Alan and Bloom Clare, the Goons, Stephane Grappelli and Other Stories
by Murray Ginsberg
When Bloom Rose Houtman married pianist Alan Clare in 1947, she had no idea how much her life would soon change. Through Alan, a London cocktail pianist, she would beintroduced to a whole new world of famous people, recording artists and world class musicians. But in 1944, three years before the 15-year-old beauty met the musician, ironically her fate changed dramatically when the Houtman home was destroyed by a Luftwaffe bomb. The catastrophe forced the family to move to Leicester, at that time a small town about a hundred miles from London.The family remained in Leicester when the war ended, and in 1947 when she was 18, she went dancing to De Montfort Hall where Sid Millward and the Nitwits were playing. The Nitwits were a comedy band, with a large following. During the evening friends who had accompanied her told Alan that Bloom was a talented singer who came from a musical family. Why not give her a crack at a song? The pianist invited her to come up and sing one number.
Feeling less than confident, she went up on stage and sat on a stool next to the pianist. "What would you like to sing?" he asked. "I'll Be Loving You Always," she replied. Alan said, "Let's try the key of 'F'." He put her at ease by saying, 'Don't worry, you'll do fine. Just use your adrenalin not to be nervous and sing well."
Bloom said her song went well, because Sid Millward booked her to do a Sunday concert with them the following week. A week later after she had finished her performance, the young lady was pleased with the applause and the large number of compliments she received. She was on her way.
"It helped to be accompanied by such competent musicians," she said, "especially Alan who I thought was the best one in the group. He could play anything."
It didn't take long for a relationship to develop. "Alan was so kind to me, he felt like family and I fell for him right away. When we got married on November 3, 1947, I ceased being Bloom Houtman and became Bloom Clare." The Leicester newspaper was quick to issue an announcement: "Local girl marries Nitwit."
As the years progressed Alan's reputation as a fine pianist caught the attention of many top London personalities. In the 1950s and ‘60s, he fronted a trio in the Studio Club, a popular West End night spot which attracted everyone who was anyone in show business, as well as politicians, government officials and royalty. There she met not only Stephane Grappelli, the celebrated French jazz violinist, but others, including members of Britain's top rated 1950s Goon Show - the famous Peter Sellers/Spike Milligan/Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine quartet with whom she became close personal friends.
"Stephane got us the flat we moved into in Holland Park," she said. "Whenever they rehearsed together Stephane was either at our place or Alan would walk to the bottom of the road where Stephane lived and rehearse with him there. They were always together." (The 70-ish lady still lives at the same address with current husband Henry Chantry.)
"Stephane used to tell us stories about Django Reinhardt, his Gypsy guitarist when they were the Hot Club of France. Although Django was a magnificent jazz artist, Stephane was always impatient with him because he could never be convinced that the moon he saw in the sky over England was the same moon he’d seen in France. He thought there was a different moon in every country."
Stephane too, was not without his idiosyncrasies. "Once when he drove home to Troy Court in west London and parked his car in his parking place, he slammed the car door too loudly. Someone shouted out of a window, ‘Damn yobo, make less noise!’ Stephane quickly retaliated with ‘I’ve got more money than you!’ Alan said Stephane’s booming voice could be heard blocks away.
I met Bloom Clare in 1995 at a recital in Wigmore Hall where my partner, Myra Davis and I had been invited by pianist Gene DiNovi who was touring England with clarinetist Jim Campbell. Bloom and Myra and I became close friends from the start, a friendship that has lasted to this day.
Over the weeks and months that followed Bloom (now widowed from her pianist husband) regaled us with dozens of stories about the Goons. "Peter and Spike were real characters," she recalled. "They always enjoyed playing tricks on one another. For example, one morning at 3 am Milligan, who lived opposite Sellers was roused from a deep sleep by a knock on his door. When he opened it he found Sellers standing there naked except for a Bowler hat, socks and shoes.
‘Good morning! Do you know a good tailor?’ Peter asked.
Milligan said he got his own back by sending him a telegram the next day saying, "Ignore first telegram."
Another from Bloom: "Spike often told us he would sleep on the floor at Peter’s house on a pneumatic mattress which he would blow up only to find by morning it had a leak and he was sleeping on the stone cold floor."
From 1951 to 1960 the Goons created such havoc on BBC radio, that they acquired a cult following and turned Sellers, Milligan, Bentine and Secombe into household names.
How did it all start? According to Milligan, after the war both became close friends when each realised they shared the same zany sense of humour. In racking their brains for ideas that might be considered funny to a radio audience they tried all sorts of gimmicks. One of their tricks was to record their voices at slow speed on Peter's tape recorder and then play them back fast. Each was a master of odd dialects which they perfected for radio.
