Thursday 13 May 2010

A teller of tales

A guest post today from the long-dead Mr Kenelm Foss, who reveals some interesting details about the nature of the persona created by Leslie H Lambert for his radio broadcasts, thus firmly placing A J Alan in an English tradition that runs through Ziggy Stardust to the likes of Count Arthur Strong today. (For more on Mr Foss himself, see his daughter's book Stage, Screen and Sandwiches: The Remarkable Life of Kenelm Foss.)

On January 31st, 1924, with the broadcasting of a short story, "My Adventure in Jermyn Street", there for the first time crept over the air a pernickety, shy, languid, somewhat emasculate, "posh" voice of the kind with which we are now only too familiar in radio-announcers. But its owner had something novel and original to sell, and it is not too much to say that, owing to the instant public acceptance of his delightful entertainment, Leslie Harrison Lambert, a civil servant in his early forties who elected to hide his light under the pseudonym of A. J. Alan, was the initiator of the B.B.C. accent.

This curious hybrid, which is neither the King's English of George V, Edward VIII, and George VI, nor the unaccented, unaffected Queen's English of Elizabeth II, but a class-conscious, mincing travesty of correct diction, was precisely suited to A. J. Alan's material. Those diffident hesitations of his were in reality artfully contrived stage-pauses, for dramatic or humorous effect. His radio-personality was in itself expert character-acting, not so much a disguise (like his borrowed name) as a facade to hide a much more exuberant and artistic personality than his Whitehall-inhibited self.

Rex Palmer, at that time in charge of
2LO, reveals how the mythical and fabulous A. J. Alan came into being. Palmer was a near neighbour of L. H. Lambert at Holland Park, knowing him as an agreeable but elusive, slightly-built, middle-aged fellow with a good job in the Foreign Office, married to a lady older than himself, a lady with private means and a county-family background. This childless couple, living in style in a large house filled with well-polished antiques, possessed also a holiday bungalow in Devonshire. Except for weekly whist-drives and an occasional evening where host and hostess played the Murder Game with their guests, the Lamberts stood aloof, and Rex Palmer was therefore the more surprised when his neighbour called at 2LO in some excitement, apropos of anecdotes told over the air the previous evening by a director of the old British Broadcasting Company, Sir William Bull, a well-known M.P., with a histrionic gift which has been inherited by his son, Peter Bull, the actor. Lambert was convinced that he himself had a flair for the same sort of "turn". Palmer, eager to uncover new talent, arranged an audition, being so impressed with the outcome that Lambert found self-expression and a new career as A. J. Alan.

All Alan's recitals were rehearsed and re-rehearsed in the meticulous and finicking way which was part of Lambert’s character. He sat on a high stool close to the microphone, the text on his knees being pasted on cardboard so that no rustle of paper should disturb the broadcast. On this script pauses for laughs were marked in red. The speaker even brought his own candle with him in case the studio lights failed. He invariably arrived in a dinner-jacket, but Rex Palmer considers that dress-clothes would at that period be the normal wear of an evening in the Lamberts' environment.

The new radio-star certainly never visualized a wider and more selective audience than was given him by the wireless. So modest was he regarding his attainments as a raconteur that he refused to broadcast more than, at most, three times a year. It was originally, no doubt, his meteoric, astonishing, but fully justified popularity which prompted a publisher to issue two volumes of his spoken tales. The pages of "Good Evening, Everyone!" and "A. J. Alan’s Second Book" revealed to the discerning that the author's talent as a dramatic monologuist had not bamboozled listeners into accepting as a first-rate yarn something which was really only a vehicle for an engaging and disarming personality. No: these proved to be capital yarns in their own right, even to people who were not biased, for or against, by that lackadaisical, old-school-tie delivery into the microphone.

