Oct 182017
 

The Regency TR-1, which was the first commercially manufactured transistor radio, was announced to the world on this date in 1954. It was a novelty due to small size and portability, demonstrating for the first time the use of transistors for consumer electronics. Previously transistors had been used only in military or industrial applications. The TR-1 was not a great radio and was not particularly popular, in part because it was expensive. But it paved the way for things to come. By the time I got round to buying a “trannie” as a teenager they were dirt cheap and plentiful. By what is becoming a normal coincidence at this point, the BBC first went on the air on this date in 1922: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/bbc/  I used my trannie to listen to pirate radio mostly, but the beeb was a lot clearer, and I used it often to hear commentary on test cricket from Australia in the wee hours.

Two companies—Texas Instruments of Dallas, Texas, and Industrial Development Engineering Associates (I.D.E.A.) of Indianapolis, Indiana—worked together to produce the Regency TR-1. Previously, Texas Instruments produced instrumentation for the oil industry and locating devices for the U.S. Navy—and I.D.E.A. built home television antenna boosters. The two companies worked together on the TR-1 to grow revenues for their respective companies by pioneering this new product area.

In May 1954, Texas Instruments had designed and built a prototype transistor radio and was looking for an established radio manufacturer to develop and market a radio using their transistors. No major radio maker, including RCA, Philco, and Emerson, was interested. The President of I.D.E.A. at the time, Ed Tudor, jumped at the opportunity to manufacture the TR-1, predicting sales of the transistor radios would be “20 million radios in three years.” The Regency Division of I.D.E.A announced the TR-1 on this date, and put it on sale in November 1954. It was the first practical transistor radio made in significant numbers.

One year after the TR-1 release, sales approached 100,000 units. The look and size of the TR-1 were well received, but reviews of its performance were typically not great. The Regency TR-1 circuitry was refined from the Texas Instruments prototype, reducing the number of parts, including two expensive transistors. Though this severely reduced the audio output volume, it let I.D.E.A. sell the radio for a small profit. The initial TR-1 retail price was $49.95 (about $460 in today’s dollars) and it sold about 150,000 units.

The TR-1 used Texas Instruments’ NPN transistors, hand-picked in sets of four. A 22.5 volt battery provided power, since the only way to get adequate radio frequency performance out of early transistors was to run them close to their collector-to-emitter breakdown voltage. The drain from this battery was only 4 mA, allowing 20 to 30 hours of operation, in comparison to only several hours for the portable receivers based on vacuum tubes. Such battery consumption rate still made the TR-1 rather expensive to run.

While the radio was praised for novelty and small size, the sensitivity and sound quality were behind the tube-based competitors. A review in Consumer Reports mentions the high level of noise and instability on certain radio frequencies, recommending against the purchase. I.D.E.A. outsourced the TR-1 exterior design to the industrial design firm of Painter, Teague and Petertil. The design was created within six weeks by way of telephone and design sketches exchanged by mail. The design won an award from the Industrial Design Society of New York and was selected by the Museum of Modern Art for the American Art and Design Exhibition in Paris in 1955. The TR-1 was initially offered in black, bone white, mandarin red, and cloud gray. It was later uncommonly offered in olive green and mahogany. Other later, rare colors included lavender, pearl white, turquoise, pink, and lime. It was advertised as being 3″ x 5″ x 1.25″ and weighed 12 ounces including the 22.5 volt battery. It came in a cardboard box with the color stamped on the end. An optional earphone sold for $7.50.

[FOR TECHIES ONLY] The TR-1 was a superheterodyne receiver made with four n-p-n transistors and one diode. It contained a single transistor converter stage, followed by two intermediate-frequency amplifier stages. After detection, a single-transistor stage amplified the sound frequency. All amplifier stages used common emitter amplifiers. Stages were transformer coupled, with tuned transformers for the intermediate frequency amplifiers and a miniature audio transformer for the loudspeaker. The intermediate frequency transformers were paired with capacitors, and hand tuned to the intermediate frequency (262 kHz) using movable cores. The receiver had automatic gain control. The DC level of the detected signal was filtered with a large capacitor and used to control the gain of the first IF stage (VT2, first after the heterodyne).

The 22.5 V battery, while now uncommon, is still used in some devices and as of 2016 remains available on the market. The minimum required voltage for the TR-1 was lower, about 15 V. The electrolytic capacitor was connected in parallel to the battery. It improved stability but would be damaged if the battery were reversed. The power switch was coupled with the volume control. The initial six-transistor Texas Instruments design used a two-transistor converter stage with a separate oscillator, and a more powerful two-transistor sound amplifier. [END FOR TECHIES]

Regency began manufacturing the TR-1 on October 25, 1954. The manufacture was a collective effort by manufacturers around the country. The transistors and transformers came from Texas Instruments in Dallas. Capacitors came from International Electronics, Inc. of Nashville, Erie Electronics of Erie, Pennsylvania, and Centralab of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The speakers came from Jensen in Chicago, Illinois. IF transformers came from Vokar of Dexter, Michigan. The volume control came from the Chicago Telephone Supply in Elkhart, Indiana. The tuning capacitor came from Radio Condenser Co. in Camden, New Jersey. The Richardson Company in Melrose Park, Illinois and Indianapolis supplied the circuit board material to Croname in Chicago, who manufactured the circuit boards. The plastic case for the TR-1 was produced by Argus Plastics in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Although the TR-1 was not especially popular it began a trend that was developed by other companies who improved reception and sound quality by adding transistors and enlarging the speaker. When the Japanese got into the business in the early 1960s prices plummeted and sales soared. It’s a bit early but this parody of the 12 days of Christmas has an excellent running gag in it about Japanese transistor radios:

Matching a recipe to transistor radios is a challenge, but I found this website from an Indian woman: http://www.farmonplate.com/2015/03/26/roasted-smashed-potatoes/   Here she says:

My early memories of cricket take me back to the days when the only access to the game was through a transistor radio. My dad would intently listen to the audio broadcast on his radio at home and even carry a pocket sized radio he could use on the go. I remember him going on the terrace in hopes of having better reception of the audio commentary and my mom bringing her busy man his tea!

This brings back memories of me snuggled under the blankets with my trannie pressed to my ear at 4 am listening to test cricket from the other side of the world. The recipe she gives for smashed potatoes to follow, is good snack food as you listen to cricket – or a good side dish with any main course. The full recipe (with pictures and a chutney) is on the website, but it’s easy enough. Parboil unpeeled baby potatoes until soft. Squash them and then roast them in a very hot oven until crisp. Serve them garnished with onions and cilantro with the dipping sauce of your choice.

 

 

Sep 302017
 

On this date in 1967 BBC Radio 1 came on the air at 6:50 am with Tony Blackburn presenting its first show. I was listening on my faithful trannie. Before then the BBC consisted of three services: the Light Programme (broadcasting light – but not pop – music on both long and medium waves), the Third Programme (really imaginative name for a service that came after the Home and Light Programmes, broadcasting classical music), and the Home Service (heir to the original BBC radio programming of news, commentary, sports, quiz shows, etc.). Those 3 became Radio 2, Radio 3, and Radio 4 respectively, with Radio 2 broadcasting only on long wave, giving up the medium wave space to Radio 1.

Radio 1 was the BBC’s response to pirate radio stations which blossomed in the mid-1960s. The original “pirate” station was Radio Luxembourg It was an important forerunner of pirate radio and modern commercial radio in the United Kingdom. It was an effective way to advertise products by circumventing British legislation which until 1973 gave the BBC a monopoly of radio broadcasting on UK territory and prohibited all forms of advertising over the domestic radio spectrum. It boasted the most powerful privately-owned transmitter in the world (1,300 kW broadcasting on medium wave). In the late 1930s, and again in the 1950s and 1960s, it captured very large audiences in Britain and Ireland with its program of popular entertainment, especially music. I used to listen to Radio Luxembourg most evenings, when the signal was clearest, but they had the annoying habit of cutting off the end of records, presumably for copyright reasons.  Alan Freeman was one of the most famous DJs.

