Review of Jeff Nuttall's King Twist: Portrait of Frank Randle
Routledge and Paul Kegan, 1978
What links William S. Burroughs, Beat Generation icon and author of The Naked Lunch, with a comedian from Wigan who never made much of an impact south of Ormskirk? The answer is Jeff Nuttall (1933–2004), an actor, author, poet, artist, anarchist, jazz musician and cultural commentator on the sixties underground scene (his book Bomb Culture is an eye-witness account of the anti-Establishment zeitgeist which fuelled "the generation gap that the [nuclear] bomb created”). Amongst his many endeavours, Nuttall published an independent zine entitled My Own Mag which turned out to be an important platform for Burroughs’ work at a time in the sixties when he struggled to get published elsewhere. Not content with resting on such impressive avant-garde laurels, Nuttall went on to publish a substantial body of texts right up until his death. One particularly noteworthy example of his diverse output is the 1978 book King Twist, a slim but absorbing volume on the life of Frank Randle.
Nuttall’s anarchist leanings no doubt helped him to get beneath the skin of his subject, one of the most capriciously mutinous figures (on and off stage) that English comedy has ever produced. Born in 1901, Randle could be described as a Lancastrian hobgoblin, a turbulent sprite who emerged from the Lowry-esque streets of his childhood to become the star attraction in theatres throughout the North of England. Compared to Randle, the likes of George Formby and Gracie Fields were cardboard caricatures of folk from ‘oop north,’ anaemic emissaries dispatched from the Pennine foothills to be petted by the Great British Public. Randle, on the other hand, burped, growled, and leered at his audiences whilst treading the boards on Blackpool’s Golden Mile, without a thought for how his near-the-knuckle mischief might go down with passing Southerners. As such, he is undoubtedly an intriguing subject for any biographer, but what distinguishes King Twist from so many other accounts of long-gone performers who were in some way difficult, strange, or just out-and-out unpleasant (Randle could be all of these, and much more besides) is that Nuttall himself, in taking up his assignment, becomes an integral part of the tale. In less skilful hands this kind of authorial intrusion can prove maddeningly narcissistic, as we struggle to push past the writer’s ego-babble to the biography’s actual protagonist. However, Nuttall’s deftly engaging account of his attempts to make contact with those of Randle’s surviving contemporaries who could help him pin down his subject gives King Twist its compelling impetus.
The circumstances in which Nuttall carried out his research add another evocative dimension to the book. We are firmly embedded in the grainy, pre-internet world of 1970s Northern England where Nuttall had to pursue his enquiries via bleak car journeys, boozy pub lunches and plenty of letter-writing. This world before Wi-Fi seems even more distant given Nuttall’s claim that he himself was attempting to “capture the climate of a time that is almost gone.” Thus from our latter-day vantage point we witness the past in pursuit of an anterior era, opening up an infinitely precursive temporal regression. Not that Nuttall’s quest is some languid exercise in fond reminiscence. The fight that he chose to pick in the late seventies was with “an age that is somehow trying to cancel me out,” one in which the ever-spreading creep of civic uniformity was presided over by “spotty boffins” who sought to eradicate the tatty world that he (and Randle) had once known — all in the name of progress. King Twist is, then, as much a defiant vindication of some lost proletarian golden (if grotty) age as it is a journey into the back-story of one particular “manic little lecher” from Wigan.
The era in question roughly spans the 1930s up until Randle’s death in 1957. At the start of this period Randle had blossomed into a fully-fledged star attraction, having made his earliest public appearances as a fidgety youngster busking his Charlie Chaplin routine on Blackpool’s crowded beaches, before moving on to serve his apprenticeship as the knockabout stooge in an acrobatic act. Randle’s wiry athleticism would stand him in good stead when developing his stage characters. They were usually lean old reprobates whose sinews twanged as they mocked the ridiculous social conventions with which the world expected them to conform. Audiences grew to love Randle’s vertiginous chaos, which knew practically no boundaries and put those who performed alongside him perpetually ill at ease. All concerned were left in no doubt that King Twist (aka Arthur Twist, one of this compulsive shape-shifter’s many showbiz pseudonyms) was the Lord of Misrule.
He also made films. Bad films. Nevertheless, despite the weary plot lines and supporting-cast displays of creaky acting, there can be found in them substantial passages of Randle at his infernal best. Go on-line and have at look at clips from Somewhere in England (1940), Somewhere in Camp (1942), or the even more imaginatively titled Somewhere on Leave (1943)—all products of the low-budget Mancunian Film Studios—or listen to the recordings of Randle as the ancient sybarite known as ‘the old hiker’ whose patter steers just this side of sinister whilst being (for those who can appreciate his snarling, uncomfortable absurdity) strangely mesmerising. Indeed, Nuttall paints a wonderfully raw picture of this character, describing him as “a strutting, crowing geriatric, an eminence gone boneless with bubbling libido from which controlling sanity has been forever lifted.”
