Winning the Title Race

A personal memoir on revue title selection in the early years of LURG
by Lawson B. Wakefield

When Shakespeare called one of his comedies "Much Ado About Nothing" he anticipated the impassioned squabbles that LURG revue title selection would provoke. Choosing show titles became akin to a competitive sport. In that context, I'd like to offer a personal memoir on the subject, couched in the metaphor of cricket.

Opening the batting

As we took the field, in the winter of 1976, I was only recently past my 18th birthday. My naivety knew no limits. When Keith, our captain, asked the team what we were going to call the show, I was caught off-guard (I should've taken middle and leg). "This thing has to have a title?", I asked myself. Without a moments thought, I blurted out "Can We Have Our Money Back?" So far as I can remember, this was a title suggestion, not a demand for reimbursement. To my surprise, this received a favourable reaction. I think it was seen as "self-deprecating" (I probably had to look up what that meant afterwards). CWHOMB was duly chosen as LURG's first show title. I was off the mark, with a quick single. I had avoided a duck. And where else would you encounter that phrase, outside of a strained cricketing metaphor or "Mallard Evasion Monthly" ?

While I was delighted that the Group had chosen "Can We Have Our Money Back?", it should have provided a salutary lesson in title selection : Never give a reviewer a stick to beat you with. In his URB review, James Pringle (ironically, later a LURG member himself) said of the show "On Wednesday evening I went along to the Chaplaincy Centre to see Can We Have Our Money Back?, which is what the audience could have said ...". Despite this chastening putdown, we repeated the mistake in later selections. You could say that we kept bowling bouncers, when the overhead conditions cried out for reverse swing (OK, OK ... I'll dial the cricket schtick down a bit).

Naval humour

By the time of the second show, we'd all had time to prepare. The comedian's competitive instincts were kicking in. My offering in the title race was "The Left Handed Screwdriver Show", a suggestion that was as cumbersome as it was left-field. It was actually a nod to my dad. When he was conscripted into the RN Fleet Air Arm in 1943, he served as an electrician in what was then Ceylon. [This was a classic example of the oxymoron known as military intelligence. My dad's electrical skills were such that he later managed to throw himself half way across our kitchen when repairing the wiring.] He once told me of an initiation rite that green recruits like himself were treated to, early in their Naval career. They would be sent to the stores to request a left-handed screwdriver. The gullible victim would return empty handed, but with an earful of choice naval language from the Quartermaster. Of course, this backstory was completely lost on fellow LURG members. By rights the suggestion should have been dismissed, first ball. However, the candidate titles were being listed on a blackboard (in Lonsdale Small LT, if memory serves) in Keith's inimitably bold hand writing. The impossible length of my offering was such that he ran out of space just as he wrote "The Left Handed Screw". This prompted much puerile laughter and a winning vote, in a wilful act of defiance in the face of common sense. I'd bagged a brace. The series score was Wakefield 2 Rest of the World 0.

Moving up market

The third show of 1976 was to be our first full revue in the Nuffield. A title which suited the up-market change of venue was needed. My Lancaster-centric submission was "The Free Tenth Unit". I seem to recall it was viewed as a "clever" title, probably the only time that adjective was ever applied to my work with LURG. Astonishingly, I triumphed again, completing a remarkable hat-trick. However, if our objective was elevated sophistication, I have absolutely no idea what message the chimp in the full-page Scan ad was supposed to convey. Anyway, it was Wakefield 3 RoW 0.

A dip in form

As the year ticked into 1977, changes were afoot. For a start, the team had a new captain (his name slips my mind). Far more importantly, two things happened on the title selection front. Firstly, those of you who have been paying attention may have noticed the absence of puns in the Group's first three titles. That was about to change. More ominously, a "stop-Wakefield" bandwagon began to roll. Vote for anything so long as the megalomaniac Wakefield didn't suggest it, became the order of the day. And so it was that George Green's "When The Boot Goes In" delivered the sucker pun-ch, sending me back to the pavilion amid the pun-gent smell of disappointment and initiating a rarely pun-ctuated run of pun-based titles which were to become LURG's stock in trade. That said, it was a rather good title. When The Boat Comes In was a very popular TV drama of the time. The title variant suggested parody and satire, so it did two jobs in one. A comedy "caught and bowled", if you will.

As the 1977 shows came thick and fast (now there's a good title we missed ...), it became clear I'd lost my touch. Keith's "Golden Mouldies" was chosen for the pre-Edinburgh Nuffield best-of, with little opposition. A perfunctory, "does what it says on the tin" title, it maintained the new pun-based theme.

