship where somebody didn’t end up drenched with bucketloads of water.  Slapstick and historical parody proved to be the archetypal ingredients of every Crackerjack sketch, and both elements were introduced during Jack Douglas and Joe Baker’s time on the show.

After Jack and Joe left, the physical contrast between straight man and funny man was perpetuated when Ronnie Corbett, another television newcomer, was paired with three different stooges over three series.  Then, after that, everything changed.  The short fat guy was now Peter Glaze, who became a permanent fixture for nearly twenty years.  But Peter was the stooge.  And so the tall one became the comic – first Leslie Crowther, then Rod McLennan, then Don Maclean and finally Bernie Clifton.

And Jack Douglas’s own transformation from stooge to comic was also under way.  The character of Alf had briefly twitched into life during a theatrical performance, when Jack was playing a magician and Joe was supposed to be a ‘volunteer’ from the audience.  One night Joe was late making his entrance, so Jack adlibbed a few comic convulsions, scattering the props over the stage, and buying himself valuable time while he picked them all up again.

In 1961, Joe Baker decided to go solo.  For a while Jack Douglas quit the business to run a restaurant.  But then he was persuaded to form a new double-act, with Des O’Connor as the feed and Jack (or rather Alf) as the comic.  Although it is Alf who we mainly see in the Carry On movies, it’s possible to sample Jack’s considerable versatility (both as comic and stooge) in the many Carry On television spin-offs.

Alan Stafford is the author of It’s Friday, It’s Crackerjack – the inside story of a teatime TV classic – available in hardback from Fantom Publishing.
It’s also available online or can be ordered from any bookshop.

(Photo of Jack Douglas and Joe Baker courtesy of David Bryceson)

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram

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