Too Naked for the Nazis
Alan enjoying his prize of a bottle of Château Ramage la Batisse 2009
The Weekly News - 6th August 2016
It's nice to be associated with a success story and to be able to share it - here's a nice little tribute to Weilson, Keppel and Betty from Alan's own pen "Hugely honoured that Wilson, Keppel & Betty have been immortalised in Phi's Independent crossword of last Friday. My biography (Too Naked for the Nazis) was used to source Richard Murdoch's song parody to their play-on music Ballet Egyptien, which provided some of the solutions: "SABOTAGE at Poole in DORSET, CAMOUFLAGE my uncle's CORSET." The trio are also named in the top and bottom perimeters and the right perimeter reading upwards."
It took me an age to find 'Betty' so thought I'd add the solution in case no-one else could see it, even with Alan's help!
As Alan and I have both worked for the BBC at various times - let's start with them, especially as they have placed the review in their 'Arts and Entertainment' section - and why wouldn't they?
Author Alan Stafford had nominated his own book for the award run by The Bookseller magazine. It beat Reading from Behind: A Cultural History of the Anus, with 24.8% of the public vote compared to 24.3%.
Stafford does not win a cash prize, but instead receives "a passable bottle of claret".
His book is a biography of musical hall act Wilson, Keppel and Betty - said to be "the inspiration for the Chuckle Brothers" - while Reading from Behind is an academic text. Other works on the seven-strong shortlist for the prize, now in its 38th year, included Transvestite Vampire Biker Nuns from Outer Space and Soviet Bus Stops.
Stafford, from Ipswich, said: "I'm hugely grateful to everyone who took the trouble to vote for me. A good title not only tells the public what the book's about, sometimes it tells the author too.
"Too Naked For The Nazis pinpoints the central event of my book - when a trio of comedy Egyptian sand dancers incurred the wrath of the Nazi high command by a blatant exposure of hairy legs. "It was when the title started provoking more comment than the book that I began to appreciate its worth."
- Reading the Liver: Papyrological Texts on Ancient Greek Extispicy, by William Furley and Victor Gysembergh (an academic study on sacrificial sheep)
- Too Naked for the Nazis, by Alan Stafford (a biography of a musical hall troupe)
- Paper Folding with Children, by Alice Hornecke and translated by Anna Cardwell (origami for children)
- Transvestite Vampire Biker Nuns from Outer Space: A Consideration of Cult Film, by Mark Kirwan-Hayhoe
- Behind the Binoculars: Interviews with Acclaimed Birdwatchers, by Mark Avery and Keith Betton
- Soviet Bus Stops, by Christopher Herwig (photographs of bus stops from the former Soviet Union)
- Reading from Behind: A Cultural History of the Anus, by Jonathan Allan
Horace Bent, administrator of the prize, said it had been "the closest Diagram Prize race of all time". He said: "Too Naked For The Nazis is arguably the perfect Diagram winner, as if concocted by a team of crack Diagramologists - our voters penchant for nudity goes back to the very first winner, 1978's Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice, while the Third Reich has been represented by titles such as How Green were the Nazis (2007). Mr Stafford has brought these two strands together in one irresistible package."
The Booksellers' Tom Tivnan added: "What is interesting is the trend for authors in the last couple of years to nominate their own books and then going out and actively campaigning for the prize; Mr Stafford's Twitter electioneering for his book bordered on an Ahabian monomania. "And why not? I think writers have recognised that winning the Diagram could mean a boost in sale of tens, maybe even as much as a hundred copies. High stakes indeed. More likely, they are probably after the free bottle of plonk we give to the nominator."
Article and images (excepting the Palladium poster) reproduced from the East Anglian Daily Times
l to r - Keppel, Betty, Wilson's 1935 movie 'In Town Tonight'
As an experienced TV and radio scriptwriter Alan Stafford knows how to make you laugh. Now he’s written his first book, born out of his fascination for the golden age of music hall. He tells Andrew Clarke all about the international adventures of Wilson, Keppel & Betty
For Suffolk-based professional script writer Alan Stafford laughter is his business. Happily it’s also his hobby. Now his love of laughter and his fascination with the traditions of comedy have led him to publish his first book – a biography of one of music hall and variety’s most successful acts, Wilson, Keppel & Betty.
Although Wilson and Keppel were hugely successful home-grown comedians who wowed British audiences for more than four decades, in one form of another, bizarrely they established their reputation playing in Europe and America before making their mark on British audiences. In a departure from the norm their first appearance in the UK was at the prestigious London Palladium, the pinnacle of a variety performer’s career, not the starting place. By this point Wilson, Keppel & Betty were old hands at the game,but it was a game that they had yet to play in Britain’s theatres.
For Alan, it was the allure of their name and the fact that they had established themselves in an unusual way that seduced him into writing their story. “Wilson, Keppel & Betty have a double recognition factor. Everyone knows the name. If you want to conjure up memories of a bizarre variety act people always come up with Wilson, Keppel & Betty. Then they have the visual thing going for them. Everyone remembers the sand dance. These bizarre Egyptian characters skipping and shuffling across the stage. It was brilliant and kept them going for decades.”
Alan Stafford with his book about music hall entertainers Wilson, Keppel & Betty
But they didn’t just play to English audiences. They were regulars in Paris and the risqué night-spots of pre-war Berlin.
The title of Alan’s book Too Naked for the Nazis refers to the fact that one night while performing in Berlin, Nazi deputy-leader and Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goring was in the audience with propaganda minister Josef Gobbels and they were appalled at the lewd nature of their act. “They were performing an act in 1936 called Cleopatra’s Nightmare and I think it was the fact that they were dressed as Egyptians that really offended the Nazis, rather than Betty’s skimpy costumes. I think it was the whole thing about glorifying lower races that so appalled them. I think that they made a quick exit from Berlin and found life more relaxed in the nightclubs and cabarets in Paris and in the music halls of Britain.”
Lancashire-born Jack Wilson and his Irish friend Joe Keppel both started out as clog dancers and met up in Australia in 1920 after both having served in the Royal Navy during the First World War. “They met when they were both performers in Colleano’s Circus. Although they arrived in this country as a fully-formed act and top of the bill, in reality it was a long hard struggle. After Australia, the pair then travelled to Canada where they toured as a comedy tap dancing act and then slipped over the border into the United States playing in vaudeville, which is where they met Betty Knox, who helped to take their act to the next level. Betty provided the sex factor, to put it bluntly, and with Betty they realised they needed a new act and so they introduced the comedy sand dance at the end of the 1920s and it was a huge hit.”
Betty, Keppel and Wilson do the Dance of the Seven Veils
Alan said that before joining the act, Betty Knox had been a face in the chorus line. She wasn’t a great dancer, it was unlikely she would have gone on to a forge a solo career as a dancer, but she had great presence on stage. In line-up of dancing girls she was the one you looked at and Wilson and Keppel obviously looked and knew they had spotted a good thing. With Betty Knox joining the act in the late 1920s, suddenly the act became a hot property. “Egyptology was in the air. It was the age of Tutankhamen. The world was sending teams of archaeologists to Egypt to discover the tombs of these exotic ancient rulers. It was the perfect act for the time. It was both silly and timely.”
Alan Stafford with his book
During his research Alan discovered that Betty was quite the adventurer. She ran away from home at 16 to quite literally join the circus as a dancer, before becoming a vaudeville dancer. When the act settled in Britain in the 1930s, Betty found she had a talent for writing and for many years had a column in London’s Evening Standard describing the quirks of life in London from an American’s perspective. In 1941 she retired from the act to become the Evening Standard’s war correspondent and eventually covered the Nuremburg War Trials.
Betty’s role in the act was replaced by her daughter Patsy who stayed with the act until 1950. “Everyone thinks that they changed Betty’s every couple of years but from 1928 to 1950 there were only two. It was during the last ten years that there was succession of different Betty’s as they toured the world. “Their’s was an extraordinary story which is what drew me in. I love the fact that they never played Britain until 1932 when they topped the bill at the Palladium and when they went back in 1950 they shared the billing with Frank Sinatra.”
Omigosh - I didn't think I would find this! Wilson, Keppel and Betty sharing the billing with the one and only Francis Albert Sinatra (I'm swooning!)
He said one of the reasons that they lasted so long was that not only were they funny but there act was so simple that it could be performed in front of the curtain while big scene changes were taking place for another act on the bill. Wilson and Keppel finally retired the act in 1962 after a performance in Great Yarmouth.
For Alan, who has written gags for Roy Hudd in News Huddlines for many years, as well as for The Two Ronnies, the writing of the book was a true labour of love, in many ways reminiscent of his radio drama Hoffnung - Drawn To Music, which charted the life of musical humourist Gerard Hoffnung, and starred Matt Lucas, Gina McKee and Hugh Bonneville.
“Humour is a great restorative and it’s easy to find great performers from the past who are incredibly funny and it’s rewarding to help keep them in the public eye.”
The trio in USA 1929
Well they may not have backed Alan - but they wrote a good balanced review and give us all the best link to You Tube to have a look at the 1933 version of the 'Sand Dance' -
Biography of variety act Wilson, Keppel and Betty sees off Reading from Behind: A Cultural History of the Anus to take Diagram award.
Too Naked for the Nazis has nosed ahead of Reading from Behind: A Cultural History of the Anus to be named the oddest book title of the year.
The Bookseller’s annual Diagram prize, which has been running since 1978, rewards books not for their content, but for the strangeness of their title. Won in previous years by the scarily-specific Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers, the seemingly instructive How to Poo at Work and the eyebrow-raising Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories, this year Alan Stafford’s Too Naked for the Nazis triumphed in the public vote. A biography of the lives of Wilson, Keppel and Betty, an eccentric music hall trio known for a “sand dance” routine performed in Egyptian costume, which scandalised Nazi leaders in 1930s Berlin, Too Naked for the Nazis was originally going to be called Walk Like Three Egyptians.
“It’s very difficult coming up with a title,” said Stafford. “I came up with Too Naked for the Nazis because it’s quite central to what the book is about. In 1935, they were dancing in Berlin, and the story goes that the Nazi high command objected to their sand-dancing act because of the nudity involved – Wilson and Keppel’s bare legs.”
He submitted his book for the prize himself, and pronounced himself delighted to have won the traditional “passable bottle of claret”, which goes to whoever submits the winning entry.
“People kept saying to me that it was a good title, and I was aware of the Diagram prize. I thought if I don’t put it in, and someone else does, I’ll get nothing,” he said. “Wilson, Keppel and Betty were not a serious act – they were very much in the spirit of the Diagram, they were an act that bemused people through the years.”
The Bookseller’s features editor Tom Tivnan said that Stafford had actively campaigned for his win. “Mr Stafford’s Twitter electioneering for his book bordered on an Ahabian monomania. And why not?” said Tivnan. “I think writers have recognised that winning the Diagram could mean a boost in sale of tens, maybe even as much as a hundred copies. High stakes indeed. More likely, they are probably after the free bottle of plonk we give to the nominator.”Stafford, who writes comedy and documentary for radio, said he had been fascinated with the trio for many years, particularly with Betty Knox, who went on to become a war reporter after she left the variety act, reporting from Normandy and the Nuremberg trials. “But there was very little out there about them,” he said. So the author combed through newspaper libraries to find out what he could about the act, a Radio 4 documentary eventually putting him in contact with someone whose father had stood in when one of the trio fell ill during the 1930s. “He had memories of them. One thing led to another and I made contact with three women who had been ‘Betty’ in the act, so gradually these people became real people to me,” said Stafford. “For me, it was a story I was passionate to tell. But when I touted it around agents, even the ones who were aware of the act thought it wasn’t a risk they wanted to take.”
He ended up at publisher Fantom Films, who he said were “small but enthusiastic”, and expressed the hope that winning the Diagram might mean he could “go into a bookshop and see it there”.
The Bookseller said that Too Naked for the Nazis’ win was the closest it had ever seen: the competition is decided by public vote, with Stafford’s title taking 24.8%, and Dr Jonathan Allan’s Reading from Behind: A Cultural History of the Anus 24.3%. Transvestite Vampire Biker Nuns from Outer Space: A Consideration of Cult Film was in third place, with Soviet Bus Stops fourth, and Reading the Liver: Papyrological Texts on Ancient Greek Extispicy in fifth place. “When future historians write about 2016, they will inevitably look at two seismic events: the closest Diagram prize race of all time, and the election of President Trump which led to the downfall of western civilisation,” said the Bookseller’s diarist, Horace Bent.
“Until that dire time, we can celebrate a worthy winner from one of the strongest Diagram shortlists in recent memory. Too Naked for the Nazis is arguably the perfect Diagram winner, as if concocted by a team of crack Diagramologists – our voters’ penchant for nudity goes back to the very first winner, 1978’s Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice, while the Third Reich has been represented by titles such as How Green were the Nazis (2007). Mr Stafford has brought these two strands together in one irresistible package.”
Not one to boast but since this is my website why not? Alan did credit me in his book so here it is and below is a small article I have written for the Hucknall Dispatch 'InDispatches' section - we all know I'm no stranger to being published there so we'll see if I merit the Easter edition - watch this space.
Yes, I know it should be J Anna to make it perfect - but it was the surprise inclusion that was really great!
A long time ago I read somewhere that ‘coincidences are signposts’ and wondering, to where, exactly? In recent years I’ve discovered that they can take you anywhere and here’s one I’d like to share with you:
As a child my life, obviously, was heavily influenced by my parents. Television, in particular, was the domain of my father and as a result, we watched what he watched. My father had made Great Britain his home after the war and with the exception of the News most of his viewing consisted of escapist ‘nonsense.’ My father was a war hero, he had voluntarily exiled himself from his native land to start a new life in the allied country he had fought so valiantly for in Monte Cassino and other arenas of World War II. To him, peace meant peace of mind as well as safe surroundings. He could lose himself in the programmes he chose to watch.
'Sunday Night at the London Palladium' was a programme never to be missed! I’m fairly certain the leggy Tiller Girls had a lot to do with it, but one variety act, more than any other always had him captivated – that remarkable and unique trio – ‘Wilson, Keppel and Betty’. I grew to love them every bit as much as he did and was always disappointed if they did not feature. I loved everything about them, the music, the jerky movements that mimicked the hieroglyphs, the soft sound of the sand shuffling beneath their feet, their moustaches, their fezs, Betty’s dance of a thousand veils, the Sphinx and Pyramid backdrop – I could watch their antics over and over!
Fast forward to 2011 and I noticed that there was going to be a radio programme about Wilson, Keppel and Betty on Radio 4. I was determined not to miss it as I hoped I might find out a bit more about my heroes of yesteryear. I have a website where I indulge in showcasing all my interests and had already devoted a section to WKB starting with a scanned article from the Daily Mail dated December 2010. I’d deliberately held on to this clipping to keep reminding me to include them in the ‘Entertainment’ section.
(Not that I could forget – let’s face it WKB are imitated everywhere even if people don’t instantly twig to the fact – Morecambe & Wise lampooned them with Glenda Jackson, both ‘Dancing on Ice’ and ‘Strictly’ have used their imagery in the skating and dance routines. Madonna performed a routine, at the Superbowl, with more than a hint of the trios’ routine. And recently there has been a spate of ' Sand Dance' recreations on television as nostalgia for Vaudeville has escalated!)
As it happens, on the day the radio programme was due to be broadcast we were actually travelling down to Sywell, it was something that had been planned for a while so I decided I would try to listen to the programme, if possible, in the car. Luckily the signal was clear for most of the time and I relaxed and settled down to our ‘Babs’ (Windsor) narrating the story.
