HARRY & ME / 2004
begins with a video in which Robin re-enacts images from the show on Bedford
bandstand. The soundtrack is of a bizarre telephone conversation he made
to his old school asking if they have a copy of the Highway television
SOUND OF DIALLING
TONE /TOUCH TONE. RECORDED
Hello, this is
St Thomas More School. If you wish to report that your child is ill,
or unable to attend school, please press one. If you wish to arrange
a sports fixture with a member of the PE staff, please press two. If
you wish to speak to an operator, please press zero. Touch tone, recorded
St Thomas More School, can I help you?
Hi. Yeah, my name
is Robin Deacon, and I used to be a pupil at St Thomas More School,
several years ago. I wrote to the school, a couple of months ago I think
it was about an event I'd been involved with in the school choir when
I was a pupil there. It was when Harry Secombe's 'Highway' television
programme came to Bedford, and the school choir with filmed singing
with him on the bandstand on Bedford embankment. Do you know if you
received a letter regarding that at all?
Er...who did you
address it to?
It was just a general
one to the office, so maybe you wouldn't know either way.
I didn't see one
I have to say, did it go through to the headmaster then?
I'm really not
sure to be honest. Well the basic thrust of the letter was, I'm trying
to locate a copy of the programme, and I'm wondering if the school would
have it at all.
I wouldn't have
thought so now...um...was that when...Mr...Thingy was head of music,
he's gone hasn't he?
It was in 1989,
so it was quite a long time ago.
I very much doubt
they'd be a copy of anything left now to be honest. Have you tried...um...so
who did the programme?
Well, it was filmed
by Anglia television, and the school choir was part of it. I mean, I'll
explain what it's for. Since I've left the school, I'm working in performance,
and I'm doing a performance about childhood memory, and one of these
memories is me being part of the choir. You see the problem is, if I
don't find a copy, I'm going to have to film a reconstruction of the
event for the show, and it won't look right because it will just be
me on the bandstand, because obviously I don't know where the rest of
the school choir are going to be now. I suppose I could use some passers
by to fill in or something.
I'll just put
you though to Mrs Cooper, see if she can help you.
Ok, thank you.
Video still of 'passers by filling in'.
don't know if the person I've just been speaking to has explained what
I was talking about.
Yes she has, more
Do you know if
you've got any idea of where I can get a copy of the programme?
No, I haven't got
anything like that.
You see the problem
is...my school uniform doesn't fit me anymore. So it's all going to
look a bit strange. Because I'm nearly 30 years old now.
Sound of phone
being hung up.
Robin enters wearing a suit, walks centre stage to a microphone, and proceeds
to sing a rendition of the hymn 'All Creatures of Our God and King' very
badly. Halfway through this, it is revealed that Robin is actually miming,
as he steps away from the microphone to sip some water - the singing continues
as he does this. He then returns to the microphone to continue miming,
only this time, completely out of synch. The recording stops, and Robin
thanks the audience. He then sits behind a school desk on the stage.
Sir Harry Secombe,
famed for his work with the Goons has died aged 79. The performer died
in hospital in Guildford, Surrey, from prostate cancer with his wife,
Myra, at his bedside. Fellow Coon, Spike Milligan...(LONG PAUSE) fellow
Goon Spike Milligan paid tribute by saying: "I grieve for an unbelievable
friend." Sir Harry had suffered from health problems, including diabetes
and a stroke, and he announced his retirement from show business in
1999. During his last few months Sir Harry found his eyesight failing
and he had suffered some paralysis down his left side. The veteran comic
rose to prominence on BBC radio with his work on the Coon Show, THE
GOON SHOW and was knighted in 1981. The C...(LONG PAUSE) The Goon Show,
which also starred Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers was first broadcast
in 1949, and enjoyed a nine-year run. Sir Harry later became known as
a singer and frequently appeared at the London Palladium between 1956
to 1966. More recently, Sir Harry, a committed Christian, presented
the Sunday night religious program Highway. For those of you that aren't
familiar with the program Highway, its remit was to fill what is commonly
known as the Sunday afternoon 'God slot'. The show was peripatetic,
each episode consisting of a visit to a town, city or village in the
British Isles, exploring the faith and religious beliefs of the local
populace - each week, a different location.
The Bedford edition
of Highway was broadcast on 12th February 1989 on ITV at 6.40pm. The
program was made by Anglia Television, one of the regional subsidiaries
of the Independent Television network. You heard in my telephone conversation,
that I was a participant in the programme. But as you've also heard,
locating the actual footage of the show has proved to be exceedingly
difficult. But following a visit to the Bedfordshire County Council
Records Office, I was able to unearth a series of articles referring
to the event in the local newspaper, The Bedfordshire on Sunday. The
first references are to the arrival of Harry Secombe and his entourage...
