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A Popular Cheese

"Am I alone in thinking you missed a trick", writes Mr O'Per Chewnyst in reference to yesterday's feature on the Dorset County Opera's brief efflorescence and its much-lamented demise as a Seatown Hippodrome attraction. "In mentioning the many great artists which former patrons of the company went on to explore", he continues, "I believe you failed to mention perhaps the greatest of them all - Dorset's own Bert Kamembërt whose record sales must have matched if not outshone those of the - frankly rather parochial talents - to whom you did give significant column space".

Whilst our unusually empty post box suggests that Mr Tunyst is indeed entirely alone [How often does that happen! [Ed]], he is not, of course, entirely wrong: Bert Kamembërt's stellar career both in the studio and on the concert platform [an unrivalled 33 seasons at The Pier Head Theatre, Canford Cliffs eclipses the achievement even of Fernando Mediantepiezza and his Latin Rhythms*] is certainly deserving of mention alongside his - shall we say - more artistically ambitious - contemporaries.

*aka Ferguson Thrupiece and his Orchestra

A prolific recording artist, Bert and his Orchestra reached their apogee in the early 1960s with albums such as this one.

Bert Kamembërt [1916-1994] was a prolific arranger [generally of furniture], conductor and recording artist who first came to public attention in 1939 as a stand-in piano-accordion player with the Iris Dodderitch Modern Quintet [IDMQ] whose regular player - Getmee Owtahear - had volunteered for military duty at the start of the Second World War. Born of Dutch-German parents in Corfe Mullen, Bert had been destined for a career in milking before an itinerant Irish talent spotter persuaded his parents there were better and more lucrative things to "squeeze the bejeezus out of".

He proved a natural adept and by the age of 24 could "hold a two minute tune almost to perfection provided no harmonisation in the thumb or the first, third and fourth fingers was required". A series of engagements with local ensembles and, later, bigger bands, suggested that he would be better off playing a less prominent instrument and, having tried several [including the E-flat Swanee whistle for which almost no piece is scored], he graduated to conducting - a position in the orchestra in which he could "do far less damage". A natural with a stick and photogenic to boot, Bert soon became the acceptable face of light classical music at a time when the genre was heading rapidly out of fashion. He worked regularly with artists of the stature of Betty Bongo and Her Jungle Drums, vocalist Eileen Pilchard and the Compton Valence Singers. He was nominated for 3 Olivier Laurence Awards and 2 Tony Blackburns but won not a single one. He was briefly - and wholly-explicably given European predilections - popular in Germany, making several albums there as well as numerous television appearance.

Album sales peaked in the UK in 1961 with his third album "Swinging Safari" which fused his usual bland Mitel-Dorset style with pulsing African rhythms, though thereafter both the quality of his output and the willingness of audiences to tolerate - let alone purchase - it declined. He finally retired in 1975, but - together with 5th wife Lenuta [42-28-36] - remained a welcoming and generous host at their home "Dun Tourin" in the seaside town of Westbourne. After a messy divorce in which he was left with only his old Swanee whistle*, he "kept himself to himself" and passed away peacefully in a retirement home in Mudeford in 1994. He was survived by his third, fourth and fifth wives as well as his Swanee Whistle.

* In a famous divorce court exchange, Lenuta, citing mental cruelty based on their 48 year age gap and lack of common cultural reference, had demanded the couple's connubial home and 90% of their combined assets. Bert retorted that any such settlement would leave him "up the Swanee" and that, if she was not going to be reasonable, she could instead "go whistle". The judge, who was hard of hearing, considered this both an offer to treat and an indication of the likely outline of a final settlement. She awarded him the Swanee Whistle.

Just some of the albums produced in Bert's heyday and collected by those whose interest in music ended with the demise of the Dorset County Opera.


Rare footage of a Bert Kamembert promotional film made in Germany for cinema release by his Hamburg | Wynford Eagle based record company.

We are grateful to the Stanpit Museum of German Culture [Das Stanpit Museum für deutsche Kultur] as well as the Friend of Bert Kamembert Society [Freund der Bert Kamembert Gesellschaft] - President, Secretary, Treasurer, Archivist and sole member Eunice Babcock - for permission to share this precious resource.

NOTE: Listeners are encouraged to listen out for the not too subtle and, to musical ears, rhythmically wayward contribution of Betty Bongo and Her Jungle Drums [at approximately 00.20 and 00.58 into the clip]. Bert's loyalty towards Betty - who he had met in the 1950s over a frothy coffee in The Cool Kat Milk Bar, Canford Cliffs - was unwavering even though she and her ensemble were well past their peak at the time of the recording. It is even said that Bert himself had to take over some of the smaller bongos which, at this stage in her career, a very "portly" Betty could no longer reach - even at arms length.

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