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picture of Arthur Pickwicket
A young Arthur Pickwicket in his first film Umpire Of The Empire

The Forgotten Man of British Cinema

PDCC Arts Correspondent Meerkat Ali looks back on the life and career of the erstwhile hero of British cinema, Arthur Pickwicket.

In his lifetime he was considered to be the biggest star in British entertainment.

His films broke box office records all over the country and his songs sold millions.

His 1944 film Pickwicket Pulls It Off was praised by Winston Churchill as having "a monumental effect on the winning of the war".

... and yet today Arthur Pickwicket is a forgotten figure.

His films have never been released on DVD and his hundreds of humorous cheeky songs lay neglected in the vaults ... until now.

Happily all this is about to change with a major new retrospective season of screenings in London and the release of a CD box set of his complete recordings. For the first time in over 40 years audiences will be able to enjoy the unique humour and hilarious songs of this umpiring genius.

Pickwicket was born in the village of Harry Pilling in Lancashire in 1899, the youngest of eleven children. His father Seth Pickwicket was a local knob polisher and Lancashire league umpire. It was through the encouragement of his father that the young Arthur developed a keen interest in umpiring that would one day make him famous. At the age of 14 Arthur left school and became the youngest qualified umpire on the circuit. Between innings the young Arthur would entertain the players by singing his own lighthearted songs whilst playing the ukulele. Some of these juvenile compositions, such as Don't Put your Daughter In The Slips, Mrs. Robinson and My Old Man's A Third Man even made it into Pickwicket's early films.

It soon became clear that Arthur's true calling wasn't the white coat of cricket officialdom but the stage. He began appearing on the variety circuit around the north of England from 1915 onwards billed as 'Little Arthur Umpire'. His act at this stage consisted of a few self-penned ditties and a demonstration of umpiring signals. As his confidence grew he began introducing more of his increasingly risque umpiring songs such as Going Down Leg, All The Ladies Love My Little Bat Handle and Granddad's Secret Cellar. Additionally he became well known for his popular catchphrases - "Can I use your toilet?" and "Do yer want the light?".

His career developed quietly until the infamous England-versus-Australia series of 1932-33, known subsequently as 'Bodyline' when interest in cricket reached new heights. In his office in London impresario Sir Christopher Hogg was looking to invest in the new medium of talking films. He realised that there was a market for cricket-related films and cast around for entertainers who might fit the bill. Hogg remembered a night he had spent at the music hall in Brixton a few months previously where he had laughed uproariously with the rest of the audience at the little man in the umpire's coat with the bulging eyes and cheeky grin, who sang My Finger Goes Up to the strains of the ukulele.

picture of Arthur Pickwicket and Lord Roseberry
Hats Off To Arthur (1936) Pickwicket is offered a bribe by evil Lord Roseberry to let Surrey win the Championship

In the intervening years Pickwicket had met and married Clitty Tulip - an ex-dancer and left-arm chinaman bowler for Accrington thirds. Clitty was a shrewd business woman with a fearsome reputation for negotiation who gave up a promising cricket career to manage her husband's burgeoning career. After a hastily arranged meeting with Sir Hogg, Pickwicket signed a ten-picture deal with 'Hogg Films Ltd.' as to star in two films per year for the next five years. With no time to waste a script was quickly put together for Pickwicket's debut feature Umpire Of The Empire (1933) in which our hero plays an umpire who offers to officiate in a test match in India to impress demure shop assistant Sadie, only to be unwillingly caught up in an attempted military coup which sees him crowned head of the British Empire. Pickwicket orders the execution of the troublemakers, hands the keys back to the British military and returns home to marry Sadie. It was a formula that was to serve him well in the films to follow such as Pickwicket Defeats The Jungle Bunnies (1934), Arthur Of The Antarctic (1935) and the Western Pickwicket's Last Stand (1937) in which Arthur wipes out the entire population of Native Americans after a row following the Red Indians illegal use of a rain dance to secure a draw.

By far his biggest success came in 1944 with the release of Pickwicket Pulls It Off. This film was seen as vitally important for British morale during some of the darkest days of the war. The film, however, was not without its controversies. The idea of a Nazi invasion was hard enough for people to swallow but the thought of Hitler taking over the MCC was unbearable. Hitler invades England and marches straight to Lord's where he challenges Churchill to a one-innings match between the war cabinet and Hitler's inner circle, with the victor winning the war as well as the game. Churchill accepts in the belief that the Germans will be easy competition, only to find that Hitler has spent the years between the wars in the nets honing his side's cricketing ability. Pickwicket, of course, umpires the game and is the centre of controversy when he gives Churchill out LBW to one that actually got a faint inside-edge on. Mocked by the Germans for giving out his own Prime Minister, Pickwicket is racked with remorse until Churchill takes him to one side and tells him that Britain's greatness was built on the notion that the umpire is always right and that he should be proud of having the honour to follow his convictions. With England setting Germany a meagre 230 to win the Hun get off to a flier but are subject to a series of run-outs due to their arrogance at goose-stepping between the wickets instead of running. With Hitler and Goebbals together as the last pair Germany need 30 to win in the gathering gloom. Pickwicket offers Hitler the light which Hitler arrogantly refuses before smashing Field Marshall Montgomery into the pavilion for 6. With just 6 runs to win, and with Hitler 94 not out the Führer attempts to bring up victory and his own century with another six but his shot lands just inside the rope where it is eventually fielded by Churchill himself. Churchill's throw is wild and the resulting overthrows allow Hitler and Goebells to run six. As the Nazis celebrate mid-wicket and German tanks roll onto the pitch, Pickwicket turns to the scoreboard and signals 'one short' at which point Hitler is run out for 99. To rapturous applause in cinemas everywhere Pickwicket walks over to Hitler punching him on the nose stating "this is for England" before punching him to the ground with the words "and this is for cricket". Pickwicket is carried off as a hero, marries Thora Hird, becomes Prime Minister and orders the extermination of the Jewish race.