During the day I listened to Radio Caroline or Radio London, whichever signal was clearer. I lived to the west of London though, where signals broadcast from offshore were not stellar. I don’t know, and haven’t taken the time to research, why the BBC did not broadcast pop music in the 1960s until they came up with Radio 1. I imagine expense was a significant factor – with stuffiness not far behind. The BBC relied on radio and television licenses plus government funding for its operating budget, and I would think that fees for playing pop music were prohibitive.  The pirate stations got round this by being – er – pirates. But there was no getting around the fact that the pirates were immensely popular, and a complete nuisance. The Beeb sucked it up, hired the most popular DJs from the pirates, and went on the air with an all-music format.

The first disc jockey to broadcast on the new station was Tony Blackburn, whose cheery style, first heard on Radio Caroline and Radio London, won him the prime slot on what became known as the “Radio 1 Breakfast Show.” The first words on Radio 1 – after a countdown by the Controller of Radios 1 and 2, Robin Scott, and a jingle, recorded at PAMS in Dallas, Texas, beginning “The voice of Radio 1” – were “… And, good morning everyone. Welcome to the exciting new sound of Radio 1”. This was the first use of US-style jingles on BBC radio, but the style was familiar to listeners who were acquainted with Blackburn and other DJs from their days on pirate radio. The first complete record played on Radio 1 was “Flowers in the Rain” by The Move. The second single was “Massachusetts” by The Bee Gees. The initial rota of staff included John Peel and a gaggle of others, hired from pirates, such as Keith Skues, Ed Stewart, Mike Raven, David Ryder, Jim Fisher, Jimmy Young, Dave Cash, Kenny Everett, Simon Dee, Terry Wogan, Duncan Johnson, Doug Crawford, Tommy Vance, Chris Denning, Emperor Rosko, Pete Murray, and Bob Holness. Many of the most popular pirate radio voices, such as Simon Dee, had only a one-hour slot per week, (“Midday Spin.”)

Flashback time:

I confess I listened to Tony Blackburn every morning even though he was thoroughly mainstream and a bit of a twerp. My mum would bring me a cup of tea in my bedroom at half past seven before she headed off to work in London and would turn on my much-prized (gigantic) stereo to Tony Blackburn and I would snooze and listen until I had to get ready for school. That stereo was the talk of my entire school, and I was the only student (or teacher for that matter) who had one.  I had worked at a factory during my Easter and summer holidays to buy it. It was an utter scandal. My mates liked it and came around sometimes to listen, but teachers and parents were horrified. “How could that boy throw all that money away on a stereo when he should have put it in the bank?????” Stereos were very rare in those days.  Most records were issued in mono (though you could get stereo), and most people had cheap mono record players.  I wanted REAL SOUND.  Stereo players were very expensive. I’d guess the modern equivalent would be around $10,000 (maybe a bit less). I didn’t care.  That stereo brought me years and years of enjoyment, and my mum was still using it until she died (in 2000).  I’d say that’s fair bang for your buck. I had no interest in money then, and still don’t. I work to earn what I want (or need), then quit.

John Peel was more a favorite of mine than Tony Blackburn. He played weird stuff that no one else played and his DJ style was legendarily laconic. He had relatively unpopular time slots, such as Sunday afternoons, and I would put him on sometimes when I was doing my homework – not often, because I like to work undisturbed. But sometimes the homework bordered on the mindless and so a distraction was welcome. It was on one such program that I first heard Young Tradition, and a capella group specializing in traditional music. Henceforth, I bought all their records and eventually became close friends with the bass singer Royston Wood (RIP), and later with Heather Wood, and on nodding terms with Pete Bellamy (RIP).

Sadly, or not, I completely lost interest in pop music when I went to Oxford in 1970. The stereo came with me, but I listened only to traditional music on it (except for parties when I dragged out “oldies” (even by then) from Hendrix, Who, et al).  Radio 1 was gone and forgotten.

Given the Move were first on Radio 1 it’s easy for me to use one of their songs as inspiration for a recipe. The Move were one of a select group of bands that came along too late to be part of the US’s pop scene “British Invasion” and so they are mostly known only to old gits like me who lived in England in the late 1960s. Blackberry Way was one of their hits – an incredibly forgettable song – so let’s go with blackberries.

I grew blackberries in my garden for many years.  They were incredibly prolific and hardy, with massive thorny branches, but luscious fat fruit if you were willing to brave the pricks. Before that I went blackberrying along the hedgerows. They’ve always been a fav. I’m quite happy with a fresh bowl topped with whipped cream, but this gallery will give you some ideas. Blackberry sorbet (or ice cream) is great; blackberries make a nice addition to apple crumble; blackberry and apple Charlotte, blackberry cobbler . . . you’ll figure it out.

Jul 102017
 

Today is the birthday (1856) of Nikola Tesla (Никола Тесла) a Serbian inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist, and futurist who was virtually unknown to the general public from the time of his death to the 1990s when he achieved a kind of semi-mythic status in the science fiction, comic book, and fantasy realms. Tesla is one of the numerous real scientists who worked for Thomas Edison who reaped both the credit and profit for things they invented. Tesla is now best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system although he made many other discoveries in, and improvements to, electrical systems.

Tesla was born and raised in the Austrian Empire to Serbian parents in what is now Croatia. He received an advanced education in engineering and physics in the 1870s and gained practical experience in the early 1880s working in telephony and at Continental Edison in the new electric power industry. He emigrated to the United States in 1884, and eventually became a naturalized citizen. He worked for a short time at the Edison Machine Works in New York City before he struck out on his own because of severe disagreements with Edison who continued to hold high hopes for the commercial possibilities of direct current even though Tesla’s alternating current was clearly superior for transmitting electricity over long distances. With the help of partners to finance and market his ideas, Tesla set up laboratories and companies in New York to develop a range of electrical and mechanical devices. His alternating current (AC) induction motor and related polyphase AC patents, licensed by Westinghouse Electric in 1888, and became the cornerstone of the polyphase system which Westinghouse marketed and is to this day the industry standard.

Tesla also conducted a range of experiments with mechanical oscillators/generators, electrical discharge tubes, and early X-ray imaging. Even though he was quite deliberately asocial (anti-social is too strong), Tesla became well known as an inventor and demonstrated his achievements to celebrities and wealthy patrons at his lab, and was noted for his showmanship at public lectures.

Throughout the 1890s Tesla pursued his ideas for wireless lighting and worldwide wireless electric power distribution in his high-voltage, high-frequency power experiments in New York and Colorado Springs. I’m a little surprised he didn’t electrocute himself along the way. In 1893, he made pronouncements on the possibility of wireless communication with his devices. Tesla tried to put these ideas to practical use in his unfinished Wardenclyffe Tower project, an intercontinental wireless communication and power transmitter, but ran out of funding before he could complete it.

After Wardenclyffe, Tesla went on to try and develop a series of inventions in the 1910s and 1920s with varying degrees of success. Having spent most of the money he earned from the AC patents, he lived in a series of New York hotels, leaving behind unpaid bills. The nature of his earlier work and the pronouncements he made to the press later in life earned him the reputation of an archetypal “mad scientist” in US popular culture. Tesla died in New York City in January 1943. His work fell into relative obscurity following his death, but in 1960, the General Conference on Weights and Measures named the SI unit of magnetic flux density the tesla in his honor.

I strongly urge you to look up more details about this man who was an intriguing personality. He stood 6’2” tall and weighed a scant 142 lbs all of his life: quite noticeably tall and thin for his era. He was also notably reclusive when not conducting experiments or giving public lectures. Here’s some of my favorite quotes from Tesla:

My brain is only a receiver, in the Universe there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength and inspiration. I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know that it exists.

Be alone, that is the secret of invention; be alone, that is when ideas are born.

The scientists of today think deeply instead of clearly. One must be sane to think clearly, but one can think deeply and be quite insane

The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.

What we now want is closer contact and better understanding between individuals and communities all over the earth, and the elimination of egoism and pride which is always prone to plunge the world into primeval barbarism and strife… Peace can only come as a natural consequence of universal enlightenment.

I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success . . . Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.

If you only knew the magnificence of the 3, 6 and 9, then you would have the key to the universe.

From childhood I was compelled to concentrate attention upon myself. This caused me much suffering, but to my present view, it was a blessing in disguise for it has taught me to appreciate the inestimable value of introspection in the preservation of life, as well as a means of achievement.

