One hundred years of laughter | Toni Sant

On the centenary of comedian Charles Clews’s birth, archivist and performing arts researcher TONI SANT – who edited the forthcoming centenary biographical publication – outlines why the humble ‘Stage Commando’ from Senglea remains such a seminal, albeit underrated, Maltese national treasure

Toni Sant
Toni Sant

Revisiting Charles Clews’s 70-year career takes us back to an almost forgotten era of comedy: the age of Vaudeville, when entertainers were expected to be steeped in a multi-disciplinary tradition. Clews himself acted, danced and sang on stage… but he also wrote his own sketches, and composed (or transposed) much of the music himself. Comparing to the equivalent in contemporary entertainment: do you get the impression that part of this era died with him?

Yes, and no. First of all, I don’t think anything like that ever really ‘dies’. I think it evolves. To put it into a broader, international context: the Vaudeville, music halls and Variety Shows of the pre-war era, were all transformed into early television. If you look at TV’s early output, much of it was, in fact, televised variety shows. But I’m not one for nostalgia, myself. I don’t believe the past was ‘better’; I think we should know about the past, to make a better present for the future. In the case of Charles Clews, for instance, the centenary is not just a ‘trip down memory lane’; it’s not just about how good the ‘good old days’ were. It’s about what was good about that time; and how we should remember it, so that we can have something better now. That’s my general philosophy, at any rate. But I think you’re right in saying, ’this is gone’. It is gone, to some degree. It’s a different social reality we’re living in today. Today, your ‘variety’ is found on social media sites like Facebook. What is a ‘Facebook wall’, anyway? A space for someone to upload a song… or share an article in a magazine… or to tell a joke… or to post a famous quote… People are giving applause, in the form of ‘likes’; people are booing and jeering; and some people are selling things in between. That’s your ‘variety show’, right there. Then you have ‘mutations’; some of the elements that made up that kind of world are still alive today, but take different forms. The idea of someone writing Maltese lyrics to popular songs, for instance, has gone on uninterrupted; and we now have people like Joe Demicoli, who is feeding off a long tradition. Most of Charles Clews’s musical numbers were, in fact, Maltese parodies of the popular songs of his age; and they reflected the social realities of his time. Today, Joe Demicoli writes songs about, for example, the ‘monument ta’ Hal-Luqa’; or about the ‘red and blue’ situation in Malta; or to lampoon Marlene Farrugia. If you go back, you’ll find that Charles Clews was writing songs related to emigration… large families… post-war life… the realities which surrounded him…

Charles Clews
Charles Clews

This tradition has survived in other ways, too: our version of the Christmas Panto is far more satirical (and political) than ‘pantomimes’ usually are elsewhere. There is also a healthy tradition of newspaper cartoons, and, increasingly, online memes. How satirical – in the broader sense – was Charles Clews himself? Do you see him as a social commentator, as much as a comic?

I’d say, in general, that Maltese humour has a strong sense of ‘making fun’.  Not necessarily ‘making fun of…’ in the sense that, you can laugh with someone; you can laugh at someone; and you can make someone laugh. To go back to Charles Clews… he made people laugh. He didn’t laugh with people, and he didn’t laugh at people, either. But the truly significant thing about Charles Clews – the reason why he is not only remembered now, on his 100th birthday, but I believe he will also be remembered in years to come - is that… he wrote. Charles is most significant as a writer; and it is as a writer that he is most underrated and undervalued. Whenever we think of theatre or performance writing, we tend think of either Francis Ebejer, or one of the other canonical Maltese playwrights. Charles Clews, however, wrote many, many short comedy sketches… he also wrote humorous novels; he published seven books of jokes and witticisms – some of which were perhaps translated or adapted from other cultures – but some were completely original.

He tried his hand at serious stage writing, too, didn’t he?

Yes, he wrote one serious play, ‘Dar Fuq Ir-Ramel’… and it wasn’t his strong point. But even the fact that he tried to write in that style, also shows you how committed he was… how dedicated he was to his craft.

