Man walked on the moon for the first time in 1969. It seemed to be the summit of scientific endeavour, and promised much for the future. Jamaican entertainment, too, was making its way out of the foothills towards its own summit – the first national Caribbean Music Festival – and I was there to publicise and report.
BIM & BAM – FROM JAMAICA WITH LOVE
L.E. Campbell Travel
Vining Street, Brixton
Summer and autumn 1969
A new magazine came out in the late-1960s. That was JOFFA, published by the same people who ran the beauty contest of the same name. While L.E. (Lloyd Enwright) Campbell headed the operation, namesake Theo Campbell was the editor. Theo was the veteran of RAF wartime service and a pioneer of the UK West Indian press.
Here I renewed my friendship and working relationship with Sheila Brown. And here, too, for the first time I met Ian Hall, the flamboyant classical musician and – well, unless you know Ian, it is difficult to describe him. He was the nephew of Rudolph Dunbar and drifted in and out of community activities over the next forty years. His most distinctive feature is his Oxford accent which is so different to what is expected of a black man. I much enjoyed conversations with Ian, but he tended to go on and on, especially on the telephone. So I wasn’t always punctual in returning his messages left on the answerphone until I had the time to spare. One such message was still outstanding when I ran into Hall at a reception at the Ghana High Commission.
“Ian, I hope you didn’t think that I was ignoring you …..” I started to say with some embarrassment.
“Why not?” he replied with disarming humour. “Everybody else does”.
The burning issue for JOFFA in the lead up to 1970 was the forthcoming South African cricket tour. The country’s practice of racial apartheid was intolerable to our readers. The tour was cancelled, but not before an abundance of words had been written in our pages.
Tottenham Court Road
In the same month that politicians Michael Manley and P.J. Patterson flew out of Britain, comedians Bim & Bam (otherwise Ed Lewis and Alton Wynter), and the former’s wife and partner in performance, Hyacinth Clover, came in. In its own way their visit was every bit as significant. The first pairing went back to eventual recognition and electoral triumph, for them “better did come”: the other stayed on to sadness and disillusion.
I had known of the particular affection in which their compatriots held Bim & Bam from the moment I had started to move among Jamaicans. Everyone had a favourite Bim & Bam joke or anecdote. So when the Weekly Gleaner asked me to cover the first concert of their British tour I wasn’t surprised by the enthusiasm of the audience. However I was surprised by the extent of that enthusiasm and the size of the crowd. Jamaicans living here had a chance to relive memories from “home” and let their children see what those stories were all about. The comedians were very good, both visually and in their dialogue. They were obviously happy performing to their fans.
Winter, early 1970
The picture was different a few months later. At the request of a mutual friend I called on the duo at their lonely room on Terrapin Road in Balham. The crowd and the happiness were gone. The sight that greeted me as I opened the door was as cold and depressing as the weather outside. They were huddled over a paraffin stove trying to keep warm. The laughter gone from his eyes, Bim looked up mournfully in greeting. Bam, as if frozen to the sofa, stared ahead, and Hyacinth Clover seemed to be in a world apart.
What could have gone wrong in such a short time?
My personal friendship with Bim had started with their second concert which was at the Royal Commonwealth Society just off Trafalgar Square. I’m not a great fan of comedians, any comedians. It isn’t my favourite form of entertainment. Although I was impressed by their professionalism, in the normal course of events Bim & Bam would have slipped quickly to the back of memory. Ed Lewis, however, was a man you could not forget.
Eric Clarke (known affectionately as Sleepy), and the band he led, the Debonairs, provided the musical backing to the tour. He had established his name as a trumpeter back in Jamaica before coming to London in 1964. Encouraged by Laurel Aitken, and several local businessmen, Eric founded the Debonairs big band which played at functions across the board from High Commission events, lodge dinner/dances, to public house and nightclub gigs. The band was essentially Jamaican compared to that of Ivan Chin, which had the near-monopoly of such occasions until then, and offered a wider Caribbean perspective. Clarke had long experience of working with his country’s leading musician and his knowledge of the industry was second to none. He continued to develop that role through the many changes in entertainment and in the community until well into the next century.
