Alan and Bloom Clare, the Goons, Stephane Grappelli
and Other Stories
by Murray Ginsberg
When Bloom Rose Houtman married pianist
Alan Clare in 1947, she had no idea how much her life would
soon change. Through Alan, a London cocktail pianist, she
would be introduced to a whole new world of famous
people, recording artists and world class musicians. But
in 1944, three years before the 15-year-old beauty met the
musician, ironically her fate changed dramatically when
the Houtman home was destroyed by a Luftwaffe bomb. The
catastrophe forced the family to move to Leicester, at that
time a small town about a hundred miles from London.
The family remained in Leicester when the war ended,
and in 1947 when she was 18, she went dancing to De Montfort
Hall where Sid Millward and the Nitwits were playing. The
Nitwits were a comedy band, with a large following. During
the evening friends who had accompanied her told Alan that
Bloom was a talented singer who came from a musical family.
Why not give her a crack at a song? The pianist invited
her to come up and sing one number.
Feeling less than confident, she went up
on stage and sat on a stool next to the pianist. "What would
you like to sing?" he asked. "I'll Be Loving You Always,"
she replied. Alan said, "Let's try the key of 'F'."
He put her at ease by saying, 'Don't worry, you'll do fine.
Just use your adrenalin not to be nervous and sing well."
Bloom said her song went well, because
Sid Millward booked her to do a Sunday concert with them
the following week. A week later after she had finished
her performance, the young lady was pleased with the applause
and the large number of compliments she received. She was
on her way.
"It helped to be accompanied by such competent
musicians," she said, "especially Alan who I thought was
the best one in the group. He could play anything."
It didn't take long for a relationship
to develop. "Alan was so kind to me, he felt like family
and I fell for him right away. When we got married on November
3, 1947, I ceased being Bloom Houtman and became Bloom Clare."
The Leicester newspaper was quick to issue an announcement:
"Local girl marries Nitwit."
As the years progressed Alan's reputation
as a fine pianist caught the attention of many top London
personalities. In the 1950s and 60s, he fronted a
trio in the Studio Club, a popular West End night spot which
attracted everyone who was anyone in show business, as well
as politicians, government officials and royalty. There
she met not only Stephane Grappelli, the celebrated French
jazz violinist, but others, including members of Britain's
top rated 1950s Goon Show - the famous Peter Sellers/Spike
Milligan/Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine quartet with
whom she became close personal friends.
"Stephane got us the flat we moved
into in Holland Park," she said. "Whenever they rehearsed
together Stephane was either at our place or Alan would
walk to the bottom of the road where Stephane lived and
rehearse with him there. They were always together."
(The 70-ish lady still lives at the same address with current
husband Henry Chantry.)
"Stephane used to tell us stories
about Django Reinhardt, his Gypsy guitarist when they were
the Hot Club of France. Although Django was a magnificent
jazz artist, Stephane was always impatient with him because
he could never be convinced that the moon he saw in the
sky over England was the same moon hed seen in France.
He thought there was a different moon in every country."
Stephane too, was not without his idiosyncrasies.
"Once when he drove home to Troy Court in west London
and parked his car in his parking place, he slammed the
car door too loudly. Someone shouted out of a window, Damn
yobo, make less noise! Stephane quickly retaliated
with Ive got more money than you! Alan
said Stephanes booming voice could be heard blocks
I met Bloom Clare in 1995 at a recital
in Wigmore Hall where my partner, Myra Davis and I had been
invited by pianist Gene DiNovi who was touring England with
clarinetist Jim Campbell. Bloom and Myra and I became close
friends from the start, a friendship that has lasted to
Over the weeks and months that followed
Bloom (now widowed from her pianist husband) regaled us
with dozens of stories about the Goons. "Peter and
Spike were real characters," she recalled. "They
always enjoyed playing tricks on one another. For example,
one morning at 3 am Milligan, who lived opposite Sellers
was roused from a deep sleep by a knock on his door. When
he opened it he found Sellers standing there naked except
for a Bowler hat, socks and shoes.
Good morning! Do you know a good
tailor? Peter asked.
Milligan said he got his own back by sending
him a telegram the next day saying, "Ignore first telegram."
Another from Bloom: "Spike often told
us he would sleep on the floor at Peters house on
a pneumatic mattress which he would blow up only to find
by morning it had a leak and he was sleeping on the stone
From 1951 to 1960 the Goons created such
havoc on BBC radio, that they acquired a cult following
and turned Sellers, Milligan, Bentine and Secombe into household
How did it all start? According to Milligan,
after the war both became close friends when each realised
they shared the same zany sense of humour. In racking their
brains for ideas that might be considered funny to a radio
audience they tried all sorts of gimmicks. One of their
tricks was to record their voices at slow speed on Peter's
tape recorder and then play them back fast. Each was a master
of odd dialects which they perfected for radio.
