PERFORMERS: MARTY FELDMAN

Born: July 8 1934
Died: December 2 1982

martyfeldmanby PETER TATCHELL (reprinted from LAUGH MAGAZINE #12, 1995)

For a handful of years in the late 1960s he was the funniest man on television. But Marty Feldman wanted to be a movie star and set off on a quest for big screen immortality which would ultimately cause his downfall.

Marty was born in London’s East End in 1933, the son of a Jewish dressmaker. He left school at the age of fifteen for a life in show business. By his late teens his love of comedy and jazz led him to form a knockabout stage act with two friends called Morris, Marty And Mitch, very much under the influence of Hollywood heroes like the Marx Brothers and Olsen And Johnson. They were enthusiastic, but not a success.

He met Barry Took in 1954 and the pair found common ground in their sense of humour. They gravitated to writing (and occasionally appearing on) several early A.T. V. programmes in the early days of commercial television.

By the end of the 1950s, Feldman was part of the team scripting radio’s Educating Archie and Took was supplying material for Beyond Our Ken and the final series of Take It From Here. Unable to work with partner Eric Merriman on the latter, Took asked Marty to assist him (uncredited) on the parts of the show he had to supply, in particular the Glums segments.

As a result, Took and Feldman were also invited to contribute scripts for the Harry Worth/Peter Jones radio pro-gramme We’re In Business (which also featured Irene Handl and Dick Emery) and Granada’s top-rating television series The Army Game (then in its fourth season).

The popularity of two of that show’s characters, Sgt. Major Claud Snudge (played by Bill Fraser) and Private Bisley (Alfie Bass), led to a spinoff series Bootsie And Snudge, and Feldman and Took were assigned to be the chief writers. Re-locating the ex-army types to an exclusive London club (with Clive Dunn as a doddery waiter and Robert Dorning as the establishment’s hon. sec.) soon had the show the most watched on British television, but there were problems on the horizon.

By the end of the first season (in mid-1961), Marty had become noticeably erratic in his behaviour and eventually insisted on working alone. Took had to bring in other writers to ensure the required number of scripts would be forthcoming and only after several months of frustration, did he discover his partner was suffering a severe hyperthyroid condition.

Urgent treatment and convalescence resulted in Marty’s full recovery, but the operation caused a noticeable bulging of his eyes as an unavoidable side-effect. At the time, it was most distressing, but in later years it would be a huge advantage when he went back to performing.

Feldman resumed working with Took, and the two helped resurrect Frankie Howerd’s flagging career with material for guest spots and on radio. Marty eventually left Bootsie And Snudge to his partner (preferring to confront new challenges) and in a freelance capacity contributed a number of one-off episodes for B.B.C. television’s Comedy Playhouse series.

Titles included Nicked At The Bottle, Good Luck Sir – You Got A Lucky Face, Here I Come – Whoever I Am and Judgement Day For Elijah Jones. With Barry Took he scripted The Walrus And The Carpenter, Barnaby Spoot And The Exploding Whoopee Cushion, Memoirs Of A Chaise Longue and two not produced for several years Tooth And Claw and The Making Of Peregrine. The Playhouse series was primarily a testing ground for prospective sitcoms, but only The Walrus And The Carpenter (with Felix Aylmer and Hugh Griffith) led to a spinoff season, although it was a dud with viewers.

Other B.B.C. TV projects at the time included a series called Barney Is My Darling (with Irene Handl and Bill Fraser) and several Terry Scott Scott On … specials (Scott On Birds, Scott On Money and Scott On Food).

Took and Feldman’s most successful venture of the mid-1960s was the B.B.C. radio programme Round The Horne, the new series for Kenneth Horne and his Beyond Our Ken cast. It became enormously popular and, forty years later, recordings of the show sell in huge numbers.

In 1966, Marty was asked to be chief writer for David Frost’s new BBCTV series The Frost Report (which launched John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett on successful careers). In a writing sense, the show included many names who also influenced the future of British comedy … Barry Cryer, Dick Vosburgh, Neil Shand and prospective Pythons Michael Palm and Terry Jones, among others.

The Frost Report was a milestone for all concerned and after an initial thirteen episode run, Frost decided to finance his three main performers in individual projects for commercial television. In the case of John Cleese, it was to be a sketch comedy series called At Last The 1948 Show (the title being a veiled dig at the procrastination of programme planners).

