Goodness Gracious Me, Chapel Street!

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

Mother: “Look, I’m a student. I’m balancing a traffic cone on my head.” /     Son: “That’s not a traffic cone; it’s a small aubergine.” / Mother: Aubergine, traffic cone. I’m too drunk to tell the difference! – Goodness Gracious Me, BBC TV comedy series.

I’d had to move because Mum and her partner had to relocate. I was uprooted from New Moston School and sent to a strange foreign land: Clayton. I hated life in Clayton Brook Primary School. Luckily, I would spend just one and a bit years at the school.

“It took John a little while to settle down in class 3. He is a bright boy and is now working very well. Although he is very untidy, he has a good understanding and has been very enthusiastic about some topics we have tackled. He wants to do well and his attitude to work is excellent. Number work is also good, but he does tend to be careless. A very good start at Clayton Brook.” – I. Proudfoot, year 2 teacher, Clayton Brook Primary School, 3rd July 1990.

Chapel Street Primary School made me stronger. It was never an easy time there, but it wasn’t the worst time of my life. To my younger self, bullying and getting into childhood scraps probably readied me emotionally for puberty and the tests of young adult life. It didn’t scar me. In fact, I look back and think of how much of a little terror I was. I made silly mistakes – more than any other kid (probably).

Before Chapel Street, I’d already been at New Moston Primary School and Clayton Brook Primary School. They’d taken our classes to Moston Baths and Ravensbury Primary School’s swimming pools respectively. At Levenshulme Baths, Chapel Street Primary School students had long been making the area into a madhouse. Levenshulme Baths used to be located opposite Levenshulme Library and both were next to the back gate of our school. The Bluebell Pub (at one stage ran by a parent of a classmate) was to the other extreme of the back of the school, and lay across the north-eastern flank of the school was Chapel Street Park. Here I can remember great times playing football with Ben McGreavy and Kevin Fairfax, or climbing (trees?) with Dan and Peter Ridyard, or digging for treasures with Alex Muir.

At Chapel Street, I recall the great dinnerladies being ever so friendly and the dinnertime assistants at lunchtime (yeah, there’s a whole problem of terminology regarding mealtimes going on there). In the morning we’d have a bottle of milk around 10am. To this day, I sup as much milk as the cows can produce. I draw the line at soy milk. It gives men breasts, I read somewhere. The school day had three breaks, all of which involved the playground, running around crazy (pretending I was a velociraptor after seeing Jurassic Park at the Davenport Theatre; or I was one of the Royal Air Force Red Arrows after attending Woodford Airshow). I had my imagination and Micro Machine cars or Lego figures were in or out of my pocket often.  I wasn’t the closest friend to anyone.

“How big is his danda?” – example of a catchphrase from Goodness Gracious Me, BBC TV comedy series

Mrs Clegg’s class during year 4 meant that I would lose many Micro Machines and Lego men. Her big plastic laundry bag must have held hundreds, if not thousands, or possibly millions of them. She was an incredibly strict teacher who like many in her profession drank copious amounts of coffee. I recall her reeking of coffee. At that time, I hated the smell of coffee, but in hindsight, she knew best, coffee is wonderful. Although now, I only drink 1-2 cups a day, if any. I’m in China and there are too many wonderful teas to sample. This week at St. Lorraine Anglo-Chinese Primary School, Miss Zeng gave me Peach Oolong tea and anther oolong tea that tastes like champagne. At primary school, as a kid, all I’d drink was corporation pop (water) and the odd Barr’s Dandelion and Burdock if I had 20p to hand.

I joined Chapel Street Primary School in year 3 with a short-haired teacher (who I cannot remember the name of) charged to calm me down. I’d entered part way through the school year and was a little unsettled. I soon became friends with the shortest member of the class, Peter Ridyard. He had a few brothers and sisters. His sibling clan of seven weren’t all dwarves. Far from it. I always remember his long-haired taller and older by a year or so sister Amanda with golden-red hair flowing like Rapunzel. I was scared of her instantly. She was a girl and a taller one at that. Then there was Steven, and he was older and much more streetwise. He was the guy with the cool kids and maybe some trouble. Apart from one incident over they years, Steven was fair to me, and never gave me problems. Actually, he stopped a few local knobheads kicking the crap out of me. Dan was Peter’s younger taller brother. Jodie, Adam and Sally made up the younger trio of the Ridyard clan. I used to sing to the theme of a Toys’R’Us advert tune, “Millions of Ridyards all under one roof…” but I did it with affection and jest. One thing about their mother, Margaret, she is a damn strong woman and has raised seven kids over a tight age-range. Dan and Peter would go onto be my best friends. I’d enjoy good friendships with Alex Muir and James Cliff too, but both would drift away in time.