In a 1950s magazine article, Milligan said that Sellers introduced him to BBC producer Pat Dixon, who asked him to write a trial script for a show they had in mind. As part of the script Sellers suggested recording some voices which included Bentine’s and singer Harry Secombe’s. The voices were so bizarre that the novelty delighted Dixon into launching a comedy series. That was the start of the Goon Show.
The first broadcast on May 28, 1951, was a smash hit which soon developed into a celebrated series that catapulted Sellers, Secombe, Bentine and Milligan to the top of the BBC’s list of radio stars. Milligan was soon regarded as Britain's top comedy writer:
"I went to my doctor for an examination. The doctor said, 'Take off all your clothes.' "Shouldn't you be taking me out to dinner first?"
For years Bloom and Alan entertained dozens of showbiz personalities in their flat in Holland Park. Their music room which contained a piano and a cot was always a mess, she said, with music and papers lying all over the place and "DO NOT TOUCH" signs posted everywhere. The piano was used for rehearsals, the cot for sleeping. "Spike Milligan slept there many times," Bloom said. "The bed was also used when a guest had had too much to drink."
At one time Sellers bought them a Mellotron, a large piano-like instrument with an electronic keyboard programmed to produce sounds of orchestral instruments. "My husband was a piano freak," she said. "There was never a piano that suited him. It was either too hard to play, the action was too soft, it was out of tune, or there was one note out of tune which would put him off completely. Alan didn’t like the Mellotron. We finally got rid of it which Peter immediately replaced with a magnificent grand piano."
Bloom remembers her husband taking her to the Carribean Club in the West End, where she met black people for the first time. When the man who owned the club asked the beautiful young lady to dance, she looked at her husband to ask whether it would be OK. Alan of course encouraged her to do so. "He was a charming man," Bloom said.
She was also thrilled to meet Lena Horne who was appearing at the club at the time. "She was the most beautiful lady I'd ever seen. That was in 1948 when Lena was in her prime."
Another close friend was American singer Adelaide Hall, who had sung with the Duke Ellington orchestra. "Addy was a wonderful singer who sang many songs, particularly a spectacular counter melody to the Duke’s Creole Love Song. She'd moved to England and married Bert Hicks who was from the Carribean. He talked her into buying her own club, which became a successful London night spot."
Bloom remembers meeting Duke Ellington in early 1948 when he and his orchestra appeared in Leicester at De Montfort Hall. Heavily pregnant at the time, she went backstage and introduced herself, telling him that she and Adelaide were very good friends. Twenty years later she and Adelaide both attended another Duke Ellington concert at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, after which both went backstage to see the Duke. But Bloom was apprehensive. She wasn’t sure he would remember her since the last time she spoke with him was twenty years earlier in Leicester. But the Duke, renowned for his "love-you-madly" charm, said, "Of course I remember you vividly. You were pregnant at the time, and besides, I always remember a beautiful woman. Love you madly."
Bloom said their flat was like a hotel, with everybody coming and going to and from rehearsals all the time. "Whenever American bands toured England people like Cab Calloway and some of his musicians used to come to our place and play in the music room. So did Zoot Sims and that great pianist Teddy Wilson. There were so many of them. I remember Zoot got so drunk once he collapsed on the cot and didn’t wake up until the next afternoon. And when he did wake up he didn’t know where he was."
"When Allan was playing at the Studio Club he met Lord Snowdon, Princess Margaret and Peter Sellers who would often dine there. That’s when Alan and Sellers struck up a close friendship, that would lead to recording sessions, broadcasts and the odd stage appearance.
Alan and Bloom were often guests at Peter’s house. "He was such a lovely man, always very charming. We became good friends. He came to our place for dinner a number of times after he married Miranda Quarry in 1970.
During his lifetime Peter Sellers married four beautiful women: Ann Levy, an actress from South Africa, Britt Ekland, the Swedish movie star, Miranda Quarry, a politician’s daughter, and actress Lynne Frederick.
"Peter was always very generous. The piano he bought us must have cost a thousand pounds," she said. "He sent it to us by post. I remember him phoning to see if it had arrived. When I picked up the phone and asked where he was calling from - he could have been next door, or in another country, we never knew - he said, 'I'm cruising off the Greek Islands.'
"Peter bought the yacht because he didn't want to be surrounded by people when he was on a beach," she explained, "he wanted privacy. But when he had his privacy he wanted people around him."
Ann Levy who bore him two children, a son Michael and a daughter Sarah, was Sellers’ first wife. According to Milligan (and almost everyone else in London) Peter was obsessed with beautiful women and always having affairs with new girl friends, one of whom was Italian film star Sophia Loren. He would sometimes actually discuss these affairs with his wife. When Ann Levy could tolerate his liaisons no longer, she moved out. "When she left him he couldn't get over it because she had the cheek to leave him," Bloom said.
