I have a favorite performer. It's not a name that trips off the tongue of most people, but that's okay. I'm quite secure in my fave-dom. His name is Harry Secombe He first came to fame on the classic BBC radio series, The Goon Show, which was the precursor of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and which they (and a generation of British comics) credit as their inspiration. It also helped make Peter Sellers an ever bigger star, as well as the third Goon, Spike Milligan, who wrote the lunatic series. But Sir Harry (as he later became) is probably most recognized by U.S. audiences for playing 'Mr. Bumble,' in the Oscar-winning Oliver!, playing the Beadle who sings the title song and "Boy for Sale," selling the young Oliver Twist to the undertaker. He was basically a stage clown who had the most-soaring, beautiful tenor voice. (By the way, if you ever saw the movie, Mrs. Henderson Presents, starring Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins, the real-life "naked ladies" vaudeville house the film is based on is where Harry Secombe got his start.)
But Harry Secombe did much more than that. And got knighted for it.
I first became aware of him, not through either of those shows, however. My parents had been to London in the early 60s and brought back the original cast album of a show they'd seen and loved, the musical Pickwick, based on the Dickens novel. It was a huge hit and became Harry Secombe's signature role. It not only made me a fan of his, but a fan of Dickens, too, and started me on my way to reading all his novels. The score by Cyril Ornadel and Leslie Bricusse (who usually wrote with Anthony Newley) was absolutely wonderful, and had one bonafide mega-hit, "If I Ruled the World." His recording of it even reached #18 in England, and Tony Bennett had a big hit with it.
The show itself has an odd history in the U.S. The legendary producer David Merrick brought it to America. And Merrick did something rare with it -- he toured the show before taking it to Broadway. It was massively successful. Pickwick set a house record in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and actually made its money back by the time it reached Broadway, which was unheard of. But in New York, the show only got mediocre reviews, at best, though Secombe himself got raves. Business was just fair, but was expected to pick up over Thanksgiving and Christmas -- being Dickens, after all, it has a Christmas theme to part of it. But Harry Secombe came down with...of all things...the mumps! David Merrick had to decide whether to keep the show running without its big star, or close the show while still in profit. He opted for the latter.
Harry Secombe got a Tony nomination, he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show doing a couple numbers, including "If I Ruled the World" in character (agonizingly, I missed it, and it took me 30 years, but with the help of Mark Evanier, I finally tracked down a copy of it...!), and the BBC with Time-Life Films produced a shortened version of Pickwick, which ran across the U.S. as a syndicated Christmas special on NBC for two years. Alas, this was before the VCR, but I had the foresight to put a tape recorder up to the TV speaker and have an audiotape of the show. One day, I hope to track down the full video...
I did get the chance to see Harry Secombe on stage a couple of times. Once in a vaudeville-like revue at the London Palladium, and once in a wonderfully fun musical, The Four Musketeers, at London's Drury Lane Theatre. It was a big hit, but never came to the U.S. However it's most memorable to me for my getting to finally meet Harry Secombe.
You know how you hope your "heroes" are as nice you think they should be? And often don't even come close? Harry Secombe reached that "as nice as you think they should be" level, and topped it.
(A short, related digression. After Harry Secombe died a couple of years ago, I watched a documentary that the BBC put together on him. In it they interview John Cleese. Now, Cleese, as you may know, is by far the snarkiest, most curmudgeonly of all the Pythons. Yet in the documentary, he tells about working with Harry Secombe on a project, and how Secombe brought gifts for everyone and then Cleese adds, "Harry Secombe was THE nicest person I have ever met in my life.")
I can attest to that. I was about 16 and on a family trip to Europe. I'd written ahead of time that I was going to be in London, and got invited backstage after the show. (I'd also written to Harry Secombe when he was on Broadway in Pickwick, and got a lovely note back -- which I still have. As far as I can recall, these are the only two fan letters I've ever written to an actor.) Anyway, after the performance of The Four Musketeers, my folks waited while I went backstage, but Harry Secombe had a very bad cold, and I was told that he was much too tired and couldn't see me. (They had announced before the curtain that he'd have to lip-sync his two big ballads -- which he did, but turned the songs into huge comic turns making fun of it, which fit in fine with the show, since it was done as a farce). But when I stood there shell-shocked, they took pity on this young kid and asked if could I come back the next day before the show. Sure, yes, I could. And did. My parents were preoccupied elsewhere, but that wouldn't keep me away.
And so, I showed up backstage and was ushered into his dressing room. Now, you have to understand, most actors don't want any distractions before they're about to perform. But there was Harry Secombe, in full costume, chatting away with this geeky American teenage fan (of which I can't imagine he had all that many...) while in the background I could hear "15 minutes to curtain, everyone." He was charming, funny, and very kind. And finally, I pulled out my tape recorder and said that I was recording sounds of my trip, and would he please say, "Hello, this is Harry Secombe" in to it. No, he said. And my heart sank -- for about one second. Because he then added, "Interview me."
Again, remember, this was with everyone rushing around outside his dressing room, getting ready for the show. And as I result, I now have a minute-and-a-half interview with Harry Secombe -- which ends with me giving him a huge compliment and him bursting out in his big Goon-laugh, "God BLESS you, BOB!!!"
Trust me, if Harry Secombe hadn't been my favorite actor before then, those five minutes would have done it. He was so nice he transcended his reputation.
(By the way, his daughter Katy is also a performer, and had a small role in the movie version of Les Miseraables. However, she's performed in it on the West End as Mme. Thenardier, singing "Master of the House.")
There's an fascinating addendum to all this. In the mid-90s, exactly 30 years after Harry Secombe had had his renowned hit with Pickwick, the famous Chichester Festival decided to revive the musical -- and they got Harry Secombe to repeat his classic role. At the age of 72. The show was again such a big hit that a new cast album was recorded. And further, it was such a big hit that they took it back to London, where it was yet again a big hit on the West End. It was a big hit everywhere. But on Broadway. Ah, well. It lives on elsewhere.
Which brings us to today's audio treats. This will be repetitious, but well worth it.
This first recording is Harry Secombe singing his classic, "If I Ruled the World." It's from the original West End production in 1963 when Secombe was 42 and probably at the height of his singing. His voice is just booming and glorious. A slight background to the song, so that the opening makes sense -- Samuel Pickwick is mistaken for a candidate, and is brought to a platform to make a speech, against his efforts to refuse. Which brings about this --
And this second recording is...again, "If I Ruled the World." This time, though, 30 years later when Harry Secombe was 72. And the voice is remarkable. Not as strong, but almost as pure, with an even richer texture. And you sit there in amazement, yet wondering if he'll still be able to hit the big (really big) high note at the end. And...he doesn't attempt it -- but then, you realize that, being a CD, they can include more material than on the original LP, and so there's extra material in this full version and, aha, he's not done yet. And...well, it's just wonderful.
And that's my fave, Harry Secombe.
Watch this space, I suspect there will be more...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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