As for Nuttall himself as the alienated author in search of his quarry, he comes across as a Falstaffian figure savouring the experience of being chauffeured around in a “decrepit banger” with the intention of tracking down those who knew Randle and might be persuaded to reveal the shadowy figure who lurked behind the crackpot image. Such expeditions throw up the likes of Tom Blakley, sequestered in deepest Wilmslow, whose father John had founded the above-mentioned Mancunian Film Studios. Tom can testify to Randle having been a “very, very funny man,” and as to reports of him being regularly sozzled, Tom swears that he was “never too drunk to work. Always a glass in hand but certainly not an alcoholic.” The quest for the next pint would become one of Randle’s stock film routines as played out in a variety of scenarios. Whether or not he was actually “in drink” throughout most of these performances is a moot point. In every case we are left with Randle turning in yet another virtuoso performance as the energetic old soak toying to perfection with his sober oppressors, all eyes fixed on this unpredictable scribble in human form. That Randle’s performances in these films seem so consistently impulsive had a lot to do with his working methods, which entailed rarely sticking to a script, launching into lengthy improvisations at will, and then disappearing from the set for days —all of which were tolerated because of the rich comedic harvest that these chaotic working methods reaped.
However, the long-gone Randle stage shows, including one or two that the young Nuttall himself witnessed, are at the epicentre of this comedian’s renown. As the author describes it, Frank’s grand entrance would be marked by “disjointed juxtapositions of garments as wild and disorientating as those of Cubist and Surrealist painters.” At other times he would at first “appear dapper,” then “shed a garment or two, don some insane headgear and throw his teeth into the audience.” In fact, Randle the dapper chap was not just an onstage starting-point from which to descend into chaos. Several publicity photos of him exist in which a sharp-suited, well-groomed gent with a genial smile seems to bear no resemblance to the toothless, malevolent gargoyle of legend. Debonair-to-demonic in the blink of an eye; this was the trickster figure whom Nuttall was after. With no search engine to turn to, he was reliant on fading theatre programmes, hand-written recollections and good old Directory Enquiries for anything at all that might nudge his investigation in the right direction. Then it was back in the “jalopy” to be driven off down the motorway in search of another possible lead. Nuttall paints a vivid picture of travelling beneath the lowering sky of many a “concrete-coloured afternoon” through “drizzle so thick” that he couldn’t see “the mill towns dying on either side.” He is particularly good at evoking the characters and situations encountered during these expeditions. In Darwen we meet Frank Clarke, whose “reassuring shabbiness” is portrayed in the way that this short, thick-set old man wears his galluses (braces) over a grey woollen pullover, and whose front room, from which daylight has been banished, boasts “an Art Deco sofa enjoying its senility before a primitive but effective electric fire.” Mr Clarke recalls, in a Lancashire accent “as thick as dripping,” meeting Randle many years earlier. Back then Mr Clarke’s job was to shoot newsreel, and it was on the strength of his excavating some unseen footage of the comedian that Nuttall had made the journey to see him. Unfortunately, as was often the way with those whom Nuttall interviewed for King Twist, any actual recollections that Mr Clarke has to offer soon prove maddeningly hazy: a collection of scattershot remarks as random as the streaks of rain on the old man’s heavily curtained windows. As for the unseen footage, he just hasn’t had the time to search it out. William ‘Buddy’ Burgess proves no better. Buddy is a local journalist and a likeable raconteur able to draw on a rich seam of theatrical anecdotes about performers who had all shared “a chortling affection for a way of life that was sharp, ebullient, tongue-in-cheek and ruthlessly optimistic”: a way of life in which Randle boozily immersed himself. The man himself, though, is lost somewhere in Buddy’s congested recollections. At least John Lovelace, who has replied to Nuttall’s enquires with handwriting which “darted like a stoat across the tiny notepaper,” has a theory of sorts to offer. Rather than eulogise Randle’s eccentricities, Lovelace wants to talk about the many good reasons for being wary of the comedian, particularly his sudden explosions of temper, the wellsprings, as Nuttall puts it, of “manic sadism that overflowed the outward behaviour of a well-loved man with terrifying ease.” According to Lovelace, Randle was a “disturbed fella.” “Don’t forget, at one time ‘e was a boxer and a wrestler. Now whether ‘is brain ‘ad got disturbed in those years...got a knock, hit on the head...that I couldn’t say because I wouldn’t know…” In the dying fall of such ellipses, Randle, a natural-born puck, dodges down the side-alleys of reminiscence once again.
Next up, Nuttall swaps the relative comforts of the old banger for a bus ride through Skelmersdale. Here, for once, his capacity for evoking the intrinsic character of the communities he visits is tarnished with a certain pseudo-sociological condescension. The people of this West Lancashire town are, so he tells us, content with their ramshackle lives —“too sensible for sensibility, happy with function and fact, oblivious to ambiguity and mystery”—sentiments as patronising as they are unsubstantiated. However, it is in Skelmersdale (which is, he also maintains, “a hard and bitter place to live in at the best of times”) that Nuttall encounters a certain Mrs. Thompson. This lady is Randle’s niece, and gives him the address of the one person he most wants to interview: Queenie, the late comic’s wife.
