As Joe Orton’s Edna Welthorpe letters continue to inspire satirists some 60 years on, Getintothis’ Andy Holland reviews new book Dear Mr Kershaw.
Playwright Joe Orton created Edna Welthorpe as a fictional character designed to annoy authority figures, civil servants and canned goods manufacturers, in a series of extremely funny and increasingly surreal letters. Orton probably wasn’t the first person to come up with this device, and it has certainly been used since, most famously in the best-selling Henry Root Letters. Here, there were even missives to repellent Third World dictators, who not only wrote back, but enclosed signed photographs.
Dear Mr Kershaw is another book that follows in the tradition, and a very amusing one it is too. The difference here is that all of the letters are targeted at pop stars, most of whom dutifully replied, and both the letters and replies are faithfully reprinted in the book. Most of the pop stars reply in an enormously good humoured way (Rick Wakeman, Kim Wilde, Nik Kershaw, Ian McNabb), often wittily, whereas others (yes, you Haysi Fantayzee, Yazz) seem more ambiguous.
It’s a coffee table book, designed for dipping in and out of. It has obviously been a labour of love for the writers because they have been compiling it since 2007, and it is lovingly reproduced. It was finally published as a consequence of crowd-funding and genuine good will from everybody who took part.
The humour is multi-faceted but there is a common thread running through all of it. Derek Philpott’s usual bone of contention is with lyrics; anything vague or inaccurate, is as a red rag to a bull for him, and his neighbour Wilf Turnbull is equally pedantic. Both take lyrics absolutely literally, which of course is an excellent comic device, because the words to pop songs often make very little literal sense. Philpott’s wife, Jean, contributes images of plasticine animal caricatures of pop stars to illustrate the book, and these are equally eccentric and satirical.
Thus Philpott becomes non-plussed by The Pussycat Dolls‘ Don’t Cha and informs the girl-group that he is a happily married man, whose wife has a healthy body temperature and that he would urge her to seek medical help if that were not the case – for example, if it was ‘hot’ like theirs.
Philpott nitpicks his way through Tommy Scott’s lyrics for Space’s Neighbourhood and says that should the song’s claim that the local vicar ‘is a serial killer’ be valid, it ought to be reported to the police. Tommy Scott replies that he can’t do that because Scott used to be ‘one of his favourite choirboys’.
Later in the book Philpott takes issue with one of my own heroes. After alleging that Subway Sect are a ‘radical faction of trainspotters’ with an over-fondness for ‘knitted sports cardigans’, Philpott then takes umbrage at Vic Godard’s statement that ‘everyone is a prostitute’. Stretching the analogy to its most ridiculous point, he explains; ‘the monopoly of contracted concubines flourishing to the extent of excluding all other occupations…’ would result in disaster. Vic reassures Philpott that his statement was a consequence of a ‘teenage mind versed in virtual realities’, which would probably confuse Philpott even more.
Yes, this is a must have for any music fan. The pop songs covered in the book tend to be concentrated in the 1980s and 1990s, but not completely. In fact, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you, with one word of caution; when you buy a copy, don’t lend it to anybody. You’ll never get it back.