Kenneth Western: Music Hall Star Extraordinaire

Kenneth Western: Music Hall Star Extraordinaire

 

Never heard of him?  Well, he and his cousin George made up the “Western Brothers,” a clever and slightly subversive act that was popular for decades and had as one of its fans, no less a person than Edward VIII. He is remembered fondly by those who know of his work and there are plaques on the wall at Bedford Cemetery and at 59 De Parys Avenue celebrating his life.

The Western Brothers’ style was probably influential in later acts such as Flanders and Swann (come on, you must have heard of them), Hinge and Bracket and even Fascinating Aida. Nowadays, such entertainment might be an acquired taste, but stick with it and you’ll find it rather clever, such as in one of their most famous efforts “Play The Game You Cads.”
The Western Brothers sing “Play The Game You Cads” Pathe short 1933 – YouTube

Born in 1899, and following his short and unremarkable career as a Civil Servant, he and George became after-dinner entertainers in the mid-1920s, and quickly became popular for their tongue-in-cheek songs which gently ribbed the haughty Upper Class. Dressed in dinner jackets, sporting monocles and singing with an Upper-Class Twit drawl, their songs brought them success in music halls, radio, clubs such as Quaglinos (home of the “in crowd”) and at two Royal Command performances. On a wave of popularity, they appeared in the 1934 film “Mr Cinders” and “Radio Parade of 1935,” and often appeared in Pathe Newsreel shorts.

George provided the music and played the piano while Kenneth sang the lyrics, mostly written by him, and generally he had the punchlines. Normally they would start a performance with “Good Evening cads, your better selves are with you once again” and end with “Do look after yourselves, there are very few of us left you know” or “Cheerio cads.”

Their mickey-taking of their “betters” (the “old school tie” and “the cads”) was rarely criticised by those it targeted, although they did have a run-in with the Greek embassy at one point, clashed with the BBC fairly often, and they had to apologise in writing for suggesting nepotism at the heart of the British government. Although their entertainment could be considered subversive and anti-establishment, it was the Establishment itself that made them a success, popular even with those they gently ridiculed. They crafted witty songs that highlighted the issues of the day in much the same way as the “Barron Knights” did later on in the 1960s, changing the words of popular songs to fit in with topical news or scandals.

Their heyday was from the mid-1920s even into the 1950s. During the war they joined other performers to entertain troops in many parts of the world, and perhaps because of this they were still popular when troops came home. You never know, perhaps their ribbing of the kind of people who governed the country struck a chord with voters, who decisively rejected that kind of image in the 1945 election by voting against the stereotype Tories they portrayed.
Of course, tastes in entertainment change over time, and gradually for whatever reason, it became more common for the foibles of working-class people rather than their betters to be highlighted (such as in “Steptoe and Son” and later on, “Till Death Us do Part”). On television, “That Was The Week That Was” took on the role of Establishment-baiting, but it was with a very different approach from that of the Western Brothers.

They still performed countrywide, at the decreasing number of music halls, and occasionally on television, often travelling to venues in their own aeroplane such was their financial capacity. But they didn’t adapt their image, probably realising that their attraction was that they portrayed people who would never move with the times, so if they had changed, they would probably have lost credibility with their long-term fans.

Kenneth lived at Tempsford before the war, moved to Box End and after the war, lived at 59 De Parys Avenue. Finally, he moved to Keysoe into a converted pub. He was married, with four daughters, all of whom had names beginning with the letter “J”. I think you can sense his gentle sense of humour from that.

Until his death he was a well-known and popular face in the Bedford area, happy to open fetes and concerts. When introduced to a stranger he would always have a spontaneous and genuine greeting, with what was an attractive natural cheerfulness. He was genuinely well-liked.

 

He has a memorial plaque on the cemetery wall, next to one for his wife Beatrice. It’s heart-warming to see that his memory is still kept alive by Noelle, Nick and Geoff…clearly fans who appreciate Kenneth’s humour even though it is from another age.

 

 

In his later years he also contributed short “Bedfordshire Ballads” to the Times newspaper, with the following being the last one, received on January 24th 1963, the same day as he died. He died from a stroke during that cold and snowy winter, at a phone box outside St Peter’s church, having rung his wife to say he’d be home soon.

Feed the birds today
If the blast is biting,
Bread is quite okay,
Cake is more inviting.

Bacon rind for thrush.
Curry after sleeting,
Robins in the slush
Favour central heating.

Sparrows are unfair,
Very artful dodgers,
Purloin extra share,
Tackle like “Budge” Rogers.

Coconut will do,
Suet may be chosen,
Frost a record too,
Even eagles frozen.

Your rewards in Spring,
Buds of May are darlings,
Hear the blackbirds sing,
Murmurings of starlings.

 

Readers might be interested in the following link to the commemorative blue plaque to Kenneth Western, located in De Parys Avenue:

Kenneth Western Commemorative Plaque – Digitised Resources – The Virtual Library (culturalservices.net)

 

Sources:

Bedfordshire Times
Bedford Local History Magazine April 2018 (Article by Stuart Antrobus)
Geoff Collins (a fan, who suggested this article)
Virtual Library (Cultural Services)

 

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