All old-time variety acts had so-called ‘bill matter’ – short slogans that described them. Jackie Allen and Barbara chose Xylophonically Yours, an appropriate epithet for a fast-moving act that presented the latest pop tunes intermingled with well-known classical themes, played on two marimba-styled xylophones.
Jackie came from a family with no known musical background. His father was a decorator. Jackie first played the accordion, alternating weeks in variety with weeks learning his father’s trade.
In time, he switched to the xylophone and embarked on the double act with his cousin, Barbara. When his wife-to-be, Irene Spencer, took her place, they decided to retain the name ‘Barbara’, and Jackie taught her to play the xylophone too. They appeared in many summer shows, becoming particular favourites at the Arcadia, Llandudno, on the north Wales coast, where they played seven seasons. Much later, on the Central Pier, Blackpool, they supported Derek Batey, the original host of the hit television game show Mr and Mrs.
The duo were seen as a speciality act in the occasional pantomime and joined a long tour, Sky High, produced by George Black, the man who put the London Palladium on the map. The star of Sky High was Reg Varney, eventually of television’s On the Buses, who appeared with his stooge, a young Benny Hill.
Jackie Allen and Barbara made appearances in cabaret, on radio – in the BBC’s flagship variety shows Music Hall, Variety Bandbox and Workers’ Playtime – and in holiday camps run by the rivals Billy Butlin and Fred Pontin. But they failed to break into the lucrative cruise liner circuits on account of Allen’s chronic seasickness.
On television, they were seen in The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club (1974-79), supposedly set in a northern working men’s club. Here, they were not limited by strict time slots. Jackie was canny enough to realise that xylophone duets lasting ten or 12 minutes might become tedious. So he ordered 12 miniature xylophones to be made, each of the keys marked with a number. Twelve members of the audience were then invited to hit the keys repeatedly as Jackie shouted out the numbers, creating interludes of such old-time songs as The Bells of St Mary’s and When I Grow Too Old to Dream.
The duo retired in 1999. Jackie Allen, who was born on May 29, 1924, died on November 16, aged 88.
The funeral service will be held at 2.30pm on Friday November 30 at Colwyn Bay Crematorium, Dinerth Road, Colwyn Bay, LL28 4YN