THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

8 posts categorized "Comedy"

21 October 2016

Dan Leno: the original Pantomime Dame

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by Helen Peden, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900 and British Library curator of exhibition Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun.  

When Dan Leno performed as the Pantomime Dame in the 1880s he transformed a previously minor role into the main part and shaped pantomime into the Christmas show we know today.

  Dan Leno

Illustrated cover of the score of My Old Man (1889) H.1260.m.(43

The great clown Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) had been the star of Regency pantomime and brought the subtle arts of mime and gesture to this popular entertainment. In Grimaldi’s performances the clown was always the main character but after his death these clever skills were lost and soon replaced by the much less finely drawn charms of Principal Boys and Pantomime Dames. Clowns no longer played a pivotal role in the production and returned to the circus leaving pantomime without a main character and in need of a new direction. This was provided through the comic genius of Dan Leno.

Playbill Leno

Foresters’ Music Hall playbill (1885) Evan.611  

On Monday, October 5th, 1885, Leno made his first appearance in London at the Foresters’ Music Hall. Playbills in the Evanion Collection document Leno’s early London success (Evan.611, Evan.1063) and list him as a champion dancer – he had won a world clog dancing competition in Leeds in 1880. His champion clog dance was the main part of his turn at the Foresters’ but his comic song – I’m Going to buy Milk for the Twins – proved more popular with London audiences. Although the words have not survived, we know that Leno rushed on stage in the guise of an ordinary, harassed, yet spirited and resilient woman, and immediately grabbed the attention of the audience with his rapid comic patter in which he revealed the many small injustices of everyday life. Although Leno performed alone on stage the characters he embodied were so well drawn that his stage always seemed to be fully peopled.

Playbill- leno

Oxford Music Hall playbill (1886) Evan.1063

George Conquest, manager of the Surrey Theatre in Lambeth, South London was so impressed by Leno’s performances that he was quickly engaged to play Dame Durden in the 1886-7 pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk. Leno’s Dame stole the show and he subsequently appeared in every spectacular pantomime at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane until the end of the 1904 season.

Mother Goose

Illustration of Dan Leno as Mother Goose. Jay Hickory Wood: Dan Leno. London, 1905 10827.f.24.

The Good Old Original Mother Goose

Leno became the pantomime star of the late Victorian era. The main part of Mother Goose was written for him by the writer J. Hickory Wood for the 1902-3 Christmas season at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The character went through a number of phases – from poor to wealthy, humble to haughty, plain to beautiful and young to a final incarnation as the good old original Mother Goose, complete with top-knot and bunion.

Mother Goose was Leno’s favourite pantomime role and was considered to be the greatest triumph of his pantomime career.

Visit There Will Be Funa free British Library exhibition on Victorian popular entertainments, open until March 2017, and see many other rare and wonderful treasures from the Evanion Collection.

Helen Peden, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900

 

19 August 2016

William Shakespeare and The Learned Pig

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There have been many learned pigs in history but only one, to the best of my knowledge, that has claimed credit for writing the plays of William Shakespeare. Indeed by 1786, when The Story of the Learned Pig, by an officer of the Royal Navy was published, complete with its claim regarding the authorship of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and certain other plays knowledgeable animals of one kind or another were in danger of becoming somewhat passé. ‘Marocco the thinking horse’, for example, had made his appearance in the late 16th century and was able to follow the commands of his owner William Bankes with uncanny ability. Marocco could play dead, walk on his hind legs, urinate on command and even, apparently, separate and indicate the innocent maids in the audience from the disreputable harlots. Clever, certainly, but not as clever as writing The Tempest.

