The story of Cosmotheka, 1972-1999
The following article was written for a book called Old Redditch Voices by Anne Bradford, published by Hunt End Books in 2005. It serves perfectly to tell the full story of Dave & Al's work together, and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.
NB: the bold underlined links in the text will, when clicked, display a photograph relevant to that part of the story... and there are further photos of Al & Dave to be found by clicking here.
The two Sealey brothers, Alan and Dave, were born in Melen Street and attended Bridge Street and Bridley Moor Schools. They became famous as a 'music hall' type duo known as Cosmotheka, a name taken from an old time music hall which was once in the back streets of Paddington. They have shared the stage with such fellow celebrities as Roy Hudd, June Whitfield, Don McClean, Isla St Clare, Charlie Chester, Dame Vera Lynn and many others.
Dave moved to London in the mid 1960s, hoping to become a pop star:
'I was always involved in some way or other as a singer and when I was in my twenties I was in a rock and roll band. We had a bit of success and got to make a recording for EMI at Abbey Road Studios, where the Beatles made Sergeant Pepper. A bit later on I got a solo career with Dick James' Music in London. Neither of these two recording contracts came to much, so I returned to Redditch and got married.
'My brother, Alan, had been singing in a folk group and in about 1974, shortly after I got married, we said suddenly, 'Why don't we sing as a duet?'. We hadn't really got anything in mind, except that Alan had an old music hall item he used to sing with his folk group. It was called, 'A little bit of cucumber'. Between us we then decided that's what we would have a look at, old music hall songs, and we would sing them in two-part harmony with me accompanying on my guitar. We went down to the local library, looked through the old scores and learned two or three of them.
Alan and I were both sales reps, and I was working in Digbeth in what had been the old Bird's Custard factory which was then being used for manufacturing polythene bags. I used to wander off at lunch time going round the local junk shops looking for songs to start Cosmotheka off. I was searching through some sheet music for songs by Gus Elen, who was a music hall singer, when the proprietor came over and said, 'What are you looking for?'. I told him and he said, 'I have got some of his records at home'. It turned out that he was a member of the Birmingham Gramophone Society. I asked him if I could take a tape recorder to his house and record some of the old songs, and he was very obliging. When I went to see him he took me into his front room, it was cluttered with old gramophones and phonographs. These were his main interest but he had collected a lot of cylinders and 78 records on the way. The first thing he played to me was a song called 'Little Billy's Wild Woodbines' by Billy Williams, who called himself 'The Man in a Velvet Suit'. His most famous song was 'When father papered the parlour'. The old fellow put the record on; there was a great big horn attached to the gramophone and a tiny metallic voice started coming out of the blackness of the horn. It felt like a time machine, almost as if I could see this little fellow at the end of this horn. I was completely hooked, I had never heard anybody sing quite like that and he affected a funny little laugh at the end. That was the first time I heard a music hall artist singing and I heard three that day. I walked away with about six numbers that formed the initial batch of songs for what was to become the Cosmotheka act.
'We started going to Folk Clubs to do what were known as 'floor spots', where you were allowed to perform two or three songs to illustrate the kind of show you could offer. Cosmotheka just took off from there, we were surprised how well it went. Within two or three months we got our first gig in Binton Working Men's Club for the princely sum of £6. That's how it all started.
'For the first six or seven years we were semi-professional. This was during the 1980s recession and life was tough for a salesman, your workload had trebled. At the same time, we had been saying 'no' to people on the telephone who wanted our act, we were getting requests from all over the country to appear at clubs and festivals. So, in 1981 we sat down together, talked it over, looked at the financial implications and decided to take the plunge and go professional. What we didn't realise, was that when you do say, 'Yes' to people further afield, ultimately you become better known. That's actually what happened.
'When you are semi-professional you are working in the day and working at night as well. When I went professional, I was often away for three or four days but I was at home during the next few days. It worked out that I saw more of the family and more of the kids growing up.
