Saturday, March 14, 2009

From Jimmy Edwards to Jimi Hendrix

No career better displays the contrast between the counterculture of the 1960s and the era that preceded it than that of a child actor called John Mitchell.

He appeared in the Muir and Norden comedy series Whack-O! between 1956 and 1960, playing a schoolboy called Wendover. It was a role he reprised in the 1960 film of the series called Bottoms Up.

He was given that name so that the headmaster, played by the show's star Jimmy Edwards, could get a laugh by saying "Bend over, Wendover."

You see, in 1960 it was not just thought right that small boys should be caned: the practice was thought to have a humorous side too.

Whirligig TV describes Whack-O! thus:

Starred 'Professor' Jimmy Edwards as the conniving, cane-thrashing, horse-betting (and often drunken) Headmaster of Chiselbury School ('For the Sons of Gentlefolk') with his assistants Mr. Oliver Pettigrew, the science master, played by Arthur Howard who was also his long suffering assistant headmaster ... a twittering, hand-wringing bag of nerves. Mr. Halliforth was played by Edwin Apps. Also appearing was Gordon Phillott as Mr. Dinwiddie who was very ancient and deaf.

The headmaster was always dreaming up schemes to make money for his beer fund and thwacking young boys on the behind with his faithful old cane.

before helpfully directing us to a Youtube clip of the opening titles and a glimpse of Jimmy Edwards.

The series being written by Muir and Norden, no doubt there was more to it than the flagellation. I have read that Chiselbury's motto was "They Shall Not Pass," and the BBC Comedy website is quite complimentary:
Watching the series now is a little painful in one respect - we're too sensitive to find canings amusing - but it's right on the money in other ways, mainly because finding over privileged kids vile hasn't gone out of fashion.

And Jimmy Edwards was a fascinating figure. He served in the RAF during World War II, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was shot down at Arnhem in 1944 and needed plastic surgery for his injuries. He disguised the scars with a huge handlebar moustache that became his trademark.

He became a popular performer on radio and television and in the theatre. In the 1970s he was outed as gay, which badly affected his career. He died in Australia in 1988, at the age of 68, from an AIDS- related illness. (Later: But see the comments.)

Six years after Bottoms Up was released, Jimi Hendrix was brought to Britain by Chas Chandler. He helped Hendrix put together a new band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, with the bass player Noel Redding and the drummer Mitch Mitchell. Here they are playing on the show Happening for Lulu.

As The Rock Hall says:

Jimi Hendrix expanded the range and vocabulary of the electric guitar into areas no musician had ever ventured before. Many would claim him to be the greatest guitarist ever to pick up the instrument. At the very least his creative drive, technical ability and painterly application of such effects as wah-wah and distortion forever transformed the sound of rock and roll.

Hendrix helped usher in the age of psychedelia with his 1967 debut, Are You Experienced?, and the impact of his brief but meteoric career on popular music continues to be felt.

And Mitch Mitchell played with Jimi Hendrix up until the guitarist died in 1970.

What, I hear you ask, is the connection with Jimmy Edwards?

The drummer Mitch Mitchell is the same person as the child actor John Mitchell who played Wendover in Whack-O! and Bottoms Up.

This fact is confirmed by Mitch Mitchell's obituary in the Independent - he died in November of last year, though the entry for John Mitchell on IMDB seems to have got mixed up with a later actor of the same name.

So had the counterculture vanquished the world where the beating of schoolboys was thought funny?

Not entirely. The year after Hendrix died, the slightly renamed Whacko! reappeared on BBC1. It was shot in colour and used revised scripts from the original series, but ran for only one season of 13 episodes (shown on Saturday after Grandstand, if I recall rightly.)

Today it is hard to say whether the world of Jimmy Edwards or of Jimi Hendrix is the more lost to us.


Jim Pennington said...

Where did you get the information that Jimmy Edwards died of an AIDS-related illness?

Jim Pennington said...

have answered my own question by looking at Wikipedia where this spurious diagnosis appears... as it also says he died in Australia and I know for certain (as a relative of his) that he died in a London hospital after a long illness brought on by alcohol more likely than HIV .. then that makes me trust Wikipedia's waiting-room doctor even less.
Now I suppose I had better spend time correcting wiki.

Jim Pennington said...

Thank you for drawing attention to my comments. I have dismissed the waiting room doctor as well as the barrack room lawyer who was trying to catch my attention.