‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is’ observed Amanda, a character in Noel Coward’s Private Lives. It’s also extraordinary how a piece of music you haven’t thought about for decades suddenly chirrups back into your brain. Sometimes there’s no definable reason, but a few weeks ago I found myself muttering ‘I’ve had enough of the sort of stuff we get from the likes of you’ in mock outrage at something my nearest and dearest said to me.
She looked at me in bafflement, wondering if she should take offence, but I was as mystified as she was as to where that peculiar sentence had come from.
Then suddenly the tune and a couple of the verses were there in my head as well. The song was Ballad of Bethnal Green sung by Paddy Roberts and it was one of four tracks on a 7in EP which my parents bought soon after its release in 1959. It was the UK charts for 19 weeks in 1960. The title ‘Strictly for Grown-Ups’ seemed to indicate risque goings on and Mum and Dad certainly seemed to think so, though it all seemed pretty tame to me.
Roberts was born in South Africa, but moving to England in the 1930 30s had some success writing songs for dance bands. Serving as a RAF pilot during the war, in peacetime for a while he continued flying as a BOAC pilot. But he soon returned to the music business and collaborated on writing several hits for stars like David Whitfield, Anne Shelton. Max Bygraves, Eve Boswell and Ruby Murray.
At the same time he developed his urbane and relaxed cabaret act showcasing wry, witty and sophisticated songs like the Belle of Barking Creek, Don’t Upset the KiddiwInks, Roll me Overand of course The Ballad of Bethnal Green. Eventually of course his style of performance fell out of fashion and today he’s largely forgotten. He died in August 1975 in Dartmouth in Devon.