My friends were needed because not long after moving to Levenshulme, my sister Astrid was hit by a car. She would endure many weeks in Booth Hall Children’s Hospital and then years of schooling at a specialist school to help her recuperate and catch up, before she could finally start at Chapel Street Primary School. I love my sister Astrid fiercely and seeing her curled up with traction devices and machines attached to her is a vision that haunts me. When she was finally back out running, I had my sister back. But, around this time, ‘Titch’ was mobile and in the education system. Her and Paul (the youngest of our tribe on my Mum’s side) grew closer. Astrid and Paul were inseparable as I started to outgrow them and their games. It remains a pleasant memory to recall.

5AJ with Mr Andrew Jones was where I switched from maths work lover to someone curious and interested by words. Mr Jones would set us challenges such as write as many words as possible beginning with ‘st’ but we must understand the meaning of every word. I read the dictionary. I started with ‘st’ and then I carried on through all the words starting with S. Then I went to the letter T. I decided I needed to read the prequels A through to R. After that, I decided U to Z needed a look. It wasn’t exciting and I understood very little, but I actually read a dictionary. I recall building Lego models at home and stopping to take in a page, with occasional writing of the word, running downstairs and asking my mum how I could say a particular word. She must have thought I was madness personified.

Around about 1997, I discovered Goodness Gracious Me on BBC Radio 4. Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Syal and (my first crush on an Asian girl) Nina Wadia. I fell in love with Nina Wadia’s voice on radio and then when I did see the television version of the show, well she didn’t disappoint. Not that I could focus on her physique or voice. The show was far too funny for that. Here was a mould-breaking show, fast, witty and dynamic. It laughed itself, it mocked stereotypes, it ripped apart tradition. It flipped views of the British over to those of South Asia. It parodied and spoofed and after just 3 TV series, it left the world a better place. The best sketch has to be: Going for an English. In this sequence a group of Asian friends go for an English meal after a few lassis (non-alcoholic yogurt drink). They mispronounce and bumble the waiter’s name. They request the “blandest thing on the menu” and request a “stronger” steak and kidney pie. Who can possibly eat 24 plates of chips? The parody of British people, and you know there are some who still do this, getting drunk and going to end the night at an Indian restaurant. Surely, we’ve all met the macho guy who orders the hottest vindaloo. How many papadums can one actually eat?! Cheque, please. I need to go and watch Asian Top Gear again.

“The people here believe the tree to be sacred, so that even if one leaf falls onto the track, the whole line is immediately shut down.” – Goodness Gracious Me, BBC TV comedy series, sketch: Great Train Journeys of the World: Fenchurch Street to Southend

During the final year of primary school Miss Rowe (6RO) and her classroom assistant calmed me down. When the final last day came, I never collected signatures on old schoolbooks or signed my school jersey. I just walked out of the gate saying thank you and goodbye. It didn’t seem to be a big thing. The sterile looking Reddish Vale Secondary School awaited. I would move on a free transfer from Manchester’s educaton authority to that of Stockport. How bad could it be?

“I Hear You’re a Racist Now, Father?”

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

This week I was asked to recommend some cheery comedy viewing and a book, by several people. During this COVID-19 days, with seemingly endless lack of positive news, I turn to Russel Howard’s Home Time Live, amongst other shows.

