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[From Vol. 22, No 3, July 2013]


When Eddie Braben died in May – he it was who wrote the scripts for The Morecambe and Wise Show during the comedians’ great years on BBC TV in the 1970s – any number of obituarists rushed to laud the ‘Grieg Piano Concerto’ sketch, featuring André Previn, as the high spot of his art.  This was understandable as Braben was credited with the script for the 1971 Christmas show in which it was performed, and it is generally accepted as one of the funniest TV sketches ever seen.  The obituarists rightly hymned pianist Eric Morecambe’s line in answer to the complaints of conductor ‘Andrew Preview’ that he was playing all the wrong notes: ‘I’m playing all the right notes – but not necessarily in the right order.’  This has now passed into the language.

But, alas, as I pointed out in NL 20.2 (April 2011), although Braben undoubtedly restructured the sketch to include ‘Preview’, he did not originate it nor did he write that line.  An earlier version was performed on two occasions on The Morecambe and Wise Show, subtitled Two of a Kind, that they did for ATV in the 1960s.  Indeed, Series 3, Episode 7 (27 July 1963) contains the performance of a ‘Grieg Piano Concerto’ sketch in which, Eric was the pianist, Ernie pointed out the errors, and there was no conductor.  Accordingly, the credit should go to the writers of that show, Sid Green and Dick Hills.

Anyone interested can find an audio-only version of the sketch on an LP entitled ‘Mr Morecambe Meets Mr Wise’ (1964).  The ur-text includes many of the lines familiar from the ‘Preview’ version, including, ‘I’m playing all the right notes ... ’ etc. – and you can find it, too, in audio only and video on YouTube.

Incidentally, the obituarists might care to reflect on the fact that in Eddie Braben’s memoir The Book What I Wrote (2004) he refers to the sketch and concludes: ‘It all ends joyously when André plays all the right notes in the right order.  Every piece of comedy I have ever written I would like to have back so I can rewrite and make it funnier.  Not so the “Grieg piano concerto” – I wouldn’t change a word.  That was as close to perfection all those involved ever got.  I have never helped to generate so much laughter before or since.’  Ah well, perhaps he had forgotten where the script really began and can make his peace with ‘Sid and Dick’ who have preceded him to comedy heaven.  (Q4155).


[From Vol. 20, No 4, October 2011]




When Sepp Blatter, the President of FIFA, was in a spot of bother recently, he said – unadvisedly as far as the British audience was concerned, ‘Crisis?  What crisis?  But who or what was he echoing?  To British ears, the answer is: James Callaghan, who was Prime Minister from 1976 to 1979, when he may be said to have been eased out of office by a phrase he did not (precisely) speak.  Returning from a sunny summit meeting in Guadeloupe to Britain’s ‘winter of discontent’ on 10 January 1979, he was asked by a journalist at a London airport press conference (and I have been back to the original tapes to verify this): ‘What is your general approach and view of the mounting chaos in the country at the moment?’  Callaghan replied: ‘Well, that’s a judgement that you are making.  I promise you that if you look at it from the outside (and perhaps you are taking rather a parochial view), I don’t think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.’ 



Next day, The Sun carried the headline: ‘CRISIS?  WHAT CRISIS?’  Callaghan lost the May 1979 general election.  The editor of The Sun was given a knighthood by the incoming Prime Minister.  Now, some people insist on recalling that Callaghan said something much more like ‘Crisis?  What crisis?’ on the TV news.  When told that these words do not survive on film, these people begin to talk about conspiracy theories.  But the impression he created was a strong one.  In The Diaries of Kenneth Williams (1993), the comic actor noted in his entry for 10 January (the day of Callaghan’s return and not of the Sun headline, which he would not have seen anyway): ‘Saw the news.  Callaghan arrived back from Guadeloupe saying, “There is no chaos” which is a euphemistic way of talking about the lorry drivers ruining all production and work in the entire country, but one admires his phlegm.’


It is not hard to see how the Sun’s crisped up phrase caught on in preference to Callaghan’s ponderous utterance but what is becoming increasingly clear is where the Sun’s headline came from.  Paul Graves-Brown draws my attention to the fact that, four years earlier, ‘CRISIS?  WHAT CRISIS?’ had been the title of an album by the progressive rock group, Supertramp.  Its cover showed a man sunbathing on a deckchair in a very urban setting. 