Bloom may have found Sellers generous and lots of fun to be with, but in an August 25, 2002, Sunday Times article by Danny Danzinger, Peter’s 48-year-old son, Michael Sellers recalled how he and his sister Sarah, were distanced from their father by his obsessional outbursts of jealousy:
"Because of his business Dad was away a lot. If he was in a play he was away all day and not back until I was in bed. If he was shooting a movie he’d be away for months on end, which seemed forever to a little child."
"When he was home he had a mercurial, irrational temper, you could upset him with a look, a word. For example, if you were what he felt was unenthusiastic about greeting him, he’d be angry and disappointed. He was very insecure about things like that. But by the time I was eight, I’d learned to humour him.
"One of my earliest memories is of my parents arguing. My bedroom backed onto theirs and I’d hear them shout and scream. As far as I’m aware, he never hit Mum but paintings and mirrors used to be ripped off the wall, objects mangled, doors torn off their hinges. Later, during an argument with his third wife, Miranda, he drove his Rolls Royce into the back of one car, backed it into the one behind, then drove it into the first car again, just to make a point."
"My parents separated when I was around eight and after some time we lived with my mother and stepfather - who was a wonderful man, far more of a father than my father was. For the holidays we went to wherever my father happened to be: Rome, Monte Carlo, New York or Hollywood. One holiday he was off to Los Angeles. It was April and I didn’t want to go - April’s my birthday. I was going to be 10, I wanted to have a party with my friends. We had a row, and that escalated into him saying: "You don’t love me, you don’t care about me. . ." My little sister Sarah and I were in tears at this, but he wouldn’t stop. "Right," he said, "who do you love the most, your mother or me?"
"I love you both equally," Sarah eventually replied - which I sort of knew was the right answer. But I’d had enough and said: "Mum."
"Okay, that’s it," he screamed, and we were sent back to Mum’s, where almost immediately this truck arrived, packed with all our possessions from his home, and a note: "I never want to see you again. I disown you."
"Whenever a friend came to our flat I never bothered to ask who the latest girl friend was," Bloom remarked. "I just took people as they were. If Spike came in with a girl friend, I never enquired. He would introduce us but we never knew whether it was the latest romance or just a thing for the night."
On the other hand, Bloom said Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine were normal. Loved throughout England as a comedian and singer Secombe also proved himself to be a writer of considerable wit with several best-selling novels to his credit. "After he was knighted I phoned his wife Myra and asked, 'How does it feel to be Lady Secombe?' Myra replied, 'I'm still doing the washing up and taking out the rubbish,' which was typical of Myra."
And saxophonist Lew Lewis who played in Toronto's O’Keefe Centre Orchestra in the 1960s and 70s tells a story about Michael Bentine when he appeared at the O’Keefe Centre in the 1970s. "Michael and I hit it off," he said, "and we became close friends during his three or four annual visits to Toronto with the British touring Paladium Show. A very intelligent man with an enormous sense of humour, Michael amazed me when he said he was born in Peru, South America, where he was descended from the Inca Indians, which he told me was one of the lost tribes of Israel. He always referred to himself as a Peruvian Inca Jew, which astonished me." The Toronto saxophonist also quoted Bentine’s story of his family’s close friendship with Albert Einstein, the word-famous physicist. "Whenever Albert Einstein came to England he stayed with the Bentines. Michael told me ‘the old man used to bounce me on his knee when I was three years old.’"
Peter Sellers became world famous when he went into movies where he showed he could be not only a very funny comedian, but an excellent actor as well. He was applauded for his appearances as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther series,as well as Dr. Strangelove, The Mouse That Roared, The Secret Life of Henry Orient and Being There with actors Shirley MacLean and Melvyn Douglas. In Being There Sellers is brilliant as Chauncey Gardner who is mistaken as an authority on world affairs, when he is actually Chance the uneducated, ignorant gardener of another rich man’s estate.
In the autumn of 1979 Sellers began work on what was to be his final film, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, in which he played both the evil Fu and his Scotland Yard adversary, Nayland Smith. But Sellers' friends were alarmed at how frail he had suddenly become. A weak heart appeared to be taking its toll.
On July 22, 1980, shortly after 2 pm Sellers suffered a massive heart attack and collapsed into an armchair in his suite at London's Dorchester Hotel. He was rushed to the Middlesex Hospital where he died two days later.
According to Milligan, Sellers said that he wanted to be remembered above all as a Goon and ironically his fatal heart attack occurred on the day he was due to enjoy a dinner reunion with Milligan and Secombe, the first such get-together for eight years.
And no, Peter Sellers never brought Sophia Loren to Bloom’s flat.