Randall and Hopkirk and the Little White Bull

m5ueFuB0ostLy4P36INNBiAIt was one of British television’s most legendary creations.  Between 1968-69,  Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) told the tale of a down at heel London detective agency whose staff of two full-time gumshoes was tragically halved in the very first episode, with the death of one of them.  The death, but not the disappearance.  Returning from the grave, Marty Hopkirk continued helping his old partner out with various cases, a premise that made a cult classic out of the show (in America, it aired as My Partner The Ghost), and stars out of its cast, Kenneth Cope (Hopkirk), Annette Andre (his widow, Jeanie) and Mike Pratt (Randall).

Indeed, such is the affection with which the series is remembered that, not only are the original episodes now available on DVD, and the soundtrack in a three CD box set, there was also a surprisingly satisfying remake at the dawn of the century, starring comedians Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer – who, in turn, might also be familiar to American readers from the string of UK hits Reeves (and occasionally Mortimer) scored in the early-mid 1990s, both solo and in tandem with the Wonder Stuff, EMF and the Roman Numerals.  When the new series of Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) went into production in 1999, then, it boasted a genuine UK pop star as it’s co-leading man – which was a remarkable coincidence because, so did the original.  In fact, it is fair to say that, without Mike Pratt, the birth of British rock’n’roll itself might have turned out considerably different.

randall-and-hopkirk-deceased-original-soundtrackBorn in London on June 7 1931, the son of a former journalist, Pratt’s earliest ambition was to become an actor and, after a few years working as an advertising copywriter, he secured a position as assistant on the London revue Memories of Jolson – starring the young, and then unknown Shirley Bassey.  Working his way up from there, he did land a handful of minor acting roles, but it was the copywriting job that kept body and soul together – at least until Pratt decided to chuck it in and join three friends who were planning to tour the continent in an old black cab they’d bought for ₤12.

It was, from all accounts, a chaotic few months; “I bummed my way around Europe in an old taxi,” was Pratt’s own summary of the affair.  It was during this trip, however, that Pratt and one of his fellow travellers, Lionel Bart, hatched the notion of moving into the music business.  Rock’n’roll was just beginning to break in Britain, but the only sounds around were those being imported from the US.  Pratt himself was a competent pianist, and he and Bart had already tried their hands at writing songs together.  All they needed was a frontman to sing them – a quest that ended when, shortly after returning to London, Bart happened to meet a sailor at a party one night; a sailor who could sing.

Tommy Hicks had been in the merchant navy for five years at that point; he was enjoying a few days shore leave at the time.  Those days became weeks, however, as the trio of Hicks, Pratt and Bart – collectively, the Cavemen (for their own favorite niterie, the Cave) – launched onto the London club scene, at precisely the same time as the indigenous skiffle scene was peaking.  The Cavemen however, had no mind for joining that particular bandwagon.  Hicks’ own musical tastes leaned towards the country music he had discovered during his naval travels, but that was no disadvantage – as he pointed out years later, “if you play [Hank Williams’] ‘Move It On Over’ next to ‘Rock Around The Clock,’ you’ll find that Mr Haley has a lot to thank Williams for.”

The songs that Pratt and Bart were composing (with a little help from Hicks himself) followed this same logic, but they blew the head off everybody who encountered them, all the same.  Nobody had ever heard such music before, at least not from an English performer, and, by the end of the summer, the group had caught the attention of a real live rock’n’roll entrepreneur, Larry Parnes, as he, too, took his first steps into this brave new world.

Tommy Hicks – or Tommy Steele, as Parnes insisted he rechristen himself – was to become the first star in a stable that expanded to include almost every significant rocker in Britain, each of whom had his own adverb-shaped surname: Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Dickie Pride, Vince Eager….

Tommy Steele and the Cavemen were introduced to the London press at the ultra-fashionable Stork Rooms that fall; weeks later, with Parnes’ first choice, EMI, having turned down the chance to sign them, Decca moved in for the group and, that October, Pratt/Bart/Steele’s rambunctious “Rock With The Caveman” became the team’s first hit, climbing to #13.  Steele himself later described the song as “a joke, a spoof, the sort of thing Monty Python might have done.”  But still it ranks alongside any record you can name as the first even halfway convincing British rock’n’roll record, one minute and 56 seconds of pounding adrenalin.