Tesla was Serbian although born in what is now Croatia. Serbs and Croats share many cultural similarities with minor differences, although it’s probably a good plan to keep this idea to yourself when traveling in the region. Serbian and Croatian languages, for example, are mutually intelligible, but Serbs use Cyrillic script and Croats use the Roman alphabet. Their cuisines are also quite similar although the Dalmatian coast of Croatia has a distinctive set of dishes relying on seafood. Both Serbs and Croats historically were fond of tripe, especially goat and lamb tripe, but these dishes are falling into disfavor nowadays. Oh well !!! Here’s a classic recipe found in both Serbia and Croatia.

Škembići

Ingredients

2 lbs cooked tripe cut in bite-sized pieces
1 lb onions, peeled and sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
vegetable oil for frying
ground black pepper
powdered red paprika
2 bay leaves
⅓ cup dry white wine
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 tbsp vinegar

Instructions

Heat a little vegetable oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat and then sauté the onions, stirring frequently until they are a deep golden.

Place the tripe, onions, ground pepper to taste, bay leaves, paprika to taste, crushed garlic, and white wine in a saucepan and cook over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes.  At this point I like to let the pot rest and cool for several hours. It can also be refrigerated overnight to marry the flavors.

Reheat the pot when about ready to serve and add the tomato puree and vinegar towards the end, stirring well to combine thoroughly.

 

Feb 132017
 

Today is World Radio Day.  It was proclaimed on 3 November 2011 by UNESCO’s 36th General Conference after originally proposed by the Kingdom of Spain. The day is meant to celebrate radio in all its uses, so I’ll follow suit.  Until recently radio was a very important part of my life.  When I was an infant in England in the early 1950s the whole family used to sit around in the living room on a Sunday afternoon with the radio on.  Then when we moved to Australia the radio always had a central role to play.  It was on in the morning at breakfast time, partly for entertainment, and partly to keep track of the time so that we were not late. In the late afternoons there were a number of shows we listened to before dinner including my favorite, The Argonauts Club – a radio show for children featuring games and competitions, with the opportunity to send in your own contributions of poetry, essays, and plays (the best of which were read on the air).  But what caught my most fervent attention for many years was amateur shortwave radio.

My scout troop (1st Gawler) had a very active senior patrol that morphed into a rover patrol and they had an interest in shortwave radio.  They had built a radio shack with a tall antenna on the grounds of the scout hut, and used their old, beat up, valve operated shortwave system to contact scouts around the world, especially during Jamboree on the Air (3rd weekend in October).  Every year I went all day, well into the night, to take my turn chatting with scouts all over the world.  For years after I had a dream that one day I would set up my own shortwave station.  These were the days before easy global communications by telephone, let alone internet, and it resonated with me, as it did with many others.  Here’s two versions of “The Radio Ham” by Tony Hancock (first the radio version, then the television version) to get the general flavor:

“Ham radio” and “radio ham” are slang terms for amateur radios and their operators whose origin is unknown, although you’ll find the usual nonsense about etymology if you poke around – all ridiculous folk legends.  Hancock really does capture the feel of ham radio in the 1950s and 1960s.

Having my own shortwave transmitter remained an unrealized pipe dream, but I did have a shortwave receiver for decades in the United States.  It allowed me to tune into the BBC before the days of the internet, and also to hear the news from multiple countries around the world.  Back then (and still) news in the US is confined to news about US citizens (at home and abroad), or about US interests.  500 people could die in a plane crash in Africa but if there were no US citizens aboard it would go largely unreported.  Shortwave was my antidote.  The BBC was great because it had plays, comedies, soap operas, quizzes and whatnot that I loved, and still love.

US radio is largely for car drivers and tends to consist of music, news, or talk shows. I found it exceptionally dull on my daily commute.  But when I took trips to England I would immediately explore the dial on my rental car’s radio for the wealth of programming on national and regional radio.  I can count the US radio shows that I enjoyed on the fingers of one hand, and still have fingers left over. Dr Demento and Whad’ya Know? come to mind.  World Radio Day is all about promoting the potential riches of radio for all people of all ages. I’m up for that.

Since amateur radio is known as ham radio let’s talk about ham as our food of the day. Many, many countries have their own special hams and I have been fortunate to live near many sources.  Currently I live near Parma and have made the obligatory pilgrimage to get the local prosciutto – known locally simply as crudo. You can get ham in Argentina, but it is a rarity in the land where beef is king.  China is a different story altogether.  Ham is an essential ingredient in so many regional dishes.  The most well known varieties are Anfu ham from Jiangxi, Jinhua ham, Rugao ham, and Xuanwei ham. All are richly flavorful, adding complexity to soups, stews, and stir fries.

How long would you like me to wax lyrical about Smithfield ham, jamón Serrano,  jambon d’Ardèche,  Westfälischer Schinken, etc.? I won’t.  Instead I’ll talk a little about production – which you can do yourself at home if you have patience. Ham is a method of preserving and flavoring raw pork leg by salting, smoking, or wet curing. Besides salt, several ingredients may also be used to enhance flavoring and preservation.

Traditional dry cure hams may use only salt as the curative agent, such as with San Daniele or Parma hams, although this is comparatively rare. This process involves cleaning the raw meat, covering it in salt (for about one month for Parma ham) while it is gradually pressed – draining all the blood. In Tuscan Ham (Prosciutto Toscano PDO) different spices and herbs are added to the salt during this step. The hams are then washed and hung in a dark, temperature-regulated place until dry. They are then hung to air for another period of time.

The duration of the curing process varies by the type of ham, with Serrano ham curing in 9–12 months, Parma hams taking more than 12 months, and Iberian ham taking up to 2 years to reach the desired flavor characteristics. Some dry cured hams, such as the Jinhua ham, take approximately 8 to 10 months to complete.

Ham can also be preserved through the smoking method, in which the meat is placed in a smokehouse (or equivalent) to be cured by the action of smoke. The main flavor compounds of smoked ham are guaiacol, and its 4-, 5-, and 6-methyl derivatives as well as 2,6-dimethylphenol. These compounds are produced by thermal breakdown (i.e., combustion) of lignin, a major constituent of wood used in the smokehouse.

Wet curing (also known as brining) involves the immersion of the meat in a brine, sometimes with other ingredients such as sugar also added for flavor. Meat is submerged in the brine for around 3–14 days, during which time the meat needs to be kept submerged, and the brine mixture agitated periodically to prevent separation of the ingredients. Wet curing also has the effect of increasing volume and weight of the finished product, by about 4%.

I’ve smoked and wet cured hams at home. The processes are not complex, just time consuming, and require special equipment.  The results have always been excellent, but I’m happy to pop down to the local market when I need ham for any reason. Brining is probably your easiest bet and you can find plenty of recipes online.  Here’s one that’s OK:

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/245724/home-cured-holiday-ham/

Jan 292016
 

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Today is the birthday (1880) of William Claude Dukenfield, better known as W. C. Fields, a U.S. comedian, actor, juggler and writer. Fields’ comic persona was a misanthropic and hard-drinking egotist, who remained a sympathetic character despite his snarling contempt for dogs and children. His career in show business began in vaudeville, where he attained international success as a silent juggler. He gradually incorporated comedy into his act, and was a featured comedian in the Ziegfeld Follies for several years. He became a star in the Broadway musical comedy Poppy (1923), in which he played a colorful small-time con man. His subsequent stage and film roles were often similar scoundrels.

Fields was born William Claude Dukenfield in Darby, Pennsylvania, the oldest child of a working-class family. His father, James Lydon Dukenfield (1840–1913), was from an English family that emigrated to America from Sheffield, England in 1854. James Dukenfield served in Company M of the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment in the American Civil War and was wounded in 1863. Fields’s mother, Kate Spangler Felton (1854–1925), was a Protestant of British ancestry. The 1876 Philadelphia City Directory lists James Dukenfield as a clerk. After marrying, he worked as an independent produce merchant and a part-time hotel-keeper.

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Claude Dukenfield (as he was known) had a volatile relationship with his short-tempered father. He ran away from home repeatedly, beginning at the age of nine, often to stay with his grandmother or an uncle. His education was sporadic, and did not progress beyond grade school. At age twelve he worked with his father selling produce from a wagon, until the two had a fight that resulted in Fields running away once again. In 1893 he worked briefly at the Strawbridge and Clothier department store, and in an oyster house.

