The late Bobby Thompson was an all-round actor from Co. Durham but became most famous for his stand up routines, consisting of a series of anecdotes and monologues by "The Little Waster", closely based on his own life, and "Private Bobby Thompson", a second world war conscript. The Daily Mirror's Andy Capp cartoon character was modelled on Thompson's Little Waster.
His humour is very self-deprecating, and satirises, in quite a trenchant manner, the poverty and debt of inhabitants of former coal-mining areas of north east England. Unlike Harry Enfield's "loadsamoney" character that insulted and belittled many northerners, he gains the sympathy of his audience due to being drawn from the same background as them. One example is his story of a visit to what he calls "Giro City" - Consett, a town hard-hit by the decline of the steel industry - where he goes into a pub, asks for a tonic water and is given a whisky. On enquiring why, he is told that he is their "first foot" - in other words, he was their first male visitor since New Year.
His "Private Bobby Thompson" goes to London and meets the likes of Montgomery and Queen Elizabeth, which would never have taken place in reality, and in this way he mocks the class divisions of the time. Needless to say, it is always Bobby who comes off best from these encounters.
The ITV programme, which I recorded from Tyne Tees TV in the late 1980s, consists of a performance in Percy Main Working Men's Club by both of his characters, followed by a biography of his life - his becoming an actor in the 1950s on radio programmes such as "Wot cheor Geordie", his descent into alcohol abuse and his recovery from it, to become a performer who earned more than many nationally-known celebrities.
If anyone manages to find a recording of this performance, they will get an insight into a now-disappeared north-eastern working class culture in which working men's clubs were the centre of every mining community. This was a time before multi-channel satellite television, themed pubs and the renaissance of cinema-going all of which, along with the social changes and upheaval caused by the decline of our industries, resulted in the decline of the working men's club. As a member of a working men's club in Blackpool (Lancashire), I am struck by the sight of the crowded, smoke filled Percy Main concert room where Thompson performs. My own club sees such a situation only rarely.
His performances are entirely in dialect, which is difficult for outsiders to understand. For me it only adds to the enjoyment of his comedy, but it also served to limit his television career and his ability to reach a national audience, as actors were expected to avoid the use of dialect - he quite rightly said he sounded unconvincing when instructed to say "go" instead of "gan". For these performances however, dialect is critical to their success.
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