Unlike other music hall comedians, such as George Formby and Will Hay, who worked for the major studios Ealing, Gainsborough and Columbia, Frank Randle remained resolutely Northern and true to his comic roots, filming with John E. Blakeley's grandly-named Mancunian Film Corporation throughout his career. The one exception, 1948's When You Come Home, made for Butcher's Film Service was his most disciplined (and least lively) film. It is ironic that these 'Northern' films were shot at Riverside Studios, located between Fulham and Earl's Court in London, until Mancunian opened their own studio in the Manchester suburb of Rusholme in 1948.
Hard as it may be to imagine now, between the late 1930's and early 1950's Frank Randle was the king of Northern comics – pantomime at Christmas, summer seasons in Blackpool (unless he'd been banned by the local Watch Committee), and tours of his self-contained “Randle's Scandals” shows in between. A difficult and unpredictable (to say the least) character, Randle was always happiest being his own boss and a big fish in a small pond, publicly scathing about Northerners (Formby and Gracie Fields) who sold out to join the 'toffee-noses' down South (he cheekily sings a song á la Formby, complete with banjulele, in this film). In the 1980's I knew a man who was regularly taken to see Randle live: “He was a superstar,” he told me, and a word beginning with 'f' came before 'superstar'.
The films he made were generally cheap, any plot was simply a device to give some semblance of structure to the thing, and the direction, camerawork and lighting primitive at best. This wasn't due to incompetence or lack of technique, simply that so many pages of script read: “Frank. Bus.”, meaning Randle was set in front of the camera to do his 'business' – he could go anywhere and do anything, so the whole set had to be evenly lit while the static camera stood and filmed away.
Somewhere in Camp is typical of Randle's output – a simple service comedy with a plot involving two tiresome, woodenly-played romantic leads (“Dew yew laahve me, Jean? Dew yew raahly?”) whose father doesn't approve until the boy becomes a hero at the end, zzzzzz.....
The core, the heart, the soul of the film lies with Randle and his troupe as they lay waste to any deference to authority and wreak havoc. This is why Randle was revered by his working-class audiences. In the world before the social revolution of the 1960's, 'respecting your betters' and being suitably in awe of the powers-that-be was a staple of ordinary peoples' lives. Randle enters the film (as usual toothless and in a ridiculously baggy uniform) and gives one of his trademark (“Boyee!”) burps. Pretty soon he is calling an officer a “twerp” and telling his sergeant: “You shut yer gob!”
He is also remarkably - for his time - vulgar, although in a subversive, between-the-lines way. When the camp dentist grabs his crotch to keep him in the chair Randle shouts: “Mind me.. mind me... mind me trousers!” He calls a snooty young woman at a dance “Frozen Fanny” (“I'll warm thee!” grins Randle). In the sketch he performs in his 'randy old man' character at the camp show, he tells a woman applying to be his housekeeper (played by Harry Korris in drag) “Yer said yer were vivacious. I'd like to see yer vivacity!” “I've come for an interview, not an operation,” Korris replies, 'vivacity' becoming a euphemism or malapropism for 'vagina'. It was this kind of thing that got him banned from Blackpool theatres for years (Randle as a teacher writes the letter 'f' on the blackboard, the pupils identify it as a 'k', Randle: “Why is it every time I write 'f', you see 'k'?” Think about it.)
Every job he is given, Randle reduces to absolute chaos. He is an anarchist, a wrecker, a free spirit running riot in the world around him and getting away with it. He is the man many in his audience would have wanted to be if it hadn't been for the grind of earning a living in the mill, mine or factory, keeping your head down and behaving yourself for the bosses and foreman, for fear of being put on the dole.
The supporting cast are a mixed lot. Robbie Vincent with his high-pitched monotone (“Let-me-tell-you...”) quickly wears out his welcome; Harry Korris seems to be bellowing every line to the back of the 'gods', and looking for a cue card somewhere; Dan Young, on the other hand, is a good foil for Randle with his 'silly ass' character: quick, energetic, able to improvise and expertly play comedy. The stalwarts of Randle's stage shows Gus Aubrey and Ernie Dale have little to do (and are, in fact, uncredited) but are definitely second bananas. As I said, Randle preferred to be a big fish in a small pond.
It would be easy to dismiss Randle's films as crude, basic and cheaply made. They are all these things, but they also preserve the work of a great character comedian and hero to thousands. They should be viewed for what they were, mass entertainment with no frills, and Randle's memory should be treasured as an outstanding example of the popular culture of his day.