Wilson, Keppel and their Betties

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It may be hard to say for certain, but I don’t know that there has ever been a better title for a book than Too Naked for the Nazis. It’s the title of a biography by Alan Stafford of the legendary variety trio Wilson, Keppel and Betty, and derives from an apparently genuine reaction by the Nazis to an appearance by the trio at the Berlin Wintergarten in 1935. Betty Knox recalled in 1943 that they held objections to the bare legs of the two men, Goebbels supposedly asserting that the sight would be ‘bad for the Nazi youth’s morals’. It’s quite likely that Goebbels, and Goering, got to see the act (uncensored), and even if Goebbels didn’t probably utter those very words, they would have lain in his heart.

Wilson, Keppel and Betty Knox performing at the Trocadero club, London, filmed in 1933 for the Pathétone Weekly magazine

I’ve had a lot to do with Wilson, Keppel and Betty over the years. Back in my BFI days, in an era before YouTube, we used to say that the most requested film in the collection was anything showing Wilson, Keppel and Betty and their famous sand dance. In 1998 I decided to do a bit of quick research into their history, and created a show that brought together all of the then known films of the act. With a skeleton of a story, clips from the best of British variety, a cut-price set (a wooden camel and a slide of a pyramid, if I remember correctly) and me as compere, the show ran a number of times at the National Film Theatre – a sell-out each time.

Wilson, Keppel and Betty Knox in a clip from the otherwise lost British film On the Air (1934). The clip survives in a Danish compilation film København, Kalundborg og – ? (1934)

The text of my talk for the show is available on this site, but though it tells the basic history, it wasn’t based on proper research. But others have taken up the baton, with whom I’ve often been in contact over the years – usually identifying film clips – and head of the pack has been Alan Stafford, a scriptwriter (Mitchell & Webb, Punt & Dennis etc) and a writer of radio documentaries about film and theatre topics. Now he’s produced the splendid Too Naked for the Nazis which impressively steers its way through myth, tall stories and hazy memories to tell an accurate, affectionate and thoroughly researched history of the act.

Awful image quality, but this starts with the trio (with Betty Knox) from the 1936 film Soft Lights and Sweet Music, then cuts to the sand dance from Variety Jubilee (1943)

It brings up so many gems. For instance, there were at least 14 Betties between 1928 and 1963. The first and best known was the American Betty Knox (born Alice Peden), whose daughter Patsy followed in her tapping footsteps. Betty Knox went on to become a successful journalist, writing for the Evening Standard and ending up (irony of ironies) reporting on the Nuremberg trials. She was an extraordinarily independent and adventurous character, and ends up being the central figure in the book. She was followed by Jean Bamberger (after Jean Kent, later a famed film actress, failed an audition), Eunice Roberts, Patsy Knox, Edna May Dibb, Barbara Holt, Irene Scott, Mary Wemyss, Valerie Cottrell, Maureen Drew, Jeanne Curley and others. Most didn’t stick around long as they were young dancers using the opportunity as a first step in their careers. Betty and Patsy performed the longest, and are the only two who appear in the known footage of the trio.

Jack Wilson (1894-1970) was English, born in Liverpool; Joe Keppel (1895-1977) was Irish. They teamed up in Australia after the First World War, journeyed to America, and formed the trio with Betty Knox in 1928. They developed their ‘Cleopatra’s Nightmare’ sand dance routine, using Luigini’s ‘Ballet Egyptien’ ballet music, with assorted variations on the Egyptian theme that filled out the act (Betty’s solo dance with finger cymbals, a snake-charming basket, dancing up and down a staircase, a tap-dancing Gandhi…). All of it was wordless – Jack and Joe are not known to have uttered a word on stage in four decades.

They came to Britain in 1932 and found their home. The British loved them, and though they toured the world they became an intrinsic part of British memories of variety. Stafford has elicited comments from Glenda Jackson, Judi Dench and the Queen (it’s true), amongst others, each of whom remembers seeing the act with fondness. But everyone knows Wilson, Keppel and Betty, through clips, homages and parodies. It has become so much a part of the cultural patrimony that we can all, if called upon, face sideways, put one arm bent forward and one arm bent back, and shuffle like an Egyptian. In some deep sense, it’s how we won the war.

More from Variety Jubilee (1943), with Patsy Knox doing the dance of the seven veils, a lascivious snake, and a mindboggling finale…

Stafford’s research is excellent, not least in how he steers round the complexities of the trio’s filmography. They appeared in a number of variety feature films, in which the plot – such as it was – strung together a succession of variety acts. Some of these films are lost, but such was the nature of variety films that bits could be cut up and inserted into later films, and this is what frequently happened to Wilson, Keppel and Betty. Telling one clip from another is not always easy, and though most can be found on YouTube in one form or another, they are seldom identified by film title or date – simply because those posting the clips don’t know. I’ve used this post to bring together the main clips of the trio that are available in this way, also placing them chronologically.

