For BBC Radio programme Transcript please keep scrolling down the page - it's worth the wait!
Wilson, Keppel and Betty - Curios
Stephen Dixon (Dee) - 2016
Beautifully crafted sculpures by © Stephen Dee 'Wilson, Keppel and Betty. Famous sand-dancing act of the British music halls. Variety'
I found this image while searching around to see if I could find anything more about Alan Stafford's 'Too Naked for the Nazis' entry into the 'Oddest Title of the Year Award' run by The Bookseller. I came across Stephen's website(s) and decided to contact him for more information. He was gracious enough to compliment me on my tribute to Wilson, Keppel and Betty and gave me permission to use this image.
Stephen describes himself as 'an experienced feature writer and critic, who with his wife Deirdre Falvey (also a journalist) wrote what has been called "the definitive book on modern Irish stand-up comedy", Gift of the Gag. He also regularly broadcasts on Irish radio, doing spots based around his collection of Variety and Novelty records, and writing and presenting his own series for RTE Lyric.' More can be found here
When time allows Stephen also creates sculptures from the world of variety and his commissions are available to view on his Stephen Dee sculptures website. The technical information concerning the sculptures is that 'the figures were modelled in wax on a wire armature, then cast in resin and painted.'
From 'Egypt in England'
Wonderful High Definition example of Wilson, Kepple & Betty as shown on the Egypt in England site
"Theatre is about many things, but ultimately it can be argued that even 'serious' theatre is about entertainment in the widest sense. While these plays may tell us little about Ancient Egypt, and what they do tell us is seldom accurate, they do tell us a lot about our perception of it. Topical productions, especially spectacular ones, are popular but by definition largely about the Egypt of their day. What keeps appealing to audiences is not real Ancient Egypt, but fantasy Egypt, a land of monuments, magic, mummies, and the mysterious Queen Cleopatra. Which means, of course, that we cannot forget the fantasy Moorish style Alhambra Theatre and others which were the setting from the late 1920s to the early 1960s for Cleopatra's Nightmare and the Sand Dance of the immortal Wilson, Keppel and Betty."
Mass produced postcard but even so, Mr Binnie was a lucky man - the image is from an ebay sale.
From "Toast of London"
Our Performers in the spotlight in front of the Pyramid backdrop - all screenshots courtesy of Channel 4 On-Demand
Moving in instantly recognisable dance pose from stage right to stage left
Taking a chance - recreating the 'backs to the audience' routine
Voila - now you see us - now you don't!
Iconic - face off!
Bend zee kneesies - Only kidding!
Ooooh! Goebbels didn't like this one little bit!
Makes you wonder what Goebbels would have thought of this!
Back to the hieroglyph poses - legs forward
More hieroglyph posing - legs reversed
Is this a proposal?
Encore gentlemen please!
From "What a Performance! Pioneers of Popular Entertainment" - the recreation!
Wilson, Keppel and the original Betty (Knox)
The originals in action
Comedian Frank Skinner and music presenter Suzy Klein - making their entrance in costume
Getting into character pose
Preparing to launch into the Sand Dance
Striking a pose!
Punch likes Wilson Keppel and Betty too - regrettably no image without the ubiquitous Punch copyright is available - but it's fun nevertheless!
A rare example of a variety poster from The Palace Pier Theatre, Brighton (with grateful thanks to Arthur Lloyd) featuring the three major acts that were Harry Secombe ('a great star of present day') and Nellie Wallace billed as 'another "Legend" of the Music Hall. Wilson Keppel and Betty? Well everyone remembers them, of course they do! And another curiosity, to add to the continuing legend - Wilson Keppel and Betty are cited as an educational tool (with thanks to Music Hall Studies!)
Wilson, Keppel and Betty
The supreme eccentric dance act of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Wilson, Keppel and Betty still hold sway fifty years after their disbandment. Theirs is a remarkable achievement. Many speech-based comedy routines of that period now appear to be resoundingly awful, their jokes no better than those found in juvenile comics. But Wilson, Keppel and Betty created something new, the appeal of which seems ageless. They were sand dancers, who established a routine they called Cleopatras Nightmare. It was carefully constructed over several years. The common view now is that it was immutable just like other music hall and variety acts who were able to travel throughout Britain never needing to change their routines. All that is wrong. Wilson, Keppel and Betty did alter their act, although the changes were mostly cosmetic. Their followers were happy to watch their turn time and time again and demand nothing very much different.
