In the annals of light entertainment, few acts have been as universally loved as the Screaming Abdabs. It is curious, however, that as much as they were adored, they were completely misunderstood. Many, if not most of their fans loved them for all the wrong reasons. The misapprehension of what they were about niggled certain members of the troupe, though others were content enough with the popular adulation, and the rewards it brought in its train.
They began as circus performers, under the direction of Maud Abdab, usually known as Old Ma Abdab. Contemporary reports of their first appearances suggest that the act was fully formed from the very beginning. Old Ma and her brood of little Abdabs would stand together, in a line, in the middle of the big top, and scream their heads off for about a quarter of an hour. It is difficult to give the flavour of the act in plain prose without resorting to long strings of capital letters and exclamation marks. EEEEKKKK!!!! and AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!! will have to do, I’m afraid, though they fail to convey the sheer volume and blood-curdling terror of the Abdabs’ screaming.
Early audiences seem to have believed that the Screaming Abdabs were screaming in response to the circus clowns. This may indeed be the origin of the cliché that clowns are in some ways disturbing and frightening. They are not. The circus clown is simply a man or woman who cuts capers and cavorts and blunders about while wearing bright baggy apparel and caked in makeup. Only a milquetoast would be scared of them.
Whether their audiences were composed of milquetoasts and milksops or not, the Screaming Abdabs were an immediate hit. They were soon enough too big for even the biggest of big tops to contain them, and they progressed to the music hall. From the music hall they moved on to variety theatres, and then to radio, television, and the big screen. Throughout, the act remained in all essentials exactly the same. As Old Ma Abdab got old and doddery, and the little Abdabs grew to adulthood and had tinies of their own, so the troupe replenished itself. It remained a family affair.
It was once they were away from the circus, and thus away from the supposedly frightening clowns, that the various misunderstandings about their act began to proliferate. The point to recall is that Old Ma Abdab made very clear the nature of the Screaming Abdabs in her memoir, where she wrote: “We are just simple folk who stand in a line and scream our heads off.” So straightforward an explanation seems not to have satisfied many of their fans, who devised all sorts of theories to account for their mass appeal.
The most notorious was probably that of the French existentialist Jean-Luc Existent, who bashed out innumerable essays and colour supplement feature articles and even entire books. The gist of his theory is difficult to disentangle from the thicket of clogged and unreadable texte in which he expounded it, over and over again. At a guess, and with a headache, I would say that he saw, or heard, in the Screaming Abdabs something akin to “original man, shouting his consonants… in yells of awe and anger at his tragic state, at his own self-awareness and at his own helplessness before the void”. The quotation is from that terrible old fraud, the American painter Barnett Newman, himself a great devotee of the Screaming Abdabs. There is a story that a wealthy patron commissioned Newman to paint a group portrait of the troupe, unaware that, as the critic Robert Hughes noted, he “had no discernible talent as a draftsman” and “a reductive cast of mind”. The patron was apparently not best pleased to be presented with a large canvas painted a single shade of red, with a vertical yellow stripe slightly off-centre.
The French pseud’s theory, however, led many to take a similar view of the Screaming Abdabs, seeing their screaming as somehow representative of something other than pure unbridled screaming. What this “other” was varied according to the particular hobbyhorse of whoever was chucking their ha’penny’s worth into the critical pot. Echoes were found of Franz Kafka, Edvard Munch, Sylvia Plath, E M Cioran, Samuel Beckett, Rolf Harris and Harold Pinter. It is telling, I think, that when questioned, at length, by Russell Harty, Popsy Abdab, a second generation Screaming Abdab, insisted she had never heard of any of these people. While we must acknowledge that the purity of their screaming is sui generis, I must reluctantly admit that the link with Pinter may carry some weight, if only because the late playwright was occasionally mistaken for a member of the Screaming Abdabs, for instance when he was thinking about American presidents or having to deal with waiters, taxi drivers, and other representatives of the little people.
The twenty-first century has, alas, not been kind to the Screaming Abdabs. Old Ma Abdab is long dead, the most committed members of the troupe are elderly and infirm, and the younger Abdabs seem more inclined to post videos on YouTube rather than to engage in live performance. We shall not see, nor hear, with our hands over our ears, their like again.