10 July 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
England's Abbott & Costello
The cross-talk comedy team of Jewel & Warriss were Britain's version of Abbott & Costello. Both teams featured a well-dressed straight-man who easily exploited and baffled an ill-dressed bumbler. Whereas Bud Abbott was dapper, his counterpart Ben Warriss onstage typically dressed as if he was on his way to a Coronation, in high silk hat, spats, walking stick and formal attire. Coarse-featured Jimmy Jewel was neither as short nor as fat as Lou Costello, but strongly resembled him in an ill-fitting suit, porkpie hat and a broad 'kipper' tie. Although the career of Jewel & Warriss peaked at almost exactly the same time as Bud & Lou reached their zenith, Jewel & Warriss are now almost utterly forgotten because their greatest popularity was on stage in the variety halls. Their film and television appearances were few, usually limited to cameo appearances in someone else's show. They also starred in 'Up the Pole' - a bizarre radio sitcom, taking place at the North Pole - but this radio series inevitably lacks the visual appeal of their material.
The real-life behaviour of Jewel & Warriss differed sharply from their onstage personalities. Jimmy Jewel, gullible and gormless onstage, was actually a shrewd man who invested his money wisely. Ben Warriss, the glib sharpie onstage, was actually a clothes-horse who spent his money as fast as he earned it. "I'll have a new suit made for that," was his first response to every cross-talk routine they added to their act. Interestingly, Jewel and Warriss were actually cousins, born in the same bed (a few months apart) and raised together in one household.
'At Home with Jimmy and Ben' enhances the similarity of Jewel & Warriss to Abbott & Costello by employing the same gimmick previously used by Bud & Lou in their TV series. The lads are using their own names here, playing fictionalised versions of themselves, and ostensibly living together in an odd-couple arrangement.
'At Home with Jimmy and Ben' is a one-off post-holiday special for the lads, transmitted 24 January 1962. On Britain's TV screens, Christmas and Boxing Day are traditionally excuses for elaborate holiday specials. Apparently, Jewel & Warriss couldn't (or didn't want to) get this 15-minute skit scheduled during the holiday season, so they waited three weeks and shaped their material accordingly. This special depicts Jimmy and Ben living together, spending a lazy evening at home whilst recovering from the overindulgence of the recent holiday season. Naturally, Ben takes advantage of gullible Jimmy, and soon Jimmy is fetching and carrying whilst Ben nurses a hangover. The comedy seems forced. Allegedly, we're watching these two performers on their night off, when they're simply lolling about at home and being themselves ... yet we're aware that this is really a set in a television studio, and that these two performers are speaking rehearsed dialogue. Jewel & Warriss lounge about the set in house clothes, thereby losing a major part of their distinctive image - Warriss's formal attire, Jewel's incongruous suit - and diluting the contrast between their appearances. Most comedy duos featured a little and a large, or a fat and a thin. Jewel & Warriss were of normal size and shape; when dressed normally, the most significant contrast between them was facial: Ben is handsome, Jimmy has a face like a sack of potatoes.
I'm not quite old enough to have seen Jewel & Warriss live onstage in the variety halls, when they (and their act) were in their prime. A few old-timers who did see them onstage have told me that Jewel & Warriss's television work (including this special) is simply not an accurate reflection of the act's appeal. At their peak, Jewel & Warriss were a fast-paced turn, with rapid-fire cross-talk and gags, performing in a style far more typical of American vaudeville comics rather than British music-hall comedians. Very little of that zip is on offer here. What does come through, pleasingly, is the very real affection and chemistry between these cousins who have literally been together from the cradle. (Reportedly, in their last years together, spendthrift Ben came to resent Jimmy's comfortable financial situation.) For that one glimpse of their past greatness, and the tremendous historical significance of their cross-talk act - Jewel & Warriss were top of the bill, during the war years - I'll rate this creaky special 5 out of 10.