This time I am extremely happy to introduce you to Mel Francis, a man who has not only been a Coronation Street Background Support Artist for many years, but has also appeared in lots of other productions, and has had quite a stage career as well.
Hi Mel, could you tell us how you got started in the business please?
Where do I begin? I was demobbed from the R.A.F when I was twenty. I had got the urge (but it went away lol) to try singing, which seemed to go down well at the various shows we organised. I threw in some gags and I was away.
After demob I did an audition at The Nuffield Centre where variety shows were put on for the servicemen during the war and afterwards. It was then used as an audition centre where agents would come along to find talent. I was "found" and offered a variety tour of all the top theatres of that time. Business wasn't too good, and after about 8 weeks on the road, the producer of the show left a suicide note. It was only later that we found out he had scarpered with a lot of money.
Oh dear, so does that mean you didn't get paid? Not a great first experience!
The producer scarpered on the Saturday with all the takings from the week except Saturdays. We got £1.50 (30 bob) each, which gave me enough money to get back to London from Birmingham. Got to King's Cross at 4 a.m, and being a Sunday, had to wait till around 8 a.m. for the tube. Happy days! I was with a world famous Chaplin impersonator called Ronnie Collis. It was my 21 st birthday to boot lol.
Undeterred, I found an ad in one of the musical papers for a male singer. The band turned out to be the George Crow Band (an 18-piece, (not 4 "boys" who can't read music or play instruments, who should be called groups. Are Take That still a "boy" band?
Ha ha! I don't know. I don't think they caught on in Canada, but I could be wrong, I am of the wrong age group to know I am afraid.
Well anyway, I did my first summer season with George in Scarborough, but he eventually emigrated to New Zealand.
After the season, it was back to the papers, and another audition. The band was Freddy Randall and his Jazz Band. He had a small 6 piece which did stacks of broadcasts on an old show called Jazz Club. Older people may remember it if they tuned in to the BBC.
He augmented to a 15 piece for a 2 week stint at a venue called Green's Playhouse in Glasgow. All the top bands played there. I'll mention a few, and the older generation may remember them. ERIC DELANEY, KEN MACKINTOSH, TED HEATH, JOHNNY DANKWORTH, SID PHILLIPS, et al.
They all sound very familiar to me Mel. I remember Cleo Laine singing with Johnny Dankworth too. This was also the era of Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk, I remember going to see the latter at the Leas Cliff Hall in Folkestone. So what did you do after Freddy Randall?
I did this gig every 6 months for about 6 years. In between, I sang and broadcast hundreds of times with the Norman Burns Quintet. He was the drummer, and had played with George Shearing (in the nicest possible way) until George went to America. So Norman formed his own band, and we had some of the greatest musicians of the time playing with us - Benny Green, Vic Ash, Bill Le Sage, Kenny Wheeler etc. I also sang and broadcast with The Squadronaires and Billy Ternent.
I looked up the Squadronaires, and they have quite a history. Started in 1939 by the Royal Airforce, they played the music of the day, which was the big band Glen Miller type sound. Then after the war, the members formed a civilian band, which was taken over by Ronnie Aldrich in 1950. They worked under his leadership until 1964. So did you work with them under Ronnie Aldrich? Were they still playing the wartime music by then?
Yes, I worked with Ronnie from 1961 to 1963 or 64. I sang all the songs of the time, including lots of standards. Ronnie became house band for Thames Television, and was widely known as the musical director for the television programme The Benny Hill Show. At the end of a variety show, he would always get a credit "music by Ronnie Aldrich and his Orchestra".
I also discovered, while researching him, that he was educated at the Harvey Grammar School in Folkestone, which is where I grew up. What a small world!
What was next for you Mel?
My second summer season was in 1962, when I was offered the job of resident singer with the band who had been at Streatham Locarno. This was at one of Butlin's Holiday camps.
The main comic was Jimmy Tarbuck, who, at the end of the season, gave me some names to contact in Manchester. This was my first of working the clubs up north, and they were tough. After about the 3rd club I worked, I was offered a residency as compere. which I did for about 3 years. I met the Beatles about this time, when they were just about coming to the fore.
Oh really? I was a huge Beatles fan in the 60's, I am VERY envious! I still remember their first TV appearance, their hair looked so long, yet it was only just below their ears.
During this period I met just about every well-known artist, including Dusty Springfield, Engelbert Humperdinck, Olivia Newton John, Cliff Richard. There were loads more, but I'm trying to remember one's that the Canadians might know.
We have lots of Brits who read this website too Mel, but I am sure you don't have to be British to recognise those names.