Eric took me into the changing-room to meet the duo between acts in the programme. Bim got up immediately from the newspaper he was reading to greet me. He had heard of my name, but, and here was some embarrassment, he had expected to meet a black man. Bim looked at me and for once he struggled for words.
“I was expecting somebody … somebody … somebody ….. stouter” he gasped.
Indeed at that time I was skinny. If only he could have seen me in these later years!
From then on I made a point of dropping into see them for the rest of the tour. They shared the programme and the changing-room with other leading artistes including singer Totlyn Jackson, comic actor Charles Hyatt, whose routed included the risqué skit of a man dropping his handkerchief in Montego Bay, Eric Clarke, and King Bee (real name Egbert Washington), a Nat King Cole impersonator. There was always a capacity crowd.
At the Porchester Hall neither trumpeter Clarke nor vocalist King Bee would let the other close the evening. As soon as one had finished his “final” piece the other stepped forward for one more number, and so it continued until the plug on the electricity supply had to be pulled out. Before they went home Bim & Bam also performed at the first Caribbean Music Festival.
44 Kilmorie Road
When the tour ended I had assumed that they had gone back to Jamaica. There were other things for me to do, other assignments to cover, and I gave little thought to the idea that Bim & Bam might still be in the country. Eric Clarke and Wilfred Barrows, an active figure in Jamaican life who founded the United Amalgamated Fraternal Association, called on us with a sad tale.
Because of the comedians’ popularity the tour had been extended but the new arrangements had not gone well. Mr Barrows did not go into details. In short, Bim & Bam had fallen on hard times and were without the finances to return home. Worse than that, they weren’t in a position to feed themselves properly. He asked Hopelyn and myself, as he was asking other friends, if we could help out by accepting Bim, Bam and Hyacinth Clover into our home for occasional meals. We were pleased and flattered to be able to help.
That’s how I came upon them at Balham. One evening shortly afterwards they accompanied by train to our home, then in Forest Hill. Bim was amazed by the amount of rail traffic passing through Clapham Junction station. Over dinner and into the evening he entertained us with memories of Jamaica, his concern for the present, and plans for the future. However dire the situation may have been, he was optimistic that things would turn out well.
Bim did not say much about their plight. Several times he asked me to confirm that the shows had been well-attended. I could do that readily because the crowds had been really big. He indicated, too, what had gone wrong with the arrangements for the tour. The agreement signed with the promoters had promised to pay them a percentage of the money taken for admission to the shows. Because the crowds were large, to the point of overflowing, they had expected to receive a substantial fee.
Instead, there was nothing. The organisers confirmed that payment would be on the basis of money taken “at the gate”, and for that very little money had been collected. The greater part of the attendance had been by invitation with free admission. The promoters had made their substantial profit from the sale of food and, above all, drink at these events. Takings at the bar had no part in what was promised to the artistes.
Bim smarted that they had been betrayed in the spirit, if not the wording, of the agreement. While saying little, Bam and Hyacinth Clover felt the same way. Nevertheless, the efforts made by friends on their behalf was beginning to bear fruit. Bim was looking forward to Mr Pringle, a lawyer with the High Commission, visiting them with some good news. When Hopelyn and myself returned from a holiday in Germany that spring, we found that Bim & Bam had left for Jamaica while we were away.
Ed Lewis continued to correspond with me sporadically until his sudden death some five to six years later. These serious-minded letters from a man who obviously thought deeply about his profession were in direct contrast to his public persona as a median in colourful attire enjoying outrageous jokes and pranks. When his son, Justin Lewis, was compiling a documentary film about his father, he asked me to relate my favourite Bim & Bam story. I found it difficult to give an adequate reply because I think of te an more as Ed Lewis, the man, than as Bim, the entertainer.
The Bim & Bam tour was a watershed of Jamaican entertainment in the United Kingdom. Whereas most of the popular artistes hitherto, Millie Small notwithstanding, had been those either based in Jamaica or who had established themselves first in that country, UK West Indians came to dominate the industry afterwards. The sae could be said of the general political and social context of the community. Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech two years earlier meant that Jamaicans had to dig in to cement their right to be here (and to be accepted as British).
Now that’s where they were – in the land of their present if not of their heritage. The Bim & Bam tour was the last hurrah of an age of looking-back.
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