It seems that Supertramp used a to-hand phrase because they couldn’t think of a new title.  Wikipedia comes up with the information that the line had earlier appeared in the film The Day of the Jackal (UK/France 1973), though it is not in Frederick Forsyth’s original novel.  I took a look.  It does get spoken in the film, but not in the Callaghan way.  St Clair, a French official, in bed with an OAS plotter who is pumping him for information explains why he has not called her: ‘It was impossible, there was a crisis on.’  Denise: ‘Crisis?  What crisis? ... What crisis? ... What crisis?’  She is literally asking him about the crisis and not casting doubt on it existing.


But there we have it: the phrase was in circulation before Callaghan was lumbered with it.  As confirmation, I might mention a letter I received a little while ago from the journalist Eddie Barrett: ‘Back in 1970 [note the year] when I was a reporter with the Irish broadcasting service RTE, the then Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, was forced to sack the infamous Charlie Haughey from his cabinet because it was revealed that Haughey and others had conspired to import arms illegally for nationalists in Northern Ireland (creating in the process, the Provisional IRA).  The whole affair became known as the Arms Crisis, and involved a stream of cabinet meetings and the like, with ministers being summoned home from various trips abroad.


‘Among those summoned home was the health minister Sean Flanagan.  At Dublin airport my colleague Tom McCaughren stuck a microphone in front of Flanagan, and asked him what he felt about the current crisis.  Flanagan replied, “Crisis, what crisis?’ and went on his way.  The clip was broadcast widely, and later became something of a catchphrase among Irish and British journalists covering the Northern Ireland difficulties through the next decade.  Hence, its use as a shorthand form of Jim Callaghan’s pompous remarks about the 1979 Winter of Discontent.’


[From Vol. 16, No 2, April 2007]


If you were to ask me what is the query most often posed to the radio show, I would have to answer that it has nothing to do with quotations such as appear on the query list. No, it is: ‘What is your signature tune?’ And the second most frequently asked question is, ‘Where can I get a record of it or the sheet music?’ So, here goes: it is entitled ‘Duddly Dell’, written and performed by Dudley Moore, and it is the B side of his ‘Strictly For the Birds’, a Parlophone 45 rpm single issued in 1961. I have always chosen the signature tunes of the programmes I devise (and there have been others apart from Quote ... Unquote), knowing how important these things are. In 1975, when we were looking for something light, sophisticated, perhaps even witty, into which we could cut three quotations at the top of the show, I suggested ‘Duddly Dell’, having bought a copy of the single when I was still at school. I was as delighted by Dudley Moore’s jazz style then as I still am. I heard his trio play ‘live’ during the interval of Beyond the Fringe for which I stood at the back of the Fortune Theatre, London, in August 1961. That occasion was a turning point in my life for a different reason. I can remember going home and pulling satirical faces in the mirror. That was the start of my career, such as it has been, in revue and in radio comedy.


Dud, Derek and Hugo

But to go back to the disc. I was very touched last January when I received a letter from Derek Hogg, now nearing eighty, who wanted me to confirm that our signature tune was indeed the recording of ‘Duddly Dell’ on which he was the drummer. The bass player was Hugo Boyd and the producer of the disc was none other than (Sir) George Martin in his pre-Beatles days. Heavens, the two tracks were even recorded in late 1960 at Abbey Road Studios ...

I had to confess to Derek that I had rather assumed the trio on the record was completed by Pete McGurk on bass and Chris Karan on drums. They helped make up the Dudley Moore Trio that recorded two LPs in 1965 and 1966. But no. Derek says, ‘I had some happy years with Dudley, including the full run of Beyond the Fringe. At the Fortune, I had the best seat in the house for star spotting. It seemed that half of Hollywood was in the stalls for the first few months.’ Derek also pointed out that the title ‘Duddly Dell’ is a play on ‘Deadly Dull’. Funny, I had always assumed it was a Dickensian allusion ...