The Daily Mail Question and Answer article:
Also available as a .pdf file here:
Wilson Keppel and Several Bettys
Radio Broadcast Transcript (re-broadcast in December 2016)
From Alan Stafford's Fb page
As seen on the BBC iPlayer
Introduction : "For over 30 years the entertainers Jack Wilson and Joe Keppel shuffled around a bucket load of female performers named Betty as they kept theatre audiences captivated with their charming and amusing interpretations of Egyptian Sand Dancing. Now on Radio 4 Barbara Windsor tells the remarkable story of this revolutionary dance trio whose routines inspired some of the world's greatest artists it can only be Wilson, Keppel and several Bettys.
(Haunting Music - Mellifluous male voice with a hint of American accent - now identified as the author of this radio broadcast - Alan Stafford)
"The 1920s, the world watches expectantly, as the aged archaeologist emerges from the Great Pyramid, blinking into the harsh unrelenting glare of the desert sun. His bearers carry three bandaged figures; are these the legendary pharaohs of old? Slowly, painstakingly, he unravels the delicate strips of white linen; could this be Ptolemy, Xerxes or even the mighty Tutankhamun?" (..... screech of scratched record needle) - Voice of Barbara Windsor - "No, better than that, it's Wilson Keppel and Betty!"
Voice of Bill Pertwee - "They conveyed this warmth out of just going backwards and forwards across the stage doing a sand dance and within a minute or so you heard the laughs coming."
Voice of Jean Kent - "It was just so different from everybody else. I mean, there was just absolutely nobody else doing that kind of act. It was absolutely original.
Voice of Ken Cuthbertson - "I frankly wouldn't call them high art, but they were quite fun to watch."
Voice of Georgy Jamieson "If you look, it's amazing how much influence they've had on comedy; athletic moves and funny walks and just physical comedy - I think that's why people will remember them still today, it's just an iconic image: the two men, the curvy lady and this Egyptian sand dance."
Barbara Windsor narrating - Wilson Keppel and Betty were one of the greatest eccentric dance trios of all time. Still remembered frequently copied but never bettered. Perhaps you've seen The Bangles 'Walking Like an Egyptian', Glenda Jackson sand dancing with Morecambe and Wise, even that chubby tenor off the car insurance ads, they owe it all to Wilson Keppel and Betty. I'm Barbara Windsor and I remember seeing them in my early teens at the Finsbury Park Empire and I absolutely loved them. So it's my pleasure to present their story, for the the first time, on radio. Even if you think you've heard it all before, prepare to be surprised. Not everything written about them is true, especially if they wrote it themselves. So here's the fascinating story of the Englishman, the Irishman and the American who enchanted the world with their unique blend of sand, silliness and a little dash of sex appeal. Wilson Keppel and Betty made their British debut at the London Palladium in August 1932 alongside Layton and Johnstone and Roy Fox and his band. Agent Harry Foster spotted the act in New York and offered them four weeks work touring Britain. That Palladium slot featured an Egyptian sand dance and finished with a manic tap dancing on a staircase. According to the critic they were vociferously applauded. Movie actress Jean Kent, now aged 90 remembers those early performances "It was a soft shoe dance. They kept very long, rather morbid looking faces, it was very static, their faces, it was hilariously funny, beautifully choreographed."
Such was their instant popularity they continued way beyond four weeks touring all over Britain and Europe and in May 1933, less than a year after arriving here they did their first Royal Variety Performance. To add a touch of sophistication, Betty swapped her usual short skirt for trousers. Wilson went to the other extreme wearing nothing but clogs, spectacles and a dhoti and treating the Royal party to the sight of a tap-dancing Mahatma Gandhi -
The deliciously delightful Amanda Barrie as seen in 'Carry on Cleo' in 1964
most bizarre. The end of the year had its problems, first Keppel was out of the act with appendicitis, dancer Billy Shenton took his place. Then Betty fell seriously ill, Jean Kent, a Windmill dancer at the age of 13 was one of several girls who auditioned to replace her. "I was a good little acrobat I could do all the overs and the back bends and the splits and all this businesses you see. They had me up on the stage and they looked me up and down and one of them said 'Mmmm no I think you'd be a little too heavy.' Jean isn't the only famous failed Betty nearly twenty years later they turned down a young dancer called Amanda Barrie. The future star of 'Carry on Cleo' was obviously not Egyptian enough for them.