Fields later embellished stories of his childhood, depicting himself as a runaway who lived by his wits on the streets of Philadelphia from an early age, but his home life seems to have been reasonably happy. He had already discovered in himself a facility for juggling, and a performance he witnessed at a local theater inspired him to dedicate substantial time to perfecting his juggling. At age 17, he was living with his family and performing a juggling act at church and theater shows.

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Inspired by the success of the “Original Tramp Juggler,” James Edward Harrigan, Fields adopted a similar costume of scruffy beard and shabby tuxedo and entered vaudeville as a genteel “tramp juggler” in 1898, using the name W. C. Fields. His family supported his ambitions for the stage and saw him off on the train for his first stage tour. To conceal a stammer, Fields did not speak onstage. In 1900, seeking to distinguish himself from the many “tramp” acts in vaudeville, he changed his costume and makeup, and began touring as “The Eccentric Juggler.” He manipulated cigar boxes, hats, and other objects in what appears to have been a fresh act, parts of which are reproduced in some of his films, notably in The Old Fashioned Way (1934).

By the early 1900s, while touring, he was regularly billed as “the world’s greatest juggler.” He became a headliner in North America and Europe, and toured Australia and South Africa in 1903. When Fields played for English-speaking audiences, he found he could get more laughs by adding muttered patter and sarcastic asides to his routines.

In 1905 Fields made his Broadway debut in a musical comedy, The Ham Tree. His role in the show required him to deliver lines of dialogue, which he had never before done onstage. He later said, “I wanted to become a real comedian, and there I was, ticketed and pigeonholed as merely a comedy juggler.” In 1913 he performed on a bill with Sarah Bernhardt (who regarded Fields as “an artiste [who] could not fail to please the best class of audience”) first at the New York Palace, and then in England in a royal performance for the king and queen. He continued touring in vaudeville until 1915.

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Beginning in 1915 he appeared on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies revue. He delighted audiences with a wild billiards skit, complete with bizarrely shaped cues and a custom-built table used for a number of gags and surprising trick shots. (His pool game is reproduced, in part, in some of his films, notably in Six of a Kind [1934].) The act was a success, and Fields starred in the Follies from 1916 to 1922, not as a juggler but as a comedian in ensemble sketches. In addition to multiple editions of the Follies, Fields starred in the Broadway musical comedy Poppy (1923), where he perfected his persona as a colorful small-time con man.

His stage costume from 1915 onwards featured a top hat, cut-away coat and collar, and a cane—an appearance remarkably similar to the cartoon character Ally Sloper, who may have been the inspiration for Fields’s costume, according to Roger Sabin. The Sloper character may in turn have been inspired by Dickens’ Mr Micawber, whom Fields later played on film.

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In 1915, Fields starred in two short comedies, Pool Sharks and His Lordship’s Dilemma, filmed in New York. His stage commitments prevented him from doing more movie work until 1924, when he played a supporting role in Janice Meredith, a Revolutionary War romance. He reprised his Poppy role in a silent-film adaptation, retitled Sally of the Sawdust (1925) and directed by D. W. Griffith. His next starring role was in the Paramount Pictures film It’s the Old Army Game (1926), which featured his friend Louise Brooks, later a screen legend for her role in G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) in Germany. Fields’s 1926 film, which included a silent version of the porch sequence that would later be expanded in the sound film It’s a Gift (1934), had only middling success at the box office. After Fields’s next two features for Paramount failed to produce hits, the studio teamed him with Chester Conklin for three features which were commercial failures and are now lost.

In the sound era, Fields appeared in thirteen feature films for Paramount Pictures, beginning with Million Dollar Legs in 1932. In that year he also was featured in a sequence in the anthology film If I Had a Million. In 1932 and 1933, Fields made four short subjects for comedy pioneer Mack Sennett, distributed through Paramount Pictures. These shorts, adapted with few alterations from Fields’ stage routines and written entirely by himself, were described by Simon Louvish as “the ‘essence’ of Fields.” The first of them, The Dentist, is unusual in that Fields portrays an entirely unsympathetic character: he cheats at golf, assaults his caddy, and treats his patients with unbridled callousness. William K. Everson says that the cruelty of this comedy made it “hardly less funny”, but that “Fields must have known that The Dentist presented a serious flaw for a comedy image that was intended to endure”, and showed a somewhat warmer persona in his subsequent Sennett shorts.

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His 1934 classic It’s a Gift included his stage sketch of trying to escape his nagging family by sleeping on the back porch and being bedeviled by noisy neighbors and salesmen. That film, like You’re Telling Me! and Man on the Flying Trapeze, ended happily with a windfall profit that restored his standing in his screen families. He achieved a career ambition by playing the character Mr. Micawber, in MGM’s David Copperfield in 1935. In 1936, Fields re-created his signature stage role in Poppy for Paramount Pictures.

Fields’ screen character often expressed a fondness for alcohol, a prominent component of the Fields legend. Fields never drank in his early career as a juggler, because he did not want to impair his functions while performing. Eventually, the loneliness of constant travel prompted him to keep liquor in his dressing room as an inducement for fellow performers to socialize with him on the road. Only after he became a Follies star and abandoned juggling did Fields begin drinking regularly. His role in Paramount Pictures’ International House (1933), as an aviator with an unquenchable taste for beer, did much to establish Fields’ popular reputation as a prodigious drinker. Studio publicists promoted this image, as did Fields himself in press interviews.

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Fields expressed his fondness for alcohol in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: “I was in love with a beautiful blonde once, dear. She drove me to drink. That’s the one thing I am indebted to her for.” Equally memorable was a line in the 1940 film My Little Chickadee: “Once, on a trek through Afghanistan, we lost our corkscrew…and were forced to live on food and water for several days!”

On movie sets Fields famously shot most of his scenes in varying states of inebriation. During the filming of Tales of Manhattan (1942), he kept a vacuum flask with him at all times and frequently availed himself of its contents. Phil Silvers, who had a minor supporting role in the scene featuring Fields, described in his memoir what happened next:

One day the producers appeared on the set to plead with Fields: “Please don’t drink while we’re shooting — we’re way behind schedule” … Fields merely raised an eyebrow. “Gentlemen, this is only lemonade. For a little acid condition afflicting me.” He leaned on me. “Would you be kind enough to taste this, sir?” I took a careful sip — pure gin. I have always been a friend of the drinking man; I respect him for his courage to withdraw from the world of the thinking man. I answered the producers a little scornfully, “It’s lemonade.” My reward? The scene was snipped out of the picture.

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In a testimonial dinner for Fields in 1939, the humorist Leo Rosten remarked of the comedian that “any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad”. The line—which Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations later erroneously attributed to Fields himself—became famous, and reinforced the popular perception that Fields hated children and dogs. In reality, Fields was somewhat indifferent to dogs, but occasionally owned one. He was fond of entertaining the children of friends who visited him, and doted on his first grandchild, Bill Fields III, born in 1943. He sent encouraging replies to all of the letters he received from boys who, inspired by his performance in The Old Fashioned Way, expressed an interest in juggling.

In 1936, Fields’ heavy drinking precipitated a significant decline in his health. By the following year he recovered sufficiently to make one last film for Paramount, The Big Broadcast of 1938, but his troublesome behavior discouraged other producers from hiring him. In 1938 he was chronically ill, and suffering from delirium tremens.

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Physically unable to work in films, Fields was off the screen for more than a year. During his absence he recorded a brief speech for a radio broadcast. His familiar, snide drawl registered so well with listeners that he quickly became a popular guest on network radio shows. Although his radio work was not as demanding as motion-picture production, Fields insisted on his established movie-star salary of $5,000 per week. He joined ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and Bergen’s dummy Charlie McCarthy on The Chase and Sanborn Hour for weekly insult-comedy routines.

Fields’ renewed popularity from his radio broadcasts with Bergen & McCarthy earned him a contract with Universal Pictures in 1939. His first feature for Universal, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, carried on the Fields–McCarthy rivalry. In 1940, Fields made My Little Chickadee, with Mae West, and The Bank Dick, perhaps his best-known film, in which he has the following exchange with bartender Shemp Howard:

Fields: “Was I in here last night, and did I spend a $20 bill?”