picture of Arthur Pickwicket playing banjo-ukelele
Arthur performs Grandad's Secret Cellar in 1942

His popularity remained secure despite a lessening of the quality of his work. Pickwicket's List (1949) attempted to rectify the anti-Semitic criticisms thrown at Pickwicket Pulls It Off in certain quarters but lacked the charm of his earlier pictures.

Pickwicket's last great film success came in 1954 with the release of Pickwicket meets Count Dracula. The vampire genre was beginning to be popular at the time and is was considered a good idea for Arthur to join in. The film begins with Alistair Crowbag - famous black magician - placing a coffin containing the body of Count Dracula on the Liverpool to London train. Crowbag has brought the remains over from Transylvania by boat in order to resurrect Dracula in his London mansion in a ceremony designed to impress the invited crowd of esteemed scientists and establish Crowbag's reputation as 'lord of evil'. Sadly for Crowbag, Lancashire CC have also placed a coffin shaped box on the train containing a collection of leg pads, gloves and assorted cricket gear, in preparation for their forthcoming match against Middlesex at Lord's. Further confusion arises when Pickwicket - who is due to umpire in the game - boards the train in a drunken state and decides to sleep it off in the comfort of the Lancashire box. As the train reaches London an anxious and distracted Crowbag mistakes the Lancashire trunk for his coffin and quickly takes it away (Pickwicket included) to his Mayfair abode.

In one of the funniest scenes of Pickwicket's career Crowbag makes a speech to his stunned guests about how he is about to bring back Dracula from the dead and prove once and for all the existence of vampires. As he removes the lid off the 'coffin' and utters the words "Count Dracula Prince Of Darkness, speak to us" Pickwicket sits bolt upright and says "Eh up! Turned out nice again! Can I use your toilet?" The exchange that followed is typical of Pickwicket's style of humour:

picture of Count Dracula
A scene from Pickwicket Meets Dracula. Dracula poses as an umpire to fire out Denis Compton at Lord's.
Crowbag: I welcome you Prince Of Darkness
Pickwicket: [confused] Prince of dartness? I don't mind a game but I haven't brought me arrers.
Crowbag: You must be hungry after your long journey. May I offer you a little refreshment?
Pickwicket: Got any teacakes?
Crowbag: I have a virgin waiting for you to take as you desire
Pickwicket: A virgin? In Liverpool? Who you trying to kid? Anyone seen me Ukulele?
Crowbag: We are not in Liverpool Count Dracula, we are in London. My guests have travelled from far away to meet you. Have you anything you would like to say?
Pickwicket [looking around the dimly lit room]: Aye! Do yer want the light?'

At which point Pickwicket climbs out of the trunk with his ukulele in his hand and begins to sing one of his best loved numbers The Vampire Umpire to the assembled crowd ("At twelve o'clock every night, he puts on his whites and goes out for a bite").

The coffin containing Dracula is, of course, delivered to Lord's in time for the game, where a hungover Pickwicket eventually arrives minutes before play is due to start. Dracula emerges and disguises himself as a fellow umpire in order to satisfy his desire to suck the blood of nubile young tea ladies. Pickwicket eventually rumbles him and drives a stump through his heart in the middle of Middlesex's second innings to the gratitude of the MCC.

The film maintained Pickwicket's popularity during 1954 but it was to be the beginning of the end. His follow-up picture Pickwicket Meets Frankenstein (1955) was a lame copy as were the subsequent Pickwicket Meets The Wolf Man (1956) and Pickwicket Meets The Mummy (1957) both of which flopped badly. By this stage audiences had moved on in search of more sophisticated cinematic entertainment. More exciting umpiring heroes had come on the scene such as Dirk Bogarde in Umpire On The Go (1955) and the riotous, groundbreaking teen movie Rock Around The Stumps (1957). Pickwicket's final film, the dire Pickwicket Meets A Couple Of Ghosts And A Monster (1960) played to empty cinemas everywhere.

Not that it should have mattered much to Arthur Pickwicket. His cinema career and record sales had made him plenty of money. But there was a problem. Years of gambling, drinking and an addiction to heroin had left Arthur with precious little in the bank. When Clitty left him for a big black man in 1963 Pickwicket was at his lowest ebb. All through his career he was known in the industry for being 'difficult' and this allied to a new reputation for unreliability led to few promoters being willing to offer him work. His autobiography Can I Use Your Toilet? was published in 1967 but made little impact on the best sellers list. After a short-lived marriage to a pair of 8-year-old twins ("I thought that you could add the ages together to get the age of consent" Pickwicket told the judge during the subsequent court case) Pickwicket retired to a room in the Grand Hotel in Scarborough where died of Norwarts a day later aged 70.