After four months of Wilson, Someone and Someone the trio were finally reunited. Over their long career they performed in cabarets, circus, panto and two more Royal Variety shows. They never topped the Bill but were in great demand as a support act. In 1950 they even supported Frank Sinatra. (Music - a few bars of Sinatra singing). Lucky for us a few of their stage performances were captured on film, such as 'Starlight Serenade' and 'Variety Jubilee'.
Writer and comedy historian Georgy Jamieson "So in this routine we've got Betty as well as Wilson and Keppel, quite an exotic routine, Betty quite scantily clad for the time (music in b/g) um in an Egyptian headdress, and exaggerated shoulder pads, a bra top and Wilson and Keppel wearing Fezs and long tubular tunics very close fitting and she's playing with finger-cymbals trying to entice them and a lot of the comedy is coming from them being totally unmoved by her hip-thrusting and wiggling but absolutely no emotion on their faces at all, completely dead-pan."
One newspaper described Wilson and Keppel as having the kind of limbs that make you understand why sleeves and trousers were invented. However, not everyone saw the funny side. A pre-war showing in Germany outraged Josef Goebbels who said the 'mens bare legs were bad for the morals of the Hitler Youth' but was it really a case of 'No knees please we're Nazis' or was it Wilson's close proximity to Keppels' rear end as they shuffled across the sand. Mussolini on the other hand loved them! Though the show was nearly a disaster when they mislaid their trusty supply of Bedfordshire sand. They hastily threw together a concoction of what Keppel described as 'salt, sugar and I don't know what.'
So how did it all begin? Let's turn back the sands of time. Liverpudlian Jack Wilson and Irishman Joe Keppel were both born in 1894. After that it all gets a bit hazy. They told American reporters they teamed up at the age of 10 in England and they told English reporters they teamed up aged 8 in America. And, after Betty joined them they claimed they spent the last 15 years dancing as a trio with Betty's mum-in-law.
Researcher Alan Stafford has been trying to unravel their early years. Alan is with me now - so tell me darlin' where did they start England or America? "Well, most probably Australia." Australia? "Yes, well Joe Keppel spent the First World War as a stoker in the Australian Navy until 1917 when he's invalided out. I've managed to track down a copy of the doctor's report it says 'progressive loss of weight, high blood pressure, rapid heart beat, breathless, attacks of giddiness." Oh, so he's in a pretty bad way? "It seems like it yeah, and then three weeks later he's clog-dancing in a variety show and the following month he forms a double act" - Yeah, with Jack Wilson - "With Harry Noye" With Harry Noye? Who's he? "Well exactly, yes - Noye and Keppel, 'The Limit in Simultaneous Motion', no it doesn't last very long, pretty soon he's back in small time vaudeville as a solo turn. Then late 1919 he joins Colleano's circus and that's where gets together with Jack Wilson." Thanks Alan, now Colleanos was largely a family affair but after the war they began expanding. Actor Mark Colleano whose grandfather was in that circus explains how things were changing. "The Colleano family had gone from being an individual circus and travelling under their own name and also various different names as well, actually rather hilarious names like the 'Royal Hawaiians' and the 'Akabar Arabs' but they had their own circus from about 1915 something like that right up to the early twenties so it must have been around that time that urr Jack Wilson must have joined up." Jack Wilson having completed his war service in England arrived in Australia and had soon got himself a job with the Colleano's. He and Joe must obviously hit it off because in September 1920 they took a massive gamble and sailed to America in search of a big break.