Bedfordshire on Sunday clipping, 9/2/89
will be in Bedford next week filming Sir Harry Secombe's religious programme
As we can see,
the intention is to explore a wide range of aspects of life in Bedford
from a singularly multicultural perspective, with visits to a Pentecostal
Church and a Sikh Temple. There's even a bit of a secular twist with
a visit to 'Sweetings Nightclub'. And then of course, there's my connection,
my local Catholic school. Now I'm sure you're all anxious to see what
'the common man's hymn warbling equivalent of Songs of Praise' actually
looks like, but with no footage, we'll unfortunately just have to make
do with some of the journalists reactions that the programme elicited
after its broadcast.
The first example
is from John Balls Diary.
Robin picks up
a newspaper from desk and reads:
'I found yesterdays
Highway programme side-splittingly funny. The memory of Harry Secombe
leading the choir of St Thomas More School over the suspension bridge
frantically miming a hymn while trying not to fall base over apex will
be with me for a long time. He looked like an overweight pied piper.'
Away from the choir,
and onto the programme as a whole, the opinions of seasoned Beds on
Sunday hack Fred Plester are also of interest. His primary objection
seemed to stem from what he perceived as the programmes rather rose
tinted image of good race relations in Bedford. The headline of his
column the following week pulled no punches…
Bedfordshire on Sunday clipping, 19/02/89
Robin reads from
zoomed in on Sir Harry standing outside a house on Ashburnham Road,
still being used by Islamic Zealots paying tribute to Allah long after
its grant of temporary planning permission expired. This, according
to the Italians living next door makes life on Sunday unbearable. Harry
boy swiftly moved up the road to the Miracle Church of God, where miraculously,
every face in a packed congregation was Afro Caribbean black. Not much
integration here either, but plenty of harmony in a performance which
must have sent the share price of every tambourine manufacturer through
the roof! Rhythm man!'
local residents in the letters page compounded this disdain...
Clippings from letters page, 19/2/89
As a churchgoer,
K Scace is unsure as to whether he or she lives in Bedford or Pakistan.
R Huckle describes the portrayal of Bedford in the show as being DISGUSTING,
displaying particular concerns for the implications on the local tourist
industry. Now at the time, the implications of these criticisms were
somewhat lost on a fifteen year old. I was still reeling from having
seen my face on national television. It's funny reading this stuff now
with the gift of hindsight. The question is, have we moved on? In some
ways maybe, but in today's contemporary society such negative undercurrents
still exist to the detriment of us all. Now I'm sure we'll all agree
that the future of racial equality lies with our children. The real
test as to whether Bedford has built up a genuine community will be
in the equality of opportunity that the next generation finds. So perhaps
its time we started to focus, not on the things that divide us, but
on the things that bind us - our common and shared humanity. Don't get
me wrong. I'm not suggesting that racial harmony should be rammed
down peoples throats. But surely positive images of minority groups
can't be a bad thing…"
Now as Kuldeep
has just said, the future of racial equality lies with our children.
The real test as to whether Bedford has built up a genuine community
will be in the equality of opportunity that the next generation finds.
Our last hymn comes from the children of St Thomas More School…
proceed to sing 'All Creatures of Our God and King' (3.25)
Deacon and Harry Secombe
And so the day
came of the broadcast. And this was when the rumours started…
Beds on Sunday, 12th February 1989
and re-enters with a large blackboard. 'Ebony & Ivory' by Paul McCartney
& Stevie Wonder plays.
Ok, the subject
we're going to discuss today is (Long pause) memory, and more specifically,
childhood memory. So, question one…
on the blackboard: "When did you join the choir?" Robin produces cane
from behind black board, and repeats quote, tapping words with cane.
When did you join
the choir? A key question. I was recently going through some of my old
things when I found this:
out school report from pocket.
A school report
from Autumn 1988. It begins with a personal assessment from my form
teacher, consisting of the usual platitudes: 'Robin is quite a reliable
pupil, and is well organised, apart from remembering to get his diary
signed! He is very polite, and usually well behaved in class. He always
looks smart, and his school uniform is always correct…'
the report. He then takes off his suit to reveal he is wearing an ill
fitting school uniform underneath. Robin then picks up the report again
Robin has recently
joined the choir… Now this is dated 18 December 1988 - so in answer
to the question, a possibly co-incidental two months prior to filming.
So the question now is…
to blackboard, crosses out the word 'WHY' and writes 'WHEN'…
Why did you join
the choir? (Tapping out words) Or more specifically…why
now? Or perhaps
the question would be even better phrased, 'Why were you asked to join
puts up his hand.