Anyhow, my wife and I decided to move to Manchester from London (where the work was). I was with the Variety Artiste's Federation at the time, and when they amalgamated with Equity, I got my Equity card. Armed with this, I started doing TV work mainly with Granada, and my first job was on Corrie. It was in black and white then, and one ep went out live. There were 2 a week at that time. I've still kept my first contract. The fee was 5 guineas a day for 2 days, and 1 guinea a day overtime. A guinea was £1.05, so for 2 days work, I got the equivalent of £12.60p. (You'll have to convert).
I left England when you still had the old money, so a guinea to me is still one pound one shilling. But I think a guinea in Canadian money would be about $1.75
Whilst I was in Manchester for gigs, I was able to work TV during the day, and did the clubs at night. This is where the word EXTRA comes from, because it was extra money!
I gradually went further afield with my singing, which now incorporated comedy and impressions. Manchester was a good base, as it was convenient for Scotland, Wales, Newcastle and all points North, South, East and West.
You do impressions? Who can you do?
My impressions were from yesteryear, people like Frankie Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Johnnie Ray, Maurice Chevalier, and Nat King Cole.
Ahah! Now everyone can try to guess if they have been listening to Frankie Vaughan or you. Answers on a plain postcard please. :-)
Any embarassing or funny moments during your career?
I did have an embarassing moment, funnily enough on the stage of the Bilston Hippodrome where we were "nobbled". This was just outside Birmingham (not Alabama lol), and coming downstage for my final call, I slipped, fell flat on my bum, and there was complete silence from the audience.
I did City of Varieties in Leeds many times, meeting the likes of Chester Harriot (Ainsley's dad), Ruby Murray (popular singer at the time), Dawn Adams, Eli Woods (who played Cynthia to Hylda Baker), and lots more. Maybe no one has heard of them, but c'est la vie lol. They were ALL big stars then. Worked with Tommy Cooper, Bob Monkhouse, Ken Dodd, Bernard Manning,
Frank Carson, etc.
Compered shows with most of the top artistes of the time. I worked once with that fine Canadian singer Ted Hockridge. One of the TV shows I did was with Eric Flynn, who was a nephew of Errol Flynn.
So how did you get from all this to doing background Extra work?
By the time of the new milleneum I felt I was getting too old too travel all over the country, so got myself an agent and started working again as an SA, which is what we are called now.
I have appeared in many TV shows. If anyone is interested, here goes: BLUE BLOOD, BLUE MURDER, SHAMELESS, CUTTING IT, WHERE THE HEART IS, HEARTBEAT, LONGFORD, THE ROYAL, THE ROYAL TODAY, COLD BLOOD, LIFE ON MARS, HOLLYOAKS, THE CHASE, THE STREET, THE CUP, WIRED, UNFORGIVEN, FRESH MEAT, LAPLAND, BEING EILEEN, HEBBURN and of course CORRIE AND EMMERDALE.
I've also done some commercials, and although I am nearly 80 (hope I don't look it!), I'm still enjoying the TV work.
You certainly don't, working so hard must be keeping you young.
You mentioned you have a wife. May we know about her?
Of course, my wife's name is Roberta, we have one son, and 2 grandkids. I am sorry, but I have no decent photos to send you.
That's OK. Talking about photos, why don't we look at your gallery now. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy life to talk to us Mel.
Here is Mel enjoying Audrey's 70th birthday party. Liz looks as if the fellow standing next to Mel has just pinched her bum!
A scene from Shameless. Mel was slurping his drink loudly then passes it to his on-screen missus.
Who remembers this excellent TV series in 1968? Mel was a soldier in the Caligula episode.
Mel's death stare at Claudius
Back to Corrie now, in fact way back to 1967 and the Rovers are having a Tug o' War with the Flying Horse. Mel is shouting encouragement from the sidelines 2nd from the left.
Here he is attending Dennis & Rita's wedding, looking very dapper in a grey suit.
You can see him here sitting behind Kevin and Sally, with a feather from Sally's fascinator hanging in front of his face.
Oh dear, I think the continuity fairy was not doing her job that day, on the left there is Mel again, sitting between and behind Kevin and Sally as in the photo above, but on the right, they have him sitting to the right of Julie. In fact it's an odd shot, Sally now looks as if she is sitting in front of Kevin instead of beside him.
Here he is outside the church, and he is speaking with Gina Sinclare in the pink, whom you have already met.
Moving away from Corrie now, we have a few stills from a show called Hebburn. This was also shown in Canada, but I bet some of you had a bit of trouble understanding the Geordie accents. Mel is sitting at the table in the background.
The above four are from Hebburn too. In the last one, someone has just dropped dead, and someone else has just thrown up inside the dead woman's handbag - as you do...