In a small back room they remember an entertainer with a huge personality

THE record for most people pushed into a phone box is said to be 14, two of them children. The record for most in the back room of the Britannia, at least twice as big as a phone box and home these past 47 years to Darlington Folk Club, is reckoned 57 – though they had to take the door off.

“Probably Bertie was on,” someone says, and probably they’re right.

Bert Draycott was an amazing man – charismatic, multi-talented, extrovert and incorrigible – whose funeral last year was on what would have been his 87th birthday. A few days before he died he’d done his usual turn at the folk club.

Snug-bugged in the Brit last Tuesday they held a tribute night, comfortably full with 20 in and none on the innocent side of 65.

Someone’s brought one of Bert’s intricately carved sticks – “first prize at Sedgefield Show” – someone else a copy of The Stage, which seems appropriate because to Bert that’s what all the world was. A third has even written a number called When Bertie Gets to Heaven, based on one of his best known songs. “Oh what a laugh in the heavenly bath, when Bert arrives in glory….”

He was a Fishburn lad, miner by day (and night), wood carver, potter, poet, new age kurler, singer and spinner of coal-dusted stories about everything from tin baths to blackclocks (“grit bug uns”) and from pit props to poss tubs. A poss tub, said Bert, was the world’s first top-loading washing machine.

Most of all, though, he was celebrated for playing the spoons, world title holder on umpteen occasions and inventor of the Fishburn flick. Global domination? “Oh aye,” said Bert, “they came from Newton Aycliffe and all over.”

The first championship, he liked to say, was held in the compressor room at Fishburn colliery at two o’clock one morning. That the Queen was in attendance was a claim yet more greatly elasticated.

Like Jesus he was a master storyteller, the Rev Pauline Fellows had said at his funeral at Sedgefield parish church, though the Messiah, she added, probably hadn’t mastered the Fishburn flick.

Familiar in bowler hat, waistcoat, red shirt and bow tie, he was a regular at the Brit and many other folk clubs, though licensees were unlikely to have made their fortune from his custom. “A half shandy would last him all night,” it’s recalled. “Even then he’d probably ask if he could keep half of it till next time.”

Dave Myers, the folk club MC, remembers a proper showman. “If ever he forgot his lines, he’d just carry on with the patter. Like Bob Monkhouse, he’d keep books full of jokes. The men thought he was great, but the women absolutely loved him.”

Others recall that he always carried his spoons in his back pocket, that he’d accost strangers to ask if they knew who he was, that he needed no prompting to lay it on by the spoonsful.

“We were in a café in Whitby and Bert would get the teas in,” says Carole Lamb. “I thought he’d been gone a long time and then realised he was teaching the waitress to play the spoons. If you started him on the spoons, that was it.”

Then there was the time that the television genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are? traced the singer Tamsin Outhwaite to Fishburn, and Fishburn to Bert. “Took ower the show,” it’s remembered.

Chris Wilson recalls visiting him in the James Cook, that hangar-sized hospital, asking at reception if they knew where Bertie was. They did, immediately – “and if you hurry up,” they added, “you’ll catch his next show.”

Bert’s son Gordon is at the Brit, too, though he never followed in his father’s footlights. “I’m the shy one, I took after my mam,” he says. So what was his dad like at home? “I’m not really sure, he wasn’t very often there,” says Gordon.

Lovely people, they sing, recite, remember, roll back the years, though none attempts to play the spoons or to sing The £40 Car, the song for which Bertie may best be remembered.

None, it’s unanimously agreed, could ever hope to imitate him. Bert Draycott was unique.

Paradise retrained

WE’D promised proof that the royal train rested overnight in Witton Park, that once-blighted community near Bishop Auckland where the ironworks site was called Paradise – and is now a nature reserve of the same name. Village historian Dale Daniel provides it.

Dale’s photograph shows the Queen Mother bidding goodbye to the locals after a night in Paradise in 1975, though his recollection that Betty Stephenson who lived in the station house helped Her Majesty wash a few smalls may be supposed fanciful.

Yet more apocryphal, shall we say, is the story that Charles and Andrew came to visit their grandmother and were treated to a couple in the middle house. What’s not in doubt is that St Paul’s church, still serving, is reflected in the carriage window.

Witton Park also had a royal visitor 97 years ago tomorrow, when Princess Marie Louise of Belgium unveiled the war memorial. Whether she laid her head in Paradise is, sadly, not recorded.

ON the subject of royal trains, or at least those patronised by the nobility, a new book on Anglo-Scottish sleepers uncovers a remarkable story of the 1st Viscount Furness, the West Hartlepool shipping magnate.

After his first wife – a canny Seaton Carew lass – died on his yacht and was buried at sea, Marmaduke Furness began a relationship with Thelma Converse, daughter of a wealthy American diplomat. Furness invited her to his shooting lodge near Inverness, the pair joined on the northbound sleeper in August 1925 by his valet, two footmen, three housemaids and sundry other members of staff (doubtless travelling third class.)

The valet summoned Converse to his master’s cabin, transformed for the occasion into a private dining room with chilled champagne and a picnic hamper crammed with all manner of delicacies. “What, no plovers’ eggs?” Ms Converse is said to have observed.

A proposal of holy matrimony followed and was accepted. It didn’t last. Ere long, alas, her ladyship was sleeping with the future King Edward VIII instead.

*Anglo Scottish Sleepers by David Meara (Amberley, £14 99)

SIMPSON’S in the Strand, the celebrated London dining room where we lunched at someone else’s expense last Saturday, has no connection with Mrs Wallis Simpson, another of the old king’s conquests.

It may be recorded, nonetheless, that it was Thelma Converse who introduced her friend Mrs Simpson to the priapic prince, and that was the thanks she got.

Saturday’s was a family lunch – not the Shildon end of the family, it’s perhaps unnecessary to add – and as enjoyable as it was expensive. Simpson’s may best be known for its beef, but since the second half of today’s column has something of a noble air about it, let it be recorded that the menu also included Lord Woolton pie, a meatless concoction of potato, peas and barley named after a wartime food minister.

In a British Restaurant it was probably about one and threepence. At Simpson’s it’s £21.

…and still with the nobility – back to the former British West Hartlepool, indeed – a piece in this month’s Oldie magazine recalls the London childhood of Peter Mandelson, the town’s MP from 1992-2004, 65 gone Sunday and now in the Lords. Mandy and his mates were in the habit of squirting the unsuspecting with water pistols, a practice abruptly curtailed after a direct hit on a chap with a pushchair. It was the then fearsome wrestler Mick McManus.