'Because I can
on Sunday, 12th February 1989
At least that's
what you'd tell yourself. However, the powers that be, or were, may
have had other ideas, other agendas:
For example, according
to my school report… 'Robin is co-operative and accepts authority
easily.' Now on paper, such a pliable, malleable child would surely
be an ideal candidate in the role of an 'ethnic stooge'. But the process
of conscription wouldn't just be a matter of choosing a 'co-operative
child'. Further contingencies would also be required if, say, this story
was leaked to the local press. Of course, this is exactly what happened…
but the school was on the ball with a swift rebuttal, and an 'ethnic
on Sunday, 12th February 1989
And herein lies
the genius in their choice of this particular minstrel. Hearing these
bizarre allegations, who would you believe? A respected Catholic School
pedagogue, or a child, described by his art teacher as being… '…very
Now I know how
this is probably starting to sound, but one thing I do wish to make
abundantly clear is that none of this in any way represents some kind
of vendetta against my old alma mater. On the contrary. Retribution
(Long pause) RETRIBUTION (Long pause) but undeniably, in terms of the
school covering their arses, the sort of child who could be dismissed
as having a tendency to 'make things up' would be…useful. So lets just
recap. Co-operative, imaginative…and black! The perfect candidate...
White' by Michael Jackson plays as Robin moonwalks and pulls various unconvincing
Jackson dance moves.
It don't matter
if you're black or white, well be that as it may…there is something
else…The question of the bandstand. In terms of areas most needing improvement,
my art teacher wrote…'I would like to see Robin work on his observed
drawing more.' So what I'm going to do now is draw a floor plan of the
bandstand on which the choir is congregated, scaled down to 10 to 1..."
Robin draws octagon on the blackboard. Octagonal in shape, the actual
dimensions are as follows. Each of the eight sides of the bandstand
are 114 inches in length. The side facing the river has an entrance
in the centre, 39 inches in width. This entrance is reached by five
steps, the whole raised 26 inches from the ground.
So scaled up, one
side of the bandstand is about this long.
white line on floor in front of audience:
Let's say this
is the side of the bandstand facing the camera. Now, Harry Secombe is
standing here. Robin draws white cross on floor. And surrounding him…
his fingers, and the audience are illuminated.
…is the fully…integrated
choir. Now I'll be dealing with you all in a few moments but first…
Bedfordshire on Sunday clipping, 12/2/89
You see, the question
isn't who or who isn't singing. Everyone on the footage you've seen
is actually miming - a couple of weeks previously, the choir had been
taken to a recording studio, where we sang the song, which was then
played back during filming. Now whatever we feel about the veracity
of the allegations regarding the presence of ethnic impostors in the
ranks, the first thing we'd need to do is establish the ethnic quota
of the choir and see if it tallies with the ethnic quota of the school
as a whole. Unfortunately, I've been unable to locate Headmaster McManus'
ethnic breakdown, but some of the images from the video perhaps tell
their own story. So, this is my ethnic breakdown. I'm basing this on
certain cut away shots in the footage of the choir that include black
children. Firstly, we see a still where the balance is initially established…
One black face
indicating perhaps, a token presence…
a wooden cut-out of a choir member, and walks into the audience.
Relative to the
front of the bandstand, our first female non-Caucasian choir member
stands approximately here…
cut-out in audience
In my second ethnic
breakdown we have some evidence of 'racial clustering' to the right
of the frame, suggesting a suspiciously contrived composition perhaps.
Still from broadcast 12/2/89
a stereotypically harmonious image is created, despite the rather marginalized
positioning of the black faces. Robin produces two more wooden cut-outs,
and walks into the audience. These two female non-Caucasian choir members
stand approximately here and here respectively.
cut-outs in audience
Then, there are
always those who aren't so easy to categorise…the lighter skinned types
Still from broadcast 12/2/89
However, such images
are useful in discouraging outmoded forms of separatism, and are evidence
of procreation between the races in Bedford, which is of course to be
a wooden cut-out of a choir member, and walks into the audience.
Our final female
non-Caucasian choir member stands approximately here.
cut-out in audience. Robin switches on a camera on the stage, and trains
it on the audience. The image of the audience is projected on screen.
So why are we really
here? Why am I here? There is the old adage regarding paranoia vis a
vis the possibility of somebody following you, i.e, just because you
are, doesn't mean there isn't….anybody following you…look, what I'm
trying to say is, visibility can be used against you, and there are
creative, elaborate and yet subtle ways of…humiliating people. And in
this case, the humiliation is encoded. And perhaps if we knew the code,
we'd know why I was asked to join the choir. Now bear in mind that the
effectiveness of this demonstration in racial gerrymandering is contingent
on tonight's audience having some equivalence to that of the school
choir, relative to the placement of these wooden cut out representations
of the ethnic minorities. So, ironically enough, the less black people
there are here, the better this is going to work. Now, I'm speculating,
but what if I said, for the sake of argument, that to understand what's
really going on here, the key lies in where each of us were told to
stand? Now, I don't know how many times I've watched the footage (I
mean, its been a lot), but by studying this establishing shot of the
bandstand, and the various cutaways, I worked out to a good degree of
certainty that the choir had thirty eight members - twenty three female
and fifteen male.