According to Prof. Mario Galea, ‘Dar Fuq ir-Ramel’ – while far from Clews’s best work – also showcased another side to the man. He was deeply motivated by social concerns…

Charles Clews was a socialist… in the proper sense of the term. He believed in social justice; he was all about workers’ rights. But he didn’t wear his politics on his sleeve… even if ‘politics’ – in the broader sense – was always present, up to a point. The Stage Commandoes, which he founded during the war, was entirely made up of dockyard workers: Tony Bellizzi: Charlie Roe; Nestor Laiviera – who eventually became a Labour MP, and Speaker of the House – Johnny Catania; Freddy Underwood… and Charles Clews. In essence, these were all very politically committed people; not because they all ran for politics, but because they all wanted to right social injustices. They were not interested in having rival tiffs with people who had different political views… unless they were oppressing them, or the people around them. Which wasn’t really the case, at the time. All in all, I would say that Charles Clews was a socialist, but not a ‘Laburist’. And I feel it’s an important distinction; he never militated in any political party; but he did militate within the General Workers’ Union, in favour of workers’ rights. Bear in mind that the GWU was formed roughly at the same time as the Stage Commandos, in 1942… and the Commandos’ first performance outside the Dockyard was a GWU Youth activity at the St Joseph Band Club in Hamrun. So it was a very different social and political reality, from the one we’ve grown used to in the last 30-40 years. But Charles Clews had a work ethic that was steeped in the working class: he came from the working class; he was for the working class; he wrote for the working class… [laughing]… he even populated the working class; having had (and joked about having) quite a large family...

Yet his comic output is for the most part extremely light-hearted and ‘gentle’ – for want of a better word – compared to that of other politically-motivated comedians. Charles Chaplin, for instance…

… whom Clews idolised…

… unsurprisingly, as they seem to have a lot in common. Chaplin, too, was a ‘socialist by nature’; and it comes across very emphatically in all his greatest films: ‘The Kid’, ‘Modern Times’, ‘The Gold Rush’, etc. Do you see any corresponding subtext in Clews’s output?

Not directly, no. Here’s something essential to consider, when discussing Clews’s work as a writer. The big change happened in ‘47/48… and that was Rediffusion. Rediffusion changed Charles Clews, because he acquired a new audience that was previously unavailable to anyone writing for the stage. As part of the post-war effort to ‘boost morale’ – which, incidentally, is what the Stage Commandos had been commended for, during the war – in 1947, Rediffusion decided to substantially increase the number of Maltese-language programmes. So they tasked Effie Ciantar to produce more programmes that would appeal to a Maltese audience: keeping in mind what the general literacy level, etc., was among the broader population at the time. On his part, Effie Ciantar brought in people like Salvinu Tellus, to create children’s programmes; with the Catholic Acton Youths, he produced ‘Is-Siegha Tal-Morda’; he spoke to Kelinu Vella Haber, and together they created a ‘literary hour’… but where Charles Clews was concerned, there were two significant developments. First, they started broadcasting bands playing live at band-clubs; then, live stage performances at local theatres. It didn’t really work, to be honest; you would have no idea what the scenery was; if there were visual gags, you wouldn’t get them; if the actors were playing off facial expressions, or there was a surprise appearance on stage… you’d have no idea what the audience was laughing at, or applauding…  But all the same, a lot of the stage plays produced in 47, 48, 49, were broadcast by Rediffusion; and the Stage Commandos was one of these acts. And they were also one of the first to be recorded live, and broadcast later. Among the things that Charles Clews noticed, was that to write for radio is very different from writing for the stage. Even the same scene would have to be written completely differently. Clews understood this; which explains why the Stage Commandos were at their best, on Rediffusion, when Clews was with them. Because he was telling jokes. There was nothing visual about it at all; you hear the joke.. and you laugh. More often, though, it was a comic dialogue between Clews and Johnny Catania… with Clews ‘playing it straight’, and Catania getting all the punchlines. They quickly realised that those routines were more popular; and Effie Ciantar invited Clews and Catania to come in for a regular slot… pairing them up with someone else who was also brilliant at this: Armando Urso. I feel he deserves a mention, too, because Armando Urso is practically unknown today. But if I said, ‘Lanca Gewwa U Ohra Sejra’… which most people think that’s a traditional Maltese song…