By the following year they were an established vaudeville double act "And at that point they weren't doing an Egyptian stuff or the sand dance, it was a clog-dancing act. The beginnings of it called 'Wizards of the Wooden Shoes'" - " The toes were musically designed to make a rhythm" - Writer, Anthony Dundon, a distant relative of Joe Keppel "This, in later years, turned into what they called 'pedestal dancing' when they got up on a pedestal which was supposed to have been made of marble and then did a tap-dance or a clog-dance." Throughout most the 1920's Wilson and Keppel's act couldn't have been less Egyptian, there was singing, harmonicas, accordion, even a radio burlesque, but the act still lacked a certain something. I think it's time we met Betty.
Alice Elizabeth Peden was born in Salina, Kansas in 1906, her father owned a grocery store but Betty Peden knew it was fruitless to vegetate amongst the fruit and veg, forget the broad beans she wanted Broadway. "Well from everything I've heard and read the family, didn't approve of Betty's theatrical ambitions." Genealogist Ken Cuthbertson is Betty's second cousin, once removed. The story is she ran off to Kansas City dressed in boys' overalls which was quite shocking right after World War I to join Vaudeville. A cousin who's now 90 recalls his mom sort of sniffing and saying 'Oh Alice Peden went off and became some sort of dancer or entertainer or something', so no, the family disapproved." In 1923 Betty ran away again to marry Donald Knox. Daughter Patsy arrived soon afterwards, but by 1926 she was back on stage, it was said she was Jack Benny's Vaudeville partner, well they certainly worked together he was a promising young comedian in Broadway Review 'The Great Temptations' and she was a chorus girl, one of eighty chorus girls. After that she probably toured in Vaudeville dance troupes, then in late 1928 it finally happened. Wilson and Keppel met Betty. "Wilson and Keppel were doing this act called the 'Bus Boys' um, there's no real way of knowing but we can only assume that Betty was a chorus girl in the whole variety show and they asked her to join in and it would seem that she made an instant impact on the act and really lifted it and some of the reviews here shows that Betty really had an impact on the critics. 'Double comedy dance routine leads to the stairs finale. In any event the girl should be retained if only for her appearance' - so you've got very much the idea that she's very glamorous and just gonna to lift them above all the other variety acts." With Betty on board they re-named the act 'Collegiate Co-Eds'. By this time Wilson and Keppel were sporting their trademark droopy moustaches along with American College caps but there was still not a sniff of a sphinx. Then in December 1931 they placed an ad in Variety 'Presenting our new comedy act "Arabian Antics"' It's difficult to know what took them so long. Ever since Howard Carter excavated the tomb of Tutankhamun, Egyptian culture was everywhere - (Background song 'Old Bazaar in Cairo') "Tutankhamun had a real effect on daily life" - Egyptologist Dr Joyce Tildsley "Also at this time it's a period when mass-production is starting to develop, there's film developing, there are newspapers more widely available to everybody so you could find Tutankhamun inside fashions, art, architecture, books, even sewing machines were sort of Tutankhamun styled it was just was everywhere, it really really took off."
Claudette Colbert as 'Cleopatra' - 1934 - Designer Travis Banton
Over the next few years all the familiar elements fell into place. The sand dance, the finger cymbals, the dance of the seven veils and finally, just months after Claudette Colberts' epic movie 'Cleopatra' the title that would be their billing matter for the rest of their career 'Cleopatra's Nightmare'. And not forgetting the music, rumoured to have been arranged for them by Hoagy Carmichael and three guesses who started that rumour! Luigini's Ballet Egyptienne. But just how historically accurate was their style of dancing - down to the last detail or "Downton Abbey? "There were an awful lot of people who would pick up aspects of Egyptian culture from our own popular culture so they believe in the curse or they think that the music that they hear when the listen to the sand dance is the original Egyptian music and so on and they form their own views of Ancient Egypt by piecing together all this cultural information and they get a great deal of enjoyment from it and I'm not knocking it in the slightest but it is a different approach and it is a different interpretation of Ancient Egypt than the strictly academic one that's taught in universities and museums. So if we look at this example here that I've printed off from the computer - is an absolutely typical tomb scene which shows the tomb owner standing in the middle of the scene and demonstrating the absolutely typical Egyptian pose. So his head is sideways but his body, his torso is facing forwards and then his limbs are quite strange to our look because they are trying to show us the ideal proportion for the and the ideal position for the arms and this occasionally means that people have two left feet or two right feet or two left hands or two right hands. That doesn't matter in the slightest to the Egyptians because what they want is this image to look like every other image of a deceased person and to be something that could maybe activated when this person dies and the tomb comes into its own to help them to have an afterlife. But what's happened is that we've misunderstood this we've thought that these are Egyptians standing in this very peculiar way and in fact if you try it and I've tried it and I make my students try it it's very difficult to stand like that you can't actually do it. But what we've done is to take this very stereotypical Egyptian two-dimensional image we don't see it in the statuary we see it on the tomb walls and we've translated it into a dance move which I think looks very unnatural but its in our heads now has become the absolutely typical Egyptian dance move."
