Fifty years after his death, Robb Wilton is still revered as one of the finest exponents of gentle character-based humour ever seen on the British variety stage. Not for him the quickfire repartee of a Max Miller or a Tommy Trinder… when Robb indulged in jokes, it was usually a meandering monologue, full of references to the down to earth participants and their odd quirks.
Wilton’s forte was sketch humour – as a befuddled authority figure, somehow left in charge but clearly out of his depth when forced to deal with a routine situation.
In a lengthy career that led from the glory days of the Music Hall to the beginning of the television era, Robb was also an oft-seen face in the movies and a popular performer in front of the B.B.C. microphone.
Born Robert Wilton Smith in Liverpool on August 28th 1881, he abandoned a career as an engineer to join a repertory company specializing in melodramas. It wasn’t long before Robb’s comic potential came to the fore and he began creating a gallery of inept but loveable eccentrics that would be the mainstay of his appearances.
They included a Police sergeant unsure how to deal with a woman who insists she’s just poisoned her husband, a man left in charge of a fire station when an inconvenient blaze breaks out in the vicinity and the less-than-competent Governor of one of His Majesty’s prisons. Other studies included a terminally unemployed husband and a World War 1 soldier unaware that hostilities had ceased some fifteen years before.
As the Music Hall evolved into Variety after the First World War, Wilton progressed steadily up the billing. In 1926 he participated in that year’s Royal Variety Performance, performing his celebrated Magistrate sketch and, with the coming of sound movies soon after, made his debut in front of the cameras.
A series of Pathe shorts captured all his notable stage routines (happily now preserved for posterity) and by the mid-1930s he was becoming a regular face in a plethora of supporting roles in full length features.
Robb also transferred several of his sketches to gramophone recordings in 1931 and a dozen years later did the same for two of his famous wartime routines.
He was lured to B.B.C. radio in 1937 for the first of an ongoing series of quarter hour segments featuring him as Mr. Muddlecombe JP. Over the next sixteen years, the basic character would move from the court room to an office setting, become an A.R.P. Warden and, after the war, a private detective.
The Second World War led to Robb’s greatest success … as the Home Guard volunteer getting ready to stave off the Hun with the help of several mates from the pub, in a routine that began with the immortal words “The day war broke out …”. So popular did it become that he was asked to perform the sketch for the royal family at a special concert at Windsor Castle in 1942. (It was an inspired theme picked up 25 years later and turned into the series that became a television classic, Dad’s Army).
Wilton also took part in other broadcasting ventures during the hostilities … in early 1943 he provided a weekly sketch on Monday Night at Eight and the following year starred as a fair ground manager in the half-hour series Hoop-la!
By the 1950s show business had changed a lot and Robb was now in his seventies. He brought back Mr. Muddlecombe for regular seasons on The Leisure Hour in 1952 and 1953 and made numerous appearances on the many variety hours prevalent on B.B.C. schedules of the time. Happily his advanced age suited the characterizations and he encountered no lessening of popularity as his career drew to a close.
When he died on the 1st of May 1957, Robb Wilton retained a legion of fans on both sides of the footlights. In the half a century since his passing that affection has transferred to new generations of admirers who delight in their first encounters with his Police Sergeant, Fire Brigade Chief or the Local Defence Volunteer ready to turn back any onslaught of invading Nazis.