The first performing pig didn’t arrive on the scene for almost another 100 years later. Trained by a Scotsman, Samuel Bisset, the original learned pig used cards printed with individual letters and numbers to answer questions - indicating particular cards with its snout to respond to enquiries about the number of people in the audience, the time of day and even on occasions enquiries about what certain ladies in the audience were thinking at any given time. The show was a great success, and after Bisset’s death the pig went into new management with a Mr Nicholson who exhibited the pig in Nottingham in 1784 and then in London in 1785. Tours of provincial towns and a trip to Europe swiftly followed. The interest aroused by this trail-blazing learned pig caused considerable debate regarding how the pig had been trained and the extent of its cognitive abilities. Was the pig really answering questions, or was it simply responding to certain sounds or movements made by its owner in order to give pre-determined answers? Whatever the truth of the performance the idea of pigs as intelligent creatures took hold in the popular imagination. One only has to think of the pigs Snowball and Napoleon being the driving intellectual forces in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) for a modern literary example.

      Downfall 02

(Above: The Downfall of Taste and Genius, or, The World as it Goes by Samuel Collings – a satirical print from 1784 lampooning the public’s taste for performing animals. Here a learned pig leads the charge against the arts with a copy of Shakespeare’s plays lying abandoned in the assault)

Further learned pigs soon followed, including William Frederick Pinchbeck’s ‘Pig of Knowledge’, which was displayed in America in 1798 and even met President John Adams. Curiously Pinchbeck’s pig inspired considerable discussion, some of which took a fairly dark tone with many believing Pinchbeck had used witchcraft to control the animal while others claimed the pig’s ability to answer questions was evidence of reincarnation – the pig being inhabited by a soul that must once have animated a human being. Later, in the early 19th century, ‘Toby the Sapient Pig’ was exhibited in London by the illusionist Nicholas Hoare. Indeed such was the interest in Toby that in around 1817 he even published his autobiography – The life and adventures of Toby, the sapient pig: with his opinions on men and manners. Written by himself – although interestingly this was not the first time a learned pig had seen his memoirs appear in print, something which takes us back to 1786, The Story of the Learned Pig, by an officer of the Royal Navy and, perhaps even more strangely (if that’s possible) to William Shakespeare.

  Learned Pig 02

(Above: The Story of the Learned Pig by an Officer of the Royal Navy. London, 1786.)

In the Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition The Story of the Learned Pig is displayed in a section exploring 'bardolatry' – the word used to describe the often uncritical fascination that accompanies all things Shakespearean, and how sometimes that fascination takes a turn towards the bizarre. In The Story of the Learned Pig a soul describes how he has successively migrated through various humans and animals before finally ending up in the body of a pig. Earlier incarnations had included Romulus, one of the mythical founders of Rome and Brutus, the murderer of Julius Caesar.  At one point the soul was reincarnated as a man called ‘Pimping Billy’, who worked as a horse-holder at a playhouse (where Shakespeare was regularly in attendance) and was the real author of the plays – the Immortal Bard having simply stolen Pimping Billy’s ideas and words. Finally the soul moves into the body of a pig, who then presents his personal reminiscences to the author. As the pig remarks Shakespeare ‘has been fathered with many spurious dramatic pieces: Hamlet, Othello, As You Like It, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ of ‘which I confess myself to be the author’.

Although humorous, and a satire upon how our fascination with performing animals, circus tricks and the seemingly magical often exceeds our fascination with great art, the book plays profoundly upon our interest in all things relating to Shakespeare. After all, a pig that claimed to have written the works of John Fletcher or Francis Beaumont would be one thing, but a pig that claimed to have written the works of Shakespeare? Now that’s a whole different level of porcine achievement and greatness.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts runs until September 6th 2016.

29 February 2016

Bringing a Liverpool Heart to Moliére

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by Deborah Dawkin, currently working on a collaborative AHRC PHD project with UCL and the British Library focussing on the archive of Ibsen translator Michael Meyer.

Last week the British Library had the pleasure of hosting the 2016 Sebald Lecture, given this year by Roger McGough. His subject was the translating and adaptation of Molière’s plays, including Tartuffe (2008), The Hypochondriac (2009) and The Misathrope (2013) for the English Touring Theatre. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given McGough’s renowned skills in performance and public speaking this was anything but a dry lecture: we were treated to a vibrant and entertaining as well as thought provoking insight into the process of translating seventeenth century French comedy for the contemporary British theatre – one which highlighted the difference between the requirements of theatre translation and literary translation – the difference of creating a text which “preserves history” and one that breathes new life into a play while at the same time respecting the original writer’s message and intentions.