The programme was in effect a visual linking of the brains behind the two top radio comedies of the 1960s … I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again (which starred Cleese and Tim Brooke Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie) and Feldman and Took’s Round The Horne. In addition to Cleese and Brooke Taylor and fellow Cambridge Footlights alumnus Graham Chapman, Cleese shocked Frost by suggesting Marty Feldman himself should be part of the performing team.

Any reticence anyone may have had about Feldman’s looks quickly vanished when the show got under way. His strange little man character was a huge success and he more than held his own in the company of his illustrious fellow cast members (who went on to triumphs in such programmes as Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Goodies).

Despite being a victim of unfortunate programming decisions on the commercial television networks around Britain (resulting in London being the only area to get all episodes), At Last The 1948 Show produced a remarkably high standard of material throughout its two seasons (for a total of thirteen episodes). Made at the end of the black-and-white era, the programme also enjoyed screenings on Australian television.

It is particularly disappointing to note that all but one of the recordings were subsequently junked. Happily, some decades later, three additional episodes have surfaced, as well as five “best-of” editions (preserved by a Swedish TV company!). With most of the 1948 Shows out of circulation in the years after its demise, a large number of the scripts were performed again by The Two Ronnies (on television) and by various Monty Python cast members in various stage productions throughout the 1970s (see an itemisation below).

For Feldman, At Last The 1948 Show was a huge career boost, and he was offered his own sketch-comedy series on BBC2 the following year. Two series of Marty were made (in colour) with a supporting cast of Tim Brooke-Taylor, John Junkin and Roland Macleod. A half-hour compilation of highlights subsequently won an award at the Montreux festival.

Marty had a much higher budget than its Rediffusion predecessor, and Feldman could indulge in a number of clever outdoor routines highlighting a day in the life of a stuntman, a long-distance golfer and a henpecked husband (all paying homage to the great days of silent movies).

Television success led to roles on the cinema screen as well. He appeared with an all-star cast in The Bed Sitting Room in 1969 before starring in his own vehicle Every Home Should Have One, about the tribulations of being an advertising executive. It would be the last time he and Barry Took wrote together, and the venture suffered from excesses of ego and inexperience on both sides of the camera.

By a strange quirk of fate, Marty also made his debut on American television soon after. Not because of his film work, but as a result of producers there having seen copies of his BBC2 series (sent out routinely by B.B.C. Enterprises to encourage programme bookings). Several sketches were subsequently aired on the then-popular Dean Martin Show on N.B.C. to such acclaim that Marty himself was invited to appear on the programme. The sight of Feldman in dinner jacket (as was customary for guests on the show) was quite a novelty in itself. In one episode he and the host performed the door-to-door undertaker skit (from At Last The 1948 Show).

But before that, in 1970 Marty was signed as a regular on the Martin show’s summer-season replacement The Golddiggers In London, which ran for nine editions on N.B.C. until major programming was set to resume that September.

A year later, Britain’s A.T.V. decided to capitalise on Feldman’s success on both sides of the Atlantic by financing a series of hour long programmes called The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine (with a supporting cast of Spike Milligan, Orson Welles, dancer Tommy Tune, Bob Todd and Hugh Paddick). The result though was an uneven mix of various comedy styles and (despite having some nice moments) had nowhere near the consistency of his earlier efforts. A 30-minute compilation did win another award at Montreux, however.

Taking a break from television, Marty toured Australia in early 1972 and appeared on stage with a selection of favourite TV routines. One of the local networks signed him for a special during the visit as well.
Feldman was back at the B.B.C. in early 1974 for a series called Marty Back Together Again. In an attempt to recapture the glory of his earlier series, all the stops were pulled out to promote the project . . . he even appeared on the front cover of the Radio Times.

Despite all the hype, the show lacked the writing talent of the 1960’s venture and was prepared to rework earlier material (even the Undertaker resurfaced, and each episode featured the star performing a classic Tom Lehrer composition from a decade before). Amid some offscreen clashes of egos during production only five editions made it to air and the programme was not seen outside Britain.

Soon after the television disappointment, Marty Feldman embarked on a significant career change. Mel Brooks signed him to play the hunchback to Gene Wilder’s hero in his burlesque of horror movies, Young Frankenstein. And Marty was in his element, a film star on a Hollywood backlot appearing in a major motion picture by a leading American director.

