Top of the Pops has witnessed some extraordinary moments over the years – but nothing quite like the musical number performed by Hylda Baker and Arthur Mullard.
The pair stumbled through a grotesque pastiche of the Grease hit You’re the One That I Want in 1978. Baker dressed in a leotard and blonde wig and Mullard in singlet and braces.
Farnworth-born Baker was 73 at the time and cockney comic Mullard 68. Baker was off cue and Mullard hideously out of tune.
The young audience on the BBC show stood in stunned disbelief as the pair gracelessly emulated John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.
The lyrics of the song were altered too. The line ‘filled with affection’ became ‘filled with infection’ and ‘better take my direction’ turned into ‘medicate in my direction’ as Baker introduced her trademark malapropisms.
It’s little wonder that clips of the performance often feature in ‘worst TV moments’ programmes. What’s really surprising is that the musical travesty made it to No. 22 in the singles charts!
Even worse, Baker and Mullard produced a whole album of similar covers entitled Band on the Trot after the Wings’ LP Band on the Run.
These musical forays aside, Baker enjoyed a memorable career which saw her move from the music halls to TV stardom in the Granada sitcom Nearest and Dearest in 1968.
She also landed major movie roles in the 1960 kitchen-sink drama Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and the musical Oliver eight years later.
Born at 23 Ashworth Street, Farnworth, in February 1905, Baker was the first of seven children. Her father Harold, a painter and decorator by trade, was also a part-time music hall comedian.
Baker made her stage debut at the age of 10. Four years later she was touring with her own variety act which included singing, dancing and impersonations.
The malapropisms that would become her trademark, as well as the catchphrase ‘she knows, y’know’, all came out of the act. Another feature was a silent companion called Big Cynthia, played by a man in drag, who served as Baker’s stooge.
Baker first made it on to TV in 1955 when she performed on the BBC show The Good Old Days. She then landed a part in the sitcom Our House in 1960 which featured Carry On film actors Hattie Jacques, Charles Hawtrey and Joan Sims.
Baker starred in her own sitcom The Best of Friends in 1963, but was most famous for playing Nellie Pledge in Nearest and Dearest, one of Granada TV’s most successful sitcoms.
Baker was teamed with comedian Jimmy Jewel as the constantly bickering owners of the family business – Pledge’s Purer Pickles. She was 63 at the time and Jewel 59.
Nearest and Dearest ran for seven series over five years. Baker’s familiar comments and malapropisms transferred brilliantly to the character of Nellie. Each episode was packed with them.
Once, when Jewel was trying to take control, Baker told him to ‘stop sitting there like a big business typhoon’.
On another occasion, when asked whether she knew the facts of life, Baker emphatically replied: ‘Of course I do. I’m over the age of content!’
The insults between Jewel, who played Nellie’s brother Eli, and Baker had extra relish as the two disliked each other intensely off camera.
Baker also brought the mute character of Big Cynthia to Nearest and Dearest in the shape of Walter, the ageing husband of Nellie’s cousin Lily.
Walter (Edward Malin) never said a word but his pained expressions were interpreted by Lily, portrayed by Madge Hindle. She would later play shopkeeper Renee Bradshaw in Coronation Street.
Towards the end of the series, Baker was struggling to remember her lines. She relied on cue cards and whispers from Hindle to get through filming.
Baker revived her Nellie Pledge character in the LWT comedy Not On Your Nellie in 1974. This time she played Nellie Pickersgill, who moved to London to take over her father’s pub.
The series only lasted a year as Baker not only had problems remembering her lines, but also refused to attend rehearsals.
One of Baker’s most acclaimed serious roles was that of abortionist Aunt Ada in the ground-breaking 1960 film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, starring Albert Finney.
She played undertaker’s wife Mrs Sowerberry in Oliver and appeared with Harry H Corbett and Sheila Hancock in the play Fill the Stage With Happy Hours at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1967.
Baker’s final TV appearance came in 1978 when she took part in an Omnibus arts documentary about comedians.
She died in Epsom, Surrey, at the age of 81 in 1986.
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