Now, if you're waiting to hear the voices of Wilson Keppel and Betty you're in for a long wait - they never spoke on stage and no recorded interviews survive. Wilson and Keppel didn't chat much in the dressing room either maybe after all those years they'd run out of things to say. So let's hear from those who knew them starting with Mark Colleano who as a boy was taken to meet Jack Wilson "He was very kind, he was a very compassionate man that's what I remember, that's what immediately drew me to him, his compassion, his kindness and his wisdom he had this incredible wisdom about him."
"They disappeared before the show was over 'That's it, we've done our bit, off we go.'"
"Joe was retiring by nature, he was always immaculately dressed. He did not smoke or drink and he looked under-nourished on stage and was said to have survived on nuts and radishes. Jack Wilson on the other hand could be mistaken for a stagehand. He was gregarious and the life and soul of the party. He smoked throughout his life and was fond of Guinness and rum."
"Betty Knox seemed to play off Wilson and Keppel pretty well, she seems to have been pretty self-assured and a bit of a character and that has only to come from being both on and off stage. Sure she was a very lively personality and that shows so I think she brought some spark to the act."
"When I first went into Variety in 1955 they were on the Bill with me, stood at the side of the stage, both of them and when I came off they said 'Aw you've got nothing to worry about kid' - they were wonderful. They took their own sand to Las Vegas you know. Can you imagine it. They were going to a desert and they took their own sand to do their dance on."
You also heard Bill Pertwee, Anthony Dundon, Ken Cuthbertson and Dennis Lotus.
Right enough hard facts - time for some scurrilous gossip. Georgy Jamieson again "There are rumours that they fought over the first Betty, they quarrelled they both liked her, but the quarrel lead to them never speaking other than on business for the rest of their careers which I find very hard to believe, although they were very different personalities so maybe they didn't get on that well in real life, it was all just an act it was just a business arrangement. Later on it's said they asked their Bettys, their various Bettys to perform above and beyond the call of duty and many a Betty would lock herself in her bedroom of her digs tie the bedsheets together and climb Rapunzel style out of the bedroom window to escape their advances but again we don't know of any of that is true."
The absolutely divine Theda Bara as Cleopatra in the early part of the 20th century
After 14 years with the trio and by all accounts still quite a stunner, the original Betty left the act, not to retire but to start a whole new career as a journalist. "Betty continued writing for the new editor of the Evening Standard and that was Michael Foot who was later the leader of the Labour Party. She did personal interest stories on the American troops and then after D-Day there was a small group of women reporters who were chosen to follow the Allies as they moved across Europe and to report on the progress across Europe and the peoples they were encountering."
In late 1937 she brought daughter Patsy to England so that, to use Betty's own words, she could 'see the war.' Patsy replaced Betty in the act although mother and daughter had very different styles. "The original Betty was more of a tap-dancer, quite traditional tap-dancing, whereas Patsy was more athletic and she would do cartwheels and she was only 19 when she took over so she was young and fit and very curvaceous and she would be, yeah more athletic than her mum and her mum was more of a traditional dancer."
There's nothing new about tribute acts and Wilson, Keppel and Betty had several in their lifetime. There was a group of buskers in Leicester Square who many people, me included thought they were the genuine article. One of them, whilst rattling his tin at passers by came face to face with Jack Wilson, Jack grabbed his arm preventing his escape, reached into his wallet and handed him a pound note. The man muttered 'Thanks Jack' and swiftly ran off. The tributes keep on coming Michael Jackson's video "Remember the Time", Madness dancing to "Night Boat to Cairo" and one of my favourites Steve Martin's "King Tut" (video sound).