Young Frankenstein was a successful moneyearner for 20th Century-Fox and Wilder asked him to take part in his first directorial effort soon after, The Adventure Of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. Marty also appeared in a segment of the Italian 40° In The Shade (aka Sex With A Smile). Brooks wanted Feldman for his next production Silent Movie, a loving lampoon of an even earlier genre of tinseltown. This time Marty was cast as a Ben Turpin-like clown whose eyes are his most notable comedic asset.

Having made three major motion pictures, Marty Feldman was now ready to sit in the director’s chair himself and convinced Universal to finance several projects, beginning with The Last Remake Of Beau Geste. With Michael York, Terry-Thomas, Peter Ustinov, Spike Milligan and Feldman himself, it was more of a remake of The Three Feathers than the title suggested, and was notable for a clever piece of editing which saw Marty having a conversation with Gary Cooper in footage from the original. The device would later be used in the Steve Martin film, Dead Men Don‘t Wear Plaid.

With only a modest return from his first venture, Universal hoped the follow-up In God We Trust (a religious satire) might be better received. Unfortunately, not all roads down the Life Of Brian trail were paved with yellow brick, and the movie turned out to be a disaster.

Feldman was distraught when Universal cancelled the contract for future projects and in his despair he swallowed an overdose of pills as a quick way out. Luckily, medical help was able to revive him, but his career in Hollywood was over.

As he tried to rebuild his life, he agreed to take minor roles in a couple of forthcoming productions . . . the Jerry Lewis/Madeline Kahn Slapstick (Of Another Kind) and then in his At Last 1948 Show friend Graham Chapman’s pirate sendup Yellowbeard. Both ended up unsuccessful vehicles for their participants, but in Marty’s case it didn’t matter. The day after he’d completed his scenes on the Chapman venture, he suffered a heart attack in his Mexico hotel room and died, aged forty-nine. A decade of living the Hollywood life (with its drink, drugs and an excessive daily intake of nicotine) had caught up with the gifted funnyman and any future plaudits would have to come from recordings of the great moments of his heyday in the 1960s.

TELEVISION

AT LAST THE 1948 SHOW
(Associated-Rediffusion) b/w
Cast: Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Marty Feldman and Aimi MacDonald
Series #1: February 15 to March 22 1967 (6 x 25 min)
Series #2: September 26 to November 7 1967 (7 x 25 min)

(see separate file for itemizations and merchandising)

MARTY
(BBC2) colour
Cast: Marty Feldman, Tim Brooke-Taylor, John Junkin, Roland Macleod and Mary Miller
Series #1: April 29 to June 3 1968 (6 x 30 min)
1  Ticket Agency/Bishop/The Candidate/Police 6⅞/Vet’s Waiting Room/A Hard Day’s Night
Irritation/Little Old Couple – Travel Agency/A Day In The Life Of A Stuntman/Parliamentary Report/Lady Chatterly/Eat Your Prunes/Tabletop Battleground/Whiffenpoof Song
3  Weather Report/No-one’s Perfect (song)/Royalty At Soccer Match/Traffic/Salome/Headmaster Visits/The Yechh/Feet (song)
4  Dr. Jekyll/Little Old Couple 2: Marriage Councellor/Weighing Machine/The Wedding/Egyptian Statues/Bullfighter Policeman/Ballet/My Father’s Shirt (song)
5  Eye-O-Fry/The Gnome/The Sentry/House Flies/Who Are The Black And White Minstrels?/Father And Son/Opera Without Music
6  Is It True What They Say About Dixie?/Hospital Visitor/Driving Instructor/Backchat/Woodworm/Country Tavern/Flo­rist Jungle

Series #2: December 9 1968 to January 13 1969 (6 x 30 min)
* the order of programmes is based on the overseas transmission package, but the original BBC airing may have been 1, 3, 4, 2, 5 and 6
1  B.B.C. Apology/May I Paint You In The Nude?/Lightning Coach Tour/Soccer Commentator/The Loneliness Of A Long-Distance Golfer/Newspaper Expose/The Battle Of Britain’s Taxis
2  Dixon Of Dock Green/Little Old Couple 3 Post Office/Fritz von Angst/The Stuntman On Holi­day/My Kingdom For A Horse/The Seance
3  Z-Cars/Insurance Policy/Kiss Me Hardy/Super Midwife/Serbian Restaurant/The Shooting Of Flicka/Holiday Movies/Population Explo­sion/Henry V/Late Night Call From Mother/Is It Wrong To Love An Elephant? (song)/The Curse Of The Mandervilles/Flying Rabbi
4  (exists in b/w only) Orchestrated Coughing/Television Censorship/Obituary To David Frost/Telephone Callers/Pas De Deux/Danny Gruntfuttock/Carols
5  Mr. Christian/House Welcomer/Clothists/Football Reun­ion/Headmaster’s Office/French Song For Sauce Lovers/Auction/Newsreader/A Life In The Clergy/Hospital Visitor
6 Call Marty Feldman/Wine Treaders/The Fly/Short-sighted Driver/Science Lecture/Cost Of Living/Punch And Judy