'We did a short series on Radio 4 called 'Cosmotheka', then the opportunity arose for us to do a one-off programme on Radio 2 which told the story of the great old comedian Harry Champion. It was entitled 'What a mouth'. It gave us our first opportunity to work with Bernard Hermann and the famous Northern Dance Orchestra (the NDO), best remembered nowadays for their regular appearances on BBC TV's 'The Good Old Days' and for their wistful rendition of the 'Coronation Street' theme music. We followed that up with a six-week series again for Radio 2 which was called 'Double Tops'. Each episode featured a different singing double act and in the one concerning Flanders and Swann, Donald Swann actually made an appearance in the show. Our third series was called 'Smiling Through', about the home front during the Second World War, the CD of which topped the 10,000 sales mark and received such acclamation that it was nominated for a Grammy award. We did two series after that called 'Cosmotheka's Comedy Song Book', again with the Bernard Hermann orchestra. We did lots of outside broadcasts with Charlie Chester when we worked with the Colin Campbell Big Band and did a complete series with them at the Palace Theatre, called 'Underneath the Archives'.
'We also did a great deal of live radio; in such cases we worked with guitar accompaniment only. We appeared regularly on shows like 'Around Midnight' with Brian Mathew and 'The Stewart Hall Show'. We also did Alan Titchmarsh's late-night show from Pebble Mill. On the two occasions when we performed in 'Friday Night is Music Night' we had to hire a couple of dinner suits from Heaphys!
'We did a lot of Charity Concerts for the Grand Order of Water Rats and I still correspond with them. It was a lovely, happy time.
'Then the whole music set-up with the BBC changed. Towards the end of the 80s, they disbanded some of the big bands, there was a big furore and the musicians were up in arms, but the changes were implemented so that the whole presentation of music on the radio changed dramatically. This corresponded with management restructures and a new director for Radio 2 replaced Francis Line with whom we had developed an extremely good relationship. That really brought our radio career to an end. Fortunately we were lucky, we knew the right people in the right places and we had already been doing some television work.
'We did a one-off programme called 'This is Cosmotheka' which was produced at Pebble Mill for BBC television by an up-and-coming producer called Roger Cassells. Shortly after we made the programme Roger moved from BBC to Central TV. His first project was a series called 'Venture' which examined problems involved in starting up in business on your own. This coincided with our decision to go professional and we became a suitable subject for this programme. Such people as Alan's former boss, one of my chief buyers and even our wives and children were interviewed with some alarming and amusing results. Roger eventually moved back to BBC and invited us to make a set of documentary films which we called A Postcard from Cosmotheka. For one of the programmes the BBC flew us to Scotland where we got to interview the famous Scottish comedian, Jimmy Logan. We even got the opportunity to visit Lauder Hall, a beautiful old house that was once the home of Sir Harry Lauder. Not only was it a privilege for Alan and I to go there but also Roger Cassells arranged for Sir Harry's granddaughters to be interviewed there, they were both in their seventies. At the time the house was privately-owned, but they opened it up to us. We were allowed to go in the house, the grand-daughters were running all over it, seeing if this and that had been changed, they were like two little girls. That's on film somewhere.
'We did the 'Good Old Days' on the telly when it was in its heyday. It was the longest-running variety show on TV and ran for 30 years. If you wanted to be in the audience you had to pay for the hire of your costume and those who sat down had bought their tickets ten years before - there was a 10-year waiting list. We appeared in a Christmas special with Roy Castle and John Inman - it was a great experience with lovely people. I had found an old 78 record in a junk shop at Worcester with a song called 'Up Went My Little Umbrella' by Fred Earle. That song was the one we did on The Good Old Days'. I sent a recording of the 78 record to Pat Nash, the Arranger, who then duplicated the arrangement for the NDO, and it was sung on television. I was always quite proud of the fact that this long-forgotten song that nobody remembered eventually found its way on to national TV using its original orchestral arrangements.
