Thursday 30 July 2015

From the vaults—voices from Labour's past!

Traditionally, August time in Westminster village is known as the ‘silly season’ and it is by no coincidence that unexpected things happen during the summer period—when Parliament is not in session. Often it is due to bored politicians with nothing much to do in their time away from the day job, succumbing to the temptations of gossip and idleness, feeling ignored and sadly unimportant... In fact, we have recently experienced a bit of that with Lord Sewell and his frolics! I used to think that the press held back some of these stories especially for the summer break.

I am afraid that I have nothing as juicy as that in store for this post, but I am sure you will find what I have come across in my Vault rather humorous. Not having been involved seriously with politics for over two decades I don’t quite know what the current conventions and practices are regarding the evening entertainment at party conferences. It was always hilarious and irreverent during the 1980s—the Liberals had the Glee Club and the SDP something similar, but admittedly not quite as good. So when the parties merged it really was fun for everyone!
I recall a Liberal 'Liberator' songbook as well as an Alliance songbook in Wales—copies of which I still have. It includes hymns, gospel tunes and well known Liberal songs such as ‘The Land’, the ‘Pink Flag’ and ‘The Candidate’s Lament’. There were also other funny verses and poems sung to popular tunes such as 'Waltzing Matilda', 'Tip-toe Through the Tulips', 'Clementine', 'Wild Rover' and 'There’s a Hole in my Bucket'. Yes, they were great days. I often acted as a compère on these occasions—once selling for £50 a railway time-table offered by Andy Ellis at a fund raising auction (it covered the whole of the UK, mind!). Another event popular in the late 80s was the Lloyd George Society evening, which was chaired by its founder Winston Roddick, where both the late Tom Ellis and myself would deliver quite radical speeches.

Anyway, I digress. Quite early on in the life of the SDP in Wales I came across a young student called Mark Whitcutt. He was very thoughtful, silently spoken and always in control of himself. As I recall, his father would not be too far away when Mark was around—I think he was hoping that his son would make it in politics, but I cannot vouch for that. Anyway, in the evening when members were socialising, Mark would often make his conversational contributions in voices of various well-known political leaders of the time. It was very humorous indeed!

So at the Wales SDP Conference in Tenby 1985, I asked Mark how many political figures he could impersonate—just like Mike Yarwood used to do in the 70s and 80s  or Rory Bremner, another master of satire and impression, still does today.  Mark reeled off a list of names and I was so taken aback that I immediately realised he had a remarkable talent.
Be that as it may, towards the end of the conference night I arranged for him to showcase his talent to some 20 or so people who were still floating around in the bar area at 11pm. What more, I had highlighted earlier in the evening to the then BBC Wales news editor, Gareth Bowen (father of Jeremy Bowen, the TV journalist and BBC Middle East editor)—who was covering the SDP conference—that this event was well worth recording. So BBC Wales rigged-up and recorded the session...

On Sundays, back in those days, there was a BBC Radio Wales programme called ‘Meet for Lunch’ which covered the weekly happenings. I arrived home from the conference late Sunday morning just in time to listen to the programme and to my astonishment the main item was the recording made the night before. I immediately knew that some Welsh politicians and one in particular—a Newport MP—were not going to be best pleased. The phone calls I received were numerous that afternoon and a few Labour people in Wales were not happy.

There was no rehearsal and indeed I would have been a better interviewer had we done so.  The only aspect agreed in advance was the list of politicians to be imitated. The questioning was entirely spontaneous—so what you will hear is totally impromptu with no re-takes—a one-off. It was a truly remarkable and memorable performance and I can still visualise it! I did not see much of Mark after those days and the last I heard was that he had joined the Labour Party—as quite a few members did—after the merger of the SDP with the Liberals.

So the recording will cover Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Roy Jenkins, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Peter Shore and Roy Hughes.

Hope you enjoy.

By way of interest I also include two short link features of Mike Yarwood impersonating Harold Wilson and an item on Ed Miliband by Rory Bremner.

Mike Yarwood/Harold Wilson

Rory Bremner/Ed Miliband