In a 1950s magazine article, Milligan said
that Sellers introduced him to BBC producer Pat Dixon, who
asked him to write a trial script for a show they had in
mind. As part of the script Sellers suggested recording
some voices which included Bentines and singer Harry
Secombes. The voices were so bizarre that the novelty
delighted Dixon into launching a comedy series. That was
the start of the Goon Show.
The first broadcast on May 28, 1951, was
a smash hit which soon developed into a celebrated series
that catapulted Sellers, Secombe, Bentine and Milligan to
the top of the BBCs list of radio stars. Milligan
was soon regarded as Britain's top comedy writer:
"I went to my doctor for an examination.
The doctor said, 'Take off all your clothes.' "Shouldn't
you be taking me out to dinner first?"
For years Bloom and Alan entertained dozens
of showbiz personalities in their flat in Holland Park.
Their music room which contained a piano and a cot was always
a mess, she said, with music and papers lying all over the
place and "DO NOT TOUCH" signs posted everywhere.
The piano was used for rehearsals, the cot for sleeping.
"Spike Milligan slept there many times," Bloom said. "The
bed was also used when a guest had had too much to drink."
At one time Sellers bought them a Mellotron,
a large piano-like instrument with an electronic keyboard
programmed to produce sounds of orchestral instruments.
"My husband was a piano freak," she said. "There was never
a piano that suited him. It was either too hard to play,
the action was too soft, it was out of tune, or there was
one note out of tune which would put him off completely.
Alan didnt like the Mellotron. We finally got rid
of it which Peter immediately replaced with a magnificent
Bloom remembers her husband taking her
to the Carribean Club in the West End, where she met black
people for the first time. When the man who owned the club
asked the beautiful young lady to dance, she looked at her
husband to ask whether it would be OK. Alan of course encouraged
her to do so. "He was a charming man," Bloom said.
She was also thrilled to meet Lena Horne
who was appearing at the club at the time. "She was the
most beautiful lady I'd ever seen. That was in 1948 when
Lena was in her prime."
Another close friend was American singer
Adelaide Hall, who had sung with the Duke Ellington orchestra.
"Addy was a wonderful singer who sang many songs, particularly
a spectacular counter melody to the Dukes Creole
Love Song. She'd moved to England and married Bert Hicks
who was from the Carribean. He talked her into buying her
own club, which became a successful London night spot."
Bloom remembers meeting Duke Ellington
in early 1948 when he and his orchestra appeared in Leicester
at De Montfort Hall. Heavily pregnant at the time, she went
backstage and introduced herself, telling him that she and
Adelaide were very good friends. Twenty years later she
and Adelaide both attended another Duke Ellington concert
at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, after which both went
backstage to see the Duke. But Bloom was apprehensive. She
wasnt sure he would remember her since the last time
she spoke with him was twenty years earlier in Leicester.
But the Duke, renowned for his "love-you-madly" charm, said,
"Of course I remember you vividly. You were pregnant at
the time, and besides, I always remember a beautiful woman.
Love you madly."
Bloom said their flat was like a hotel,
with everybody coming and going to and from rehearsals all
the time. "Whenever American bands toured England people
like Cab Calloway and some of his musicians used to come
to our place and play in the music room. So did Zoot Sims
and that great pianist Teddy Wilson. There were so many
of them. I remember Zoot got so drunk once he collapsed
on the cot and didnt wake up until the next afternoon.
And when he did wake up he didnt know where he was."
"When Allan was playing at the Studio Club
he met Lord Snowdon, Princess Margaret and Peter Sellers
who would often dine there. Thats when Alan and Sellers
struck up a close friendship, that would lead to recording
sessions, broadcasts and the odd stage appearance.
Alan and Bloom were often guests at Peters
house. "He was such a lovely man, always very charming.
We became good friends. He came to our place for dinner
a number of times after he married Miranda Quarry in 1970.
During his lifetime Peter Sellers married
four beautiful women: Ann Levy, an actress from South Africa,
Britt Ekland, the Swedish movie star, Miranda Quarry, a
politicians daughter, and actress Lynne Frederick.
"Peter was always very generous. The piano
he bought us must have cost a thousand pounds," she said.
"He sent it to us by post. I remember him phoning to see
if it had arrived. When I picked up the phone and asked
where he was calling from - he could have been next door,
or in another country, we never knew - he said, 'I'm cruising
off the Greek Islands.'
"Peter bought the yacht because he didn't
want to be surrounded by people when he was on a beach,"
she explained, "he wanted privacy. But when he had his privacy
he wanted people around him."
Ann Levy who bore him two children, a son
Michael and a daughter Sarah, was Sellers first wife.
According to Milligan (and almost everyone else in London)
Peter was obsessed with beautiful women and always having
affairs with new girl friends, one of whom was Italian film
star Sophia Loren. He would sometimes actually discuss
these affairs with his wife. When Ann Levy could tolerate
his liaisons no longer, she moved out. "When she left him
he couldn't get over it because she had the cheek to leave
him," Bloom said.