'During this period of about 15 years when we did quite a lot of work for radio and television, we also travelled extensively abroad. We went to Canada five times. On one occasion we were bowling along through Calgary's busy streets, when we got stopped by a speed cop. Alan wound the window down. 'Excuse me sir, do you realise you were speeding there?' We were all apologetic. 'We're terribly sorry we're strangers in town and didn't know'. 'Is this your car sir?' Alan was getting more and more nervous. 'Well, no, actually it belongs to a friend of ours and she's out of town'. He looked all suspicious. 'May I see your licence please?' By that time Alan was all of a shake. He fished out his licence and the speed cop looked at it. 'Excuse me sir but this appears to be your membership card for Redditch Liberal Club'.
The craziest place was Hong Kong. It was being sponsored by one of the lager companies, we went to promote it and we took part in it as well. Kenny Pang was the Link man and he had the bright idea that we should go on to the Hong Kong breakfast show on television, and the Hong Kong Morris Men were supposed to be dancing while we sang. I have no idea what the Southern Chinese thought of 'Up Went My Little Umbrella' at seven o'clock in the morning.
'We also did a lot of work for an organisation called 'Combined Services Entertainment' run by the armed services to provide entertainment to British Forces abroad. It took us to far-flung places, the Ascension Island, the Falkland Islands and also Belfast, and on one occasion to Germany supporting Chas and Dave's Rock and Roll band. The first time we went to Belfast was really scary. Each carrier had soldiers front and back and we had helicopter cover. We had some bricks and stuff thrown at the vehicle.
'We went to Baghdad to perform for the John Laing Construction Company. The country was still at war with Iran. It was an eye-opener, such a strange place to go to. Soldiers with loaded guns were patrolling everywhere.
'In the 1990s Alan and I started doing pantomime, following an old music hall tradition. Most of the old music hall stars, even Marie Lloyd, did panto. We should have started doing it earlier, it's great fun. We always did the double act part, we were the robbers in Babes in the Wood and 'Ping and Pong' the Chinese policemen in Aladdin.
Alan had not been well for a year or two when, in 1999, we went into panto rehearsals for Sleeping Beauty. I was very worried about him, he was not really up to it and two shows a day in pantomime is very strenuous. He died just before it opened. I carried on and did the show somehow or other making the two characters into one. In times of tragedy people say the best thing is to keep working and luckily I was surrounded by professionals and good friends.
'The saddest times for me were the years immediately after Alan died. I did feel lonely, in real despair. That was a point in time when it was very difficult to see my way forward. The great thing was that I discovered some really staunch friends, people that I'm still working with now, they saw me through - Andrew Frank, George Hinchliffe, Malcolm Stent, Don McClean - a lot of our former contacts continued giving me work. I still get phone calls from all sorts of people, for example Chas Hodges from 'Chas and Dave' often gives me a ring. The managers of the Solihull Arts Complex offered me a part the year after Alan died as Baron Hardup in Cinderella. Since then I have played the Dame two years running, Widow Twanky in Aladdin and the year after that, Sarah the Cook in Dick Whittington. I've just finished the panto season, this year it was my 11th pantomime playing King Crumble of Apple Turnover in Jack and the Beanstalk.
'Most of Cosmotheka's work was, and still is for me, rural touring which is partly subsidised by the Arts Council. They send out their menus to village halls so that the villagers can select from a wide range of professional acts. There are schemes like that all over the country. That really became our bread and butter work, plus arts centres. Nowadays I tend to work in collaboration with other performers. I do a little bit of solo work, mostly Folk Clubs, and I'm planning a new one-man show called 'With a Little Bit O' Luck' - the Stanley Holloway story, which I'm hoping to have ready by the Autumn of 2004.
'All in all I have had a jolly good time and got to know lots of lovely people. My son and daughter are following in the family traditions, my daughter has a lovely singing voice and has married into a family with show business connections, while my son has been running his own band, Late, which is getting very well known. They toured with the nationally-known Ocean Colour Scene and have recently been selected to appear in a live band competition to be screened later this year.'
© Anne Bradford 2005 and reproduced by kind permission of the author