And so back to the second of the most frequently asked questions. Until 2001, I had to reply that a recording was not available but then Harkit Records re-released the two LPs and included the two tracks from the single as an extra. Alas, jubilation was short-lived as the recordings had to be withdrawn for legal reasons. As, however, I always tell inquirers, I may be able to point them in the direction of copies of the recording, not to mention the sheet music.  YouTube now has several performances of the piece by pianists other than Dudley, on video.  A final note: I have absolutely no idea whether Dudley was ever aware that we were using ‘Duddly Dell’ as our signature tune, though he must have received a penny or two in royalties from the BBC over the years. For the best of reasons, I never invited him to take part in the programme, though I am happy to say that we have been honoured by visits from the other three members of the cast of Beyond the Fringe: Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and (Sir) Jonathan Miller.


[From Vol. 14, No 1, January 2005]



For a number of years in the 1970s, train passengers going in and out of Paddington Station in London were beguiled or puzzled by words painted up at the side of the track: ‘Far away is close at hand in images of elsewhere.’  This elegant graffito became almost famous – not least when Michael Wharton, the ‘Peter Simple’ humorous columnist on The Daily Telegraph, discussed the work of the unknown artist as if he were an Old Master.

On 22 June 1978, he wrote: ‘Dr Anita Maclean-Gropius’s monumental catalogue raisonné, “The Master of Paddington” (Viper and Bugloss, £65), published last year, dealt in detail with all the works confidently or tentatively attributed to the Master and his School.  It was, of course, savaged in a long review by Dr J.S. Hate, Keeper of Graffiti at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in the British Journal of Graffitology ...

I myself also mentioned the piece in my first collection Graffiti Lives, OK (1979) and eventually got round to photographing it in May 1981 just as builders were demolishing the wall upon which it was painted, to enable the redevelopment of land behind it.  At some stage, it was pointed out to me that the first six words had apparently been taken from the poem ‘Song of Contrariety’ (1923) by Robert Graves:


Far away is close at hand

Close joined is far away,

Love shall come at your command

Yet will not stay.

I mentioned some of this on a recent edition of the radio show and was more than intrigued to be contacted by ‘Helen’ who claimed (very convincingly) that the ‘Master of Paddington’ was, in fact, two people: her husband, Dave and his brother, Geoff.  They had painted it, she said, ‘one Christmas Eve (no trains) in probably 1974 or thereabouts.’  It was placed so that it was ‘visible on the Oxford line’ – pointedly so, as both Dave and Helen are Oxford graduates. 

Helen confirmed the Graves allusion in the first six words but fascinatingly suggested that the last four came from something written by the poet Ruth Padel (who, as it happens, had been at Oxford with Helen and Dave).  But what was it?  I contacted Ruth Padel and asked for her assistance.  At first she could only think that her very first publication was a pamphlet called Alibi (1985) – and ‘alibi’, of course, means ‘elsewhere’ in Latin. 

But then the light dawned.  Ruth remembered she had written an article entitled ‘Imagery of the Elsewhere: Two Choral Odes of Euripides’ in Classical Quarterly (December 1974).  Dave says, ‘Yes, that was it.  I don’t think I ever read the Classical Quarterly article, but it was a great title.’  Interestingly, he refers to his great work as a ‘painting’ rather than a ‘graffito’. 

Now, as a result of this extraordinary discovery, I plan to reunite Dave with his (unwitting) muse.  And, please, I know graffiti-writing is a criminal offence but the wall in question no longer exists, we are all considerably older now than we were then, and isn’t there something called the statute of limitations?


[From Vol. 11, No 1, January 2002]


Anil Sahal wrote: ‘Whilst examining a picture of the beautiful actress Angelina Jolie (for scientific reasons, of course), I noticed a tattoo over her stomach which reads Quod me nutrit me destruit which I think translates as “That which nourishes me, destroys me”.  Can you shed any light on the origin of this?’


Well, yes, how delightful.  My research shows that Ms Jolie is actually covered in tattoos – though this one looks more as if it was written with a felt-tipped pen.  Desiree van den Berg steered me towards the origin of the motto.  It appears in capital letters at the top left-hand corner of a portrait of a young man that was rescued from builders’ rubbish at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in the 1950s.  On the basis that lettering next to the motto describes him as being aged 21 in 1585, the man is thought to be Christopher Marlowe, the future playwright, who obtained his BA at the college in that year and at that age.  The Latin words have not been found in classical texts but bear a resemblance to some lines by Shakespeare (written a few years later): ‘Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by’ (Sonnet 73) and ‘A burning torch that’s turned upside down; / The word, Qui me alit, me extinguit [Who feeds me extinguishes me]’ (Pericles, II.ii.33).