Montreux Edition: March 17 1969 (30m “best of”)
incl. Lightning Coach Tour/Vet’s Waiting Room/A Day In The Life Of A Stuntman/No-one’s Perfect (song)/May I Paint You In The Nude?/The Loneliness Of A Long-Distance Golfer/ A Hard Day’s Night

MARTY AMOK: BBC1 March 30 1970 (45m)
Restaurant/Bookshop/Long-Distance Bowler/Judge/Royal Handicap/Cockpit/Atilla The Hun/Buying A Double Bed/Changing Cubicles/Reality In The Cinema

*** only two complete episodes (1/2 and 1/5) plus the sketches italicized exist from series 1.
The second season, the Montreux edition, plus Marty Amok also survive.

 

RECORDINGS

Marty
Pye LP NPL 18258
Irritation
Weighing Machine
Ticket Agency
Father And Son
Police Notice
God
Woodworm
Headmaster
Lady Chatterly
Weather Forecast
Funny He Never Married
Eye-O-Fry
Travel Agency
Parliamentary Report
Eat Your Prunes
Bishop
Ballet
Salome

Funny He Never Married/Travel Agency
Pye single 7N 17643

I Feel A Song Going Off
Decca LP LK/SKL 4983, SPA 134 (The Crazy World Of Marty Feldman)
studio vocals of songs, several of which were featured in MARTY:
Waltzing With You
District Nurse Hargreaves
The World’s In Rhyme
The Elephant Song
Eurovision Song
Ilford Town Hall
Kensington High Street
La Sauce
There’s A Little Part Of Me
Psychedelic Rubbish
The Five To Eleven Waltz
Mavis Wavertree
You Without Me
The Great Bell
Death
The Back Of Your Neck
My Father’s Shirt
Please Let Me Love You
Bayswater Road
Cautious Love Song
French Folk-song
No Nuts
Loo
Eternity

A Joyous Time Of Year/The B Side
Decca single F 17285

VIDEO/DVD

It’s Marty
B.B.C. Video BBCV 5360 (reissued as DVD)(64m)
Irritation
A Day In The Life Of A Stuntman
Bishop
Newspaper Expose
The Loneliness Of A Long Distance Golfer
May I Paint You In The Nude?
Travel Agency
Wine Treading
The Gnome
World Cup 1966
Vet’s Waiting Room
Florist Jungle
Lightning Coach Tour
Eat Your Prunes
A Hard Day’s Night
French Song For Sauce Lovers
Long Distance Bowler
Restaurant
The Battle Of Britain’s Taxis

 

Later Television Work

THE GOLDDIGGERS IN LONDON
N.B.C. July 16 to September 10 1970 (9 x 50 min)
Cast: Charles Nelson Reilly, Marty Feldman, Tommy Tune, Julian Chagrin and the Golddiggers

MARTY ABROAD
BBC2 January 1 1971 (40 min)

THE MARTY FELDMAN COMEDY MACHINE
A.T.V. October 1 1971 to January 14 1972 (14 x 50 min)
Cast: Marty Feldman, Spike Milligan, Orson Welles, Hugh Paddick and Bob Todd
Montreux edition: February 15 1972 (30 min “best of”)

THE MARTY FELDMAN SPECIAL
9 Network, Australia July 31 1972 (60 min)

MARTY BACK TOGETHER AGAIN
BBC1 February 20 to March 27 1974 (not on Mar 6) (5 x 30 min)
Cast: Marty Feldman, James Villiers and Derek Griffiths

Books

MARTY FELDMAN – THE BIOGRAPHY OF A COMEDY LEGEND
by Robert Ross (Titan, London. 2011) 

eYE MARTY – THE NEWLY DISCOVERED AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A COMIC GENIUS
by Marty Feldman (Hodder & Stoughton/Coronet, London. 2015) 

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