I never saw Rob Wilton live on stage, much to my sorrow, but I heard him many times on the wireless. Then, miraculously, one day I managed to catch him in one of his grainy black and white films. It had obviously been shot from the auditorium against a dark background with no audience.
It is sacrilege to ask one of the most outstanding funny men to perform in an empty hall merely for the archives. It’s absurd, like drinking a vintage wine from a plastic cup.
A singer or a juggler, even a contortionist (whatever that is) can perform without an audience, but definitely not a comedian – certainly not one as talented as Rob Wilton.
The reaction of the audience is crucial to his act, which will change subtly every night according to his reception. The laughter he invokes provides his punctuation marks. They are his pauses while he creates more mirth by glancing in bewilderment round the hall, seemingly unable to grasp why they should be laughing.
This is the art of a good comedian; to orchestrate an audience, take them up with you and glide them gently into the next sally. In other words, I am cursing the fact that we do not possess a true assessment of Rob Wilton, although I am sure there is plenty of broadcasting material, it is just as important to be able to visualise the man at work.
He was a flustered, bumbling, portly, crumpled figure of a man. His expression was woeful, worried, as if he was carrying a burden too much for one person.
Whenever he spoke it was with great deliberation in a pedantic, thoughtful rhythm as if each syllable was a masterpiece to be enjoyed.
Should he be sitting behind a desk, his hand would be cupping his cheek as he nibbled the top of his little finger, and if he was standing, the left hand was cupping his right elbow for his usual sucking the little finger bit.
He addressed the audience as if every one of them was a long-lost friend he’d just met in the street and he spoke slowly and precisely as though he were giving advice to a slightly retarded child; a foreign one at that. He epitomised a harassed official surrounded by bewildered electors unable to grasp the clarity of his political gobbledegook.
For example, recounting to a delighted audience an exchange with his wife, he began with his ever-popular introduction: “The day war broke out…”
Here he nibbled the top of his little finger, enabling him to marshal his thoughts ‘…my wife said to me “What are you going to do about it?” I said “Who?” She said “You,” I said “Me?” She said “You,” I said, “Me?” She said, “Yes.” I said “Oh!”
These lines from ‘I said “Who?’” to “‘Oh’” would be delivered in a rush like a scattering of loose stones under a mountaineer’s boot.
Rob would carry on with his explanation. “I’m in the LDV, aren’t I?” he said. “What’s LDV, then?”
Exasperated, Rob said: “Local Defence Volunteers.”
“Oh,” she said, “is it just you?”
“No, there’s me, and Torn, and Fred from the garage, there’s about twelve of us altogether.”
“Aye, and what do you reckon to be doing, then?”
Now he gazed up to the ceiling, sighed and said: “I said ‘We’re guarding the coast and when the Germans land I step forward and arrest Hitler.’ She looks at me after a while and says ‘How will you know which one is Hitler?’”
And with the classic punch-line of all time, he ends the monologue by saying: “I’ve got a tongue in my head, haven’t I?”
The wording was priceless. Had it been “I can ask somebody” or “I’ve seen pictures of him” or any other pay-off line would not have the same impact.
“I’ve got a tongue in my head, haven’t I?” will be remembered as long as “The day war broke out.”
In another film of his act, he was the fire brigade chief sitting at a table attending to whatever bureaucracy demanded when an excited young lady dashed on stage and said, breathlessly: “‘Are you the Fire Brigade?” to which Rob replied: “Not all of it, no.”
“Quickly!” she screamed. “‘My house is on fire.”
Rob tried to calm her down. “Don’t get excited,” he spoke waveringly. “With the best will in the world we can’t set off until Arnold gets back with the fire engine.” And, apologetically: “It’s his turn to get the chips, you see.”
He then proceeded to take down her name and address, next of kin, etc. All the time he seemed impervious to her panic and as the young lady became more hysterical, he uttered inanities such as “Is it a big fire?” and enquired “Would it necessitate both hosepipes? With all the hot weather I’ve let the cricket club use one to keep the pitch moist.”
Through all this the girl was pacing up and down in a panic. Rob, immune to her antics, carried on with his paperwork, in between platitudes such as: “Is this your first fire?”
“Yes, yes,” she screamed.
“It may be your first fire but it’s not ours.”
He continued with his paperwork. “What’s your address?” he said.
“Clutterball Avenue,” she screamed. He looked at her, amazed.
“I know it,’ he said.’ “It’s just opposite the dry cleaners. What a stroke of luck. ’ve got a pair of trousers I can drop off there while we’re at it.”
Finally the lady, in despair, dashes offstage while Rob shouts after her: “Just keep it going till we get there.”
These are just two examples of his humour. It is impossible to do him justice with these words and, sadly, we will never see his like again.
As a footnote, I would like to add that in the early 50s I was in a theatre bar in Birmingham. For a moment I thought I was alone but when I glanced round I saw a dejected old man at a brass-topped, round table, gazing into his half of beer.
Then it hit me like a flash; it was Rob Wilton, one of my heroes of comedy. Apart from the lady behind the bar we were the only two customers. I desperately wanted to go up to him to thank him for all the pleasure he’d given me over the years. I wanted to buy him a drink.
The lady behind the bar whispered: “That’s Rob Wilton.”
I nodded but I was too shy and too cowardly to approach him. I left taking with me a memory and a regret I bear to this day.