A morning with Mundon
By Brett Birks
Black Country comedian Tommy Mundon talks about his life, grey peas and bacon and Camilla Parker-Bowles' ears.
"I do tell standard jokes too of course. Like about Camilla Parker Bowles going into Burger King an asking for two big whoppers. The attendant says: 'Well, you're beautiful and you'll be the Queen of England.' I mean she'll never be Queen of England. They'll never get them ears on a fifty pence piece." - Tommy Mundon - September 2008
"Proper Black Country"
For 50 years Tommy Mundon has entertained thousands with his travelling stand-up routine, a comic performance rich in the fabled Black Country humour based on his own exploits of working-class life in the Midlands.
At 74 he's still going strong, with theatre performances across the region during the autumn of 2008 with the group 'A Black Country Night Out'. A DVD of his life – 'A Montage Of Mundon' - has just been released, chronicling his early days as a pre-war child growing up in Halesowen, and his journey to becoming one of the area's favourite comedy sons.
In this exclusive interview, Tommy Mundon talks about his career, his life in the Black Country and his unique brand of humour.
Tom, when was the first time you ever performed in front of a live audience?
I remember being about five or six. I was at school. I remember the teacher saying: 'Come on Tom. Come and tell us a story. Come to the front of the class.' I remember vividly starting to tell a story and wondering how on earth I was going to finish it.
Tom at home
Now whether or not it was because my dad kept pigs I don't know. He kept five or six – you were allowed to during the war. They were out the back of the house. So I immediately abandoned (the story) and went on to telling a tale about a pig. I wrapped up with line: 'And that’s how the pig got his curly tail.' The whole class was laughing. I loved it.
Would you say you had a happy childhood?
Very much so. Mind you, me being an only child really helped me I think. I think I had an advantage over people who had big families. There was Chapel Street, Hill Street in the middle where my father's family was born and bred and you'd got New Street. Everybody knew everybody. Chapel Street where I was born was very closely knit. There was a sense of comradeship which happened in most places when the war broke out. These were hard times. I was lucky as dad had these pigs and I was an only son. I was raised on home fed bacon and we were always ok for food. I remember that right opposite there was two families living in one four roomed house. How they managed I don't know. My mother and dad lived with dad's family for a time and there was eight of them there already.
Tom with doll
In them days the cinema was at its height. I used to go two or three times a week and I just loved cowboys. I lived in a fantasy world really. John Wayne is and was my hero. Ambition? I never really had any to be honest. But I would have liked to have been a cowboy (laughs).
The Picture House on the Stourbridge Road was our local cinema. It was very easy to break into as well. I shouldn't say this should I? There was a side door. So perhaps I'd go in and pay – then loose all me pals in from around the side. We always used to go on a Monday and Saturday night.
In the main I enjoyed my school – both the infant and junior. The junior was the County Modern Boys' School in those days. It's Windsor High in Halesowen now. I left at 15 straight to work. I went to work in the co-op in a shop in Black Heath High Street. I used to deliver the groceries. I really loved that job. But I was in a fantasy though – I'd pretend I was driving a car.
Given your answer to the first question, I'm guessing that performing to an audience was in you from the beginning. What was the first step to becoming a comic?
I've always been a performer. I've always been the clown – right from school. At work, in the canteen; I was always the clown.
I went to Sunday school. When I was old enough to go into the bible class - 12 or 13 – there was a chap named Frank Bissle who was the cousin of Burt Bissle. He used to climb Ben Nevis. Well Frank lived over the road and he used to put these concerts on. That's how I got the idea. I'd go along and perform at church events and such like.
Right from the start I was ad-libbing a lot. I used to find it very difficult to work to a script. It became pretty obvious I was going to be a clown. I was probably 14 or 15 on my first show. I was dressed up as a tramp. It was a circuit concert at Short Cross. I was very green, very broad. It went very well though. In those days, folks would laugh at anything. They were just glad to be having some entertainment. It's funny. Back then I used to do a lot of pensioners' shows – I still do some now. Back then they'd laugh at anything. But they've become very choosey these days because they've got the television.
Right from the start your act was one rooted in the famed Black Country dialect and humour. It’s arguably what you're most famous for.
Well, like everyone I was so green when I started. I relied solely on the Black Country dialect - rather than the strength of the jokes. It was as simple at that. I thought, rightly as it transpired, that they'd laugh at how I was saying things rather than what I was saying. I quickly cottoned on that folks would find it amusing because when they could hear this Black Country lingo they were listening to themselves. Even now if I hear a Black Country person being interviewed on the television it stands out a mile (laughs).
Without name dropping, a fortnight ago I did Robert Plant's birthday. There were people there from London and there were some Americans there too. In all modesty I went a bomb – it went really well. When I came off, this American chap made a point of coming up to me and says (adopts strong American accent): 'Tom I thought you were wonderful tonight.' I asked him how much of the dialect he got and he said: 'Tom, I got 95% of it. 95% I was with you'. Now, you'll get somebody from Solihull or Sutton Coldfield and they'll come up and say: 'Tom you know you lost us quite a bit.' Now work that one out.