Shemp: “Yeah.”

Fields: “Oh boy, what a load that is off my mind… I thought I’d lost it!”

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Fields fought with studio producers, directors, and writers over the content of his films. He was determined to make a movie his way, with his own script and staging, and his choice of supporting players. Universal finally gave him the chance, and the resulting film, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), is a masterpiece of absurd humor in which Fields appeared as himself, “The Great Man”. Universal’s singing star Gloria Jean played opposite Fields, and his cronies Leon Errol and Franklin Pangborn served as his comic foils. But the film Fields delivered was so surreal that Universal recut and reshot parts of it, then quietly released both the film and Fields. Sucker was Fields’ last starring film.

Fields’ film career slowed considerably in the 1940s. His illnesses confined him to brief guest-star appearances in other people’s films. An extended sequence in 20th Century Fox’s Tales of Manhattan (1942) was cut from the original release of the film and later reinstated for some home video releases. The scene features a temperance meeting with society people at the home of a rich woman, played by Margaret Dumont, in which Fields finds that the punch has been spiked, resulting in a room full of drunken guests and a very happy Fields.

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He performed his famous billiard table routine one more time for Follow the Boys, an all-star entertainment revue for the Armed Forces. (Despite the charitable nature of the movie, Fields was paid $15,000 for his appearance; he was never able to perform in person for the armed services.) In Song of the Open Road (1944), Fields juggled for a few moments, remarking, “This used to be my racket.” His last film, the musical revue Sensations of 1945, was released in late 1944. Fields’ vision and memory had deteriorated to the point that he read his lines from large-print blackboards.

Fields spent the last 22 months of his life at the Las Encinas Sanatorium in Pasadena, California. In 1946, on Christmas Day—the holiday he said he despised—he suffered an alcohol-related gastric hemorrhage and died, at the age of 66. Carlotta Monti wrote that in his final moments, she used a garden hose to spray water on to the roof over his bedroom to simulate his favorite sound, falling rain.

A popular bit of Fields folklore maintains that his grave marker is inscribed, “I’d rather be in Philadelphia”—a line similar to one he used in My Little Chickadee when a lynch mob asks if he has any last words: “I’d like to see Paris before I die … Philadelphia will do …” Fields was known to disparage his native city on occasion; his mock epitaph for a 1925 Vanity Fair article, “A Group of Artists Write Their Own Epitaphs”, reads, “Here Lies / W.C. Fields / I Would Rather Be Living in Philadelphia.” In reality, his interment marker bears only his stage name, and the years of his birth and death.

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Fields also once said, “I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food,” which generally gives us an avenue into a recipe of the day. Obviously there are the usual suspects such as coq au vin etc., but how about a white wine and brandy sauce? You can use this with grilled fish or roast chicken, or any other white meat. The basis is a mix of one part light stock, one part white wine, 2 parts heavy cream plus a splash of brandy. My heuristic recipe is as follows:

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Melt a few tablespoons of butter in a heavy skillet over medium heat and sauté several shallots, peeled and minced fine. Let them soften, but not take on color. Add equal parts of stock and white wine. I prefer a strongly flavored dry German wine such as a Riesling. Reduce for several minutes, then add an equal quantity of heavy cream and continue reducing until thick. You may or may not add seasonings to suit, but they are not strictly necessary if the wine has full body. Add extra butter if need be. Towards the end add a splash of brandy.

Jan 212016
 

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Today is the birthday (1938) of Robert Weston Smith commonly known as Wolfman Jack, a U.S. disc jockey, famous for his gravelly voice and crazily “good time” pitch. The Wolfman represents a U.S. era long gone, of vinyl 45s, R&B, drive-ins, cruisin’, soda fountains, and rock-n-roll. The Wolfman’s favorite musical era was 1958 to 1964 before U.S. music was influenced by British groups such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. His kind does not exist any more, nor the era that made him.

Smith was born in Brooklyn, the younger of two children of Anson Weston Smith, an Episcopal Sunday school teacher, writer, editor, and executive vice president of the Financial World, and his wife Rosamond Small. His parents divorced while he was a child. His father bought him a large Trans-Oceanic radio, and Smith became an avid fan of R&B music and the disc jockeys who played it, including “Jocko” Henderson of Philadelphia, New York’s “Dr. Jive” (Tommy Smalls), the “Moon Dog” from Cleveland, Alan Freed, and Nashville’s “John R.” Richbourg, who later became his mentor. After selling encyclopedias and Fuller brushes door-to-door, Smith attended the National Academy of Broadcasting in Washington, D.C. Graduating in 1960, he began working as “Daddy Jules” at WYOU in Newport News, Virginia. When the station format changed to “beautiful music”, Smith became known as “Roger Gordon and Music in Good Taste”. In 1962, he moved to country music station KCIJ/1050 in Shreveport, Louisiana as the station manager and morning disc jockey, “Big Smith with the Records”. He married Lucy “Lou” Lamb in 1961, and they had two children.

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Disc jockey Alan Freed had played a role in the transformation of African-American rhythm and blues into rock and roll music, and originally called himself the “Moon Dog” after New York City street musician Moondog. Freed both adopted this name and used a recorded howl to give his early broadcasts a unique character. Smith’s adaptation of the Moondog concept was to call himself Wolfman Jack and add his own sound effects. The character was based in part on the manner and style of bluesman Howlin’ Wolf. It was at KCIJ in Shreveport, Louisiana that he first began to develop his famous alter ego Wolfman Jack. According to Philip A. Lieberman, Smith’s “Wolfman” persona “derived from Smith’s love of horror flicks and his shenanigans as a ‘wolfman’ with his two young nephews. The ‘Jack’ was added as a part of the ‘hipster’ lingo of the 1950s, as in ‘take a page from my book, Jack,’ or the more popular, ‘hit the road, Jack.'”

In 1963, Smith took his act to the border when the Inter-American Radio Advertising’s Ramon Bosquez hired him and sent him to the studio and transmitter site of XERF-AM at Ciudad Acuña in Mexico, a station whose high-powered border blaster signal could be picked up across much of the United States. In an interview with writer Tom Miller, Smith described the reach of the XERF signal: “We had the most powerful signal in North America. Birds dropped dead when they flew too close to the tower. A car driving from New York to L.A. would never lose the station.” Most of the border stations broadcast at 250,000 watts, five times the U.S. limit, meaning that their signals were picked up all over North America, and at night as far away as Europe and the Soviet Union. It was at XERF that Smith developed his signature style (with phrases like “Who’s this on the Wolfman telephone?”) and widespread fame. The border stations made money by renting time to Pentecostal preachers and psychics, and by taking 50 percent of the profit from anything sold by mail order. The Wolfman did pitches for dog food, weight-loss pills, weight-gain pills, rose bushes, and baby chicks. There was even a pill called Florex, which was supposed to enhance one’s sex drive. “Some zing for your ling nuts,” was the Wolfman’s tagline.

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That sales pitch was typical of Wolfman Jack’s growling, exuberant on-air style. In the spirit of his character name, he would punctuate his banter with howls, while urging his listeners to “get naked” or “lay your hands on the radio and squeeze my knobs”. Part of the persona was his nocturnal anonymity; listeners from coast to coast had no idea how to recognize the face behind the voice that said things like “Wolfman plays the best records in the business, and then he eats ’em!”

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Smith left Mexico after eight months and moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota to run station KUXL. Even though Smith was managing a Minneapolis radio station, he was still broadcasting as Wolfman Jack on XERF via taped shows that he sent to the station. Missing the excitement, however, he returned to border radio to run XERB, and opened an office on Sunset Boulevard in the Los Angeles area in January 1966. The Wolfman would record his shows in Los Angeles and ship his tapes across the border into Mexico, where they would then be beamed across the U.S. It was during his time broadcasting on XERB that Smith met Don Kelley, who would become his personal manager and business partner over a period of over twenty years. It was Kelley who saw the potential for Wolfman Jack to become more than a radio personality. Kelley started to work on a strategy to transform Smith from a cult figure to a mainstream entertainer in film, recordings, and television. He promoted Smith to the major media and formed enduring relationships with key journalists.

