In her new collection of stories, Deborah Tyler-Bennett gives a lively evocation of 1940s Music Hall, both on and off the stage

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Turned Out Nice Again
Deborah Tyler-Bennett
Kings England Press
ISBN 978-1-909548-14-5
£10.99

Turned Out Nice Again describes itself as a book of “Stories Inspired by the Music Hall Tradition”.  Set mostly in the 1940s, it is essentially confined to the tail-end of Music Hall in Britain – but it is none the worse for that.  In fact many readers will be able to remember the stars of that era or at least be able to find film clips of them on the internet.  And there are also a few aides-memoires in the book’s illustrations, based on sheet music covers and theatrical posters.

The book consists of a sequence of linked short stories and sketches which do not deal exclusively with the world of variety.  Indeed, sometimes the only connection with show business is through an overheard mention of a programme on the wireless (I particularly enjoyed being reminded of Valentine Dyall as “The Man in Black” introducing episodes of Appointment with Fear).  The large cast of characters does include some (fictitious) stage performers but also extends to their family and friends – some of whom are actively hostile to the entertainment profession.

Over half the stories are narrated by Beryl Potter, a teenage girl whose Uncle Billy is part of a successful double act calling themselves “Cooper & Bean, The Boys Most Likely to …”.  The book begins with Beryl growing up in wartime Mansfield where Uncle Billy is a somewhat peripheral figure alongside Beryl’s Mum, her indomitable (but ultimately tender hearted) Grandwem and their friends and neighbours.  Subsequently, however, we find Beryl travelling with her Uncle Billy; and the stories are much more concerned with backstage life punctuated by occasional trips home to Mansfield.

The stories range from broad comedy to elements of noir and Bennett manages the transitions very well.  A comic episode in a spiritualist meeting is balanced by more serious word-of-mouth ghost stories  that Beryl picks up, like alleged sightings of a child murderer with his little victim flour white, her holding his hand.   Beryl also tells us about her infatuation with Courtney Cooper, Uncle Billy’s stage partner.  In addition, we meet the mysterious “Mintoe Man” and hear of a Mansfield analogue of the Turin shroud.  Other narrative voices take over in the middle sections of the book to reveal various backstage romances and betrayals and also to give a few glimpses of Billy and Courtney on stage.  Part of Billy’s act involves a him peddling dodgy black market items from a suitcase; and suitcases appear again in the offstage narrative.  One turns up with very surprising contents in a seaside boarding house and others figure in an unexpectedly dark plot line about a serial killer.

The book makes a very enjoyable read.  The stories are largely event-driven and characterisation has mostly to be inferred from what is said and done.   But the action and dialogue are well-observed (and could even form the basis for a TV drama series?).  Most of the stories stand quite well on their own – indeed many have previously appeared in magazines – but they benefit from being read together.  In order to help me keep track of the large number of characters who pop in and out of episodes (and who engage in a certain amount of partner-swapping), I did feel that a preliminary table of dramatis personae might have been useful; but this is only a minor quibble.  Another small confusion of names (that is amusing rather than annoying) arises because “George Formby” and “Wee Georgie Wood” sometimes refer, respectively, to a budgie and a small dog.

Bennett offers us a good many enjoyable, and presumably authentic, slices of Mansfield eccentricity and mannerism.  Beryl, for instance, is quite surprised to discover that in other parts of the country swapping pills and taking dog medicine wasn’t considered usual.  Elsewhere she seems to be in possession of a little too much information for one so young when she informs us that, because of shaky floorboards, as Alf shouted “GOAL!” (love-making’s customary climax) the bed sank ten inches.  Bennett is also a poet and can conjure up good images.  An inept musician produces shell-shocked notes from a piano bulging with plaintive cats; someone’s downturned mouth resembles a wilted tulip; a small dog resuscitated is said to be just like Lazarus, only wi’ fur.

Many of the adventures and misadventures of Bennett’s characters remain unresolved by the end of the book and the one romantic happy ending is a quite unexpected one.  But that, after all, may be a better reflection of real life than that found in the lyrics of popular songs.  And as I followed the ups and downs of Bennett’s lively narrative I enjoyed making another comparison with reality by trying to match up the fictitious performers with the real-life entertainers on whom they might have been based.  For what they are worth, my own speculations include the observation that Billy Bean’s ‘spiv’ act has some similarities with that of Arthur English; and the routine by Marlene Rees and ‘Janet’ seems to owe a lot to Hylda Baker and ‘Cynthia’.  Other readers may form their own theories about the inspiration behind the brief episodes involving Bernie Laycock or Big Frank Kelly.  In the text itself, Courtney Cooper is more than once compared with Max Miller and with Clark Gable. Could the latter possibly be a knowing sideways reference to Bennett’s own first poetry collection ..?

.                                                                                                                 Michael Bartholomew-Biggs