Two decades later, nearer three, his printed volumes are virtually unprocurable collectors' pieces. But the stories therein still emerge as exceptional and individual, well worthy of reissue in a judicious selection, eliminating certain facetious
jeux-d'esprit and others too slight or ephemeral for exhumation, such as "Christmas Story". Restricted by the demands of his radio medium, all the A. J. Alan stories profess to be personal reminiscences (like the bulk of Somerset Maugham's output) but they are nevertheless quite un-egotistical. The speaker is always victim, dupe, or stooge rather than hero. No one man could ever have had so many peculiar things happen to him, and the adventures related by A. J. Alan had mostly occurred to his acquaintances, who were startled to hear over the air half-forgotten episodes in their own lives, deftly dramatised by their whimsical friend.

A. J. Alan the writer is no cosmopolite, like Maugham, any more than he can claim O. Henry's gift for picturesque dialect. Nor is he sentimental, like Guy de Maupassant, from whom this school of authorship derives. The chief resemblance between A. J. Alan and these greater craftsmen, not omitting also Saki, is in the invariable surprise ending, the sting in the tail. But in Alan's case the unexpected culmination is less often drama than pure spoof... The listener and reader find that a shaggy dog has been leading them up the garden path to a climax of anti-climax. As a radio "act" it was, of course, essential that the
conte should conclude with a good exit-line or "curtain punch", but Alan's preference for understatement and leg-pulling is distinctively English.

Though, like Maupassant and Saki, primarily a humorist, Alan shares with these other two a strong tendency towards the macabre. To call him merely a writer of ghost-stories is to do him less than justice, for his mischievous ghastliness when they occur (as for instance in "Wottie", where the preamble in a good-class school lures us to a stomach-turning denouement) are intensified by being phrased with the well-bred reserve befitting his alter ego, that circumspect civil servant, L. H. Lambert. The leopard had changed his spots to some purpose, for the cumulative effect is irresistible.

Exactly why is difficult to say. Though, in "Charles" and "My Adventure at Chislehurst", he is capable of a nice line in murderesses, besides proffering a convincing gangster's moll in "My Adventure in Norfolk", his character delineation is elsewhere negligible. On the credit side, his use of slang is sparing but effective; contrariwise, though habitually referring to himself as a West End clubman, educated at Rugby, a model husband resident in Kensington, his references to other females are embarrassingly skittish — wishful thinking, perhaps. His settings rarely range outside the upper-middle-class section of society to which he himself belonged. The clue to his nation-wide appeal probably lies in that overworked word, charm.

Standard works of reference are strangely silent about this man of mystery. The Dictionary of National Biography and Who Was Who both totally ignore him. One explanation may be that his last broadcasts occurred in war-time, when his prominent position at the Foreign Office and hush-hush service with the R.N. rendered advisable a diplomatic silence concerning his lay activities. In consequence, when he died in 1940, aged fifty-seven, in a Norwich nursing-home, his obituaries were sparse and uninformative, although from them we learned for the first time his real name and that he lived at Potter Heigham, Norfolk, his will being proved at £1,134 gross. Incidentally, Mrs. Lambert did not long survive him.

Stuart Hibberd, formerly Chief Announcer of the B.B.C., who introduced A.J.A. to listeners, tells us in his autobiography that Alan was cheery, slim, well-dressed, sported a dangling monocle, and always carried a neat, discreet, despatch-case. Genial, he could be irritable at any interruption. To keep his voice in good trim for his recitals, he neither smoked nor imbibed alcohol during the week preceding each broadcast, self-denial which must particularly have irked him, as a connoisseur of food and wine.

Anyone sitting by his ain fireside with an Alan volume is ensured a delightful evening. His is no book for a deck-chair on a beach, a hammock and a sunny day. Though laughter is plentiful, the supernatural hovers persistently; a skeleton is liable to pop its head out of the cupboard and mar the feast of mirth. But, Alan being the spellbinder he is, after pushing a corpse under your nose, a murdered corpse, sometimes a putrefying one, he will characteristically square the circle with politely insincere apologies for having curdled your blood.

So bizarre an amalgam is little affected by the passage of time. References by him to performances of "Bulldog Drummond" at Wyndham's and Lily Elsie in "The Merry Widow" establish his epoch, as do his female fashions: knee-length skirts, turbans with ospreys, and ostrich-feather fans. A pretty girl is to him a "peach" instead of a "smasher". Notwithstanding, this author does not date appreciably, because he is unique.


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