Obviously there are certain things Black Country people say – I wouldn't expect people from out of the area to understand real broad Black Country sayings. But it does alter – the Halesowen accent and Cradley accent are completely different and you listen to Gornal people. They have their own form too.
It's always been a big bone of contention about where the Black Country starts and ends too.
Yes it has. The heart of the Black Country, to my way of thinking, is Dudley and Gornal in particular. And Gornal hasn't really changed in character over the years. Halesowen is on the border. Sedgely, Blackheath – definitely Black Country. Bilston certainly. And Wednesfield and Wednesbury.
Wolverhampton has always puzzled me. I've never pinned them down to a dialect or an accent. I always go well there. To me they seem to be out on a limb, Wolverhampton folk. I've listened hard and never pinned it down. Often they lean towards a Smethwick or Birmingham accent.
Nowadays there is such variation even within the Black Country. You know the dish grey peas and bacon? A famous Black Country meal. A 'bally filler', as we say. I told some folks in Halesowen about it and they'd never heard of it.
What about the Black Country humour? Describe it for someone unfamiliar.
Definitely working class. And I think we made a rod for our own back, us Black Country folks. Our humour is very simple. They love it when you take the mickey. They love the banter. When I used to introduce Aynock and Ali to people from outside the Black County, I used to say that the best way of describing them is that the wheel’s going round but the hamster’s died.
Tom with the Black Country Night Out
How did you progress from church shows in your teens to winding up on the club circuit?
The first club was Halesowen Labour Club. I was in my twenties. It's difficult to know how it happens but word just got round. Club land was in full swing then. You could do five nights a week. Word got around: 'This Tommy Mundon. Black Country comedian. Never swears. No smutty jokes. Drinks orange juice.' The fact I was clean helped. You get more bookings so more experience.
Then I was fortunate to join the MWM Show which was a variety show. Tony and Keith West - two brothers - Linda Marsh and myself. The Mundon, West and Marsh Show. We started going round the West Midlands with that. We were proper, old fashioned Black Country. A key part was learning the fact that if I went too far out of the Black Country it wouldn't work. No-one could understand! Nowadays I've leant to slow it down. At this time I kept a day job down with the local council and I was out three or four nights a week. I've often wondered how I did it. Some mornings it would be 1am before I got in. We always used to muck in with the PA, the organ and things. It was one of the reasons I took me early retirement at 55 to go into it full time.
Then I joined the Black Country Night Out show. I was expected to use the Black Country dialect there; occasionally I was accused of being too posh! I tour with the BCNO now, there's me and some other local comedians. I love it.
You must have had off-nights, nights where you struggled to get the audience into it. What tricks do you have to win a tough crowd over?
There are some occasions where if you stood on your head and played the piano you still wouldn't win. There are nights when things don't work out. In the old days if things weren't going well I'd come off. That was lack of experience. I'd give them ten minutes and I'd bang my best stuff at them and I could sense then that I was wasting my time and theirs. Even now sometimes you can feel it's not going well. But you can drop one particular gag and it’s bought them to life. Every comic will tell you – sometimes it's just an off night but very rare though.
Your act is very anecdotal, embedded in the day-to-day life things we can all relate to. What can someone who's not seen you expect?
I like to do a monologue. A series of quips then I'll move on to another subject. I suppose every comic as to mention his wife. I do a routine on Val, who's the missis. I'll say that I bought Val a brand new hamster fur coat for her birthday. We went down to London and she went on the London Eye and I couldn't get her off. She's still going round now. Then I'll go into this routine of how we met.
There are standard jokes too of course. Like about Camilla Parker Bowles going into Burger King an asking for two big whoppers. The attendant says: "Well, you're beautiful and you'll be the Queen of England."
I mean she'll never be Queen of England. They'll never get them ears on a fifty pence piece.
I like the news items too: Don't bother checking your lottery tickets. It's been won by a family of gypsies. They've asked to be paid in travellers cheques.
I've been warned by West Midlands police that there’s a cross eyed burglar in the Black Country area. So if you see him looking through your window, warn the next-door neighbour.
Good news for old age pensioners: a microwave bed has been invented. Yow can have eight hours sleep in two minutes.
You'll be 75 next year Tom and you're still performing. Do you ever think about retiring?
I don't know how I'm going to tackle retirement. The best part is when someone comes up and says: 'You know Tom I've had it tough recently. I've lost me wife or whatever and you've done me good!' To me it's music to the ears. It's very, very rewarding. I picked my grandson from school yesterday. A lot of people recognised me and without sounding too conceited I love it. They shout: 'Alright Tom!' I find it a bit difficult when folks stop me to tell me joke because they're always long winded ones. I'm ok if they're short! I think I'll know when it's time to retire. I want to just slowly wean off. When the phone stops ringing. I'll know then.
'Tommy Mundon – A Montage of Mundon' is available now on DVD from The Black Country Bugle, 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 OJT.
For details of Tommy's upcoming live appearances, click the link below:
last updated: 15/09/2008 at 14:37