The title for the Edinburgh show was a more difficult affair. This was our first tilt at the "big time", so it was important to get it right. Except we didn't. The next winner on the pun conveyor belt was "Haley's Vomit", a repeat failure from previous votes suggested by a non-LURG member called Dave Holmes. This was perceived as "edgy" and sat well with the 1977 punk rock zeitgeist, but was problematic on multiple levels. First was promotion. Advertising a show in Edinburgh is notoriously difficult, but the good burghers of that fine city were none too keen to put puke-dripping posters in their shop windows. To make matters worse we produced an apologetic dayglo green poster proclaiming "A cosmic comedy experience. Not a sick show." The second problem was more prosaic. As president, I was responsible for much of the show's non-creative admin, including publicity. I mentioned my youthful naivety earlier. This extended to not knowing how to spell "Halley". My only exposure to the name had been via the dreadful Bill Haley and the Comets. I'm surprised I didn't spell the show as "Haley's Vomet". As if all of this weren't bad enough, we had forgotten the cautionary lesson of the first show. Don't make it easy for the reviewer. "As much impact as a mildly sick cat" wrote the reviewer in the Festival Times and "stars didn't twinkle" was the Evening News verdict. Thankfully none of the reviews said "they can't even spell". We retreated to Lancaster like an England test team returning from a 5-0 Ashes drubbing.

Nun too clever

The fourth show of 1977 was probably a revue too far. A severe post-Edinburgh malaise set in, as we lost numerous battle hardened veterans to a mixture of graduation and sabbatical. The slump seemed to extend to title selection. By now I had succumbed to the punfest. My worst title suggestion yet, "Nuns and Lovers", somehow won on a second ballot (or possibly, on the Duckworth Lewis method). The ball had trickled over the boundary for four.

A long time ago in a supermarket far, far away ....

The beginning of 1978 brought yet another impending arrival, needing a name. By now, there was palpable irritation at the frequency of my title successes. When I arrived late at the Wednesday meeting of 18/Jan, the selection process was already underway, presumably in an attempt to scupper my chances. Despite this gerrymandering, my last minute entry of "Spar Wars" swept to victory on the first ballot. At the time, the first Star Wars film was taking the world by storm and the Bailrigg-centric pun was a perfect fit. It remains my proudest title achievement, a thumping middle stump yorker. In another time, I would have held a cricket ball aloft to acknowledge my fifer ("five-for"). Thankfully, nobody had invented that ridiculous cricketing conceit in 1978. The show's title also inspired some of LURG's best ever publicity artwork. The Spar Wars poster, drawn by Richard Burns, was an excellent parody of the Star Wars original. Luke Skywalker morphed into Bert Lion, our mascot of the time, flanked by two old biddies clutching Spar carrier bags instead of light sabres. Bizarrely, the choice of title provoked some nervousness among the exec, regarding the possible negative attitude of the Spar manageress. Mike Day, then VP, wrote to Spar HQ asking for permission to use the name. A remarkably relaxed response allayed fears on this front, which was wholly ironic. In the years to come, Lucasfilm proved to be notoriously litigious ("off you the arse sue we will" being their apparent corporate motto). From this perspective in history, it seems beyond hilarious that we were more worried about Spar than George Lucas.

Mum's the word

The last show I had any say in naming was our second tilt at the Edinburgh windmill in the summer of 78. Very conscious of the previous year's Vomit-gate, we over-compensated with the innocuous "Lancashire Hot Pot". Weirdly, we had Keith's mum to thank for this one. It seems our parents gave us names and revue titles. Unfortunately, it still failed to address the perennial reviewer/stick conundrum. "Every cook knows that a Lancashire hot pot can easily turn into a tasteless mush" sneered the Evening News review. Our focus on fixing the previous year's failings was arguably our undoing. Maybe we should have doubled down and called it "The Puke of Edinburgh". Hats off to whoever came up with "Socks and Violence" for LURG's 1989 Edinburgh revue. As puns go, that was a belter.

Final score controversy

And that was me done with on the title front. I hung around the periphery of the Group for another year, like the proverbial bad smell, eventually bidding a final farewell in June 79. Five title successes was a record to be proud of and probably never equalled ... but there's a twist in the tale.

Each year after our release back into the wild, a handful of old hacks would meet up at Lancaster, to watch what had become the annual LURG Nuffield show (a far cry from when we started, doing three campus shows a year plus a trip to Edinburgh, before getting up at 3 a.m. to lick t' road clean, etc. etc. ... I digress). The shows and their titles varied considerably in terms of quality, but the 1988 revue took me by surprise. It was called "Where Beagles Dare". Not a bad title, a good pun. I should know, because I'd come up with it more than a decade earlier ! I'd watched it crash and burn in two title votes, trailing to "Haley's Vomit" and "Nuns and Lovers" respectively. However, I had no way of proving it was mine and had to allow for the possibility of coincidence. It wasn't until 30 years later, when a stash of old LURG scrapbooks were recovered from Theatre Group's office, that the truth dawned on me. One of the scrapbooks contained my original agenda from the LURG Meeting of 4/May/1977 listing the candidates for our Edinburgh debut. There it was, in red ink in my own handwriting, "Where Beagles Dare". Given that LURG and TG shared an office, it's safe to assume that our successors in the Group "recycled" the idea. So, after digital review by the third umpire (who bears an uncanny resemblance to myself), the ball is adjudged to have fallen just beyond the boundary rope for six. Howzat ?

LBW March/2024

I considered calling this article "Putting The Tit Into Title", but decided that kind of adolescent smut was beneath a man of my advanced years. Then I thought sod it, put it at the bottom of the article, no-one will bother reading all the way down there ...