I have to admit I’m one of them…

…. Well, the lyrics are actually by Armando Urso. It’s an adaptation of a popular 1951 Italian song, ‘La Barchetta In Mezzo Al Mar’ – and he wrote it specifically for this new programme called ‘Radju Muskettjeri’… so named because they were three: Clews, Catania, and Urso.  All three of them wrote; but Clews wrote the most. And the stroke of genius, with Clews, came from his other work in the theatre. He started creating these memorable, fictional characters; and because radio was an aural medium, he would concoct names that were alliterative or onomatopoeic: ‘Bertu Il-Bumbardun’; ‘Fredu Frendo Sghendo’; ‘Toto Tanti’; ‘Mabbli Fabbli, il-Kuntistabbli’… all fabulous names. And then, the characters would be played by these wonderful actors – including Johnny Navarro, later. But initially, it was the just the three radio musketeers. Clews’s most memorable creation, however, was ‘Karmena Abdilla’: a radio serial that went on for almost two years… and culminated with all the listeners of the programme being invited to her wedding at the Radio City Hall in Hamrun: and, well, we all know how that went…

Like any good joke, though, some of us might want to hear it again…

In that case, the full story will be told in the book we’re issuing to coincide with the centenary exhibition: ‘Ejjew Nidħku Ftit Ieħor ma' Charles Clews’s, out on September 7. But the really significant thing about Karmena Abdilla was that she was a fictional creation that was truly, 100% Maltese – and not another ‘Grand Master La Valette’ type – who instantly captured the imagination of the wider public. She was also absurdist in the style of a Beckett or Ionesco character… or Pirandello, who was another huge influence on Clews….

The book’s title derives from Clews’s own published series of humorous works. How much of his written legacy, has, in fact been published?

A lot, but not all. Clews released seven volumes of ‘Ejjew Nidhku Ftit’… but he also worked on an eighth, as yet unpublished edition. [Excerpts will be included in the book.] Part of the reason he never published it was that he probably wasn’t too happy with it himself. Some parts of the manuscript are scratched out, with hand-written comments on the side…  but maybe he just never got round to it. But there are also other short stories that he wrote, but never published… or which were maybe published in newspapers, and then forgotten. By any standards, though, Charles Clews was an incredibly prolific writer. In the 1964 edition of Who’s Who, for instance, he is credited with having written 3,000 scripts over a period of roughly 20 years… that’s a staggering number. And according to his children, he was always at his typewriter…

Yet most of his output was on radio … where it was heard once, and never played again. How much of his actual work has survived in that form? Do recordings still exist, and have they been archived?

I’m glad you asked, because this is what brought me to Charles Clews in the first place. As a country, most of our archiving is only done for production purposes. For example: PBS and Where’s Everybody co-produce a series called ‘Biografiji’; their goal is not to collect oral histories about, in this case, Charles Clews; or to ensure that photographs, clips or recordings are properly documented and archived. Their goal is to produce a one-hour biographical documentary about Charles Clews: nothing more, nothing less. So if you go to PBS and ask them for their photos, they’d say: ‘Oh, probably Joe Julian Farrugia has them; because he was the producer’. Now: Farrugia has a very impressive collection; some of which he has been kind enough to share with the MP3 Foundation… which is trying to do the opposite: it is collecting such material, with no immediate intention to produce anything at all. Just to ensure that it is there… preserved. So when I came to editing the centenary book about Charles Clews, I was lucky enough to find all the material already archived… thanks in part to Joe Julian Farrugia, but also to Alan Clews: the curator of his father’s legacy. We have now digitised all this material; and it is available to anyone who wants to do research. But it was a stroke of luck, ultimately. The problem is: we don’t systematically archive this sort of material. And there is a danger that some of it – not just with regard the Charles Clews, of course – may be lost.





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