Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Wisdom of the Ages

It is a well known fact that Norman Wisdom is incredibly famous in Albania. Norman Wisdom, in case you are not Albanian, is a British “slapstick comedy actor” and music hall style comedian. He was popular (though I’m not sure how popular) in the UK in the 50s and possibly early 60s. To people of my generation, though, he is actually more famous for being famous in Albania than he is for his body of work – of which, as far as I’m aware, I have seen precisely none. Apparently, Enver Hoxha was a big fan and thus the legend of Pitkin was born. (Pitkin is, I think, a character he played in one of his films). Ask any Albanian over 30 about Pitkin and they’ll wax lyrical for hours. (I have never actually tested this, but I am reliably informed that it is the case. In some kind of hands-across-the-Balkans gesture of friendship/publicity stunt a few years ago when the England football team came to Tirana for a match, they brought Wisdom with them, and the stadium rose as one to salute the octogenarian star.)

Recently I have discovered that Wisdom, here known simply as “Norman”, is very popular in Romania too. Perhaps Ceausescu was introduced to him by Hoxha at a dinner party or at a conference of slightly maverick communist dictators. I think his popularity may be slightly less than in Albania (I have never seen a Norman film on Romanian TV, and in Tirana, if the slightly mocking media reports filed by British journalists are anything to go by, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t an entire channel devoted to his oeuvre.)

This places Norman firmly in the category of strange and somewhat obscure things that Romanians get slightly wistful about. Another is Bollywood movies. As far as I can ascertain, western films were to all intents and purposes banned during the Communist years, but when the cinemas had no propaganda films or reworkings of Tolstoy to show, films were imported from India to fill in the gaps. In fact, they still seem to be relatively popular, possibly for nostalgia reasons, and one or two of the TV channels regularly show them – though they have been shunted out of the cinemas by endless violent Hollywood action films.

Another very odd one is Smokie. I would have imagined (if I’d ever bothered to think abut it) that Smokie were only known and barely remembered by British people of between about 35 and 45. For those that don’t know, they were a 70s group of long haired blokes who sang poorly written ballads in a kind of sub-Rod Stewart gravelly voice (I was going to refer to them as a proto boy band, but even at the height of the popularity I seem to remember they looked at least 30 – at least when the young me saw them on Top of the Pops). I had, of course, entirely forgotten about them, and would have been quite happy had it stayed that way. But then, a few months ago I was at a party, and suddenly one of their tunes came on. “Good God,” I thought, “this takes me back. I wonder who put this on and why”. And then I noticed that the whole room was singing along to it. More or less everyone – old, young and in between. I also need to mention here that over half of the people at this party didn’t speak any English at all. Yet here they were singing along to the frankly rubbish mid 70s soppy ode to personal tragedy “Living Next Door to Alice”.

But remarkably that was not to be the end of my moments of jaw dropping amazement that night. Far from it. The turgid drone reached its chorus, and as the last line of said chorus drained away “And for 24 years I’ve been living next door to Alice”, the room, as one, punctuated the line with (in English) a group shout of “Who the fuck is Alice?” That moment, I’m quite sure, will live with me for ever. This was a party in a village to celebrate a baptism, not some group of post-modern irony obsessed lovers of retro-chic. The guests were of all ages, and many walks of life. If you’ve never seen an old Transylvanian villager with few teeth and no English whatsoever, jump to his feet and shout “Who the fuck is Alice?”, well, frankly, you haven’t lived.

I have since found out that actually this version of the song was actually a recorded one, and was released by Smokie themselves, some years after their initial fame – in the 90s sometime I think- with the extra shouty bit added in by fat and rubbish racist comedian Roy “Chubby” Brown. I missed it by virtue of being out of the reach of English novelty records at the time, but clearly much of Europe was infected. Asking around I have discovered sightings (soundings?) of this oh-so-hilarious update being sung by the general public from Hamburg to Istanbul and beyond.

But, Smokie’s insidious reach extends beyond even this reworking of their most famous hit. They are known for other of their songs which don’t even have added sweary bits. I am, frankly, baffled by their appeal. It’s a rum do, and no mistake.

Oh, and in case you don't believe me about Albania,
here's a BBC piece from the time of that football match I mentioned.

4 comments:

Soj said...

Hilarious! Glad to see you're mixing in with the local culture.

Try tuning into Europa FM sometime. They play a lot of those songs over and over again, including the one about Alice. Frankly I'd never heard it in my life until I did on Romanian radio.

Also there's a techno version by someone I can't remember called Who the Fuck is Alice, based on the same song.

Sorry about the AFOE awards but better luck next year!

Anonymous said...

Indeed, hilarious!

Actually, I know the lyrics of Living Next Door to Alice and my parents have at least a Smokie CD and probably also a vinyl. :-)

--Bogdan

dumneazu said...

That Smokie video came out around 1998 or so, and was played on Television all over eastern Europe roughly seventy times a day. A lot of us originally though "Who the fuck is Smokie?" but yes, it has done more for ESL teaching than any other bit of English literature.

One of these days I will have to edit my many taped field recordings of Transylvanian village Gypsy bands playing "Lambada" and "Theme Song to Dalls."

Anonymous said...

Smokie have been known and very famous in Bulgaria too. As a schoolgirl I remember singing and dancing to their songs /and actually learning the language in this non-instructive way/. People of all generations know "Alice" and it's a common thing to hear them singing the "fuck" version at parties :). Even my students /aged 15-18/ do it with a lot of pleasure and enthusiasm. It is as popular as "Hit the road, Jack" which is also broadly saung on similar occasions. So yes, you can say for sure that Smokie have become a part of the Balkan culture.