A rundown of some of the memorable and plain wacky novelty acts over the last sixty years
It seems as if the shelf life of a novelty act is shorter than Jemini’s chart career. They are remembered for about two minutes after being the talk of the office or the taproom. After his success with The X Factor, Simon Cowell in his infinite wisdom decided to appeal to anyone with a soupçon of talent to enlist for Britain’s Got Talent and wait x amount of time for its regional auditions. Some of them were genuinely talented and went on to sell several million albums. Others were remembered for a weekend and were forgotten about.
Some of these acts would dazzle audiences with unusual skills. Like cocktail shaking, freeform footballing (or pratting about with a football if you prefer), or dog dancing. In Cowell’s other baby, it provides viewers a relief from multifarious dance troupes and neo-pub singers.
Before anybody regards BGT as a Year Zero for televised novelty acts, we need to think again. The novelty act is as old as theatre itself. There was jesters, clowns, Pierrot acts, defrocked reverends sitting in a barrel on the Golden Mile, Blackpool. Then came television, and such wonders established themselves in the consciousness of 15 to 20 million viewers. (And I mean that most sincerely, folks).
We have our favoured long deceased right-wing Master of Ceremonies to thank us for some of these wonders, and the number of households who sent postcards off to Teddington Lock each week. Without which, there wouldn’t be a Not So Perfect Ten on this subject.
Our Not So Perfect Ten Novelty Acts:
- Bob Blackman;
- Tony Holland;
- Archie Andrews and Peter Brough;
- The Bar Wizards;
- Tina and Chandi;
- Pete the Plate Spinning Dog;
- The Krankies;
- Jeremy Lynch;
- Roy Jay;
- Metal Mickey.
1. Bob Blackman: For many bus and coach enthusiasts, Newcastle-under-Lyme was known as an interchange point. Less known is the fact it is home to Bob Blackman. Known more affectionately as Bob The Tray, his act comprises of belting out Gene Autry’s ‘Mule Train’, and bashing his head with a metal tray each time he got to the chorus. He was a fairly regular novelty act throughout the 1970s, even appearing on TISWAS. In more recent times, Bob Blackman has even been seen at the Edinburgh Fringe.
2. Tony Holland: also known as the Musical Muscle Man, Mr Holland’s act comprised of flexing his muscles in time to Wheels Cha Cha. Besides being on Opportunity Knocks for six weeks in 1970, he first appeared in Thank Your Lucky Stars in 1963, and had guest appearances on The David Frost Show. From 1995 to 2006, he had his own gym on the Wirral Peninsula.
3. Archie Andrews and Peter Brough: part and parcel of many a variety show would be a ventriloquism act. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Peter Brough and Archie Andrews commanded 15 million listeners for their exploits (yes, you did read right, listeners rather viewers – how could one tell if Mr Brough’s lips were moving on radio?). The double act also spawned a children’s fan club with 250,000 members and spin-off merchandise. Without a doubt one of the most successful novelty acts in the UK.
4. The Bar Wizards: in their collective guise, Neil Lowery and Neil Garner finished runners up to Paul Potts in the first series of Britain’s Got Talent back in 2007. Both were bartenders in Stockport and Blackley before they turned to synchronised cocktail shaking. Set to for instance Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now, they would shake, flip, throw, catch, spin and pour their way to the music. Though criticised in BGT for having little variety to their act, they made a number of guest appearances. In 2009, they opened their own bar and restaurant, known as The Bar Wizards’ Lounge.
5. Tina and Chandi: we Britons are suckers for a good animal act and the 2010 Britain’s Got Talent finalists were no exception to that rule. Tina Humphrey had previously appeared on television before; in 1979, she wrote to, and appeared on Jim’ll Fix It, wishing to play piano with Playaway musician Jonathan Cohen. Before joining Britain’s Got Talent, she also appeared on the BBC One talent show When Will I Be Famous? and won a Heelwork prize with Chandi at Crufts in 2009. Today, Tina and Chandi continue to enthral audiences up and down the country.
6. Pete the Plate Spinning Dog: back when Mr Cowell was in senior school, a plate spinning dog won one episode on Opportunity Knocks. Known as Pete, it eluded Su Pollard’s chances of returning to next week’s episode.
7. The Krankies: if you watched children’s television during the 1970s and 1980s, there’s every chance you would have seen Janette and Ian Tough on programmes like Crackerjack. Better known as The Krankies, Ian would play the ‘ventriloquist’ with Janette dressed as a schoolboy. Throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s, they had their own children’s shows after appearing on more grown up programmes like The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club. They are still active today on the pantomime and variety show circuit.
8. Jeremy Lynch: there are some traditionalists who argue that a few football tricks on stage doesn’t constitute theatrical entertainment. Then again, some football fixtures I’ve been to have the twists and turns of a good play or continuing drama. Jeremy Lynch’s footballing skills granted him a place in the Britain’s Got Talent 2008 final. He has won numerous awards for his freestyle football. Today, under the guise of The F2, he has along with Billy Wingrove released a film of their keepie-uppie skills, to much acclaim.
9. Roy Jay: in the 1980s, he came to fame as the Slither Hither Spook Spook man, often walking slowly and dressed in a convict’s outfit. He appeared with Les Dennis as an occasional guest on The Laughter Show and in an advert for Schweppes soft drinks.
10 Metal Mickey: if you’re a child of the 1970s or 1980s, you would have come across this fellow. First appearing on programmes like The Saturday Banana, Metal Mickey was the creation and voice of Johnny Edward, a one-time pirate radio DJ and record label executive. Courtesy of ex-Monkee Michael Dolenz, the 5′ tall half ton robot had its own sitcom from 1980 to 1983 (London Weekend Television/ITV), which went out on Saturday teatimes. Today, Mr Edward is in the midst of relaunching his creation. This time, Liverpudlian actor Lee Jackson will be shouting ‘boogie boogie’, or referring to grandma as ‘fruitbat’.
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‘More…? You want more…?’
Of course. If you’re able to add to the list, or elaborate upon the ten novelty acts, comment away. It doesn’t matter if they’ve appeared on Opportunity Knocks, The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. They could be from theatre, Working Mens’ Clubs, cabaret acts. Not only singers, robots or dog acts, but contortionists too.
S.V., 19 September 2013.