Patsy stayed with Wilson and Keppel until around 1950 after that a whole succession of Bettys came and went none of them staying beyond three years and none quite matching up to the two Knox girls. But the act was hardly slowing down. They played Las Vegas where the Sand Dance was banned after diners complained that sand was getting in their soup. They also had a lengthy engagement at Paris' Moulin Rouge ('Walk Like an Egyptian' background music) and in 1962 midway through the summer season at Great Yarmouth, Jack Wilson fell ill. They pulled out of the show and the act was disbanded.
The following year Betty Knox died at the age of 56 in Germany where she had lived and worked since the late-1940s. A few months later Jack Wilson moved into Brinsworth House, a showbiz retirement home, he kept in good spirits and entertained visitors to musical renditions by 'The Brinsworth Beatles.'
"My grandmother took me to meet him at Brinsworth House and I could see that he was very very ill at that time but again there was his humour, that's what I remember, I remember him very fondly."
Jack died in 1970 - this tribute appeared in the "The Stage" Newspaper - 'In Memory of my dear colleague Jack Wilson - he was one in a million - Joe.'
On a happier note when Brinsworth House installed a bar for the residents what did the name it? The Wilson, Keppel and Betty Bar. Joe Keppel was back in his home town of Cork and always entered the local grocers with a quick shuffle along the sawdust floor. "You could say he kept extremely fit. His teetotal days were now over and he was a regular customer at a pub called Dan Turners in Parliament Street, Cork. And he could tell many a good yarn and make people laugh."
Joe, despite his dicky heart and high blood pressure outlived the rest of the trio and died in 1977 aged 82. And that's the end of Wilson, Keppel ... and .. no of course it isn't - this is a celebration isn't it? And there's one question we've yet to answer. Just how many Betty's were there? Any guesses?
"There were two that I could remember, but there were certainly more than that."
"I heard there might be five."
"Four or five Bettys in total but what I'm pretty sure of is that my cousin was the first Betty."
"I'm going to take a rough guess at 15, 15 Bettys"
"How many Bettys? I'd say there were 8 Bettys"
"I've no idea you know, I've no idea how many Bettys there were - I suppose about 20 or so?"
"I thought there was only one!"
All right, all right, betting on the Bettys is now closed. As we present the parade of the Bettys:
Betty Knox, the only Betty actually called Betty.
Miss X - her mystery stand-in.
Edna May Lark who stood in for Patsy.
Irene Edwin-Scott from Glasgow.
Barbara Holt who married a trampolinist.
Mary Wemys who did the Las Vegas trip.
Maureen Drew the first Betty to appear on TV.
Valerie Cottrell who became a London Palladium dancer.
Jean Bamberger a professional clog-dancer since childhood.
And last of all Jean McKinnon an ex-Windmill girl who eventually gave up stripping and wiggling to become a pub landlady.
Now who does that remind me of? (Barbara giggles).
So that's a grand total of 11 Bettys and if I've missed anyone out please get in touch.
Well, I don't know about you but I feel a sand dance coming on.
This has been Wilson Keppel and several Bettys with me BW.
Writer Alan Stafford is on hand with a fez and a floppy moustache and producer Steve Garner has the sand and the knobbly knees.
And who better than to sing us out with a tongue twisting version of "Ballet Egyptian" than Richard Murdoch - more sand Steve c'mon c'mon, more sand!
From 'Open Writing' : The Goebbels story, mentioned in Alan Staffords radio broadcast, as told by Ronnie Bray! © 2006 - Ronnie Bray ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
On 15th June I received a message from Ronnie Bray via Facebook which is reproduced above. I am happy to acknowledge his copyright and apologise for the previous omission.
"Openwriting Web magazine features a feast of words from regular columnists, U3A writers and other authors. Every day there is something new to read in Openwriting."
Letter from America :
Herr Göbbels Flunks The Ballet Egyptien Test
...The triad presented pallid mask-like unblinking and expressionless expressions that gave the impression that they couldn’t care where they were or who was there, and gave off an aura of pathological boredom marinated in indifference such as is common to month old corpses..
Ronnie Bray recalls the deliciously funny Wilson, Keppel, and Betty, an English stage act denounced by Nazi minister Joseph Göbbels.
