On Radio 4 the other day, Fred Housego was looking into forgotten nooks and crannies of humour and came up with a 1969 Marty Feldman LP on which Marty treated us, if that's the word, to his singing. "Compared with his more manic performances," said Fred, "the material on his musical album sounds very restrained and simple. Take the parody of a French folk singer, based on nothing more than the words on the label of a bottle of HP Sauce. Millions of us have sat at our lunch tables staring at the list of ingredients in French. Only Marty could have made music of them."
And then he played the record of Marty Feldman singing the haunting words of the HP Sauce label, starting: "Cette sauce de haute qualite est un mélange de fruits orientaux, d'epices et de vinaigre." It's a melancholy little number, done by Marty in a mock-quavery though accurately pronounced French voice.
Just one thing, though, Fred. It wasn't Marty's idea. When you say, "Only Marty could have made music of them", you're dead wrong. I quote from a history of HP Sauce: "The sauce received further inadvertent publicity at about the same period from the late, lamented Marty Feldman. The pop-eyed comedian was making a long-playing record and wished to include a song in the French style with lyrics in that language. Denis King, the composer, imparted this news to the lyric-writer the actor John Junkin, who - remembering his lack of prowess at French from his schooldays - paled at the thought. However, inspiration alighted on his shoulders and, returning from his local grocer's with a bottle of HP Sauce, he presented it to Marty with the suggestion that the French label could provide the lyric. The idea met with great approval, and Marty Feldman sang the famous words in his best Charles Aznavour style, under the title of 'La Sauce HP'."
The words and music of "La Sauce HP" are reproduced in facsimile inside the cover of The True Story of HP Sauce, with the clear rubric: "Lyrics by John Junkin, music by Denis King". Now, this is a bit unfair to whoever wrote the French words for the label, for, apart from the last line of the song ("Et avec pommes frites... et de poisson gefillte..."), which sounds like Junkin to me, it was all written anonymously in 1917, the year that the French words were first put on the HP bottle. And despite what Fred says, they are no longer there. 1984 was a dreadful year for many things, but above all for being the date when the makers of HP Sauce decided to drop the French wording from the label.
There were howls of protest at the time. French-teachers said that it introduced many young people to their first taste of French. The authors of The True Story (Methuen, 1985) mourned the death of a great British irony: that is, printing a non-English label, in a country where we can't do foreign languages, in the language of a country that has never liked HP Sauce.
And who were the authors of this great sauce history, from which I have learnt so much? Believe it or not, they were the late actor Dinsdale Landen and his wife, Jennifer Daniel. I scoured Landen's obituaries after his recent death and was stunned to find no mention of his great book, so I would like to take this chance of saluting the author of one of my favourite small works of history. Landen did confess that maybe his wife had more to do with the writing of it than he did, but I don't care. At least he put his name to it. Many great actors have achieved less.
The only thing I regret is that he (or she) never explained what was meant on page 40 of The True Story by: "The first version of the French text to be written was discovered to carry undertones of a rather suggestive nature. Red-faced with embarrassment, those responsible quickly produced a second and innocuous version."
How could a list of sauce-ingredients be suggestive, even accidentally, even in French? I shall worry about that till my memory goes.Reuse content