Comic without a Clews: centenary of the great Maltese entertainer

RAPHAEL VASSALLO looks back upon almost 70 years of uninterrupted comic genius by the actor, entertainer, playwright and journalist Charles Clews, who died in 2009 at the age of 89

Charles Clews (1909-2009)
Charles Clews (1909-2009)

This article was originally published in MaltaToday on 1 February, 2009 and is reproduced to coincide with a centenary exhibition on Charles Clews

They say that a single, lucky break is all that is needed to get ahead in showbiz.... and Charles Thake – a veteran comic showman in his own right – remembers how the late ‘Chalie’ Clews got his.

“Charles was from L-Isla, like myself, and during the war years he worked as a supervisor at the Dockyard,” he tells me over the phone, just hours after learning that his life-long friend and colleague had passed away. “On his one-hour lunch break, he and Johnny Catania would get together and entertain all the other workers, cracking jokes (‘barzelletti’) and doing impersonations... even during air raids.”

These impromptu Vaudeville-style performances first showcased Clews’ talent for comic scriptwriting; and though they lacked the polish and perfectionism that would characterise his later work, they proved a runaway hit with his beleaguered colleagues... who often worked around the clock under circumstances few of us can even imagine today.

By 1942 the ‘yard was operating under an almost uninterrupted series of aerial bombardments, and Thake recalls how one day an official from the Admiralty Office came along and informed Charles Clews that the Admiral himself had asked to see him.

“He went to the office thinking he had done something wrong; that he was in trouble with the Dockyard management over his sketches,” Thake continues. “They kept him waiting for hours in the corridor; but when he was finally called in, the Admiral sat him in a chair and said: ‘I want to thank you for all the work you’ve done to boost public morale, and to keep people’s spirits up in the face of grave danger...’”

And that, Charles Thake explains, is how the celebrated ‘Stage Commandos’ were born.

To Radio City, and beyond

The war over, Clews left the ‘yard and together with Catania – his closest, but by no means his only collaborator over the years – he proceeded to pummel the Maltese islands with a bombardment all of his own: sketches, musicals, concerts, farces, one-act plays... written mostly by himself, and performed by the likes of Terry Bencini, Johnnie Navarro, Nosì Ghirlando, Vitorin Galea and Josette Ciappara, in theatres and music halls across the country.

Apart from the Stage Commandos, Clews was also the founder and main scriptwriter of the celebrated ‘Radju Moschettieri’: a launching pad for the future careers of other notable actors, including the late Gemma Portelli. And while the stage remains his first true love, Charles Thake hints that Clews was more attuned to radio than any other medium.

“He wasn’t all that good on television, I have to say,” he admits, “But he was extraordinary on radio...”

Charles Clews was extraordinary on another level, too – the sheer enormity of his output. University lecturer Marco Galea compares his prolific work “to that of playwright/directors of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, who were expected to produce fresh scripts week in week out for their eager, if unsophisticated audiences.”

“He brought to radio a style of performance that was probably unknown at the time,” Galea observes. “But perhaps his unrivalled popularity was due to the fact that he was never too ambitious, and therefore very rarely failed. I know only of one instance when he strayed from popular comic theatre and tried writing more serious plays: his Dar fuq ir-Ramel, a critique of social mores that is nowhere near as lively as his comic scripts.”

Well-known comic actor Narcy Calamatta was a teenager back then, and recalls how Clews and his merry ‘musketeers’ had stunned Malta’s otherwise austere radio landscape at the time.

“In those days, the only link to the outside world for anyone in Malta was the BBC with its radio programmes,” he explains. “These included comedy shows by Arthur Askey, The Goons and Educating Archie.”

With such manic mentors, it is hardly surprising that Clews would develop an equally energetic and infectious comic style of his own. But the stroke of genius consisted in his reinvention of the above influences within the context of traditional folklore staples such as ‘ghana spirtu pront’, to produce an original and idiosyncratic signature that continues to exert enormous influence to this day.

In the process, Clews also peopled the national imagination with a veritable litany of unforgettable iconic stock characters, such as Fredu Frendo Sghendo or Karmena Abdilla, whose stage and radio adventures ran for two years before culminating in a sumptuous “wedding” (to which the whole country was invited) at the Radio City Hall in Hamrun.

Above all, though, Clews also illustrated that a good joke need not necessarily descend into vulgarity and double-entendre to be funny. As Narcy puts it, “his polished style of doing stand-up comedy in the cleanest, wittiest and family entertainment model has never since been taken up by anyone.”

Throughout all this Clews also pursued a career in journalism with the same discipline normally reserved for radio scripts. In fact, he is counted today among Malta’s most prolific press commentators ever, having kept up a regular column in It-Torca for a scarcely credible 47 years.

And like many other comic talents – Bob Hope being perhaps the most famous example – he was also driven by a deep-seated social conscience, which would take his plays and performances to hospitals, institutes and charity homes throughout the country, and even beyond: as evidenced by his successful tour of Australia, together with Johnnie Catania, in 1984.

Calamatta, a self-confessed Clews fan “since I was six years old”, remembers his idol as “a meticulous artist who excelled as an actor, comic, playwright and all-round entertainer.”

“Not 10 years ago we forced him out of retirement for a one-off humorists’ show for the Iljieli Mediterranji cultural festival, where he was guest of honour,” he recalls of Clews’ last-ever appearance in August 2001. “He was out on stage for 30 minutes, and the audience would not let him stop. He told the same old, simple jokes that have worked so well for him for over 60 years: his pace, his timing, his versatile warbling voice made each person in the audience feel he/she was listening to him on a one-to-one basis. He used no sexual innuendoes and much less any vulgar vocabulary... it was a memorable performance, the last of a brilliant, crowded career.”

And yet, the man who epitomised the magic of stagecraft to so many people for so long, was also incurably shy and unassuming in his private life; and for all the success of his London and Australia tours, he rejected the call of the international stage, preferring in his later years to perform at the Catholic Institute in Floriana, or for the patients of the St Vincent de Paule Hospital.

And of all the afflictions to torment such a successful live entertainer, he suffered from the least likely imaginable: stage fright.

“He would rehearse even repertory sketches with discipline,” Narcy recalls, “yet he still died a death every night before going on stage. When he retired, he gave the ‘last-minute nerves in the wings’ as the reason...”

Charles Clews was honoured with the Midalja Gieh ir-Repubblika in 1996. He is survived by his wife Anne, his eight children, and a legacy of almost 70 years’ worth of inimitable humour and inventiveness.