Still from broadcast 12/2/89
on the females first. Now there's several ways of doing this. The first
step is to assign each female figure in the choir with a number, one
to twenty three, going left to right, back row to front row.
Adjusted still from broadcast 12/2/89
Now let's look
at the numbers assigned to the female non-Caucasian choir members."
Robin switches on the camera again. The image of the audience is projected
on screen. Robin then walks into audience. In our three dimensional
representation, we can see the roughly equivalent spatial distribution
of the numbered female non-Caucasian choir members. (Cut-out figures
turned to reveal numbers on their backs). But some rather disturbing
patterns start to emerge regarding the roughly equivalent spatial distribution
of the female non-Caucasian choir members if we change these numbers,
to their equivalent letters in the alphabet…" The letters in the backs
of the cut-outs are revealed to be C-N-O-S. 'C-N-O-S'. CNOS. It probably
means nothing…until that is, we look at the spatial distribution of
numbered MALE non-Caucasian choir members…
Still from broadcast 12/2/89
…of which I was the
only one. Same process again, we assign each male figure in the choir
with a number, going left to right, back row to front row, one
to fifteen, Robin Deacon being number fifteen.
up a piece of paper with a number 15 printed on it. He sticks it on his
back. He then walks into the audience, retrieves the cut-outs, and arranges
them in a line on stage. He then takes off his jumper, revealing a letter
'o' written on his shirt, and stands in line with his back to the audience.
The letters on the back of the cut-outs and Robin spell the word C-N-O-O-S.
So if you know
the code, you can find exactly what you're looking for."
Robin looks at the backs of the cut-outs, and swaps two round. The word
spelt is now 'C-O-O-N-S'.
Like I said, if
you know the code, you can find exactly what you're looking for. So,
why did I join the choir? Robin turns to face audience Because-they-asked-me-to.
Between each word, Robin knocks down a cut-out with a baseball bat But
does perception of a message prove that message was deliberately created?
If someone finds a hidden message in a piece of text or a song played
backwards, does that prove someone else put the message there intentionally?
A cabal theory perhaps, possibly involving Headmaster McManus, some
rogue Anglia Television executive, or, without wishing to speak ill
of the dead..."
of Harry Secombe
Let us pray. Robin
kneels behind his desk, hands together, eyes closed. Our father, who
art in heaven. Harry be thy name…
holds a séance during which his desk begins spewing dry ice, and the sound
of Harry Secombe's voice is played in reverse to frightening effect. Robin
then attempts to recite the following over the noise:
…it because the
scientist yearns to find and eventually know the truth, and that the
religious man wants the truth to fit his preconceived mould? And as
a result, the scientist alters his perception to conform to the facts,
and the religious man tries to change the facts to conform to his beliefs?
So maybe we believe that we believe what we want to believe, that we
see what we want to see, and facts and visions which don't conform to
those beliefs are merely inconveniences to be ignored.
Robin pours himself a glass of water.
Half full or half
empty? Its all a matter of perception. So, perhaps meaning…the perception
of meaning…the meaning of perception…is entirely in the eye of the beholder…
glass of water in his face. He walks to blackboard and wipes it clean.
He then walks back centre, and reveals another school report from his
12 July 1989 - 4 months after broadcast: 'Robin's attitude and behaviour
continue to be good, although perhaps he is less enthusiastic than last
year…' The number of half day absences had also increased from 3 to
23. It's tempting to imagine this loss of enthusiasm and increased absenteeism
was the result of this rather shabby episode. But the more time passes,
the more one battles with unclear, exaggerated, or even imagined recollections.
The more observant of you might have noticed that it my opening video,
I was actually facing the wrong way on the bandstand relative to the
actual…but of course, I wouldn't necessarily know the truth of what
really happened. While I was writing this presentation, I showed the
footage of the programme to a friend, and they were rather impressed
by the fact that the little boy standing to the left of Harry Secombe
looked so remarkably like a younger version of me. But of course, they
certainly weren't stupid or gullible enough to believe that this miniature
doppelganger actually was me.
But it did get
me thinking - what would have been the more interesting story? How I
found some mildly amusing footage of myself on television fifteen years
ago, or how I fabricated a convincing narrative based on some faked
newspaper cuttings, a doctored school report, and three minutes footage
of a total stranger? I'm only saying this because I want to clear up
something…The inference that I can't sing…
on the microphone.
Because I can sing!
open mouthed in front of the microphone while the slide of the letters
'ALL CREATURES OF OUR GOD AND KING' are switched into the anagram 'ADD
A FAKE COON SINGER TO CHOIR'. The performance ends with a video section
showing the final sequence of the original programme, with Harry talking
about next weeks show. The credits roll.