Back in 1975, Don Estelle and Windsor Davis sold the best part of half a million copies of their song Whispering Grass off the back of their characters in the sitcom "It Ain't Half Hot, Mum". Estelle, as Gunner "Lofty" Sugden, was a competent actor and a gifted singer, and enjoyed a successful double act with Davis as a result of the song's success. I should know, I've got a copy somewhere, for I was nine-years-old and thought it the funniest thing on the planet.
Estelle died in 2003, having fallen off the British public's radar to such an extent that he was singing and flogging records in shopping centres. It was in his final years that he put the finishing touches to his autobiography: Sing Lofty - Thoughts of a Gemini, widely regarded as the worst (and rarest) of the genre. Encouraged by TV, radio and all-the-excellent-things-in-life's Danny Baker to climb over the dead bodies of your nearest and dearest to get hold of a copy of this bitter literary marvel, I coughed up a 50p reservation fee to have it fished out of Hampshire County Libraries storage facility, and I was not disappointed. It is - to use the language of the professional book reviewer - shit.
I should point out that Estelle comes across as a decent chap who loved making music, enjoyed the friendship of people, and lived to work. This review is not meant to be an attack on the man himself, it's just that his book is - by some distance - the worst I have ever read. And that includes the Dan Brown paperback I once threw out of a train window. So bad, that I took seven pages of notes, and I NEVER research or take notes for any of the crap I write.
Where do you start? The ridiculous third-person introduction? The fact that he doesn't even mention his birth name (Ronald Edwards) until page 98? The sudden and meaningless rants against modern society, and constant changes of direction for no reason at all? The final 100 pages being the world's most boring list of professonal dates which might as well been copied straight from his desk diary? The grand total of three showbiz anecdotes, one of which appears twice? The repeated, unending praise for Rochdale Town Hall, one of the finest in the country?
Or the bitterness? God, the bitterness. He's bitter about his lack of chances, the work slowly drying up, show business moving on without him, and, boy does it show.
"Maybe it's not a real book at all," says Jane, "It's probably one of those cypher books spies use to decode secret messages."
She has a point, and I quote: "I went back to give my marriage a second chance, but it didn't work out. About the same time, speed king Donald Campbell was killed in his Bluebird."
"Yep," she said, "that's the KGB telling somebody to bring down the French government."
"Or spare Rochdale Town Hall if there's an invasion"
And that's one of the things about Thoughts of a Gemini. It's an autobiography, but Estelle gives virtually nothing away bar his enthusiam for Rochdale Town Hall, one of the finest in the country. If you want a timeline of his life, fine. But if you want to know the name of his first wife, you're out of luck. The marriage lasted for several years, and even produced children (but I'm not entirely sure how many, or what their names are), but it is given little more than a page in his memoir. Even his time on two of the BBC's best known sitcoms - Dad's Army and It Ain't Half Hot, Mum - are given little more than a passing nod except for repeated thanks to the writers. Eight series of "Hot Mum", and one low-quality showbiz tale to show for it. You actually consider yourself lucky when he recounts how Jim Davidson made him corpse during a panto, that's how desperate it gets
It is abundantly clear that once words were typed they became sacred and uneditable. There is no other explanation for his not wanting to talk about a disastrous house move on one page, followed by a blow-by-blow account several pages later, And the same goes for sudden half page rants about the modern world, before snapping back to subject as if nothing had happened. Estelle thanks an editor on the penultimate page, so one can only assume what the original draft was like. Possibly the same.
By the time the memoir reaches 1986, he's dialling it in. The whole year is seen off in 48 words. Famous names flash by, including a stint working with Dudley Moore. But not a word on what it was actually like. "1987 was a very happy year for me," he says of the following year, and leaves it at that. If I were not so determined to see the book through to the end, it would have gone out of the window at that point.
I've read Thoughts of a Gemini cover-to-cover, usually with my mouth opening and closing like a goldfish in complete shock. Yes, it's terrible. But you can't help feel a pang of sympathy for poor Don as he chronicles his declining fortune, calamatous property deals and repeated Groundhog Day apearances at the Spalding Flower Festival. It is a book with any sort of theme, jumping as it does from episode to unrelated episode to Spalding and back again. But if there was a message to take away from this, there are four. Five, if your mission is to big-up Rochdale Town Hall.
- When writing a memoir, always include the full postal address of any venue you visit
- Modern life is rubbish
- Don't get your hopes up
- Books should be concluded with the word "FINIS"
"Why," Jane asks, "Why do you read such terrible books when there's so much wonderful stuff out there?"
My answer is simple: "It's an object lesson in how not to write badly. About four books too late for me, mind you."
Some Thoughts of a Gemini
Read each quote, then immediately think "Then I played [Insert full postal address of theatre or club] and [full name of manager] was [OK/fine/a jumped-up moron]", as this is how they invariably appear in the book
"The tight-crutched, white-trousered morons who rule the roost know as much about entertainment as a visiting Martian. There are others who sound like they are swinging from their genitals, if they have any sex gender at all."
On modern TV
"Working in TV is like a public toilet. Nobody is there long enough to make it their own."
"Insults and down-right rudeness, and suggestive sex garbage which reflects their stinking minds. The sicker it is, the more the tight-cructched morons in white pants called producers like it."
On the BBC
"Faceless wonders masquerading as BBC executives... Blinkered, nose-bag accountants lurking behind the scene. They insult us, the paying public"
On modern music (and he might actually have a point)
"Aimed at the bestial, basic, sex mad, drunken louts with an IQ of morons."
On modern society
"Duplicated clones who walk about looking like one another... Self-assertive, confident, unsmiling, saying 'Look at my even larger CV and ego coming out of my head'. Head is the wrong word, of course, but you know what I mean."
On Rochdale and the finest Town Hall in the country
"The people are warm and friendly, and it has what I consider one of the finest town halls in the country."
On falling down a manhole in Moscow while staring at a passing pair of breasts
"Ladies certainly make the world go round, don't they?"
On life in general
"We are just so much mashed potato"
On the passing of the years
"Doesn't time go quickly? It's like being on an express train, which you are - A Time Train!"
On the last word in the book