  Seabald

Roger McGough (right) who gave this year's Sebald Lecture together with Duncan Large, Academic Director of the BCLT who chaired the event.

The Sebald lecture is an important date on the British Library calendar for all those interested in international literature and translation. Sponsored by the British Centre for Literary Translation. The Sebald Lecture is given annually on an aspect of literature in translation. The event is named after the acclaimed German writer WG Sebald (1944-2001), whose novels and essays include The Emigrants, The Rings of SaturnAusterlitz and On the Natural History of Destruction. Despite writing almost exclusively in German he lived in the UK, lecturing in German at University of East Anglia where he founded the British Centre for Literary Translation in 1989.

In true story teller’s style McGough began at the beginning, and took us back in time to his first lessons in French at the Irish Catholic Brothers school for boys in Liverpool, where the tyrannical Brother O'Shea used the fear of the strap (specially sewn and crafted by the local nuns) to get his students to learn their verbs and vocabulary. Despite this unpromising start McGough went on to study French as well as Geography at the University of Hull. If the audience were expecting then to hear how McGough had developed an undying passion for French literature and language, they were disappointed. Instead we were regaled with a story in which McGough’s accent was so bad (having missed the French Exchange programme due to a family bereavement) that he was discretely removed from the aural exam. Slightly disingenuously - as he worked as a French teacher in the sixties - McGough left us with the impression that his French language skills were sketchy at best. But perhaps McGough wanted emphasise the point that these are not literal or academic translations, but adaptations designed to bring the spirit of Moliére to a contemporary audience: Molière with a "Liverpool heartbeat".

McGough was first approached in 2008 by Gemma Bodinetz to create a translation/adaptation of Tartuffe for her production with the English Touring Theatre. He was initially uncertain about undertaking the task, but promised to give it some thought. Taking several translations of Tartuffe with him on a Saga cruise (as an entertainer he hastened to tell us, not a guest) he read them on the journey to the Bay of Biscay. This allowed McGough to enter the play without the struggle of reading complex 17th century French verse, and to allow the characters and plot to inhabit him; to set his imagination free. By the time he had returned to the shores of the UK, McGough had started to write his version. Now McGough, concerned that he should be true to Molière’s intentions, turned to Molière’s original text, to check his own version against it, thus taking the script to a new level.

Anyone who has read McGough’s translations of Moliere, or had the pleasure of attending a performance, will be struck by their dexterity and their sharp, playful wit, and their cleverness in offering us a contemporary text, with contemporary references, yet never quite losing the link back to 17th century France.

This event was supported by Arts Council England and Writers’ Centre Norwich.

Past Sebald Lectures can be heard in full on the British Centre for Literary Translation website.

04 December 2015

The British Library acquires Kenneth Williams’s personal papers

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The British Library is delighted to announce the acquisition of the personal archive of Kenneth Williams, including 42 personal diaries and approximately 2,000 letters spanning his entire life and career from the age of 18 until his death in 1988. The archive has been acquired by the British Library from Paul Richardson, Kenneth’s friend and neighbour, to whom he left his entire estate.

Kenneth_Williams_archive_at_the_British_Library_Photo_by_Elizabeth_Hunter

The Kenneth Williams archive at the British Library (Photo by Elizabeth Hunter)

Kenneth Williams (1926-1988) was best-known as the star of the Carry On films, but he was also a raconteur of verve and charm, and appeared to substantial acclaim in a number of stage roles, from frothy revue to the black comedy of Joe Orton. He used the diaries he kept for more than 40 years as a half-serious threat to his friends (“You’ll be in my diary!” was a favourite saying whenever someone annoyed him), but kept the contents almost completely to himself. Despite a selection from the diaries published in the early 1990s, the vast majority of the diary entries remain unpublished and unseen.

