It’s nearly Christmas. Covid 19 has had an extraordinary effect on all our lives – my main thing is the mask – it doesn't fit over my nose – so it just keeps wanting to rest on my top lip, which is not a good look. I look like I’m wearing an ineffectual bib.
I’m not allowed to go and see my family in the Midlands nor are we allowed to see my mother in law. The rules say we gotta STAY HOME and because we are such rule followers - that’s where our butts are going to stay. There have been many Christmases where the house was chock full of family; yule times where the Turkey was struggled into the oven as if it were still alive...cooked for hours and then was so dry when it was released from the confines of the mini furnace - you could strike a match on it’s breast and get a fire going. My Mum loved Christmas – she loved cooking anyway and treated the entire period as an excuse to run tings in the kitchen - usually with my sister Bev in attendance as a trusty assistant. They would churn out mince pies, sausage rolls, ackee and saltfish, fritters, cook down chicken, red pea soup with mutton and the rest with the skill of Michelin Chefs from Jamrock. The aromas that emanated from our Kitchen come Christmas time could have tempted a siren from her rock…I loved it. There would be the radio playing in the background - Christmas tunes; Slade, Wizzard, Phil Spector’s album, Jona Lewie – and Mum and Bev would hum and smoke and chat until everything was cooked to it’s full potential.
Mince pies and sausage rolls usually had the same rock hard quality but none of us seemed to mind biting down extra hard. They were delicious so we just got on with it. We enjoyed Christmas day and saw it as a challenge…who could get through the most food in a day. My younger brother Paul would usually win this – he was a trencherman and would get through three paving stone sized pieces of hard dough bread, bacon, eggs, fritters, baked beans and a mug of tea with four sugars at breakfast time…(I’m not kidding, when we ate our meals, they were usually piled so high you had to cut eye holes in it so you could see your table mates). Christmas Lunch was the Turkey and a few times there would be disasters – the Turkey dried out in the oven because mum believed in putting it in the night before, which meant if you didn’t take it out at the right time the next morning it would be as dry as the wit of P.G. Wodehouse.
When it was right though, the bird would fall apart at the whiff of the knife. The gravy would be thick and spicy, the potatoes plentiful, the veg cooked for nine hours - we loved and ate it all.
And then the presents; when your Mum and Dad don’t earn big money, as in our family, the presents we were given at Christmas time had to be ingenious. There was a reason that we enjoyed playing with the boxes the toys arrived in…they were usually better made and more durable. The broken plastic remains of whatever cheap ass gift item Mum had bought at Dudley Market would lay underfoot as we imagined ourselves to be rocket pilots, train drivers or Formula One titans as we sat in our various sized cardboard boxes. We made our own entertainment in those days.
Of course, like any British Family at this time of the year, television played an enormous role in our lives. We watched all the specials: Dick Emery, Dave Allen, Some Mother’s Do Ave Em. But the champions at Christmas every year for the longest time were Morecambe and Wise, followed closely by the Mike Yarwood Show (Stanley Baxter also gets a special mention here).
Morecambe and Wise were the champions every Christmas because so much effort went into making sure their festive show packed a punch and reached as many people as possible. They’d regularly reach audiences of over 20 million people! No one does that these days.
Their shows foreshadowed the present day obsession with celebrity guests. They would sing ‘There is Nothing Like a Dame’ with a cast of news readers from both BBC and ITV. Stuff we’re used to seeing every year on Children in Need or Comic Relief - but in the late 60’s and early 70’s, to see a famous news reader suddenly leap up from behind her desk and reveal her dancing talent and prodigious legs as Angela Rippon famously did, was a surprise for the viewers at home. To see famous movie actors sending themselves up in a sketch was also enjoyable to watch. Eric and Ernie were brilliant at sending people up – being on their show was akin to being roasted at a Hollywood ceremony, with all your peers taking it in turns to take the piss. Des O'Connor seemed to take the most stick, but managed it with great dignity and aplomb…God bless you Des - you’ll be missed.
We lost Bobby Ball this year too. He and I worked together in 1980 and 1981 – Blackpool and Great Yarmouth summer seasons. Cannon & Ball ruled pantomime seasons come Christmas time, selling out shows for months on end. They never reached the stellar heights of Eric and Ernie in the nation’s hearts, but they were able to generate sold out shows for the majority of their shows post 1981…
Bobby was ingenious on stage – he generated catch phrases the way a cat coughs up a hairball - they seemed to just pop out of him unbidden:
You’ll do for me Tommy
You really hate me don’t yer Tom?
You little Liar!
And of course the legendary: Rock on Tommy!
Bobby was a stickler for stage time monitoring – If I did more than my allotted 12 minutes, within seconds of finishing, he’d be in my dressing room grabbing me by my shirt front and swearing like a trooper.
This happened a lot –
Who’s show is it son?
Who’s most important?
So why are you doin’ 15 minutes when you’re down for 12?
The audience liked it
Is it their show?
It’s our show int it?
You go over your time again and I’ll shove you up a chuffin’ drain pipe, alright?
And then he’d storm out of the room in high dudgeon.
Thing is – I never really took Bobby seriously in this mode because, there was always a hint of a smile in his eyes as he bollocked me. Also – because of his economy height, he would usually balanced on his tippy toes when he was haranguing me. This was always funny, like being told off by a leprechaun. He knew it too..the thing is, Bobby was hard - an ex welder - I always imagined that if he did hit you, you wouldn’t see it coming and it would bloody hurt.
I was really sad when I heard the news that he’d gone. I thought his magnificent end run - from I’m A Celebrity to acting in various sit coms - was smart and funny and all that good stuff. I know Bobby will be missed by his family – particularly by his wife Yvonne, who I know he loved with all his heart. A very powerful memory of mine is watching Tommy and Bob on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here - the moment when Bobby was balanced on precarious zip wire was heart-in-the-mouth sensational, the viewer generally thought that he and Tom might drop from a great height for their entertainment.
This was not to be, mainly because Bob’s constant chanting of ‘Von, Von, Von, Von, Von, Von, Von’ in reference to his beloved wife, meant that the Gods could not possibly let him drop at that moment. I remember laughing but also being incredibly moved by his devotion to her.
It’s odd I’m thinking of these things now - but I guess when you’re in Tier 4 lockdown , with no chance of seeing your family or friends – all there is left to do…is think.
Merry Christmas y’all…More news in 2021.
Some memories may have become rose coloured due to time and sentiment.
Also - sorry re: lack of jokes… but seriously, what IS there to be laughing about right now.
(Apart from Shirley Ballas’s face when Bill Bailey won Strictly; people getting vexed with you if your mask falls off in the shop, Matt Hancock’s sweaty demeanour during press briefings, Boris Johnson’s trousers – what is going on there? Viola Davis’s make-up in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom…Schitt’s Creek is proper funny and so was Mo Gilligan’s stand up special Momentum.
God bless you all...