WATCH my lips. It’s the phrase that means people get to say one thing when they clearly mean another.
So the news this week that Archie Andrews has been hauled out of his suitcase to do one last summer season, struck me as perfectly surreal.
I couldn’t say the same for the art of ventriloquism. And that, for those of more tender years, is what Archie Andrews is all about.
Archie was a big star in the Fifties thanks to the ventriloquist Peter Brough.
Call me a dummy but how a show called Educating Archie could attract 15 million listeners and a fan club of 250,000 members beats me.
Yes the show was credited for helping to launch the careers of much-loved talents such as Tony Hancock. But imagine today a grown man getting laughs courtesy of a dummy dressed as an English gent in striped blazer, cap and scarf. Hard enough on TV, but on radio?
My problem with all of this is not new. Apparently in matters of throwing of voices, I’ve always been in the sceptic’s corner.
I remember grandparents laughing themselves silly at the antics of Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop or Roger DeCourcey and Nookie Bear.
These were performers they thought created TV shows that were ideal children’s entertainment. But not for this one.
Adults, it seemed to me, were easily amused and well, just plain silly. Anyone could see that Lamb Chop was a sock masquerading as a sheep and Nookie Bear – he was, well, a teddy bear.
As for Archie, what bizarrely seemed to have been a hit for years on radio (work that one out) looked a disaster to my inexperienced eyes when I first saw the pair on TV.
I can remember, horror of a critic that I clearly already was, saying: “But his lips are moving. It’s just a dummy.”
Clearly I didn’t get what the joke was, then or now. And as for the horror films about ventriloquist’s dummies, the ones that come to life or those that are just plain creepy, well they didn’t entertain me either.
I can’t say I missed Archie when he was packed off into retirement when Peter Brough died.
Several years ago, the old timer was bought at auction by a private collector for a cool £34,000. And many probably thought that was the last time Archie would be making headlines.
But this summer, almost 50 years after his last outing, Archie has been dusted off and is back on the boards, in Norfolk.
It’s end of the pier stuff, the kind of seaside outing that suits perfectly the ventriloquist’s heyday of the old variety hall performance.
Ventriloquist Steve Hewlett has borrowed Archie for a Seaside Special on the pier at Cromer.
Apparently he’s already showing the worrying trait demonstrated by all the ventriloquists that I remember from childhood.
“Archie insists he has no plans to update his 1950s’ garb – cap, scarf, stripy blazer – nor his 1950s’ attitudes, so it’s been a bit of a headache in the wardrobe department,” Steve is reported to have said.
“Colin and Pauline Burnett-Dick (who own Archie) have kindly entrusted Archie to work with me for the entire summer season.
“I am thrilled. Archie less so, as until last week he was enjoying his tranquil retirement in France.”
See what I mean? Is it just me or is it that this version of the classic comedian’s stooge isn’t quite alternative enough in an era when getting laughs is more about verbal than visual gags?
Certainly some contemporary comedians have tried to keep the skills of the vent act alive.
Witness Nina Conti, comedian, actor and no-mean ventriloquist. She and her then alter ego, a depressed monkey called, er Monk, turned up at the Lawrence Batley Theatre three or four years ago.
It was no genteel, striped blazer experience as Nina’s hand puppet companion turned out to have a remarkably earthy turn of phrase and some personal obsessions that were rather startling for a Sunday night’s entertainment.
But that aside, talking to yourself, which is more or less how I see it, is a handy ruse that’s been going on for generations.
Being able to “throw” your voice, make it appear to come from somewhere other than your own lips, might once have been a fantastic knack to have.
Imagine what the Oracles of the ancient world might have or did do with such a skill? People get to hear what they need or want to hear – not from the voice of authority but from somewhere far more magical and potent.
Clever stuff but also potentially extremely dodgy stuff from the wrong pair of lips.
It is perhaps why as a child I was unconvinced by ventriloquist acts. Even then, I liked to know who was speaking, who was telling me what so that I could judge for myself.
It might have seemed like parlour joke stuff to another generation but to me it seemed strange and not remotely funny. And it still does. Sorry Archie.