Wilson and Keppel, very near the end of their careers, appear briefly in the French 1961 short film Gala (their sequence starts at 1:54)

In the text of my talk on the act I give a filmography, which needs a little updating. Stafford has tracked down one clip that I thought was lost, and some information is now available, thanks to the Genome database, on their BBC television appearances. So here is an up-to-date Wilson, Keppel and Betty filmography:

Film

  • London’s Clubs and Cabarets (Pathétone Weekly no. 164) (UK 1933) – a performance in London at the Trocadero club, with Wilson, Keppel and Betty Knox
  • In Town Tonight (UK 1934) – lost film, but Stafford reports that the section with the act is spliced into in one of the prints of Soft Lights and Sweet Music held by the BFI
  • On The Air (UK 1934) – lost film, but the section with the act survives in Köbenhavn, Kalundborg, og – ?, featuring the duo with Betty Knox
  • Köbenhavn, Kalundborg, og – ? (Denmark 1934) (this uses sequences from the other lost On the Air)
  • Soft Lights and Sweet Music (UK 1936) – Wilson, Keppel and Betty Knox – an outstanding performance with more lavish sets than usual
  • Starlight Serenade (UK 1943) – threadbare variety feature hosted by Bonar Colleano, with Patsy as ‘Betty’
  • Variety Jubilee (UK 1943) – the film survives in various forms, with four routines from the act (with Patsy as ‘Betty’) which were re-used in some of the compilation films below
  • Highlights of Variety [nos. 24, 25] (UK 1944) – lost films, probably using Variety Jubilee footage
  • For Old Times’ Sake (UK 1948) – lost film, using Variety Jubilee footage
  • Merrygoround (UK 1948) – lost film, using Starlight Serenade footage
  • The Peaceful Years (UK 1948) – news compilation film using the Pathé footage
  • Variety Makers (UK 1948) – compilation film, using Starlight Serenade footage
  • Scrapbook For 1933 (UK 1949) – news compilation film using the Pathé footage
  • A Ray of Sunshine (UK 1950) – variety acts linked together by comedian Ted Ray, with Patsy as ‘Betty’
  • Gala (France 1961) – Wilson and Keppel only in atmospheric French short

All of the extant British titles (with the exception of the surviving section from On the Air) survive at the BFI National Archive, though different versions of Variety Jubilee with a longer sequence of the trio are held in private hands.

Television

  • The Harry Secombe Show (ITV tx. 22 September 1955) – probably lost
  • The Max Wall Show (BBC tx. 1 April 1956) – probably lost
  • Saturday Comedy Hour presents Norman Evans in the Norman Evans Show (BBC tx. 13 October 1956) – probably lost
  • Blackpool Show Parade presents ‘Rockin’ the Pier’ (BBC tx. 24 June 1957) – probably lost
  • The Ken Dodd Show (BBC tx. 2 April 1960) – probably lost

There have been many television programmes that have featured film clips of the act; the above list is restricted to original performances. There were certainly other TV programmes featuring the act in the 1950s that I have not been able to trace. None of their TV performances is known to survive.

And finally, Wilson and Keppel go Gangnam style (using footage from Variety Jubilee)

Too Naked for the Nazis is a terrific book, warmly recommended. Now, if we could just get some better image quality clips of the act online, or a definitive TV history…

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3 thoughts on “Wilson, Keppel and their Betties

  1. I remember when I helped my friend Martin research his article on WKB for the Swedish Magazine Kapten Stofil back in 2005 (an article for which you helped out massively, Luke). Our main problem – besides finding facts about the group – was “how do we explain the brilliance of this troupe to the Swedish readers? They’ve never seen WKB!”. In the end we illustrated it with a few screen grabs from Martins videotape. About the same time we were pondering this, YouTube was founded, and now there are a zillion of WKB clips online. We’re living in the age of Everythings A ccessibility 🙂 . Thanks for the Review, looking forward to reading the book.

    1. To know that Wilson, Keppel and Betty are big in Sweden makes me think that there is still some hope for this world.

  2. Part of the IN TOWN TONIGHT sequence with the trio was used in the BBC2 programme GLASGOW BIG NIGHT OUT (tx. 1 Jan 2014), along with clips from SOFT LIGHTS AND SWEET MUSIC. This would suggest that they used one of the reported BFI’s prints of the latter film, which includes the IN TOWN TONIGHT sequence. However the BFI is not credited among the archive sources on the programes.

    The programme is on YouTube, though from a non-BBC source so it may get taken down before long. The WKB section is at 16:45. The IN TOWN TONIGHT clips are those where Wilson and Keppel are wearing shorter skirts.

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