The Wisdom of Peter Brough
Peter Brough had an extraordinary start in the art of ventriloquism - his father was one of the top vents of his day. Arthur Brough and his dummy Tim were on the bill at the Empire Theatre, Croydon, in 1922. Top of the bill was the famous cockney singer Marie Lloyd. This great lady patted Brough's six-year-old son on his sailor's cap, smiled and said, "Why, Arthur, if you're not careful you'll be having another ventriloquist in the family one day."
Peter Brough (26 February 1916 – 3 June 1999) did in fact follow in his Father's footsteps and then some. The English ventriloquist became a well-known name to audiences in the 1950s. Born in Shepherds Bush, London, Brough after achieving fame was often asked about the distinguished gap in his teeth. Said Brough, "One fateful night I collided with my older brother Kenneth, who was carrying a candlestick. The apparatus clipped off the corners of my two front teeth." A panic rush to the dentist brought the advice not to interfere with them, a fact that in later years according to Brough, proved extremely helpful in the execution of his ventriloquial technique. Said Peter, "the inverted V-shape opening actually made it easier for me to talk and whistle without moving my lips."
Brough began his radio career in 1944 in ventriloquism but in 1950 he debuted Archie Andrews, a mischievous child who domineered his mentor. Archie's chief characteristics were his tailored blazers and manic eyes. Today, Brough is most associated with Archie .The radio show, called 'Educating Archie,' followed in the tradition of the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show here in the United States. Peter was to achieve on radio in the United Kingdom in the early 50's what Edgar Bergen had achieved on radio in the 40's.
At its peak 'Educating Archie' averaged around 15 million listeners a week, with an aggressive merchandising campaign and a fan club of over 250,000 members. The program ran for a decade and consistently held the number one spot in ratings. The ’Educating Archie ‘program was also the recipient of numerous broadcast awards.
As a result of these successes Peter and Archie were national celebrities and often performed before royalty. Beginning at Christmas 1948, Brough and Archie were invited to entertain the Royal Family at their annual staff party at Windsor Castle.
After the first show King George VI explained to the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose how Archie worked. To do so he removed Archie's head. As he replaced it Archie said, "Sir, I'm the only fellow you have ever beheaded in your reign."
In 1961 Peter retired from show business and took over the family textile and clothing business. Brough was always an advocate, even during his heyday, of having multiple streams of income.
By the way, Peter's Father, Arthur Brough as indicated, was also a successful ventriloquist. His last appearance was in the film 'Dead of Night.' (1945)
In 1955 Brough wrote his autobiography entitled, of course, 'Educating Archie.' I recently reread my copy of the book keeping an eye out this time for gems of wisdom from Brough. Thus the title of this article.
And now, from Educating Archie, the Wisdom of Peter Brough...
Does anyone grudge a youngster his secret dreams and ambitions? In them, at least, he’s master of his fate.
In this day and age, it has to be a good show and value for money to compete with the comfort that modern entertainment offers.
On becoming a ventriloquist
If you want to become a ventriloquist when you grow up; well and good. But, you must have two strings to your bow. You must never be wholly dependent on the chance vagaries of show business.
There is no fun like work.
One room at home was set aside for my use and its main piece of furnishing was a triple sided mirror. Vanity? Hardly. With whatever feelings of satisfaction you first face a three sided mirror, the reflections of yourself at odd angles soon dispel any nonsense of personal vanity.
At the age of twenty-eight, I was a professional ventriloquist with an anonymous dummy that had no name, no voice, no character. And professionally, nor had I. My problem could not be solved simply by copying Edgar Bergen, yet I had to achieve something like his success if I were to progress. But, I had to do it in English style.
The creation of Archie
Day after day I tried for hour after hour, and then, out of the empty sea, sky and shore, one voice suddenly seemed to ‘click.’ I fixed the voice of the boy to be and then set to work with paper and pencil to find a face to fit it. The face, while human as a boy’s, must also carry a touch of the light fantastic to make it memorable.
Four papier mache masks were prepared from my rough sketches by Len Insull. The task took weeks of patience and hard work and also nearly all my savings as well. The total cost for Archie Andrews? 250 Pds. (appx. $4500.00 in 2018.)
The moment I handled the complete dummy for the first time, touched the controls to work the mouth so that he spoke, and studied that facial expression in close-up…well, I knew that our time had not been wasted. It was quite a thrill.
On live performance
For Performers on a live broadcast, the die is cast and millions of listeners will pass instant judgment on the show. Theirs not to reason why the performer may have a feverish cold, or any other worries…they just want a good show.
On being professional
You can generally judge a true top of the bill performer by the way he or she treats the smaller fry. The size of a man’s name on the advertising outside the theatre is not always the best guide to the largeness of his heart inside.
On writing material
What is the best way to obtain good material for a stage and radio act? The only way…the best way…is to write it yourself. But few of us are as nimble-brained and witty-tongued. The strain of writing a weekly comedy show, it is generally agreed, is too much for one brain no matter how originally inventive.
Entertainers, we know, are driven on by their ambitions. But it takes ferocious determination to make an act first rate when one has the knowledge to see that so many paying customers are content to put up with, and applaud, the third rate.
Big earnings…often fabulously over-estimated…are forever being linked with names of entertainers. Much less often do we hear of the hard work they put in.
On instruments of the trade
Any ventriloquist will testify that appearing with a borrowed dummy is unsatisfactory and even confusing, after becoming used to one particular doll. If you’ll forgive the comparison, it is rather like asking Yehudi Menuhin to give a recital at the Albert Hall with another man’s violin.
On human nature
It is only human nature to tend to applaud other people when their opinions coincide with one’s own…and vice versa.