A.D. Wraight wrote in 1965 that, if the portrait is of Marlowe, then the motto refers to his poetic muse ‘which both inspired and nourished him, and yet consumed him with its fiery genius’.  But what all this has to do with the stomach of the delectable Tomb Raider actress is anybody’s guess (Q1985).



[From Vol. 4, No 4, October 1995]


In the immortal 1942 film Casablanca, ‘Round up the usual suspects’ is a line spoken by Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renaud, the Vichy French police chief in the Moroccan city, who is, in his cynical way, appearing to act responsibly in the light of the fact that a German officer, Major Strasser, has been shot.


Michael Grosvenor Myer asked me recently: ‘What is the time-lapse mechanism whereby “rounding up the usual suspects”should have become a journalistic cliché over fifty years after the film it comes from was made?’  Good question.  It is remarkable that, of all the many memorable lines from Casablanca, it has taken until now for this one to catch on.

Indeed, as allusions go and referring to ‘the people you would expect, the customary lot’, it is currently verging on the cliché – as is perhaps confirmed by the recent release of a film called The Usual Suspects which involves a police identity parade.


Examples of the catchphrase in use range from straightforward quotation in 1983 to more recent unattributed allusions: ‘All the usual suspects will be out at Fontwell tomorrow, when the figure-of-eight chase course will throw up its usual quota of specialist [racing] winners’ – Independent on Sunday (17 January 1993).  A BBC Radio Scotland discussion show has been called The Usual Suspects since 1993 - a rather revealing title given that the journalists and hacks who take part are inevitably just the sort of people you would expect to hear invited on to such a show.

As for the original line, in 1992, Howard Koch (who died, incidentally, this August) appeared to concede the coining of the phrase to his co-scriptwriters Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein. And the answer to Michael Grosvenor Myer’s question might be that the 50th anniversary showings of the movie in 1992 reminded people just what a useful phrase ‘the usual suspects’ could be.


[From Vol. 7, No 1, January 1998]


In Vol.5, No.4, I passed on a suggestion from Ian Gillies that the origin of the catchphrase ‘Play it again, Sam’ might lie in a 1943 edition of Jack Benny’s radio show.  Having just returned from entertaining the troops in North Africa, Benny took part in a short parody of the film Casablanca that had been released the previous year.  He played a character called ‘Ricky Bogart’ and Rochester (Eddie Anderson) gave a very funny portrayal of the pianist ‘Sam’.  But how to verify whether Benny uttered the immortal line which, famously, Humphrey Bogart never spoke in the film and Ingrid Bergman only approached with ‘Play it, Sam’?

Perhaps there was a Jack Benny Appreciation Society whose members might know?  There certainly ought to be, as the shows are still a joy to listen to – very clearly, for example, establishing the formula for later British radio comedy shows like Round the Horne over which Kenneth Horne presided with a similarly well-defined comic persona, indulged in parodies, and was backed by a regular team of personality actors.  But I could not find such an organization and only when encouraged by T.A. Dyer (who like Ian Gillies is a former holder of the BBC Radio ‘Brain of Britain’ title and possessor of an amazing recall of things heard and read decades ago) did I challenge the Internet to find the information for me.

In no time at all I was introduced to the world of OTR - Old Time Radio - and specifically to McCoy’s Recording Inc. of Richland, WA, which had copies available on cassette of almost every Benny radio show.  And so to the edition of 17 October 1943, in which ‘Ricky’ (increasingly inebriated) keeps on saying: ‘Go ahead, Sam, play that song.  Sam, sing it, boy.  Sing it, Sam.  Sing it, Sam, sing that song that keeps breaking my heart.’  Above all, he exclaims: ‘Sam, Sam, play that song for me again, will you?’  This is certainly closer to the catchphrase than anything uttered in the film and, to my mind, is reasonable proof that Jack Benny really did help create the phrase.  Presumably, rather more people heard the radio show than had seen the film at that point.

It is an intriguing coincidence that in the following week’s show (24 October 1943), Benny took part in a parody of Algiers (1938) – another film that never included the line forever associated with it: ‘Come with me to the Casbah.’ But does Benny, playing the Charles Boyer, part get to utter it? Alas, no.

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