The diaries span the period 1942 – 1988, with only one gap of four years at the beginning of the sequence. The run makes up approximately 4 million words altogether, and is unusual in its degree of comprehensiveness and regularity.  Williams wrote a page a day as a nearly unbroken ritual. In the pages of the diaries Williams is both instantly recognisable as the acerbic and maddeningly fastidious character well known to everyone, and, more surprisingly, as reflective and poignant, the private persona and increasingly skilled observer, revealed only in the confessional of the diary.

The diaries regularly refer to news and current affairs – below he records new about the famous trial of Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal MP who, along with several co-defendants, was accused of the murder of Norman Scott, a would be male model who was allegedly blackmailing Thorpe on account of his homosexuality. The British Library also holds the political archive of Jeremy Thorpe.

June 22 1979: “On the news they announced that JEREMY THORPE had been acquitted!! So that lying crook Scott has not succeeded in his vindictive quest!! They were cheering Jeremy outside the Old Bailey, and he rather spoiled it by making a sanctimonious speech about JUSTICE etc. Whereas he should have just expressed satisfaction and breezed away!”

The archive also contains 3 boxes of personal correspondence, equating to approximately 2,000 letters as well as photographs, scripts, programmes and documents relating to Williams’ wartime service.  Correspondents include Peter Nichols, Joe Orton and Richard Burton. It is estimated that 85% of the newly-acquired archive is unpublished material never before seen by researchers.

The archive will be of huge interest to social historians of post war Britain, detailing the experience of a gay man both before and after the Wolfenden Report and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1968, alongside the mundane details of everyday life in London. The diaries and letters also record the actor’s experience of the dying days of the repertory theatre system and the growth of modern celebrity culture, something he seemed both to love and loathe. In the entry pictured below Williams was understudying Richard Burton as Trigorin in The Seagull. Despite the doubts William’s expresses in this extract, the run of The Seagull turned out to be a huge success, thanks to the performance of Burton. Williams contributed by fetching Burton drinks between acts.

Diaries_21-08-1950

Page from Kenneth Williams's diary from 21 August 1950, courtesy of the Kenneth Williams estate

Material will be available to researchers in the Library’s Reading Rooms from March 2016. The 1950 edition of the diary, as well as a letter from the archive will be on display in the Library’s permanent exhibition space, the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, from next week onwards.

Kathryn Johnson, Curator of Theatrical Archives and Manuscripts and Joanna Norledge, Curator of Performance and Creative Archives

05 November 2013

Most of What Follows is a Complete Waste of Time

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Guest post from Ian Greaves, researcher of theatre and broadcasting history

N F Simpson (1919-2011) was said to be many things. During his near-century on the planet, he served as playwright, teacher, satirist, bank clerk, philosopher, a one-man-band English wing of the Theatre of the Absurd, army intelligence officer, father, translator, sketch-writer and poet. Coming to fame relatively late in life, his early successes A Resounding Tinkle (1957) and One Way Pendulum (1959) placed him in the company of Angry Young Men. These, however, were not his natural bedfellows.

Wally Simpson by Mike Harris
N F (Wally) Simpson, photographed by Mike Harris

As the writer David Benedictus once observed, Simpson had the misfortune to not be foreign like Ionesco or rude like Orton. His was a particularly restrained form of English humour, a precise extension of his personality. Simpson was certainly no self-publicist and, as a consequence, he became a marginalised figure: largely absent from the theatre after 1965, and with most of his subsequent work out of circulation. It falls, then, to a new collection of his work- Most of What Follows is a Complete Waste of Time (Oberon Books) - to fully restore this brilliant but neglected writer in the public consciousness.

SimpsonBirthIsTheFirst
The new Oberon Books collection contains several extracts from Simpson’s previously unpublished 2009 miscellany, Anatomy of Bewilderment. Draft material is held amongst the British Library papers.