A setback to a performer, (and after all, we are not supposed to be the same as normal people!) is quite sufficient to cause one to lose one’s sense of proportion. For me, I brooded and brooded and practically decided to give up ventriloquism. The BBC’s slap in the face preyed on my mind to such an extent that it began to affect my health. I lost weight, couldn’t sleep for weeks and finally suffered a recurrence of my chest ailment.
On Edgar Bergen
Edgar Bergen is a shy, self-effacing man, whose personalty seems partially absorbed by the ventriloquial characters he has created. On the occasion of our meeting, (late 40’s) he told me he was highly dissatisfied with his own performance. (at the palladium) And for a very good reason. Having spent so many years concentrating on sound radio work, where lip movements are of no consequence, Edgar found, when he stepped on the Palladium stage, that he had temporarily mislaid all his old visual technique! I know only too well how disconcerting this can be.
Edgar Bergen, with supreme artistry creating dummies with real identities; the impudent but lovable Charlie himself; Mortimer Snerd so stupidly good natured about being stupid; and Effie Klinker, pert, cute and inquisitive as a wandering crisp. Not only this gallery of characters but also another admirable Bergen talent which set my teeth on edge…with, yes, I must admit, envious admiration…the way he sank himself out of sight, giving the stage, the laughs and the best lines to his admirable children.
On Bergen’s generosity
Edgar and Charlie were holidaying, and having spent a fortnight in Ireland were on their way to Sweden. “Already,” said Edgar, “I’ve heard plenty of talk about your Archie Andrews. You’ve certainly made some progress since the last time I was over here, Peter.” I persuaded Edgar and Charlie McCarthy to record a few lines of dialogue with Archie. A double dummy talk between radio’s two best known almost human personalities. Yet putting Edgar on record as one of the guest stars of Educating Archie started up quite a problem over the question of paying him for his brief contribution. The BBC have a strict rule about payment. Everyone who takes any part in a program must be paid, no matter how small the fee or how high the standing of the person. Edgar charged five guineas, about five dollars. Back home in America, let’s whisper it, his fee for a broadcast appearance ran over the L1,000 mark, 1200+ dollars American. (Authors note: this would have been in the early 50’s)
Retirement is the one word the real pro just does not know.
I have never underestimated the power of the Press. They can easily determine the future of an artist or a program and I do know that the criticisms of leading columnists are taken very seriously by broadcasters.
One situation in a sketch I made Archie appear to shoot himself. I know now that that was very wrong: wrong of him to try and wrong for me to allow it to happen. You see, on the loudspeaker end of the broadcast innumerable children had been listening and when Archie, for some reason, had tried to do this violent deed they had in scores of cases burst into tears of real grief. To those happy kids, he was and is, a real person, a friend and merry companion. And I had allowed him to transgress the unwritten rule that only villains bite the dust and friends are never hurt to any serious extent.
I think that single incident showed me more than all others put together just how great a reality I had helped to build out of a dream.
As soon as Archie was recognized as someone in one particular quarter, the commercial world began to take the keenest interest in our activities and possibilities. What a complete about face in attitude from the days I played the smallest venues for a percentage of the house, all the while big managements choosing to be indifferent to our talents.
Big salaries for stars do not make the queues, and advertising alone won’t bring them in. The public themselves have somehow to ‘know’ that you are offering something that cannot be seen elsewhere at any time.
On staying successful
For what it is worth, I have always maintained that an artist is as good as his material: a radio show as good as its script. It is much tougher, believe me, to go on being top of the tree than it is to start off scrambling up those lower branches!
I was now being badgered by every post to appear at Charity functions. No one likes to turn down such appeals, but I often wonder if the organizers who so blithely…sometimes imperatively…write to us realize how much they are asking, when they expect artists, whom, incidentally, they’ve almost certainly never met to lend their services for nothing? I’ve appeared with Archie at many a charity function. Somehow, people in show business like to feel they can do someone a bit of good. And that’s fine.
On the realism of Archie Andrews
Call me a sentimental humbug, if you like, but there is no escaping the fact that by this time Archie had become a real person to children all over Britain. If it became necessary to substitute another doll for him, it would shatter their illusions. Here, in real life, was the Pinocchio legend come true. The little wooden boy had come through his tests and achieved a vital existence in his own right. He was a boy, like other boys, with an independence of outlook, opinion and way of living that owed nothing to carpenter, wig-maker or me.
No writer of worth can afford to consider any audience but himself. If you don’t consider a line is funny, it would be fatal to leave it in a script on the chance that some less intelligent listeners are going to like it. Mass audiences are the most sensitive audiences in the world. They’re quick to sense that you’re trying to trick them, and they won’t stand for it. Any writer who starts out despising the mentality of his audience will soon be out of business.
On the merits of Television
I belong to the variety theater, so this is all I will say: at one time, hundreds of years ago, the theater was a monopoly…the monopoly of the church.
There was fierce opposition to its passing into the hands of commercial interests…men like Shakespeare and the like. But at length even the commercialism of the theater became respectable. And in turn, when other entertainments rose up to compete, they were accused of trying to ruin it. In spite of all the opposition for several hundred years the theater still marches ahead. Is radio and television so weak and woeful that it cannot take a lesson from the theater, and take on all comers in direct competition?
That’s show business. When you want a job, no one wants to give you one: when you’ve got one, they add another.
Finally a note of interest: The original Archie Andrews figure sold at auction in 2005 for $44,000.
Authors note: A brief interview with Peter Brough in 1987, shortly before his death is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Va1bQRCHrsg The interview begins at the 6:26 mark.
Also, a Ray Alan interview with Peter Brough. Interview starts at 14:45
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