Stanley Unwin
7th June 1911

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Stanley Unwin

Stanley Unwin

Stanley Unwin belonged to a long tradition of linguistic English surrealism - which includes such luminaries as Spike Milligan, John Lennon, Lewis Carroll and Jacob Rees-Mogg. His memorably weird appearances were an occasional staple of British television until the 1990s, and his legacy lives on in the name of the society that bears his name. His unique 'language' - Unwinese - was improvised by him on the spot and despite being inherently nonsensical in its mangling of words and grammar would somehow remain coherent enough to convey meaning and narrative - much like the gay slang Polari. It was also deeply hilarious to those of us enamoured of word-play.



Early Life

Born in Praetoria, South Africa to British emigrés, he returned to the bosom of his native land following the death of his father just prior to the outbreak of World War I. When the war broke out, he was evacuated to a series of 'billets' and like thousands of children in the same situation had little contact with either his mother or sister. After the end of the war, he was sent to National Children's Home in Congleton, Cheshire, where he first encountered a wireless broadcast - an incident that he would recall vividly many years later, and possibly sparked a lifelong fascination with broadcasting.

During the 1920s he dabbled briefly with a career as a radio telegrapher for the Navy (stymied by persistent sea-sickness) before finding work in the nascent field of radio sales and maintenance. 

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Unwin was pressed into service: first as a Morse code messenger, but later as an 'on the spot' reporter for the BBC, as part of the United States Third Army Press Camp. Some way his mangling of the language was in part a response to the military jargon he encountered in use by the US Army top brass. Interestingly, his fellow surrealist Spike Milligan would often mock this jargon in his own writing, and it is possible that lurking in Unwin's sparkling humourous monologues was a degree of seditious intent.

Following the war, he worked in radio as a broadcast engineer, and undertook his first 'performance' purely by chance when an actor fell ill and Unwin was simply handed a microphone and told to improvise. That brief exchange was enough to bring him to the attention of the producer of the Goon Show, which led to a short item in which he played the part of a man from Atlantis being interviewed about his life in the mythical city.

Stardom

Unwin's facility for extemporised surrealism was a boon for the post-war boom in radio comedy that would give birth to shows such as The Goon Show, Hancock's Half Hour and Round The Horne. Dependent as they were on word-play, these shows delighted in the surrealistic use of language and were hugely influential on later generations of performers - a tradition kept alive today by the likes of Charlie Chuck and Eddie Izzard.

Unwin's unique verbalisations were seized on by producers, broadcasters and advertisers, who gave a platform for his improvisations that lasted almost until his death in 2002. A steady stream of work came his way throughout his life which included regular chat show appearances and as the narrator of the second side of The Small Face's Classic 1968 album Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, which takes the form of a nonsense children's story in which 'Happiness Stan' searches for the missing half of the moon.

Unwinese

Unwinese is difficult to characterise, but was (and may still be) formed from malapropisms, syntactical reversal, sound-a-like syllables and the liberal use of nonce words. He himself claimed to have been inspired by his mother, relating how she told him she'd 'falolloped' in front of a tram and grazed her 'kneeclappers'.

As such, his work belonged very much in the tradition of amiable nonsense most famously exemplified in the works of Lewis Carroll. At a psychologically deeper level, it speaks to the first groping attempts at language of toddlers - or even to the 'secret languages' shared by children to shield their activities from adult scrutiny.

He was often wheeled out to offer 'commentary' on political events, and it sometimes possible to discern, perhaps, some seditious intent lurking amidst the nonsense. He famously played a judge in the series Lazarus and Dingwall. While clearly played for laughs, it hints at the vast gulf between ordinary language as spoken and that used by the court system. Is Unwin, for example, gently mocking the legal system in this clip?



In this regard, he may also have been influenced by the famously impenetrable gay slang Polari. Although he himself was not gay, he must have heard the famous Julian and Sandy skits by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick on Round the Horne, in which they delighted in dropping outrageous double-entendres into their scripts but in language that only those familiar with Polari would have recognised. 

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 4th November 2016 | © Weird Island 2010-2017
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