The Cavemen were not to play on their own records; rather, Decca brought in crack jazzmen Ronnie Scott, Dave Lee and Benny Green to accompany Steele’s vocal.  Pratt and Steele would remain close to Steele, however, continuing to write many of Steele’s hardest rocking numbers  – the gleefully apocalyptic “Doomsday Rock” (“the first day there’ll be lightning, the second there’ll be hail, when the third day breaks, there’ll be a big earthquake, so run for your life!”), “Cannibal Pot” and “Handful Of Songs” among them.  Later, as Steele’s now unstoppable career exploded into movies, the team found itself supplying near-entire soundtracks for The Tommy Steele Story (1957) and Tommy The Toreador (1959), while the intervening The Duke Wore Jeans (1958) was itself based on a Bart/Pratt storyline.

All three movies bristle with Pratt/Bart/Steele gems; all three have dated a lot better than most period pop musicals; and, if Steele’s chart profile had begun to dip a little as the competition for home-grown rock grew stiffer, still Tommy The Toreador brought him what remains one of his all-time best-loved numbers, the irresistible singalong “Little White Bull” – the heart-warming saga of, indeed, a little white bull who could not understand why the rest of the herd called him names all the time, but who triumphed over adversity by winning his very first bullfight.

Paul Rich A0001A number 6 hit in December 1959, the record cemented Steele’s reputation as one of Britain’s premier all-round entertainers, a transition that would remain the paramount ambition of most British pop stars until well into the early 1970s.  Start out with the rock, shift into pop, step into movies and, Bob’s your Uncle, you’re set for life – or, as pop historian Nik Cohn wrote, “compare his saga with Elvis, and you have the precise difference between the great American and great British entertainment epic.  Elvis became God.  Tommy Steele made it to the London Palladium.”

Pratt’s own musical ambitions were, in many ways, sidelined by the demands of Steele’s career.  However, he did form his own band, the Cottonpickers, plying folk and skiffle around the UK scene for a few years, and becoming a regular attraction on sundry BBC radio broadcasts.  He was still landing the occasional acting role as well, while the success of the Tommy Steele movies ensured that he was in constant demand as a writer for various revues and television shows.

Slowly, however, his first love began to take precedence.  Small roles in the movies The Party’s Over, This Is My Street (where he first acted alongside future Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) regular Andre) and Roman Polanski’s epic Repulsion, were followed by a string of increasingly meaty television roles – often, remarkably, in the role of a sinister foreigner.  He appeared in sundry eastern European roles in Patrick MacGoohan’s long-running Danger Man, and as a Russian diplomat in Edward Woodward’s spellbinding Callan.  One television play, A Question About Hell, even cast him as a Black man!

Even on the occasions he was offered roles as a Londoner, Pratt’s rugged, and somewhat seedy-looking countenance usually placed him on the wrong side of the law – a crooked car salesman in Gideon’s Way, a insubordinate naval rating in The Champions, and so forth.  Indeed, even the role that truly established him among the elite of British small screen stars, Jeff Randall in Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), saw him maintain the downtrodden shabbiness, and potential lawlessness that had already brought him such renown – one reason why, following the series’ conclusion in late summer, 1969, Pratt decided to eschew further television roles for a time, and work in theatre instead.

Aside from a small role in an episode of UFO (the latest creation of Thunderbirds mastermind Gerry Anderson),  Pratt was absent from the screens for well over a year, as he worked instead in a season of Shakespearean plays at the Mermaid Theatre in London.  Beginning in 1971, however, he was seldom off the screen, turning up in such fondly remembered shows as The Expert, Hadleigh, Jason King and the children’s’ serial Arthur of the Britons.  He also received wild acclaim for his starring role in the BBC play Long Voyage Out Of War, a three-part production that called upon him to age from 21 to 56.

Pratt made his last TV appearance in two episodes of the BBC semi-soap The Brothers, in 1975. He had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer and, though he continued working for as long as he could, by early 1976 he was bedridden and hospitalised.  He died that July 10, just a month past his 45th birthday, and it is a testament to the sheer power of the decade-or-so he spent in the frontline of British television that, amid the myriad tributes that were paid to him in the weeks that followed, few even hinted at his earlier career in the basement of Britpop.

But still it must be said, , that not all of the music’s most prominent pioneers performed their magic in front of a microphone.  Some were equally influential from far behind the scenes.  And Michael Pratt, for bringing us Tommy Steele and “Rock With The Caveman,” was as vital as any.

Leave a Reply