William Rushton: The Collected Works (Spark Records SRLM 102) 1971

rushtonby Paul Hamilton

It seems rather apt, in this age of Dumbinance and Soundbite Politics For Bitesize Brains, with every magazine and screen crammed with quarterwits screaming ‘Me! Me! Me!’, it is fitting that this record of modest excellence was collecting dust in a musty charity shop. Fitting because there’s no room for a William Rushton in 21st century culture. Where could he belong and be comfortable amongst this rampaging babbling rabble of Yoof micro-celebs hanging their knackers or knockers out, and the brigade of yuk-sters confusing vitriol for wit and dealing out Spite Entertainment?

Rushton (and one is tempted to call him “Willie”, such is the cosiness of his memory), in stark relief, was touchingly demure and self-effacing about his few but considerable talents that served him (and us) bloody well for three and a bit decades in the public eye. Most of us will remember his Oh-God-I’ve-Swallowed-A-Loudhailer-Again friendly roar of a voice from radio’s I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue. The more mature (read: obese, spare-haired and bedpanning to senility) amongst us fuzzily recall his chummy fun enlivening such codswallop as Celebrity Squares in the mid-1970s. The few amongst us who can read without recourse to dragging a finger along the page may have seen his cartoons (Williestrations, if you insist) that illuminated Auberon Waugh’s truthaches in Private Eye and The Daily Telegraph, and decorated many of Waugh’s Literary Reviews. Dead readers will confirm via oujia board Rushton’s showstopping contributions to That Was The Week That Was.

Tellingly, perhaps, all the above-cited examples of Rushton doing his bit to uplift the spirit and gladden the heart are as a team-player, a collaborator. Was there a genuine lack of ambition to hog centre-stage, to be solo in the spotlight? Was there an absence of megalomania or an abundance of modesty that fed an uncertainty that he couldn’t sustain an audience’s attention for more than a few scant minutes? (His brief, if explosive, appearances on both flexible and stiff Private Eye records - either in gasbag Tory MP Sir Bufton Tufton mode, or else shout-singing classic ditties like When You’re Feeling Glum, Stick A Finger Up Your Bum and the immortal Neasden ["Where the rissoles are deep freeze-den"] - are arguably outstanding due to their brevity.

The Collected Works Of is a solid hour of pure, undiluted Rushton; he authored all of the songs and sketches, and he plays all of the characters - a rotten animal impressionist, a semi-somnambulant folk singer who sees the various races of humankind as billiard balls and requests that we “stop potting blacks”, desperately with-it clergyman Jesus Q. Freak, a snivellling David Frost, a paranoid Harold Wilson (writing a crime novel wherein all the bad guys - who, purely coincidentally, share the same names as Wilson’s cabinet ministers - are bumped off), as well as his fine gallery of mad generals, pompous asses and complacent bores. If there is a fault with the record it’s that, without the restraining hand of a team captain, Rushton roars off, over-elaborating and over-extending his pieces. Rushton was an avid (some might say “rabid”) cricket buff and, if The Collected Works Of is his turn in the crease, he is going for sixes and boundaries, even aiming for the cake that Johnners and Blowers are tucking in to in the commentary box, when a single run will suffice. Needless to say, he ends up hitting a few wides. (All right, let’s up-stumps this simile and saunter back to the pavillion.

Rushton’s intense desire to entertain is actually counter-productive at times, and one can rightly wave the white flag and plead exhaustion from the non-stop barrage of ideas. For example! After the dismal folkie’s lament, Rushton as a prototype Kenny-Everett-Angry-Of-Mayfair phones up to complain about the possibility of the aforesaid vocalist being long-haired. In this assumption he is supported by his wife “who has a keen ear for horseflesh and has detected the presence of a beard. No small wonder there’s so much violence and bad language. Bloody hell, the chap should be horsewhipped! I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the fella was on the substances. Edward VII wasn’t; he had a damned good war. A damned good cod war, too - and a damned good cod-piece!”

You see what he’s doing there? He’s tried to build up a house of cards, intending them all to be Jokers, a nice, jolly, swaying edifice of loopiness - the sort of thing Peter Cook and very few others were adept at - but instead he demolishes the construction with random word associations. Shame. He had a terrific line in ludicrous outbursts and this record happily has a host of them. Savour these pearls:

  “The only word that’s stood by me through the years, man and boy, and made me what I am today is ‘Waiter!’”
“There’s only one way out for an Englishman… Where is it?”
“Can you hear me at the back? No? Thank God for that; I’m a martyr to flatulence.”

Can you hear him speaking those lines? Rushton possessed one of the great English voices, redolent of summer picnics, cricket on the village green, fat uncles snoozing in deckchairs, rhomboid-faced boys burning ants with a magnifying glass, heart-blasting cakes, scrumpy in kegs, idly drawing moustaches and breasts on the pics in dad’s Daily Express. A voice, in short, of a past you never lived but kind of wished you had. Rushton was Falstaffian, a man of merriment and honest, if not entirely innocent, pleasures. His characters stepped straight out of the pages of Wodehouse, Waugh (E.) and Willans, or bounded off the wireless aerial (his cod-military blusters are school of Bloodnok). What remains delightful about Rushton’s acting is its sheer exuberance and amateurishness. He never gets bogged down in any of that Method madness - it’s simply a matter of Stick A Moustache On Your Face, Begin Shouting And Hope For The Best.

Maybe my disparaging grumpiness earlier about the looseness of the scripts is ill-founded. Rushton was a font of vitality and fun, and to even begin to criticize what he did and how he did it is to do the chap down. He seemed pretty incapable of taking the world seriously for long - the closing song propounds that the world would be a better place “If Harold Wilson did the splits / Or Sir Alec Home would shout out ‘Tits!’ / [...] If Edward Heath would realise / His face was made for custard pies” - and maybe we should accord him similarly.

William Rushton, thanks for being exceedingly silly for so long.

This an edited version of an article which appeared in the Vinyl Obscura section Kettering 8

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