Looking back at the curious fame of the once-ubiquitous demolition expert turned comedy raconteur.
The past was a simpler time and perhaps nothing tells us this more than the fact that during the 1970s, there were two celebrity demolition experts in the UK. The popularity of Fred Dibnah makes a certain sense, given that he was the subject of several documentaries about steeple jacking and chimney demolition and his down-to-earth, folksy commentary as he climbed up a vast structure after downing several pints of bitter made his shows both entertaining and oddly soothing – slow TV, as we might call it now.
More unlikely was the fame of Blaster Bates.
Blaster Bates – Derek Macintosh Bates to his family – was another Northern demolition expert who for many years sat alongside the top comedy stars of the day in the ‘humour’ section of record stores up and down the UK. Do record stores still have comedy sections? I have no idea, but in the 1970s and 1980s the racks heaved with comedy records on vinyl and as you flicked through looking for Monty Python, Derek and Clive, Not the Nine O’Clock News or Tony Hancock LPs, you would find what seemed to be an endless number of recordings by Bates. He seemed a bit of an enigma – everyone seemed to have heard of him, possibly through seeing these records in the racks, but I don’t think I ever met anyone who had actually heard one of these albums. They were suspected of being a bit ‘blue’ (thanks in part to warning labels that rather over-egged the rudeness), which might have been a selling point for teenagers, but also looked… well, odd and unappealing. Just who was Blaster Bates, we wondered? A comedy character like Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown or some other denizen of the working men’s club circuit? In a pre-internet age, finding anything out about him seemed impossible and I was never intrigued enough to actually gamble on buying one of the records. His albums were just there, a constant presence to be flipped past while you hunted for something a bit cooler. And then, they were gone as CDs replaced LPs, VHS became the place to go to for comedy kicks and cultural shifts made him obsolete.
Still, the question of just who or what Blaster Bates was never quite went away. Every now and again, the name would pop up either online or just as a repressed memory, rarely bringing any further information. Eventually, I found myself actively seeking out information to satisfy my curiosity – had I been missing out on a comedy great all this time?
Well – no.
Blaster Bates was a man who was full of stories about his adventures blowing things up and related topics, and this would lead to his second career as a raconteur. Things seem to have started with appearances on TV shows where his rambling style and wealth of stories seemed to strike a chord with viewers. It led to public appearances as an after-dinner speaker and his knack for a story, peppered with mild profanity and a down-to-earth style – not to mention a habit of carrying explosives everywhere and lighting the fuse on a stick of gelignite while telling a story, casually snuffing it out just before it reached the explosive – soon brought him a following. He soon had a record deal, with not-especially-well-recorded tapings of his live performances transferred to vinyl. These clearly found an audience – he released eight albums between 1967 and 1984. His most famous track perhaps gives a flavour of what to expect, simply from the title – A Shower of Shit Over Cheshire.
Although Bates would make several television appearances over the years, these were almost all related to his day job of blowing up chimneys and although his secondary career was sometimes mentioned, it was never dwelled on. His performances were too rude and, by the time we got into the 1980s, too working-class and down market for TV executives obsessed with attracting the ‘right kind’ of viewers. he was also, perhaps, not really suited for the TV format – his rambling stories and salt-of-the-earth style were never going to be a good fit as a guest on chat shows and comedy showcases. More to the point though, he is clearly an acquired taste. His stories often feel like a conversation with an old and waffling family member who thinks that he is hilarious and is full of stories of his glory days rather than comedy in any recognisable form. He’s also very Northern – I have no idea if his comedy made it beyond the Midlands but I would not be surprised to hear that his LPs were far less ubiquitous in London than in Manchester.
As much as Bates seemed to enjoy telling stories, blowing things up seemed to be his passion. He started his demolition business in 1946 when health and safety rules were non-existent and by all accounts dodged death on several occasions. There is, of course, a curious fascination to be had in watching large buildings demolished – even today, you’ll get crowds turning up to watch a major demolition job taking place and when Bates first reached fame, we only had two TV channels and one radio broadcaster – you had to make your own fun back then. By the time he died in 2006 – two years after his 1980s rival/replacement Fred Dibnah – the idea of celebrity demolition men was already unimaginable and the idea of men like this being given TV airtime is now laughable – for all the talk of diversity, there is no space for this sort of culture on our current image-obsessed broadcast landscape.
To be fair, I’m not sure that the world is really crying out for a Blaster Bates revival – but he does represent a time, a place and a culture that is increasingly ignored and denigrated. Comedy is increasingly homogenised, sanitised and entirely middle-class, aimed at an ever-more narrow, privileged and smug audience who want things to be edgy and fresh without ever challenging or upsetting them. Whatever else you might say about Blaster Bates, he was certainly not elitist, precious or pretentious and perhaps we really do need more of his ilk now.
Help support The Reprobate: