Saturday, 13 March 2021

Britain says "Goodbye" to an old and much loved actor called Trevor Peacock, who once told Mrs Brown "You've got a lovely daughter"

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Trevor, who has died at the age of 89, had a long career as a stage and small screen actor, screenwriter and songwriter and was best known and best loved for playing Jim Trott in the BBC TV comedy series, 'The Vicar of Dibley' alongside Dawn French, who has read this post and tweeted : ‘This is fab’ and it is ironical that much of Trevor's early life was dominated by church.

He was born in Edmonton, North London, eight years before the outbreak of the Second World War in the Spring of 1931, the son of 'Queenie' and Victor, a commercial traveller for a drugs company and lay minister of the Baptist Church. In addition, to preaching in the church, Trevor recalled : "My old man was the organist and" and to manually maintain the air pressure, "I was always pumping, pumping. Didn't have electricity in those days". "I used to peep out and watch the old girls and the faces they pulled when they sang hymns and so suddenly my Dad would shout : "Trevor. Blow, blow, blow". So quickly I would pump".

Trevor's was a musical background : "In singing hymns 3 or 4 times a week and without knowing it, I suppose one got to know about tunes; middle eights; when to sing loud; when to sing low; the whole idea of creating a tune. I'd never thought I'd use it". His father was a good pianist, as well as being an organist, as was Trevor's brother, while he himself played a mouth organ. He concluded that "music had been going into my head at an early age".

Victor was 9 and living in Tottenham when, in 1940, after the outbreak of War, the aerial bombardment of London started and during the Blitz, he and his family sought shelter in the White Hart Lane underground station. 

He recalled : "I did put on shows during the Blitz time and it was great fun and they, (his parents), thought : 'He's enjoying himself'. But I took it very seriously. I don't know why. I think, though, a church is rather like a theatre. There's music and there's a platform and a big audience". His street entertainment with his friends was well received and he said : “The local papers would print stories like :


He drew inspiration from the comedy his parents had taken him to see at the theatre and recalled : "I loved the Crazy Gang and I wrote to them asking for signed photographs. They sent me these huge black and white photographs. I wrote notes on all their scenes and how they could improve their comedy. I think I was only eight".

When it came to the big screen, Trevor recalled that his parents "didn't like to go into the cinema. In fact, I was banned from it because the cinema was wicked".

However, when he was about 12 years old he was shown how to get into his local cinema through a side door. He recalled : "I saw the screen for the first time. An enormous screen. Clark Gable was the great hero those days. There was his head, as big as the wall and I thought : 'This is for me. This is exciting'". 

Trevor set about replicating the cinema at home : "So I used to hang a sheet up and I'd say to the kids : "You come in from that side and you come in from that side" so it looked just like it did in the films "And you just talk" and they said : "What do we talk about ?" "Anything. It doesn't matter what you talk about". And that's the magic. I didn't think that I'd actually do it and be paid for doing it".

His passion for theatre continued when he took his place, in 1942, at Enfield Grammar School for Boys and he wrote and performed in school plays. The school had been founded at the time of Queen Elizabeth I and its motto was 'Tant Que Je Puis' / 'As Much As I Can'. The time he spent on dramatics clearly prejudiced his academic work and he recalled that when he was in the sixth form, with his final school certificate exams approaching, one master had said to him : "Peacock. You must do some work. Time to do some work. Never attending the classes. You must get to work". To which he'd replied : "Get to work ? I'm writing the plays. I paint the scenery. I'm playing the lead".

Having left school in 1949 he was called up for his two year's National Service in the Army where he served as Corporal Peacock, was a crack shot and, much to his pleasing, was put in charge of entertainment for the troops with whom he was stationed. After returning to civilian life, and without any discernable training, he spent several years teaching classes of at Cuckoo Hall Primary School in Edmonton, Middlesex. 

By the mid 1950s he'd put teaching aside and described these financially lean years as his "poverty in the East End". This was broken when he got his first break on the professional stage in 1956, when he and the future rock 'n' roll impresario, Jack Gold, teamed up to put on a comedy double act at the Windmill Theatre squeezed in between the scenes with female strippers. Trevor had met Jack through their mutual friend, the composer, Vernon Handly, who was at school with Trevor and became involved with Jack in the Dramatic Society at Oxford University after which he'd gone on to study at the London Academy of Music,.

Despite their different routes into show business, Trevor and Jack formed a fruitful partnership and worked together to produce scripts for BBC Radio and Jack's career prospered when he became a Light Entertainment Producer at BBC Television and in 1957 introduced rock 'n' roll to Britain with his innovative series aimed at the young audience called the '6.5 Special'. Jack employed Trevor to write the scripts for the weekly show. This was the time when, as Trevor recalled : "Me and my mate Jack Gold co-discovered these fellows called Cliff Richard and Adan Faith and we laboriously taught them how to sing and gyrate" 

In 1959 Trevor himself compered the BBC television series 'Drumbeat' which aired for 22 episodes and was the BBC's answer and rival to Jack's new ITV' series 'Oh Boy!' When the composer John Barry, who had worked with Trevor on 'Drumbeat', scored the film 'Beat Girl' in 1960, as a vehicle for Adam Faith, Trevor was employed to write two of the songs, including the hit, 'Made You'. The film, incidentally, featured a young actor called Oliver Reed. 