In 1971, the Mexican government decided that its overwhelmingly Roman Catholic citizens should not be subjected to proselytizing and banned the Pentecostal preachers from the radio, taking away 80 percent of XERB’s revenue. He then moved to station KDAY 1580 in Los Angeles, which could only pay him a fraction of his former XERB income. However, Smith capitalized on his fame by editing his old XERB tapes and selling them to radio stations everywhere, inventing rock and roll radio syndication. He also appeared on Armed Forces Radio from 1970 to 1986. At his peak, Wolfman Jack was heard on more than 2,000 radio stations in fifty-three countries. In a deal promoted by Don Kelley, The Wolfman joined WNBC in New York in August 1973, the same month that American Graffiti premiered, and the station mounted a huge advertising campaign in local newspapers to propel their ratings over that of their main competitor, WABC, which had “Cousin Brucie” (Bruce Morrow). After less than a year, WNBC hired Cousin Brucie, and Wolfman Jack went back to California to concentrate on his syndicated radio show, which was carried on KRLA-Pasadena (Los Angeles) from 1984-1987. He moved to Belvidere, North Carolina, in 1989, to be closer to his extended family. In the 80s, he did a brief stint at XeROK 80, another border blaster that was leased by Dallas investors Robet Hanna, Grady Sanders, and John Ryman. Ryman then moved Smith to Scott Ginsburg-owned Y95 in Dallas, Texas. Ryman and legendary programmer Buzz Bennet rocketed the station to fame.

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In the early days, Wolfman Jack made sporadic public appearances, usually as a Master of Ceremonies (an “MC”) for rock bands at local Los Angeles clubs. At each appearance he looked a little different because Smith hadn’t decided on what the Wolfman should look like. Early pictures show him with a goatee; however, sometimes he combed his straight hair forward and added dark makeup to look somewhat “ethnic”. Other times he had a big afro wig and large sunglasses. The ambiguity of his race contributed to the controversy of his program. It wasn’t until he appeared in the 1969 film, A Session with the Committee (a montage of skits by the seminal comedy troupe The Committee), that mainstream America got a good look at Wolfman Jack.

In 1973, he appeared in George Lucas’ second feature film, American Graffiti, as himself. His broadcasts tie the film together, and Richard Dreyfuss’s character catches a glimpse of the mysterious Wolfman in a pivotal scene. In gratitude for Wolfman Jack’s participation, Lucas gave him a fraction of a “point” — the division of the profits from a film — and the extreme financial success of American Graffiti provided him with a regular income for life. Here’s the iconic clip:

Subsequently, Smith appeared in several television shows as Wolfman Jack. They included The Odd Couple; What’s Happening!!; Vega$; Wonder Woman; Hollywood Squares; Married… with Children; Emergency!; and Galactica 1980. He was the regular announcer and occasional host for The Midnight Special on NBC from 1973 to 1981. He was also the host of his self-titled variety series, The Wolfman Jack Show, which was produced in Canada by CBC Television in 1976, and syndicated to stations in the U.S.

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Smith died of a heart attack in Belvidere, North Carolina, on July 1, 1995. He had finished broadcasting what would be his last Wolfman Jack radio broadcast, a weekly program nationally syndicated from The Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Washington, D.C. originating on XTRA 104.1 FM (WXTR-FM). That night he said, “I can’t wait to get home and give Lou a hug, I haven’t missed her this much in years,” referring to the concluded promotional tour for his new autobiography. “He walked up the driveway, went in to hug his wife and then just fell over,” said Lonnie Napier, vice president of Wolfman Jack Entertainment.

Not surprisingly Wolfman Jack’s tastes were straight-down-the-middle North American. “When you want a good steak, any place in Albuquerque will do. The filets there are the best in the world. Hot dogs are the greatest in Los Angeles. There’s one particular stand on North La Brea that beats anything I’ve ever seen. Kosher corned beef sandwiches are best in Indianapolis; for oysters, it’s Dallas; for veal parmesan, Las Vegas.” Honestly ???? You must be kidding. I mean, these dishes can have their moments, and I’ve mentioned most of them in my recipe sections. But these locales are surely a joke. I sure hope so. I won’t stick my neck out too far when it comes to kosher corned beef, but you really ought not be straying too far from the Lower East Side of New York. And Dallas for oysters?

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I can’t say about Las Vegas for veal parm because I’ve never been to Vegas nor eaten veal parm. The dish on which it’s based is southern Italian – parmigiana, also known as parmigiana di melanzane, or melanzane alla parmigiana, that is, eggplant parmesan. Use of veal or chicken is an Italian-American twist. I’ve had a few spectacular failures with eggplant parmesan – including at a cooking demonstration – so the less said about that the better. Although I’ve never made veal parmesan, I know the principle for a sub.

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Start with a thin veal cutlet. Dip it in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs. Make sure the cutlet is completely coated. Shallow fry on both sides until they are golden. Split a crusty roll and place the cutlet on the bottom half. Cover with a good tomato sauce (warm), and sprinkle with grated cheese. Despite the name, many restaurants use mozzarella, or a mix of mozzarella and parmesan. Put under a broiler for a few minutes to melt the cheese, then serve.

May 122015
 

Tony Hancock

Today is the birthday (1924) of Anthony John “Tony” Hancock, English comedian and actor, and for my money the greatest comic of all time. Surprisingly a 2002 poll in the U.K. found that he was still ranked #1 out of all U.K. comedians.

Hancock was born in Southam Road, Hall Green, Birmingham, but from the age of three was brought up in Bournemouth where his father, John Hancock, who ran the Railway Hotel in Holdenhurst Road, worked as a comedian and entertainer. After his father’s death in 1934, Hancock and his brothers lived with their mother and stepfather at a small hotel called Durlston Court. He attended Durlston Court Preparatory School, a boarding school at Durlston in Swanage, and Bradfield College in Reading, Berkshire, but left school at the age of fifteen.

In 1942, during World War II, Hancock joined the RAF Regiment. Following a failed audition for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), he ended up on the Ralph Reader Gang Show. After the war, he returned to the stage and eventually worked as resident comedian at the Windmill Theatre, a venue which helped to launch the careers of many comedians at the time, and took part in radio shows such as Workers’ Playtime and Variety Bandbox.

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Over 1951–52, for one series, Hancock was a cast member of Educating Archie, in which he mainly played the tutor (or foil) to the nominal star, a ventriloquist’s dummy. His appearance in this show brought him national recognition, and a catchphrase he used frequently in the show, “Flippin’ kids!”, became popular. The same year, he made regular appearances on BBC Television’s popular light entertainment show Kaleidoscope. In 1954, he was given his own BBC radio show, Hancock’s Half Hour.

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Working with scripts from Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Hancock’s Half Hour lasted for seven years and over a hundred episodes in its radio form, and from 1956 ran concurrently with an equally successful BBC television series with the same name. The show starred Hancock as Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock living in the shabby “23 Railway Cuttings” in East Cheam. Most episodes portrayed his everyday life as a struggling comedian with aspirations toward straight acting. Some episodes, however, changed this to show him as being a successful actor and/or comedian, or occasionally as having a different career completely such as a struggling (and incompetent) barrister. Radio episodes were prone to more surreal storylines, which would have been impractical on television, such as Hancock buying a puppy that grows to be as tall as himself.

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Sid James featured heavily in both the radio and TV versions, while the radio version also included regulars Bill Kerr, Kenneth Williams and over the years Moira Lister, Andrée Melly and Hattie Jacques. The series rejected the variety format then dominant in British radio comedy and instead used a form drawn more from everyday life: the situation comedy, with the humor coming from the characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Owing to a contractual wrangle with producer Jack Hylton, Hancock had an ITV series, The Tony Hancock Show, during this period, which ran in 1956 and 1957 either side of the first BBC television series.

During the run of his BBC radio and television series, Hancock became an enormous star in Britain. Like few others, he was able to clear the streets while families gathered together to listen to the eagerly awaited episodes. His character changed slightly over the series, but even in the earliest episodes the key facets of ‘the lad himself’ were evident. It’s difficult to put into words what made his character(s) so funny. Chiefly, I think, it was his unique combination of cynicism, self aggrandizement, and a misplaced sense of his own worldly wisdom. On the show, and in life, he was not a happy man. On the show this was hilarious; in life it was not.

