A fascination with music hall
PUBLISHED: 10:00 27 January 2016
As an experienced TV and radio scriptwriter Alan Stafford knows how to make you laugh. Now he’s written his first book, born out of his fascination for the golden age of music hall. He tells Andrew Clarke all about the international adventures of Wilson, Keppel & Betty
For Suffolk-based professional script writer Alan Stafford laughter is his business. Happily it’s also his hobby. Now his love of laughter and his fascination with the traditions of comedy have led him to publish his first book – a biography of one of music hall and variety’s most successful acts, Wilson, Keppel & Betty.
Although Wilson and Keppel were hugely successful home-grown comedians who wowed British audiences for more than four decades, in one form of another, bizarrely they established their reputation playing in Europe and America before making their mark on British audiences.
In a departure from the norm their first appearance in the UK was at the prestigious London Palladium, the pinnacle of a variety performer’s career, not the starting place. By this point Wilson, Keppel & Betty were old hands at the game,but it was a game that they had yet to play in Britain’s theatres.
For Alan, it was the allure of their name and the fact that they had established themselves in an unusual way that seduced him into writing their story.
“Wilson, Keppel & Betty have a double recognition factor. Everyone knows the name. If you want to conjure up memories of a bizarre variety act people always come up with Wilson, Keppel & Betty. Then they have the visual thing going for them. Everyone remembers the sand dance. These bizarre Egyptian characters skipping and shuffling across the stage. It was brilliant and kept them going for decades.”
But they didn’t just play to English audiences. They were regulars in Paris and the risqué night-spots of pre-war Berlin.
The title of Alan’s book Too Naked for the Nazis refers to the fact that one night while performing in Berlin, Nazi deputy-leader and Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goring was in the audience with propaganda minister Josef Gobbels and they were appalled at the lewd nature of their act.
“They were performing an act in 1936 called Cleopatra’s Nightmare and I think it was the fact that they were dressed as Egyptians that really offended the Nazis, rather than Betty’s skimpy costumes.
“I think it was the whole thing about glorifying lower races that so appalled them. I think that they made a quick exit from Berlin and found life more relaxed in the nightclubs and cabarets in Paris and in the music halls of Britain.”
Lancashire-born Jack Wilson and his Irish friend Joe Keppel both started out as clog dancers and met up in Australia in 1920 after both having served in the Royal Navy during the First World War.
“They met when they were both performers in Colleano’s Circus. Although they arrived in this country as a fully-formed act and top of the bill, in reality it was a long hard struggle.
“After Australia, the pair then travelled to Canada where they toured as a comedy tap dancing act and then slipped over the border into the United States playing in vaudeville, which is where they met Betty Knox, who helped to take their act to the next level.
“Betty provided the sex factor, to put it bluntly, and with Betty they realised they needed a new act and so they introduced the comedy sand dance at the end of the 1920s and it was a huge hit.”
Alan said that before joining the act, Betty Knox had been a face in the chorus line. She wasn’t a great dancer, it was unlikely she would have gone on to a forge a solo career as a dancer, but she had great presence on stage. In line-up of dancing girls she was the one you looked at and Wilson and Keppel obviously looked and knew they had spotted a good thing.
With Betty Knox joining the act in the late 1920s, suddenly the act became a hot property. “Egyptology was in the air. It was the age of Tutankhamen. The world was sending teams of archaeologists to Egypt to discover the tombs of these exotic ancient rulers. It was the perfect act for the time. It was both silly and timely.”
During his research Alan discovered that Betty was quite the adventurer. She ran away from home at 16 to quite literally join the circus as a dancer, before becoming a vaudeville dancer.
When the act settled in Britain in the 1930s, Betty found she had a talent for writing and for many years had a column in London’s Evening Standard describing the quirks of life in London from an American’s perspective.
In 1941 she retired from the act to become the Evening Standard’s war correspondent and eventually covered the Nuremburg War Trials.
Betty’s role in the act was replaced by her daughter Patsy who stayed with the act until 1950. “Everyone thinks that they changed Betty’s every couple of years but from 1928 to 1950 there were only two. It was during the last ten years that there was succession of different Betty’s as they toured the world.
“Their’s was an extraordinary story which is what drew me in. I love the fact that they never played Britain until 1932 when they topped the bill at the Palladium and when they went back in 1950 they shared the billing with Frank Sinatra.”
He said one of the reasons that they lasted so long was that not only were they funny but there act was so simple that it could be performed in front of the curtain while big scene changes were taking place for another act on the bill.
Wilson and Keppel finally retired the act in 1962 after a performance in Great Yarmouth.
For Alan, who has written gags for Roy Hudd in News Huddlines for many years, as well as for The Two Ronnies, the writing of the book was a true labour of love, in many ways reminiscent of his radio drama Hoffnung - Drawn To Music, which charted the life of musical humourist Gerard Hoffnung, and starred Matt Lucas, Gina McKee and Hugh Bonneville.
“Humour is a great restorative and it’s easy to find great performers from the past who are incredibly funny and it’s rewarding to help keep them in the public eye.”
Wilson, Keppel & Betty: Too Naked for the Nazis is available from online retailers.