The following year Jess Conrad had success with Trevor's  'Mystery Girl'. Trevor also wrote 'Stick Around' for Billy Fury and 'That's What Love Will Do' for Joe Brown.   

With the coming of the 1960s Trevor concentrated more on his stage work. In 1961 he met the theatre director, Michael Elliott at a party and when he told him that he wanted to be an actor, Michael responded with : "You start next week at the Old Vic", which was where he was working on a series of plays as Artistic Director. These were the years when he played small stage roles and, for example, in 1962 was the old servant Grumio in 'The Taming of the Shrew', in the relaunched Open Air Theatre, in Regent’s Park. 

In addition, he started to make appearances in television drama and in 1963 had an opportunity to both act in and provide songs for an episode in The ITV Television Play called 'The Lads' and is seen here with Tom Courtenay. He recalled : "I started to act on TV and they made a television play about the troubles in Cyprus". It was 1963 and this focussed on the British Army role in the conflict on the Mediterranean Island between the Turks and the Greeks. He continued : "The play was about these soldiers : that you're there to keep the peace. No flirting with local girls. That's forbidden". It was important that the soldiers were entertained by music on their portable transistor radios. "There were three soldiers, Tom Courtenay, Johnny Thaw and myself". Trevor was asked to write six songs for the soldiers, Dobely, Barritt and Adams and was given a week to do it.

His method in song creation was to look for a good line in a play as a starting point, since he considered that all his songs were basically stories. He recalled : "I read this thing and it wasn't 'Mrs Brown' it was "'Mrs So and So' you have a lovely daughter" and that was in a line and as I drove to work I kept saying "Brown""Brown" "I like that and as I drove I sang : "Mrs Brown you've got a lovely daughter". No, no, no, no good. I suddenly found myself singing : "Mrs Brown you've got a lovely daughter. Lovely daughter" and so that's good, that's good".

Four of the songs were released on a 45 Decca vinyl record with Tom Courtenay singing his version of the song and if you listen carefully you can hear Trevor's distinctive voice audible in the refrain and which he described as "I helped him with some bits". It is  accompanied here with stills from Tom's film, 'Billy Liar', which was released in the same year and starring him and the beautiful Julie Christie, who doubles up as Mrs Brown's daughter. 

Trevor recalled about 4 months after the release of the record : "Someone rang me up and said "You've got a song in the American hit parade". They said : "Listen out and you'll hear it" and I said : "Which song ?" and they said : "Mrs Brown". So I said : "That's me and old Tom Courtenay. That can't be true."

This is the best-known version of the song by Herman's Hermits, who took it to Number One on the US Billboard Hot 100 in May 1965 and number one in Canada the month before. The Hermits had never released the track as a single in Britain. It was recorded as an afterthought, in two takes and featured Peter Noone with his Lancashire accented lead vocals, with backing vocals from Karl Green and Keith Hopwood. The band never dreamed it would be a single let alone hit number one in the USA. 

In 1963, when John Barry was given the task of creating the score for the next James Bond film he contacted Trevor and asked him to supply the lyrics which led Trevor to what he called his "greatest failure as a writer". He recalled the conversation with John : "I said : "What's it going to be called ?" He said : "Goldfinger". I said : "The song, it's called 'Goldfinger' ?" He said "Yes". For Trevor the problem was to find lyrics which rhymed with 'finger'. He said to himself : "Finger, inger, linger, twinger. There's no rhymes and at any rate he's a villain". He tried hard to write it but in the end, picked up the phone and said : "John, I can't find the lines for it" and he went to a much better writer than me, Leslie Bricusse, and he wrote 'Goldfinger' and Shirley Bassey sang it. So I missed out on that one". 

In 1964, the year 'Goldfinger' was shown at the cinema Jack Good contacted Trevor to ask him if he would take part in a programme for ITV featuring the Beatles. The Shakespearean sketch featuring, Trevor opened with an an image of the Globe Theatre, with Ringo Starr unfurling a flag with the legend 'Around the Beatles'. What followed was a humorous rendition of the 'play within a play', from 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', with Paul as Pyramus, John as his lover Thisbe, George as Moonshine, Ringo as Lion with Trevor in the role of Peter Quince.

The following year John Barry contacted Trevor to ask him to contribute the lyrics for his first stage musical, 'Passion Flower Hotel', which was to be performed first at the Palace theatre in Manchester and then the Prince of Wales Theatre in London. The musical was based on Rosalind Erskine’s 1962 novel about the girls at a boarding  school who hit upon the idea of losing their virginity by setting up a brothel to attract the boys of a nearby school. It starred Francesca Annis, Pauline Collins and Jane Burkin, who would later marry John and it was not a great success, running for only 148 performances. Trevor (left) was caught on camera at the theatre, in discussion with fellow lyricist Bob Russell, singer Johnny De little and John Barry (right).

Despite disappointment, Trevor, however, had the pleasure of hearing Barbra Streisand record his song ‘How much of the dream comes true’ on her 'Barbra Two' album in the same year.

When it came to his inspiration for 'Mrs Brown', Trevor recalled that the poet Shelley had written : '

'Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought' 

His "was a sad song about this bloke who loves the girl and she doesn't want him and it's sad and if you get the right minor key to sing it in, that's what works. It's amazing".

* * * * * * * * 

In acknowledgement to Mike D McGinty whose 2011 interview with Trevor provided substance and insight into his work and thinking.                                                 

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