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As an actor with considerable experience in films, Sid James became more important to the show when the television version began. The regular cast was reduced to just the two men, allowing the humor to come from the interaction between them. James’s character was the realist of the two, puncturing Hancock’s pretensions. His character would often be dishonest and exploit Hancock’s apparent gullibility during the radio series, but in the television version there appeared to be a more genuine friendship between them.

Up until the Hancock series, every British television comedy show had been performed live owing to the technical limitations of the time. Hancock’s highly strung personality made the demands of live broadcasts a constant worry, with the result that, starting from the autumn 1959 series, all episodes of the programs were recorded before transmission. He was also the first performer to receive a £1,000 fee for his performances in a half-hour show.

Hancock became anxious that his work with James was turning them into a double act and the last BBC series in 1961, retitled simply Hancock, was without James. Two episodes are among his best-remembered: The Blood Donor, in which he goes to a clinic to give blood, contains famous lines such as, “A pint? Why, that’s very nearly an armful!” The other was The Radio Ham, in which Hancock plays an amateur radio enthusiast who receives a mayday call from a yachtsman in distress, but his incompetence prevents him from recording his position.

Returning home with his wife from recording “The Bowmans”, an episode based on a parody of The Archers, Hancock was involved in a minor car accident and was thrown through the windscreen. He was not badly hurt, but suffered concussion and was unable to learn his lines for “The Blood Donor”, the next show due to be recorded. The result was that Hancock had to perform by reading from teleprompters, and could be seen looking at camera or away from other actors when delivering lines. From this time onwards, Hancock came to rely on teleprompters instead of learning scripts whenever he had career difficulties.

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In early 1960, Hancock appeared on the BBC’s Face to Face, a half-hour in-depth interview program conducted by former Labour MP John Freeman. Freeman asked Hancock many searching questions about his life and work. Hancock, who deeply admired his interviewer, often appeared uncomfortable with the questions, but answered them frankly and honestly. Hancock had always been highly self-critical, and it is often argued that this interview heightened this tendency, contributing to his later difficulties. According to Roger, his brother, “It was the biggest mistake he ever made. I think it all started from that really. …Self-analysis – that was his killer.”

The usual argument is that Hancock’s mixture of egotism and self-doubt led to a spiral of self-destructiveness. Cited as evidence is his gradual ostracism of those who contributed to his success: Bill Kerr, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and Sid James, and finally his scriptwriters, Galton and Simpson. His reasoning was that to refine his craft, he had to ditch his catch-phrases and become realistic. He argued, for example, that whenever an ad-hoc character was needed, such as a policeman, it would be played by someone like Kenneth Williams, who would appear with his well-known oily catchphrase ‘Good evening’. Hancock believed the comedy suffered because people did not believe in the policeman, they knew it was just Williams doing a funny voice.

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Hancock read widely and avidly in an attempt to discover “the meaning of life,” including large numbers of philosophers, classic novels and political books. He was a supporter of the Labour Party, and admired Michael Foot above any other politician.

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Hancock starred in the 1960 film The Rebel, where he plays the role of an office worker-turned-artist who finds himself successful after a move to Paris, but only as the result of mistaken identity. Although a success in Britain the film was not well received in the United States: owing to the existence of a contemporary television series of the same name, the film had to be renamed, and the new title, Call Me Genius, inflamed American critics. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times thought Hancock “even less comical” than Norman Wisdom. British comedy has always had a mixed reception in the U.S. It’s a cultural thing; I cannot tolerate U.S. sitcoms.

His break with Galton and Simpson took place at a meeting held in October 1961, where he also broke with his long-term agent Beryl Vertue. During the previous six months, the writers had developed – without payment and in consultation with the comedian – three scripts for Hancock’s second starring film vehicle. Worried that the projects were wrong for him, the first two had been abandoned incomplete; the third was written to completion at the writers’ insistence, only for Hancock to reject it. Hancock is thought not to have read any of the screenplays. The result of the break was that Hancock chose to separately develop something previously discussed and the writers were ultimately commissioned to write a Comedy Playhouse series for the BBC, one of which, “The Offer”, emerged as the pilot for Steptoe and Son. To write that “something previously discussed”, which became The Punch and Judy Man, Hancock hired writer Philip Oakes, who moved in with the comedian to co-write the screenplay.

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In The Punch and Judy Man (1962), Hancock plays a struggling seaside entertainer who dreams of a better life; Sylvia Syms plays his nagging social climber of a wife, and John Le Mesurier a sand sculptor. The depth to which the character played by Hancock had merged with that of the actor is clear in the film, which owes much to Hancock’s memories of his childhood in Bournemouth. I rank The Punch and Judy Man as one of the most brilliant movies of all time, especially its deeply insightful, and moving analysis of personality and culture.

He moved to ATV in 1962 with different writers, though Oakes, retained as an advisor, disagreed over script ideas and the two men severed their professional (but not personal) relationship. The initial writer of Hancock’s ATV series, Godfrey Harrison, had scripted the successful George Cole radio and television series A Life Of Bliss, and also Hancock’s first regular television appearances on Fools Rush In (a segment of Kaleidoscope) more than a decade earlier. Harrison had trouble meeting deadlines, so other writers were commissioned, including Terry Nation.

Coincidentally, the transmission of the series clashed in the early months of 1963 with the second series of Steptoe and Son written by Hancock’s former writers, Galton and Simpson. Critical comparisons did not favor Hancock’s series. Around 1965 Hancock made a series of 11 TV advertizements for the Egg Marketing Board. Hancock starred in the ads with Patricia Hayes as Mrs Cravatte in an attempt to revive the Galton and Simpson style of scripts. Slightly earlier, in 1963, he featured in a spoof Hancock Report – hired by Lord Beeching to promote his plan to reduce railway mileage in advertisements. Hancock reportedly wanted to be paid what Beeching was paid annually – £34,000; he was offered half that amount for his services.

Hancock continued to make regular appearances on British television until 1967, but by then alcoholism had affected his performances. After hosting two unsuccessful variety series for ABC Television, The Blackpool Show and Hancock’s, he was contracted to make a 13-part series called Hancock Down Under for the Seven Network of Australian television. This was to be his first and only television series filmed in color; however, after arriving in Australia in March 1968 he only completed three programs, which remained unaired for several years.

Hancock committed suicide, by overdose, in Sydney, on 24 June 1968. He was found dead in his Bellevue Hill flat with an empty vodka bottle and a scattering of amylo-barbitone tablets. In one of his suicide notes he wrote: “Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times”. His ashes were brought back to the UK by satirist Willie Rushton in an Air France hold-all, in the first-class cabin in deference to his fame. They were buried in St. Dunstan’s Church in Cranford, west London. Spike Milligan commented in 1989: “Very difficult man to get on with. He used to drink excessively. You felt sorry for him. He ended up on his own. I thought, he’s got rid of everybody else, he’s going to get rid of himself and he did.” A tragic, but fitting, epitaph for a comic genius.

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In a 2002 poll, BBC radio listeners voted Hancock their favorite British comedian. Commenting on this poll, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson observed that modern-day creations such as Alan Partridge and David Brent owed much of their success to mimicking dominant features of Tony Hancock’s character. “The thing they’ve all got in common is self-delusion,” they remarked in a statement issued by the BBC. “They all think they’re more intelligent than everyone else, more cultured, that people don’t recognise their true greatness – self-delusion in every sense. And there’s nothing people like better than failure.” Mary Kalemkerian, Head of Programmes for BBC 7, commented: “Classic comedians such as Tony Hancock and the Goons are obviously still firm favourites with BBC radio listeners. Age doesn’t seem to matter – if it’s funny, it’s funny.” Dan Peat of the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society said of the poll: “It’s fantastic news. If he was alive he would have taken it one of two ways. He would probably have made some kind of dry crack, but in truth he would have been chuffed.”

