BOLD AS BRASS:
Raising the Wind with JIMMY EDWARDS
by Howard Watson
as Jimmy Edwards once said, "is divided into two distinct categories:
loud and soft. In soft, we have piano, mezzo-piano, not-so-piano,
pianissimo, and, of course, pianola. In loud, we have mezzo-forte,
forte, fortissimo and eighty-which is double forte!"
Comedy and music share two common traits: timing and phrasing.
From Spike Milligan to Mel Brooks, both drummers in their early
days, all the best comedians retain some form of musicality. Therefore
it comes as no surprise that one of the top comic actors of the
post-war era was also an accomplished musician: 'Professor' Jimmy
He was a portly, moustachioed figure who excelled in portraying
minor authority figures such as Pa Glum on the hit BBC radio series
Take It From Here and the headmaster of a down-at-heel boarding
school in Whack-O! He was virtually born to play Shakespeare's burly
knight, Sir John Falstaff but, sadly, never did. Now largely forgotten,
despite being bigger in his heyday than Sid James, Frankie Howerd
and Kenneth Williams combined, there are still a few who remember
his talent to amuse.
Throughout his life he had nursed a passion for music, from his
early days as a choirboy at St Paul's Cathedral to conducting the
Royal Artillery band at the Albert Hall. His love was so intense
he even incorporated this musicality into his act, first at Cambridge
in the famous Footlights then, after a spell in the RAF, at London's
infamous Windmill Theatre.
Whereas contemporaries such as Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers
had a fine singing voice or could play the drums, Edwards created
a whole act around the trombone. An instrument he had played in
the Arimatheans Dance Band when a freshman at King's College, Cambridge,
just before the outbreak of hostilities in 1939. This, and other
brass instruments, would later be incorporated into a routine that
would establish him as a seasoned performer on stage, screen and
television, although lasting success on the big screen eluded him.
After the war, and now sporting his trademark moustache, grown
to mask an injury sustained in the RAF, he became one of many budding
comedians to grace the stage of the infamous Windmill Theatre in
London's Soho. This establishment proudly boasted that it had never
closed throughout the bombing and had become a symbol of Britain's
refusal to be cowed by Hitler's Germany.
Once on Civvy Street, however, Jimmy Edwards, as with many others
who had been, or were about to be, demobbed now had to make their
way in the wider world. After the excitement of war, he planned
on making a career in the business of show and wangled an audition
with the manager of the Windmill, Vivian Van Damm, also known as
the Old Man.
The Old Man put the young comedian at his ease, by stating that
like Queen Victoria, he was easily amused, and Jimmy Edwards went
through his audition. Once finished, waiting for questions, Van
Damm asked the young - and ever so eager to please - Edwards about
his moustache. Keen to get on, Edwards insisted that he was more
than willing to remove the offending hirsute feature at the earliest
opportunity. Van Damm insisted otherwise, saying that it was the
only funny thing in the act!
Following in the footsteps of Richard "Stinker" Murdoch,
Edwards became one of the first successful comedians to emanate
from Cambridge Footlights. His act had first been performed at one
of their last revues before the war and now, perfected in the hothouse
environment of the services, his time in the spotlight had finally
Frank Muir, a former air photographer for the RAF, and who with
Denis Norden would co-write much of the material Edwards would perform
on radio and television, first witnessed the act that ignite the
career of one of British comedy's most familiar faces.
As a freshman at Cambridge, his act had been little more than a
sketch that had been debuted at a smoker, after been spotting playing
with a dance band. It revolved around a lecture on how to play the
trombone that was apparently full of water that was emptied into
a bucket. When it was later performed, as part of the Footlights
revue of 1939, his aim was a little askance, making it rather tricky
for the ensuing ballet number.
By the time Muir witnessed the act, it had acquired a repertoire
of RAF slang and become a great deal slicker.
Wearing gold pince-nez spectacles a la Will Hay, morning coat,
winged collar and crumpled sponge-bag trousers, he came on stage
carrying a beer crate and a huge euphonium case. He placed the beer
crate down, sat on it and then opened the massive euphonium case,
taking from it nothing but a penny whistle, upon which he would
play a merry tune. With the words 'Encore' he pushed the mouthpiece
up a nostril, playing the same merry tune. Then, secreting the whistle
in his top pocket, announcing that the second encore had been banned.
The act had come a long way from his early days at Cambridge, where
he had entertained thoughts of being a poet, even writing letters
in iambic pentameters. He had won a Choral Scholarship to King's
College that had had links to his family for over a century. His
father had been a lecturer in mathematics, although he had died
by the time his son finally arrived there, where he threw himself
wholeheartedly into university life.
With war looming, however, it was difficult to concentrate and
he later admitted that his scholarship was somewhat of a comic confidence
Before leaving for Cambridge, Dr Hopkins at St Paul's Cathedral
had been given the gift of a trombone. With the aid of one of his
many brothers - Edwards came from a family of eight other siblings
- taught him the rudiments of the instrument although the budding
student had no idea that it would effectively change his life.
When he was invited to participate in a concert for freshmen, he
turned up with his trombone. Feeling out of place amongst the more
classically trained musicians, he broke into laughter that inspired
a friend to suggest that Edwards should take his 'act' in a more
comedic direction. The rest, as they say, is history.
His reputation with the trombone followed him throughout his life.
When he was cast as Ajax in a student production of Troilus and
Cressida, the director demoted him because he felt that no one would
take Edwards seriously in the role, asking 'Where's the trombone?'
Many years later when he tried, unsuccessfully, to win the Paddington
North seat for the Conservatives in 1964, while out canvassing potential
voters would shout in the street to 'give us the trombone and go
home!' So it was great surprise that he would one day play a man
obsessed with brass bands.
In a one off play, transmitted in 1963, he played Ernie Briggs,
a leader of a brass band, called Man O' Brass. This led to a series
of six episodes where Edwards played opposite the late, great Beryl
Reid and some new, young talent, including Ronnie Brody, who would
later star in sketches for Dave Allen's television series. Ronnie
Barker also appeared, having already worked with Edwards, and Bill
Treacher, who later went on to become better known as Arthur Fowler
in EastEnders. Fittingly, the series was called Bold as Brass.
In his early autobiography, Take It From Me, he related how he
managed to keep an audience entertained at Blackpool's Winter Gardens.
For a man who had experienced war in the skies, the monotony of
a twice-nightly stint in the north of England was relieved when
the iron safety curtain failed to lower during an interval. A chain
had broken in the mechanism and it would take time for emergency
repairs to be carried out and it appeared that the show would have
to be cancelled.
There was talk of giving the audience their money back, but Edwards
pooh-poohed the idea and immediately stepped into the breach.
In a perfect example of the old maxim of the show must go on, Edwards
proceeded to entertain the audience, after having first explained
the situation to them. "Now you've got me where you want me,"
he stated to roars of approving laughter. Working on the principle
that an audience is more sympathetic to a performer in difficulties,
he went through his whole act. He sang, as well as playing the euphonium,
cornet and trombone, plus every gag he knew. Eventually, signs of
life from the stage curtain.
Unfortunately, it stuck shoulder-high. He got under it and pretended
to lift it, but to no avail, so he called for his post-horn, ripping
through the 'Posthorn Gallop'. To every one's amazement including,
no doubt, his own, the curtain began to rise and the show was, finally,
able to go on. Staggering into the wings, exhausted, he found that
he had been on stage for forty minutes.
© Howard Watson 2003