King Twist - a review
INTRODUCTION
The Lancashire comedian Frank Randle and Josef Locke would seem like an unlikely pair to form a friendship, but in their own right each was a superstar of the age; they would have felt the same pressures and held the same attitudes to their talent.

In 1977 Leeds Poly lecturer Jeff Nuttall set of an odyssey to track down the real Frank Randle. His book, King Twist, is now long out of print. Here's a brief review, which sheds light on both Frank and Josef.

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Composite image showing Josef and Frank

From the dust-jacket:
Born in Wigan in 1901 and a childhood friend of George Formby, who was later to become his chief rival, Frank Randle was one of the greatest music-hall comedians of all time. His theatre career started in 1916, when he appeared as an acrobatic artist under the name of Arthur Twist. It was not until the thirties, however, that he achieved his greatest popularity and notoriety as a comedian whose wild, manic temperament introduced a fresh note of invention into popular entertainment. For ten years he ran his own touring company, Randle's Scandals, playing to enthusiastic audiences all over the country. He also made a number of shoe-string movies and was the star of Blackpool's most distinguished summer-season show. During the early fifties his health declined and he died in Blackpool in 1957. Jeff Nuttall's account of Frank Randle is both a portrait of a `very, very funny man' and the story of his own search as he pieced that portrait together by talking to Randle's acquaintances, friends, colleagues and relations. What emerges from his narrative is a beautifully recorded analysis of the ways in which working-class values are expressed in popular entertainment and are thus ritualised by it. The image Nuttall builds of Randle also allows him to explore the perennial theme of the clown as outsider and, with the passing of Randle, he acknowledges the passing of a certain naive optimism which Randle so expressively embodied.

The author
Jeff Nuttall, artist in sculpture, performance and words, teaches in the Fine Art Department at Leeds Polytechnic. His previous publications include Bomb Culture (MacGibbon and Kee, 1968), a best- selling study of pop culture, and Common Factors! Vulgar Factions (with Rodick Carmichael, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977).

ISBN 0 7100 8977 5

REVIEW
Nuttall has a way of conveying more than the words of his interviewees, he captures their attitudes and emotions too. He fully reports their testimony in a journalistic way. Take this for example:

"Blakely is sure that Randle was born in Wigan. He was always a gentleman offstage, quiet, reserved. 'We never saw any evidence of wild behaviour. Never too drunk to work. Always a glass in his hand but certainly not alcoholic. Do you remember, dear? Mind you, he would disappear for days. No warning. Just turn up at the studios at 8 o'clock and no Randle.' Where did he go? Who knows? Possible mental blackouts, fits of depression. Possible benders with Joe Locke. Did I know that Randle and Joe Locke were friendly? I would do well to contact Joe Locke. Those strained fragments from light opera I remember wafting from the wartime wireless sort uneasily with the idea of two- and three-day benders. And there was maybe a girlfriend somewhere. Tom and his wife exchange smiles. 'But he had a lovely house, you know, in Whitegate Drive, Blackpool, and a lovely wife, Queenie. We loved Queenie, didn't we dear?'

Writing in the first person, Nuttall manages to snare the reader into his quest:

"I put ads in the Stage and write a letter to the Guardian. A lot of ringing around after Locke, Nat Jackley, Sandy Powell, Tessie O'Shea, Diana Dors has got me next to nowhere. BBC, agencies, theatre managements, by some long-established freemasonry of the profession, protect the privacy of entertainers, even long-retired entertainers, as savagely as they would protect their own progeny."

And what Nuttall can't discern from evidence, he concludes using his intuition; for instance, how could he have know what Randle felt like, without so much empathy?:

"He lived the life of a Munchausen, joined the Bispham hunt and fell off the horse at the first canter, appeared, none the less. in hunting pink for dinner with Joseph Locke and his wife at Craig Royston. On such occasions he was the grand actor. An invisible astrakhan collar was about his neck, an imaginary sombrero on his head, a silver-knobbed cane near visible in his hand."

His use of adjective also makes the story spring to life; note the use of the word 'diabolic' - a strange choice, but conjouring up all manner of riotous goings-on...

With Locke, the stentorian Irish tenor to whom love descended like a nangellah twice nightly, and Percy Taylor who ran the local taxi-fleet, he formed a diabolic liaison. Locke, a capable man with the bottle and an eager man with his fists, was a familiar figure among the race-track professors and the bill-shuffling brotherhood of the Fylde half-world.

Nuttall really got under the skin of Randle, tried to discern what motivated him, make sense of his attitude. We can make our own conclusions, but I think Nuttall's is very perceptive:

"Together he and Randle resolved that their way of life had nothing to do with income tax. It was part Wigan guttersnipe and part regent that went down to the office after second house on Saturday night and collected anything between a hundred pounds and a thousand pounds in 'readies'. With Locke he was the libertine drunk, the tap-room roarer, whilst for the Blakelys he could be quietly spoken, even timid, and for friends and family he could be the nicest bloke in the world.
It was with Locke that he conducted his most direct foray against the managerial class, the promoters and entrepreneurs, and the South. Because even though Queenie and her ma might want it, as they wanted him to become Roman Catholic, and even though he himself might want it as he glimpsed those levels of gentility which Rhoda had always symbolised, he knew that he could never join whole-heartedly the sophisticates of the South. It would cost him a crown he already had and the endless tolerance that went with it. Out of the mill he may be, and not just forgiven but loved for it. But he must keep it quite clear to those who struggled behind in the soot and the grime that he hadn't joined the other side, the gaffers and the toffee noses.

Sometimes, Nuttall's words conjour up a picture so vivid, it's like being there; note the crisps anecdote:

And there were the times when Randle, the amateur, the Wigan alley lad, would re-affirm his grasp on his fundamental identity by skiving off for days at a time, leaving film sets idle and touring companies wildly improvising, while he and Jo Locke roistered round the cool tap-'oiles of some undetectable Pennine hostelry, or else, alone, he zapped his currently unbuckled sports model up to Cumberland where he would spend days with a comfortable level of ale in him, throwing crisps to chickens over some lichen-covered five-bar gate

And being a warts-and-all biography, Nuttall has to tell it like it is:

It may have been a resentment of Formby lingering from the King Fun days. Nevertheless, whether Formby as guest of honour was the cause or not, large quantities of booze turned Randle and Locke. the old firm of iconoclasts, into a couple of whirling dynamos who, in turn, transformed Jimmy Brennan's Lytham hotel, the site of the celebration, into a Mack Sennett set. Despite the caviar dribbling down the regency-stripe wallpaper, icy smiles were accomplished and hush-hush gestures to press and police, were immediately effective.

Conclusion: A wonderful work on many planes; as a portrait of the man, it is quite startling. It also captures a feel for the attitudes and mores of the time, and also of the northern situation generally. It is beautifully crafted, actually, and combines elements of mystery and comedy. If you can borrow a copy, you won't regret it.

Peter Lee
Extracts and illustrations for review purposes only. All copyrights acknowledged. Review c. P.Lee 1998




Images from the book: a treasure trove of information about Frank.

 

Picture courtesy Gerry Mawdsley

 

Picture courtesy Gerry Mawdsley

Frank's headstone at Carelton Cemetery, near Blackpool


Blackpool memories
from Allan Fulcher...