Bloom may have found Sellers generous and
lots of fun to be with, but in an August 25, 2002, Sunday
Times article by Danny Danzinger, Peters 48-year-old
son, Michael Sellers recalled how he and his sister Sarah,
were distanced from their father by his obsessional outbursts
"Because of his business Dad was
away a lot. If he was in a play he was away all day and
not back until I was in bed. If he was shooting a movie
hed be away for months on end, which seemed forever
to a little child."
"When he was home he had a mercurial,
irrational temper, you could upset him with a look, a word.
For example, if you were what he felt was unenthusiastic
about greeting him, hed be angry and disappointed.
He was very insecure about things like that. But by the
time I was eight, Id learned to humour him.
"One of my earliest memories is
of my parents arguing. My bedroom backed onto theirs and
Id hear them shout and scream. As far as Im
aware, he never hit Mum but paintings and mirrors used to
be ripped off the wall, objects mangled, doors torn off
their hinges. Later, during an argument with his third wife,
Miranda, he drove his Rolls Royce into the back of one car,
backed it into the one behind, then drove it into the first
car again, just to make a point."
"My parents separated when I was
around eight and after some time we lived with my mother
and stepfather - who was a wonderful man, far more of a
father than my father was. For the holidays we went to wherever
my father happened to be: Rome, Monte Carlo, New York or
Hollywood. One holiday he was off to Los Angeles. It was
April and I didnt want to go - Aprils my birthday.
I was going to be 10, I wanted to have a party with my friends.
We had a row, and that escalated into him saying: "You
dont love me, you dont care about me. . ."
My little sister Sarah and I were in tears at this, but
he wouldnt stop. "Right," he said, "who
do you love the most, your mother or me?"
"I love you both equally,"
Sarah eventually replied - which I sort of knew was the
right answer. But Id had enough and said: "Mum."
"Okay, thats it," he
screamed, and we were sent back to Mums, where almost
immediately this truck arrived, packed with all our possessions
from his home, and a note: "I never want to see you
again. I disown you."
"Whenever a friend came to our flat I never
bothered to ask who the latest girl friend was," Bloom remarked.
"I just took people as they were. If Spike came in with
a girl friend, I never enquired. He would introduce us but
we never knew whether it was the latest romance or just
a thing for the night."
On the other hand, Bloom said Harry Secombe
and Michael Bentine were normal. Loved throughout England
as a comedian and singer Secombe also proved himself to
be a writer of considerable wit with several best-selling
novels to his credit. "After he was knighted I phoned
his wife Myra and asked, 'How does it feel to be Lady
Secombe?' Myra replied, 'I'm still doing the washing up
and taking out the rubbish,' which was typical of Myra."
And saxophonist Lew Lewis who played in
Toronto's OKeefe Centre Orchestra in the 1960s and
70s tells a story about Michael Bentine when he appeared
at the OKeefe Centre in the 1970s. "Michael and
I hit it off," he said, "and we became close friends
during his three or four annual visits to Toronto with the
British touring Paladium Show. A very intelligent man with
an enormous sense of humour, Michael amazed me when he said
he was born in Peru, South America, where he was descended
from the Inca Indians, which he told me was one of the lost
tribes of Israel. He always referred to himself as a Peruvian
Inca Jew, which astonished me." The Toronto saxophonist
also quoted Bentines story of his familys close
friendship with Albert Einstein, the word-famous physicist.
"Whenever Albert Einstein came to England he stayed
with the Bentines. Michael told me the old man used
to bounce me on his knee when I was three years old."
Peter Sellers became world famous when
he went into movies where he showed he could be not only
a very funny comedian, but an excellent actor as well. He
was applauded for his appearances as the bumbling Inspector
Clouseau in The Pink Panther series, as well
as Dr. Strangelove, The Mouse That Roared, The
Secret Life of Henry Orient and Being There with
actors Shirley MacLean and Melvyn Douglas. In Being There
Sellers is brilliant as Chauncey Gardner who is mistaken
as an authority on world affairs, when he is actually Chance
the uneducated, ignorant gardener of another rich mans
In the autumn of 1979 Sellers began work
on what was to be his final film, The Fiendish Plot of
Dr. Fu Manchu, in which he played both the evil Fu and
his Scotland Yard adversary, Nayland Smith. But Sellers'
friends were alarmed at how frail he had suddenly become.
A weak heart appeared to be taking its toll.
On July 22, 1980, shortly after 2 pm Sellers
suffered a massive heart attack and collapsed into an armchair
in his suite at London's Dorchester Hotel. He was rushed
to the Middlesex Hospital where he died two days later.
According to Milligan, Sellers said that
he wanted to be remembered above all as a Goon and ironically
his fatal heart attack occurred on the day he was due to
enjoy a dinner reunion with Milligan and Secombe, the first
such get-together for eight years.
And no, Peter Sellers never brought Sophia
Loren to Blooms flat.