My early exposure to comedy was catching the odd bit of Spitting Image or other such TV series. I was never too keen on Children’s Television, other than say Stingray, Thunderbirds, The Real Ghostbusters and a few other cartoons. The ones that really got my attention were Dangermouse and Count Duckula. These last two titles had Only Fools and Horses great and comedy star David Jason as the voices of many of the great characters. I also recall David Jason appearing in bits on one of many Ronnie Barker shows. For years David Jason in a show meant that I wanted to see it. From the gentle drama of The Darling Buds of May to the gritty detective show A Touch of Frost, or seeing David Jason as Rincewind in Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, I enjoyed every appearance. But, I have never seen one full episode of Still Open All Hours or Open All Hours. I’m sure I’ll see Granville in the future. Sir David Jason OBE turned 80 years old this year. He is to television comedy as Sir David Attenborough is to wildlife on television.

Have I Got News for You represents perhaps the longest running show I have watched attentively throughout my life. If I miss a few episodes, or a run over a period of months, I will find a repeat online or in the archives. It now boasts over 520 episodes and the regular panel show game contestants Paul Merton and Ian Hislop share a camaraderie that few series can muster. They swipe at news and bring satire to often bleak or dull matters. They’re often inciteful and wide-sweeping in their opinions. It isn’t a how that tells you what to do. It is entertainment with buckets of wit. Guests such as Victoria Coren Mitchell (who really is very clever and sexy), Jo Brand, Janret Street-Porter and Ross Noble, mix it with politicians, entertainment stars, future Prime Ministers and stars of the silver screen. It isn’t free of controversy or wasn’t so when regular host Angus Deayton left after 12 years. Other satirical shows have been around but few have shown the staying power of this series.

“If it wasn’t for your wellies where would you be; You’d be in the hospital or infirmary.” -Billy Connolly, The Welly Boot Song.

At Aberystwyth University, I’d seen Jimmy Carr, Alan Carr, Men In Coats, and almost every stand-up comedian or visual comedy act from September 2001 to leave four years later. That may explain my poor graduation grades. Still, I met Al Murray as the Pub Landlord. After university I’d go to Manchester’s Frog and Bucket and the Comedy Store. Mark Thomas, a political comedian, became a great favourite and an emerging German Comedy Ambassador called Henning Wehn whet my appetite for comedy that enabled you to think too. Great shows like Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventure and even Jim Bowen having a round of Bullseye in Aberystwyth’s Student Union made for memorable evenings. I’m very lucky to have access to comedians such as Andrew Lawrence over the years. Freedom of speech is a marvellous thing.

“The Buddhist version of poverty is a situation where you have nothing to contribute.” -Sir Michael Palin KCMG CBE FRGS, Himalaya

On paper Jon Ronson, Ardal O’Hanlon (best known as the hapless Father Dougal in Father Ted), and Christopher Brookmyre had my eye for their witty writing fashions. Recently I discovered Based on a True Story by Norm Macdonald which was picked up and never put down until it was finished. Saturday Night Live was also responsible for Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Bill Murray and numerous comedians gaining a foothold in the mainstream, but the ones who have gone on to write add greatness to their portfolio. However, Rich Hall and Charlie Brooker (creator of Black Mirror) remain my all-time favoured comedic writers, just after Eric Morecambe. I guess the Reluctant Vampire, Eric Morecambe on Fishing and Stella hold so much warmth that they are essential bookshelf companions for me. I don’t even like fishing. Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 is probably the only classic comedy writing that I’ve enjoyed. I found Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat a little dull. I do have a book published in 1892 on my ‘to read list’: Diary Of A Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith. Perhaps, that will be my latest essential shelf-filler.

Woody Allen may have been celebrated as a great writer of movies, but I didn’t get taken in by him at all. Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs was more my thing. Anything Monty Python became so laughable and cult that everyone (it seems) shares the same thoughts on their archive of classics. Richard Pryor was a bit part in Superman III. I am glad he was in the movie because years later after university life I delved into his back catalogue. What a star! His  observational and political speaking was acerbic and iconoclastic. For me, as a Caucasian Mancunian, I only spotted Lenny Henry and a few others on the predominantly white British TV stations as a kid. Andi Osho and Stephen K. Amos came later. But, for the most, few black or mixed-race comedians made it onto the television and Craig Charles in Red Dwarf had a scouse accent. Over time, and as the internet-age gave rise to more comedians from that America reaching our shores comedians such as Reginald D. Hunter, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, and Whoopi Goldberg became regular viewing. Comedy is like this COVID-19 disease: it doesn’t recognise gender or race. You’re either funny or you’re not (or ill or not).

