Peter Skellern – co-performer of songs of gentle mockery

I was sorry to hear of Peter Skellern’s death. I knew of him only from his partnership with Richard Stilgoe. Together they wrote and performed wry, gently humorous songs with good tunes. This is not really about Skellern (there is an excellent Guardian obituary here for that) but an excuse to rummage through some of the Stilgoe and Skellern songs.

whodareswinsWe saw their show Who Plays Wins at the Vaudeville Theatre in the autumn of 1985. Perhaps my strongest memory of the show is not of the songs (that came from listening to them over and over again from the CD – they are on iTunes here and you can buy the CD from Amazon here) but of the pair of them sharing two pianos, sitting back to back on a bench between the pianos with one hand each on each piano, playing a rag.

Stilgoe and Skellern could be spiky, but no-one got hurt. I don’t suppose, however, that Clive Sinclair much appreciated their review of his electric car, the Sinclair C5:

All the girls will stand and stare
When you’re sitting in your Sinclair
Hey, hey, hey, look over there
Who’s the wally in the grey bathchair?

…and it is doubtful that James Galway much appreciated the song which made fun of his eye condition nystagmus

Why do my eyes go from left to the right?
I’m looking for the camera which has got the little light on
Checking to see that I’m in the limelight…

The only song from that show which you can easily find on Youtube is of a different kind – a serious song with a political message. By God we’re good now has a choir from a now-closed pit. Made redundant, the only thing they have left to do is sing.

By God, we’re good now
In every way
We’ve time to practice
Each bloody day

The government by watching as pit and factory fails
Has helped to raise the standard of male-voice choirs in Wales
……
They filmed us with the pit wheels all motionless behind
Passionately minding where previously we mined
…..
By God, we’re good, but
We’d sell our soul
To stop this singing, and dig some coal.

Remarkably, the whole of a later show, A Quiet Night Out, is linked to from the Guardian Skellern obituary My favourite is Joyce the Librarian (at 00.13:36), a sad tale of a spinster who fell for a handsome user of her library:

Joyce the Librarian (strict vegetarian), forty and living with mum
Wears sandals and glasses, attends evening classes, and wonders if romance will come

Handsome George comes to the library. Joyce falls for him but:

…she didn’t know where to start so..
With growing abhorrence, she read DH Lawrence to glean a few ideas
Which she turned down flat – she couldn’t do that, not in a million years

Eventually:

Perhaps because latterly she’d read Lady Chatterley, something went snap in her head
She gave herself gladly, wildly, madly that night to George in his bed
And then just as she’d feared, George disappeared, some other librarian to woo
Now there’s a sob in her voice, for both book, and Joyce, are a fortnight overdue.

The same show has (at 01.09.47) a song whose sentiments will be familiar to anyone at any traditional Church of England church when the new vicar wants us all to exchange greetings with our neighbour and mutter some ritual during the service. The Peace, it is called, and when it happened at our church (in the days when I went and before the vicar sensed the near-universal hostility) I always got quickly to my knees and buried my head in my hands to give the impression that I was lost in prayer. Mrs Beamish has a more direct approach:

Don’t you dare shake hands with me
Or turn to me and smile
You’ll wake up spitting teeth out, face downward in the aisle
Don’t whisper “Peace be with you”, this is the CofE
You go just one inch too far, you’ll end up wearing that guitar
One false step in my direction and you’ll need to believe in the Resurrection.

A certain type of church-goer, ramblers, folk singers – all sorts of worthy middle-class types came in for gentle mockery from Stilgoe and Skellern. And I am still listening to their songs 32 years after I first heard them.

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About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
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