Socrates was charged with undermining the morals of Athenian youth. His reward was the hemlock cup. Joseph Göbbels charged that an English trio was doing the same to German youth. "Sie sind untergruben die Moral von Nazi Jugend!" he snapped, while forgetting to smile as he watched their unique performance of Ballet Egyptien when they visited Berlin shortly before the onset of World War II.
I couldn't resist poking a bit of fun at Goebbles here
It is difficult to imagine any single person more devoted to pernicious corruption of the young than Göbbels, unless it was his master Adolph Schicklgruber. Yet he was adamant that a group of three English dancers posed such a threat. To say that they were the most unlikely set of corrupters of masses of Hitler Youth is to engage in an understatement of such vast proportions that I instinctively shrink from it.
The trio came to my attention when I appeared in the shilling seats of the Palace Theatre in Huddersfield in the late forties, and they appeared on the stage. Their appearance alone was worth more than a shilling to me, and if they had done nothing more than stand there in their costumes with those looks on their faces, I would have laughed until I died, but they moved with all manner of antique and exotic mannerisms, presenting to my startled eyes my first vision of what some have simplistically called ‘legmania.’
The triad presented pallid mask-like unblinking and expressionless expressions that gave the impression that they couldn’t care where they were or who was there, and gave off an aura of pathological boredom marinated in indifference such as is common to month old corpses.
Among the honoured list of eccentric dancers, in whose royal company were Professor Max Wall, Billy Burden, Nat Jackley, and all whose legs defied gravity, the pain barrier, and the laws of physics this trio reigned supreme. They were known professionally as Wilson, Keppel, and Betty, or simply, The Sand Dancers.
Wilson and Keppel were two almost decayed men who despite their energy and obvious physical fitness seemed painfully emaciated. Their Sand Dance was a parody in which the participants assumed postures derived from the pyramid tomb engravings, and their costumes mimicked, vaguely, what was held to be the style of the Egyptians, although it must be doubted that any Egyptian danced in their unique phrenetic fashion.
The male dancers’ stage attire was a long, sometimes a short, cotton nightshirt the colour of a well-used shroud, and a red fez perched on their heads. When they performed in Berlin in the 1930s, their Egyptian chemises had very short skirts, which prompted Göbbels’ expostulation that their exposed legs were weakening the morals of the Hitler Youth despite the Deutsche Jungvolk’s uniform having little black shorts and lederhosen. Perhaps it was the case that while brevity was the soul of wit for the British Troupe, it was the soul of witlessness for the Minister of Propaganda.
A still from their famous dance and they do seem to be up close and personal!
Wilson and Keppel sported moustaches reminiscent of continental mashers, but Betty always appeared clean-shaven. Their doleful performance, emphasised by their skinny limbs and vacant faces, rocked theatregoers in the aisles, and they were warmly received wherever they went, except in Berlin!
Most are surprised to learn that their signature dance was set to Luigini's Ballet Egyptien.’The music fitted their 'ballet' perfectly. It was a series of moves and stylised paroxysms based on poses from the wall carvings of Egyptian Osiritic texts.
Betty added glamour, and Wilson and Keppel added absolute seriousness, which added to the hilarity. As the years went by, their entertainment became even more amusing as the gentlemen grew older and became more gaunt. Betty, by contrast, remained ever a young pulchritudinous beauty, because every few years she was changed for a younger model. In all there were three Bettys who were grandmother, mother, and daughter.
Wilson Keppel and Betty are among the stars of my younger life, because theirs was one of the greatest gifts that one human being can bestow on another – the Gift of Laughter. In the post-war years when the hard bite of austerity had not loosed its iron grip on the throats of the British people, a
shilling’s worth of side-splitting hilarity was better than a tonic, cheaper than a week at Blackpool, and less daunting than a visit from the doctor.
It is sad that the frantic trio is not better remembered. There is very little information available about these music hall greats. I keep their picture on my wall to remind me that genius has been among us, and I have seen it, and wonder what might have been different if Frau Göbbels had not put so much starch in her husband’s shirt the night he was privileged to witness our secret weapon, the laughter makers supreme, Wilson, Keppel, and Betty!
Page updated : 29th December 2016