The one photograph of Queenie included in King Twist shows her nestling against her husband in a glossy publicity shot, the two of them posing as distinguished Blackpool residents. She wears a smart chequered jacket, a tastefully flounced blouse, and her hair is up in the manner of a rather chic headmistress. Positioned slightly above her, Randle is equally spruce, with only his eyes betraying the faintest hint of latent ferocity. Queenie was a Londoner who had married Randle in 1928. From what Nuttall had been able to gather, she was warm, receptive, and something of “a fairy goddess” whose level of finesse her husband strove to match–whenever, that is, he’d recovered from the aftermath of his latest impiety. Given Queenie’s Tinkerbell-like reputation, it comes as something of a surprise when, twenty years after her husband’s death, Nuttall finally meets a “brisk cockney woman” with “smart white hair and a healthy sun tan” who is most certainly not the “cross between Anna Neagle and the Queen Mother” he’d been expecting. Suitably encouraged by Queenie’s no-nonsense demeanour, Nuttall comes straight out with it. “He was a rough old lad, your husband.” A summing-up to which Queenie readily agrees: “Oh he was, but you know, it’s funny, because he was a most misunderstood man. He was very calm, very calm. He was lovable, he was gentle, but touch the wrong spot – Hoo-hoo-hoo…” after which the by-now-familiar pattern amongst Nuttall’s interviewees ensues, of half-recalled reminiscences mired in a fog of peripheral chat. Does Nuttall’s ultimate failure to make of his subject anything more than a tumultuous memory stem from his own failings as an interviewer, the plebeian impassivity of those he questions (after all, some of them hailed from Skelmersdale, of all places), or the evasiveness of the rubber-limbed scapegrace whom he pursues?
In Randle’s final performing years the tumult increasingly overshadowed the comedy. His run-ins with theatre management, the local constabulary and members of his troupe became ever more volatile, as he seemed to go out of his way to shake an increasingly angry fist at the world. In 1954, in one of several newspaper reports over the years detailing his misdemeanours, Randle managed to get himself sacked as Window Twankey in the Oldham Theatre Royal production of Aladdin. GIRLS CALL POLICE TO PANTO COMIC was the headline, with the article telling of how chorus girls walked off the stage in tears during rehearsals, as Randle turned up late and was deemed “not fit” to take part, after which “he sat in the stalls and swore.” In his defence, Randle said, “I am going to sue them. I have a doctor’s certificate to say that I was suffering from anxiety neurosis and exhaustion. I did not raise my voice, I did not use bad language. I said ‘Let’s get on with the job’.” Chances are that the chorus girls were in the right, having been treated to Randle’s choice collection of oaths — several of which, as encountered in Nuttall’s book, still retain their shock value. It also seems likely that the comedian’s indisposition on this occasion had been exacerbated by a pre-rehearsal jaunt round the local pubs.
Frank Randle died of gastroenteritis on 7th of July 1957, aged fifty-six. Apparently, Stan Laurel sent his condolences. Despite their shared Northern upbringing and supreme comedic gifts, Randle, even if he’d had the breaks, would never have achieved the kind of world-wide fame that Laurel knew. Randle was far too self-destructive to carve out anything like a career in the national—never mind international— spotlight. If his was ultimately a provincial appeal, due to a thick accent and an act which drew heavily on his Lancastrian heritage, it doesn’t seem to have bothered him that London agents weren’t queuing up with their cheque books. In Blackpool and its environs he was the undisputed star during his prime; a fearsomely funny man who habitually spurned the safety net of the audience’s affection. Frank did whatever he felt like doing, a disposition which has given some of his exploits mythic status. There was the time when he hired a plane to fly over Blackpool (or, in other accounts, Accrington) and bombard the town with toilet rolls because of the aggravation that he was getting from the local police chief —or, some say, to revenge himself on unappreciative audiences. Then there was the occasion when he was arrested whilst driving under the influence and, as often happened, defended himself in court. When he described being taken to the station and led into the doctor’s presence to be examined, he admitted, “it is true I twirled round in the middle of the office but it was a ballet movement which showed precision, timing and co-ordination.” Other off-stage antics included dressing up in yachting apparel, donning the regalia of a Highland Chief, and kitting himself out as a Wild West gambler. Indeed, the more one finds out about Randle’s exploits the clearer it becomes why Nuttall, as an unabashed champion of bohemian self-expression, should be irresistibly drawn to him as a biographical subject. Both comedian and writer sought, in their own ways, to throw off the institutionalised somnolence of a society that wanted to neutralise their instinctive and inspired discontent. Both, in their own ways, more or less succeeded.--Mark Jones