This site has a TON of Hancock’s Half Hour videos all in one file. You can spend hours here.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-0nxbXnyQw&list=PLlO-tYBPIVZ_ZUAQypjIwOf92eL-uGp52

Purchase College alums will find the origin of our old school colors, Heliotrope and Puce, here:

https://www.twine.fm/saiyanswedengmail/cnmxx0/tony-hancock-hancocks-half-hour-s04-e20-the-last-of-the-mchancocks

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Given that Hancock spent part of his boyhood in Bournemouth, and used a south coast resort as the setting for The Punch and Judy Man, I thought English seaside food would be just the ticket for today’s recipe. I spent a few years of my infancy – in between Argentina and Australia – living with my great-aunt Lucy in Eastbourne. Not quite your typical south coast town ; more like “God’s waiting room” with all of its rich old ladies being wheeled along the front. But it’s a majestic place with a pier, bandstand, and decorative gardens. I return once in a while for fish and chips, cockles, mussels, fresh crab and the like. In a recent survey of Brits on their bucket lists (things to do before you die) in England, the number one was eating fish and chips on the beach. In the 1950s and 60s fish and chips came wrapped in newspaper, but Health and Safety put a stop to that. Now you get white butcher paper or a polystyrene container. Or . . . you can eat on the pier. That is, overall, a better option because you do not have to fight off the seagulls (my old friend in Eastbourne, Trish, calls them “flying rats”), as you do if you are eating directly on the beach or out in the open. Quality varies greatly from pier to pier unfortunately.

From my college days onward I’ve spent quite a few summers somewhere along the south coast of England from Kent to Cornwall. All have the classics of the Brit seafood world, but there are places that stand out for their specialties. I’ve never been able to get my fill of prawn sandwiches in Swanage, honeycomb ice cream in Sidmouth (bathed in Devonshire clotted cream), or whitebait and fresh sardines in Padstow. But, of all of these delights, crab sandwiches in Cornwall are the cat’s whiskers for me. The key for me is SIMPLICITY. You can add all manner of ingredients such as fancy herbs, celery etc etc. All I want is fresh, fresh, fresh crab, mayonnaise, a little parsley and lemon, and hearty brown bread. I prefer my own mayonnaise but store bought will do. ALWAYS use fresh crab.

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©Crab Sandwich

Start with fresh, live crab – one per sandwich. Place in boiling, salted water for about 10 minutes per pound. Remove the pot from the stove and let cool until you can handle the crabs.

Twist off the claws and legs. Reserve the les for stock unless you fancy an endless job scrounging for tiny bits of meat. Crack the claws gently with a nutcracker. Do not smash them because you will get shell fragments in the meat. Remove the meat with a nut pick or similar. A toothpick will do. With the crab on its back you will see an outlined shape – fat on females, more slender on males. You can pry this open with a knife, or holding the body in both hands, push at the base with both thumbs. This exposes the meat.

Pull away and discard the feathery white lungs (‘dead man’s fingers’). Pull away the stomach sac. You will find both white meat and brown meat. If you like you can separate them and use them in layers in the sandwich. I usually just mix them together. Take your time because there is lots of meat in hidden corners.

Place the meat in a metal bowl and shake. If you have missed any bits of shell you will hear it clicking and you can take it out. Mix with a little mayonnaise, chopped parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice. Go easy on the mayonnaise, the crab is the main player. Slice a whole loaf of brown bread – not too thickly – spread the crab mix on one side, top with the other, cut in half diagonally and serve with a simple salad of greens and tomato drizzled with olive oil and a drop of lemon juice.

Try not to eat the sarnie in one bite. On a good day I have four.

 

A final episode for old time foodies:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQLMH3e8qQ4

Saveloy and chips with brown sauce, please. Fried egg sandwich for the missus.

Jun 022013
 

Guglielmo_Marconi

Guglielmo_Marconi_1901_wireless_signal

BBC announcer

On this date in 1896 Guglielmo Marconi applied for a patent on the wireless transmission of signals, “Improvements in Transmitting Electrical impulses and Signals, and in Apparatus therefor.” As suggested by the title, Marconi did not invent wireless transmission, but his system was the first one that actually functioned effectively. Thus he is considered the father of radio.  His interest at the outset was purely in the realm of long distance wireless telegraphy, which he steadily improved on in the subsequent decade.  He had begun his work in his native Italy but he had trouble getting sponsors there. One letter he sent to the ministry of Post and Telegraphs asking for research money was found later with an annotation on the front that essentially said, “he belongs in an insane asylum.” So he moved to England where he found backers.

Marconi was born in Bologna in 1874, second son of Giuseppe Marconi, an Italian landowner, and his Irish/Scots wife, Annie Jameson, daughter of Andrew Jameson of Daphne Castle in County Wexford, Ireland and granddaughter of John Jameson, founder of whiskey distillers Jameson & Sons.  Marconi was educated privately and spent most of his teen years in physics labs learning from the pioneers of the study of electromagnetic waves, such as Augusto Righi, who laid the foundations for the understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum, and was the first physicist to generate microwaves. These were the very early days of the study of electricity and magnetism and Marconi was in on the ground floor with help from the best.

Once established in England Marconi worked on improvements in his system so that he was able to go from sending a signal a few miles, to sending one across the Atlantic (although his earliest claims at success in this regard are disputed).  He established The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company in 1897 to manufacture wireless telegraphic equipment.  The company, eventually under the Marconi name, survived until 2006 when it was bought out by a Swedish corporation.

The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company had a major hand in developing wireless telegraphy for transatlantic shipping.  It was Marconi equipment and Marconi employees  aboard RMS Titanic that sent out distress signals when the ship hit an iceberg off Newfoundland.  The equipment was actually intended for the use of passengers primarily, but could be used for professional maritime purposes as well.  Marconi took more time than perhaps was necessary to branch out from telegraphy into audio broadcasts, although it can also be said that until he got into the field in 1915 the technology for audio transmissions was barely existent.  The Marconi Company was instrumental in setting up experimental audio broadcasts in 1920 (his first was a transmission of Nellie Melba singing which was heard as far away as Newfoundland). He registered a radio station in 1922 with the call sign 2LO in the Marconi Building in London. This station became the BBC.  Marconi is decidedly dressed down as he broadcasts in comparison with the first BBC  “DJ’s” — as pictured.

Almost from the start of public broadcasting, cooking shows were an intrinsic part of variety programming.  It is generally accepted that the first radio show on cooking was aired in Paris in 1923 featuring  Dr. Édouard de Pomiane, an eminent food scientist at the Institut Pasteur, and devoted foodie.  He hosted a weekly program on Radio-Paris, telling stories of his kitchen experiences and providing recipes suitable for home cooks. As a popular and respected cook, he was arguably the food world’s first media personality. His shows were not just recitals of recipes, but were  sprinkled with humor and anecdotes. Cooking with Pomiane is a cookbook that came out of his broadcasts (still in print). Here is his recipe for Hollandaise Sauce (in translation) taken from the book.  Although I just came across this recipe in researching this post, it is identical with the one I have used with zero failures for decades. Here I was thinking I invented it! I must have been channeling the spirit of the good doctor when I first made Hollandaise for eggs Benedict this way around 1979. It is dead easy and belies the general belief that making Hollandaise is so complicated that it is best left to professionals.  It is also amusing to note that if you search for “Marconi” and “recipe” on the internet, you will come across dozens of recipes for “Marconi and Cheese.” It’s not so much that the typo exists, and is hilarious when you conjure up an image of the dapper Guglielmo snacking on provolone as he operates his radio equipment, but that so many people mindlessly cut and paste other people’s recipes into their own sites without even bothering to check them.

Hollandaise Sauce

Put a spoonful of cold water, a little salt and two yolks of eggs into a small saucepan. Put this little saucepan into a large one containing boiling water, holding the smaller one firmly. Stir quickly, with a fork, the mixture of water and yolk of egg. This begins to thicken. At this moment lift the small saucepan out of the water, add two ounces of butter cut into pieces the size of a nut. Put it back into the hot water. Stir the mixture all the time with a wire beater. The butter melts and the sauce becomes creamy. Lift it out of the water a little. Add two more ounces of butter cut in pieces. Stir. Put it back into the water. The sauce thickens. Keep on stirring. Dip your finger into the sauce. If it burns, lift the saucepan out of the hot water. Stir fifteen seconds more. The sauce is ready. It should be thinner than mayonnaise. It should, however, coat a spoon which you dip in and lift out again. If you like the flavour of lemon, add a few drops at the beginning of the operation, before the butter. You are then much more likely to be successful with your sauce.

I have never succeeded in spoiling a sauce hollandaise. Follow my example.

This sauce is a luxurious accompaniment to boiled fish or tinned asparagus warmed in its own juice.