||Comedian Frankie Howerd (1917-92) had a career that, it's safe to say, had its ups and downs, there are times he was genuinely in the doldrums and others when he was on top of the world as his brand of innuendo and eccentric delivery went in and out of fashion. In the early nineteen-sixties, after success on radio at the BBC, his stage fright grew too much and he was forced to take a long treatment for a nervous breakdown, which could have ended his stardom right there and then, but a couple of years later he found out that new kid on the block Peter Cook was a fan of his work. Cook was keen to see Howerd play his Establishment comedy club.
From there, an instant hit, he moved to That Was the Week That Was on television, creating an act with such luminaries as Alan Galton and Ray Simpson, Johnny Speight, and Barry Took and Marty Feldman, some of the era's top comedy writers. With Howerd contributing, he was riding a crest of a wave once again, and it's intriguing to go back to a record released in 1963 (reissued on CD in 2007) which captured both the Establishment stand-up and his TWTWTW performances. In Cook's club, he plays to a very appreciative audience with newly politicised routines - fellow comic Kenneth Williams can be heard braying with laughter, providing Howerd with more asides.
The asides were as much of his act as the jokes were, punctuating his routines with various "oohs" and "ahs" and catchphrases such as "No, missus!", "Please yourselves!" (when a gag didn't land as well as hoped), or "Don't mock the afflicted!" The current affairs material may sound odd to those who were used to his double entendres and the like, but he was skilled enough to make them sound natural while still really delivering the sort of humour he always did. In the BBC section of the record, he even gets away with a yarn about visiting Italy (it was all about the Common Market back then) and a young lady named Carissa whose surname is best not mentioned.
Howerd made a few singles, too, so was no stranger to vinyl, his most celebrated being a version of The Three Little Fishes for a children's audience that offered him plenty of opportunity to vocalise quirkily, but there was also It's Alright With Me, a bizarre, fast-paced attempt at sounding seductive (!) and Up Je T'aime, a collaboration with June Whitfield spoofing the Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin chart-topper. As the title implies, it was also a cash in on his hit sitcom Up Pompeii! which arrived at the turn of the sixties into the seventies and made him more famous than ever (he recorded the theme tune from the film version too - not a hit, but it should have been).
Yes, films. Ever since Frankie had become popular first time around, movie producers had tried to harness his unique style in comedy vehicles for the big screen, with mixed results. The Runaway Bus was his debut, the likes of Jumping for Joy (about a greyhound) and the disastrous The Cool Mikado followed, but that sitcom was the best for his film career, spawning three offshoots set in different historical eras. However, it was not to last, and the final starring role he enjoyed was in 1973's comedy horror The House in Nightmare Park, a kind of update of The Cat and the Canary in the tradition of old dark house comedies, not all of which starred Bob Hope.
Howerd had appeared in a couple of Carry On movies, Carry On Doctor and Carry On Up the Jungle, but the series was just beginning to hit its artistic decline so he made no more, though he is often associated with them. The House in Nightmare Park was more his cup of tea, if only because he was playing the main character and was not part of an ensemble, but for some reason he never continued, possibly because the entire British film industry was in a downturn - in one of those oddities that exemplified his career, his final film role would be as Mean Mr Mustard in the all-star turkey Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a would be tribute to/cash-in on the Beatles.
His penultimate silver screen appearance was reputedly his favourite of all of them, maybe because it felt more traditional to the fare he was watching as he got his start in showbusiness - you could imagine Will Hay or Arthur Askey giving this type of comic chiller a try. Except with Howerd, there was a lot more tailored to his particular delivery, which may have sounded off the cuff but as you could hear in this, was far more scripted and rehearsed than he ever let on. The plot had him back in 1907 as ripe ham actor Foster Twelvetrees, boring the provinces with his renditions of classic literature until he is offered a one-night engagement at a mansion.
Of course, he must arrive at this location in an icy breeze and pitch darkness, with the coachman stopping half a mile before the front door since this is a place with a reputation, but on arrival he meets the Henderson family who behave very strangely, neatly offsetting the typical Howerd grimaces and noises. The script was penned by Clive Exton (a veteran of literary adaptations with Poirot and Jeeves and Wooster in his future) and Terry Nation (who needs no introduction to Doctor Who or Blake's 7 fans - he created the Daleks), both of whom had lengthy experience in humour, indeed Nation was a writer for Howerd's radio work once upon a time.
But where The House in Nightmare Park scored was in its combination of the ridiculous and the creepy; eschewing any real gore, despite a title that sounded like an Italian video nasty, it relied on a curiously uneasy atmosphere that continually threatened to overwhelm the star's oneliners. We can guess correctly that Twelvetrees is there because of a hitherto unrealised connection to the clan, and has something to do with an inheritance, but he is so self-obsessed that he doesn't twig himself until the last act, whereupon he ends up being chased around the hallways by a mad axeman, played by a much-respected actor who he had persuaded to appear with him.
It's not giving too much away to reveal this thespian was Ray Milland, whose well-regarded career had dwindled into horror roles which may have dented that respect, but won him new fans in the same way a Dennis Price or Michael Gough would have. There was support from Hugh Burden (who insists on calling Foster a swine at every opportunity) and Kenneth Griffith, among others, and the real, live marionette act the family stage was nicely weird, helped by director Peter Sykes' experience in horror and the macabre. Fun could be had with a madwoman in the attic stroking Howerd's hair (or rather, one of the most notorious, worst-looking wigs in showbiz), fluffy bunnies fed to ravenous serpents, and a backdrop of Hinduism that was also in the contemporary The Ghoul and Ghost Story, to variant effect. But it was Howerd's show all the way, and if you were on his comedy wavelength, he would have you laughing easily in a true cult item.
[The House in Nightmare Park is released on Blu-ray by Network with the following extras:
Full-frame, as-filmed version of main feature [SD]
Original music score [SD]
TV spot (mute)
Click here to buy from the Network website.]