1928 The Fire Brigade
1930 Pathé short: Out of Work (4 min)
1931 Pathé short: The Book on Fights (3 min)
1932 Pathé short: Back Answers (3 min)
1932 Pathé short: Prison Gov’nor (5 min)
1932 Pathé short: His Journey’s End (5 min)
1932 Pathé short: The Magistrate (4 min)
1933 Pathé short: I Don’t Work For a Living (3 min)
1934 Pathé short: Sherlock Bill (5 min)
1934 Pathé short: The Fire Chief (4 min)
1934 Pathé short: In the Forest (4 min)
1934 Pathé short: An Embankment Cameo (4 min)
1934 Love, Life and Laughter
1934 The Secret of the Loch
1935 Look Up and Laugh
1935 Lieutenant Daring R.N.
1935 A Fire Has Been Arranged
1935 The Silent Passenger
1935 Stars on Parade
1936 Rhythm in the Air
1936 Pathé short: Wheelspin to Wilton! (6 min)
1936 Pathé short: The K.C. (4 min)
1936 It’s Love Again
1936 (Mother) Don’t Rush Me
1936 The Interrupted Honeymoon
1936 short: Servants All
193? Pathé short: Don’t Breath It to a Soul (3 min)
1937 Fine Feathers
1937 Take My Tip
1938 Break the News
1938 Many Tanks Mr. Atkins
1939 The Gang’s All Here (The Amazing Mr. Forrest)
1940 Pathé short: Mr. Muddlecombe JP and the Cut-Price Court (4 min)
1940 Pathé short: Mr. Muddlecombe JP and the Lion (4 min)
1941 (short) Pathetone Parade of 1941
1945 Pathe Radio Music Hall
1955 The Love Match
MR. MUDDLECOMBE J.P. (15 minutes)
Series 1: National or Regional January 9 and 28, February 12 and 26, March 5 1937
Series 2 (titled THE COURT OF NOT-SO-COMMON PLEASE!):
National Monday 7-45pm January 10 and 17 and March 1 1938
Series 3: National Thursday 8-15pm January 26 to April 27 1939
special: THE RETURN OF MR. MUDDLECOMBE J.P.:
Home Wednesday 7-20pm Dec 13 1939 (45 min)
Series 4 (titled MR. MUDDLECOMBE J.P. – ARP):
Home March 6, March 16, March 20, March 30, April 5 and 11 1940
Series 5: Home/Forces Monday 8-00pm January 20 to March 10 1941
Series 6 (titled OFFICE HOURS):
Forces Thursday 6-30pm September 4 to December 18 1941
recordings of October 30 and November 27 survive
Series 7 (titled MR. MUDDLECOMBE AT HOME):
Home/Forces Saturday 8-45pm April 25 to May 16 1942
recording of May 9 survives
Series 8 (titled TAKE A NOTE):
Forces or Home Thursday 10-10pm December 3 to 17 and 31 1942 (20 min)
Series 9 (titled MR. MUDDLE, PRIVATE DETECTIVE):
Light Monday 9-15pm April 22 to June 10 1946
Series 10: Light Monday 10-15pm October 11 to November 29 1948 (20 min)
recording of November 22 survives
Other regular appearances
MONDAY NIGHT AT EIGHT:
Home Monday 8-00pm January 11 to March 29 1943 (60 min)
Robb Wilton appeared in a regular segment titled A MATTER OF FORM
Series 1: Forces Tuesday 7-15pm October 10 to November 28 1944 (45 min)
Series 2: Forces Tuesday 7-15pm February 13 to May 29 1945 (45 min)
recording of April 3 1945 survives
THE LEISURE HOUR:
Light Wednesday 8-15pm July 2 to August 20 1952
and Wednesday 8-00pm July 29 to September 2 1953
Robb Wilton appeared in a regular segment as Councillor Muddlecome J.P.
Robb Wilton is also known to have appeared in the following broadcasts:
KING PINS OF COMEDY: Home Tuesday 10-30am June 3 1941 (15 min) Robb interviewed
VARIETY BANDBOX: Light Sunday 5-00pm August 22 1948 (60 min)
FESTIVAL OF VARIETY: Light Sunday 7-30pm May 6 1951 (2 hours) a recording survives
THE BIG SHOW: Light Sunday 8-30pm September 16 1951 (90 min) NBC co-production
CHRISTMAS PARADE: Home Saturday 7-45pm December 29 1951 (75 min)
VARIETY FANFARE: Light Thursday 8-00pm April 10 1952 (45 min)
MUSIC HALL: Home Saturday 8-00pm June 7 1952 (60 min)
BLACKPOOL NIGHT: Light Wednesday 9-15pm September 3 1952 (45 min)
PLEASURE BOAT: Light Sunday 9-00pm May 3 1953 (60 min)
VARIETY PLAYHOUSE: Home Saturday 8-00pm November 5 1955 (60 min)
SAY IT WITH MUSIC: Light Saturday 9-00pm December 17 1955 (60 min) a recording survives
CALL BOY: Light Wednesday 9-15pm June 13 1956 (45 min)
BLACKPOOL NIGHT: Light Wednesday August 15 1956 a recording survives
HALL OF FAME
R4 Thursday 11-50am August 15 1974 (10 min): Robb Wilton
ASKEY’S HALL OF FAME
R4 Sunday 9-05pm June 22 1980 (10 min): Robb Wilton
R2 Wednesday 10-00pm June 22 1988 (15 min): Stanley Holloway & Robb Wilton
HOW TICKLED AM I?
R4 Tuesday 11-30am August 22 2000: Robb Wilton
I Should Say So / Goodnight, Everybody, Goodnight
(both September 18 1931)
The Fire Station (parts 1 and 2)
(September 24 1931)
Sterno 833, Solex SX 122
The Police Station (parts 1 and 2)
(September 24 1931)
Sterno 851, Solex SX 150, Regal Zonophone MR 2545
The Home Guard (parts 1 and 2)
(September 6 1943)
Columbia FB 2960
The Munitions Worker (parts 1 and 2)
(September 6 1943)
Columbia FB 2974
50 Years of Radio Comedy
BBC LP REC 138M
features 2 minute extract from the August 15 1956 Blackpool Night broadcast
Robb Wilton’s War
Pavilion/Flapper CD PAST CD 7854
I Should Say So
Goodnight, Everybody, Goodnight
The Fire Station
The Police Station
The Home Guard
The Munitions Worker
The Food Controller (October 23 1942 from Break For Music broadcast)
The Home Guard (April 21 1942 performance at Windsor Castle)
The Day Hostilities Terminated (1945 Radio Parade #4 transcription disc)
plus tracks by Frank Randle and Billy Russell