When I got home I transcribed the programme from the BBC iPlayer – I used to transcribe tapes for the BBC (coincidence?) back in the 1970s to supplement my salary. In all honesty it wasn’t really the sort of thing I wanted to do on a regular basis so I became an usherette at a West End theatre which paid more and gave me access to some very famous people. I was privileged (as all the staff were) to attend the first ever professional performance by Hinge & Bracket in the Royal Court ‘Theatre Upstairs’ (with coincidentally Ted (Edward) Brayshaw as their straight man - whom I'd worked with way back in my student days at Nottingham Playhouse). No-one really knew what to expect (we were actually there under ‘Doris’) and so enjoyed being part an absolute riot when the two ‘little old ladies’ came in and started giving out rock cakes with all the attendant gags! I digress – yes the BBC paid lousy money even with London ‘weighting’ but it was an interesting period in my life. One of the first tapes I transcribed was about the ‘Enigma’ machine before the general public became aware of it! I was chosen and trusted with this hush-hush task because apart from anything else, it had been noted that Polish was my first language. I was told to transcribe the tape verbatim, not to try to translate the name of the Enigma machine and after transcribing the tape, to write up a précis in English for the producer.
Back to WKB – I had originally decided to transcribe the programme to remind myself of the new content; then having done it I decided it would sit well on my website for others to share if they wished. I knew that I had made some errors but that was down to the diction and there was nothing I could do about that! Or could I?
I often receive e-mails from people who have found something on my site that they find interesting, intriguing or just want to know more and that enriches my personal experience no end. Imagine my surprise then, when the author of the radio piece contacted me, congratulated me on my ‘excellent’ transcription and asked me, in the nicest possible way, if it would help if he made a couple of suggestion/corrections. I was chuffed to bits that he had taken the time to contact me and told me where I had gone wrong – I hate inaccuracies and spelling errors. Alan went on to say that he had found my section devoted to WKB very interesting and that he had learned some new facts from me too – so over the next five years we exchanged and compared notes. Alan then announced he was going to write the definitive book – hooray, I thought, just what the world needs! If not the world, then just me! I appear to have an affinity with writers and authors and go out of my way to read everything I can about my favourite subjects.
I pre-ordered the book on Amazon (searching by author) and waited with bated breath for it to arrive. Thrillingly I hadn’t known what the title was going to be and fell about laughing when I first saw it – who else could call a book ‘Too Naked for the Nazis’ and get away with it? What’s that got to do with WKB? Well I knew instantly because, coincidentally (yes honestly), I had already devoted a section in the WKB story to ‘The Goebbels Story’ by Ronnie Bray which had featured in ‘Open Writing’. I had researched this after hearing it mentioned on Alan’s programme. It’s a very funny rendition of how the ‘close proximity’ of Wilson and Keppel during part of their dance was deemed offensive by Goebbels – oh really? As part of my write-up I doctored a picture of the lads and placed ‘little swastikas’ (remind you of anyone?) on their botties. Anyway, Ronnie Bray also contacted me to tell me how much he liked my site and gave me retrospective permission to use his copyrighted material! That was really nice of him because although I had credited him with being the source I had not added his copyright notice.
I must admit, I wondered how the title would appeal in this pc world of ours? It was, but a fleeting thought, because leafing through the credits in Alan’s book I suddenly found myself in the listings – wow! Why? Naturally I contacted Alan and thanked him for this unexpected gift – what fun, I thought, we’ve come full circle.
Not quite – earlier this month ‘The Bookseller’ ran their annual Diagram Prize to find the ‘Oddest Book Title of the Year.’ Alan entered himself, why shouldn’t he? and won! It was a close run thing and he now has a bottle of claret to enjoy.
Is this the end of the coincidences? No, it isn’t – I’m now associated with the ‘Oddest Book Title of the Year’ in addition to two other unique accolades – by association and working with the late great Gerald Savory I am also linked to the ‘Worst ever BBC Drama series ‘Churchill’s People’ and thanks to my boss Louis Marks (ex-Dr. Who) I became the ‘BBC Pygmy’ following a question asked by and then added to the review by Shaun Usher of the Daily Mail! (More about these exploits some other time!)
My thanks to all the men mentioned in this article and of course Betty!
Page updated : 29th December 2016