“I think some of the best modern writing comes now from travellers” – Sir Michael Palin KCMG CBE FRGS, comedian, writer, & actor

Comedy needs diversity and it needs lovable rogues heading to foreign shores to ply their trade. Father Ted, written by Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews flung religion and culture onto the television with the powerful Catholic Church as the celebrated and loved butt of many jokes. It is surely the most successful comedy production from Ireland ever – and I hope the Pope Ted: The Father Ted Musical arrives sooner rather than later. Father Jack will surely approve. Arthur Mathews is the author of Well Remembered Days: Eoin O’Ceallaigh’s Memoirs of a Twentieth-century Irish Catholic. Pick that book up. Read it. Then, find the audiobook read by none other than actor Frank Kelly (who played slightly inebriated and loaded Father Jack from Father Ted).

My mum introduced me to David Tynan O’Mahony, better known as stage name Dave Allen. Dave Allen was an Irish satirical comedian well-known for sitting on a chair and talking. His style wasn’t too fast-paced but coupled with some creative sketches and ramblings, he remains an Irish comedy legend. Nowadays surreal comedic talent David O’Doherty, fast-mouthed Ed Byrne, the tremendous Tommy Tiernan, Dylan Moran and snappy Andrew Maxwell bring the great wit of the Emerald Isle to the world. Whilst America has its fair share of divide and racism to talk in the open Britain and Ireland have a fair bit of oppression and divide to discuss. Then there are also the political troubles, religion, sectarianism, recreational drug abuse, crime, and self-deprecation. But, being Irish and British means we’re not as good as the Americans when it comes to self-deprecation.

“I get snow blindness from looking at my diary.” – Barry Cryer, writer and comedian

Dag, a Norwegian comedy-drama, about a marriage counsellor and his sex-mad friend Benedict’s struggles through life, is a great dark comedy. It will make you cringe and feel warm in equal measures. Atle Antonsen plays the lead character and he is brilliant counterweight to his love-interest that is Tuva Novotny’s character. I’ve just found there to be a fourth series so I shall look this up soon.

From great comedy series such as Goodness Gracious Me, The Fast Show, Harry Enfield and Chums, or Not The Nine O’Clock News, Britain has been blessed with comedy. Such editions could not be seen in lesser-free states of the world. It is hard to reimagine Father Ted reimagined as Monk Lama set in Tibet, or the ‘going for and English’ sketch of Goodness Gracious Me being re-filmed in Pakistan as ‘going for a Russian’. The right blend of social awareness, love of culture, and respect of differences are required.

“Drumchapel is a housing estate just outside Glasgow. Well, it’s in Glasgow, but just outside civilisation,” – Sir Billy Connolly.

And now, ‘The Big Yin’, the one stand-up comedian I have never seen live, despite chasing ticket after ticket since I was a wee man. Sir William Connolly, CBE is as titanic as the ships that floated out of the Glasgow shipyards. He was and remains the heavyweight champion of storytelling. Having jumped ship from The Humblebums (Billy sang folk alongside Gerry Rafferty and Tam Harvey), lovable comedy-musician scraped a living in his homeland of Scotland doing comedy. Almost 55 years later he stopped, enforced mostly by Parkinson’s Disease, but probably by love of art. Along the road from Glasgow he’s starred with The Muppets, acted alongside Dame Judie Dench, produced music, been a pet zombie, travelled and ran entertaining documentaries and shared his love for his home country. On stage, Billy has always worn what he wants, danced like nobody watches him and shouted whenever he likes. ‘The Big Yin’ has an encyclopaedia of material and an archive that would probably take a lifetime to follow. You can do much worse than sit down to some Billy Connolly. He really is a fine orator much like the smooth whiskies of his homelands.

“It’s up to yourself. You manufacture it. You either look at the world one way or another. It’s the old half full half empty. It’s up to you. The world’s a great place, it’s full of great people. The choice is yours. Pessimism is a luxury you can’t afford”. – Sir Billy Connolly on optimism, BBC Radio Five.

Stay strong. Stay optimistic.