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Stargazing: Light Entertainment Rarities on DVD

  If any television genre owed something to the old style of variety, which packed out theatres for most of the twentieth century, it was light entertainment. Synonymous with shiny studio floors, an orchestra nearby and often in vision, its mix of music, dancing and comedy and the biggest stars the TV station's budget could afford, they might have been phased out to an extent, but not entirely: in Britain, hit shows like Strictly Come Dancing and Britain's Got Talent prove there's still life in the old dog yet. But there is a rich history to entertain as well.

Network have released four of these television shows on a single DVD, starting with Sammy Davis Jr Meets the British (1961), where the oft-described "Greatest Living Entertainer in the World" was coaxed over to ABC Studios to record a one hour special. Impeccably dressed and exuding a magnetic, old school cool, Davis proved why he was one of the legends of his art, and indulged in British references to make the audience feel at home, doing impersonations of Adam Faith or singing the chorus of Fings Ain't Wot They Used to Be (a hit musical of the day).

He also performed songs like Begin the Beguine, with and without a stool to sit on, though he would perspire profusely throughout these numbers, dabbing at his face with a handkerchief as his smooth tones belted out the standards. But Sammy could dance as well, and here in a filmed insert goes down to Battersea Fun Fair to perform with some local kids (and a man in a gorilla suit), and in the studio, do a bright skit with Lionel Blair which some dubious gags aside goes very well, particularly in the dancing. To end on, we get more impressions (impeccable) and Sammy's drum solo.

Second on the disc was twenty-five minutes of Dixieland jazz and related tunes, as Peter Elliott introduced us to an actual riverboat upon which a host of musicians and singers were assembled: Mr Elliott kicked things off with a rendition of Up the Lazy River, which went into Kenny Baker (not the R2-D2 one, though he was a jazz musician too) performing the popular trad arrangements. Now, you had to be a real expert to tell much Dixieland apart, and Steamboat Shuffle (1960) served up the likes of Kenny Lynch and Cy Grant as well as more obscure performers, but it entertained.

Third was something more substantial, Big Night Out Presents The Peggy Lee Show, a special from 1961 from ABC with another of those American celebrities who would find a lucrative and warm welcome on the other side of the Pond. That happened a lot in the sixties especially, nowadays you're more likely to see them on a chat show in person, but Peggy delivered, obviously, her most famous song Fever (with a new, opening verse, pertinent to the occasion), as well as other standards, and indulged in a comic bit with British guest star David Kossoff as a taxi driver.

However, as introduced playing his own waxwork, and as he said, in town to make the final entry in his most appreciated movies series Road to Hong Kong, was Bing Crosby, laid back as ever and giving the air of a man who had simply shown up as a favour to a good friend. What was valuable about this was when Peggy was joined at the piano by expert songwriters Sammy Cahn (who sang) and Jimmy Van Heusen (on the ivories), as they went through a medley of their most respected repertoire, and Bing appeared as well (as did Kossoff), for a mass singalong of High Hopes.

Fourth and finally on the disc was something equally jazz-flavoured, but not like the others as Duke Ellington brought Celebration (1966) to ITV viewers to mark the opening of Coventry's new cathedral with an evening of his religious music, played by his expert band and with the help of The Cliff Adams Singers, a vocal harmony group familiar on British radio at the time. It was assuredly jazz being played, yet more avant garde in its conception, despite what you might have imagined would be a more conservative bent from a programme of melodies based around the Christian Bible.

There were occasional interludes where we got to see the ornamentation of the cathedral, which in a funny way was as avant garde as Ellington's stylings, just the sort of thing to scare any Sunday School attendees who happened to be there with their parents, all stark stained glass and angels that could be mistaken for gargoyles. But the music, which must have sounded amazing with the building's acoustics, was the key, ranging from recognisably jazzy passages to such accoutrements as Adams' group calling out the books of the Bible. With two encores, it was a very sixties experience.

These four shows are not in the greatest shape, albeit perfectly watchable - age has not diminished the power of the music of course, though it is in mono - and as a window into where television entertainment was on The Light Channel it is captivating. There was no real pop music here, except in small references, but that was for the kids, and this sort of thing was for the grown-ups, with no real snobbery, it was simply the way things were. It is more or less by chance that any of these four have survived, but fans of vintage amusements will be very glad they did, preserved in their black and white world as if it were yesterday, as if unaware that anything would ever change for them.

[Click here to buy from the Network website.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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