Simpson had the pause before Harold Pinter, planted the seed of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and inspired the comic philosophy of Tom Stoppard. His beguiling plays were full of memorable set-pieces, endless diversions, upturned clichés and dark philosophies. His worlds were essentially ordinary, but worlds in which everything was equal and interchangeable - the private and public, animals and humans, biscuits and books. Comedy emerged from a determination to hold onto reason with whitened knuckles. To quote his introduction to Some Tall Tinkles (1968), his characters followed “a simple faith in the axiom that for those to whom life is an exercise in survival, the secret is in knowing how to ride with the punch”.

In the five years immediately prior to his death, N F Simpson - or Wally to his friends - underwent what many artists enjoy only after they’ve gone: a resurgence of interest. There was a season at the BFI, a new play at Jermyn Street Theatre, revivals of A Resounding Tinkle at both the Royal Court and Donmar Warehouse, a BBC Radio documentary about his life and work, and the purchase of his papers by the British Library.

The last of these was characteristic of a gradual effort to put his house in order. Working as researcher on the 2007 radio documentary, I soon found that Wally was keen to establish the whereabouts of all his work. This put me on a five-year road of discovery: archive upon archive, covering radio and television, stage and print. Part of this process resulted in the quite accidental discovery of Pinter’s lost sketch 'Umbrellas' at the British Library. Even as a big Pinter fan, however, I was slightly more excited to finally locate a copy of Simpson’s 'Take It Away!' in the same Nottingham Playhouse revue.

SimpsonBeInAtYourOwnDeath
N F Simpson collaborated with cartoonist Willie Rushton on a series of cod advertisements for Private Eye magazine. This piece appeared in issue 32, cover date 8 March 1963. 

The British Library’s invaluable Simpson papers - acquired in 2009 - gift us many treasures and insights. Oberon’s new, authorised miscellany of Simpson’s writings brings some of this material back from obscurity, including his first professional writing (for The Tribune in 1953) and a number of important, pre-fame pieces for Birkbeck College magazine The Lodestone. Thanks to this material, Most of What Follows… acts as the most complete map of his creative life, revealing its continuities and experimental diversity. Perhaps now we can all of us enjoy the many different facets of Simpson and, with one collective push, assert his true place in the canon of great English comic writers.

Ian Greaves is co-editor of Most of What Follows is a Complete Waste of Time: Monologues, Dialogues, Sketches and Other Writings by N.F. Simpson, published by Oberon Books on 5 November 2013.

Simpsonoberonfinal

13 September 2013

Jokes for David Frost

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Sir David Frost, who died recently, made his name on the satirical ‘60s TV show That Was the Week That Was. Whilst working on Keith Waterhouse’s archive I came across Keith’s account of the meeting which led to the commissioning of the ground-breaking TW3, as it was known. In Keith’s memoirs Streets Ahead (1995) he recalls the discussion with BBC producers dwelling on the finer points of German cabaret. David Frost’s contribution to this historic moment was not quite so distinguished: Keith remembers Frost advising him and writing partner Willis Hall that it was ‘never too early to start’ saving for their pensions. 

512px-David_Frost_Rumsfeld_interview_cropped

Sir David Frost interviewing Donald Rumsfeld. Photo by Robert D Ward. 

Leaving aside this inauspicious beginning, Keith and Willis went on to write for almost every episode of TW3, and for Frost’s subsequent programmes Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life, The Frost Report and Frost on Sunday. In doing so, they wrote a lot of material for Frost, much of which now seems rather out-of-date, if not down right sexist. But Keith’s favourite gags for Frost remain as innocuously groan-inducing today as the day they were written:

    ‘Here are the results of today’s Sheepdog Trials: all the sheepdogs were found not guilty’

    ‘See a pin and pick it up, all the day you’ll have a pin’

Quite often though, the joke was on David Frost himself. ‘He combined being a satirist and someone who one satirised’, commented Peter Morgan (who wrote the play Frost/Nixon) in the Telegraph’s obituary. This is surely the key to why Frost remains such a fascinating character. How could a person jump from larking about with the Pythons to interviewing presidents and prime ministers?

Keith and Willis were among the writers who enjoyed poking fun at Frost. Not only did they cast him as a redundant satirist looking for work in one TW3 sketch, they also devoted one of their Late Show sketches to lampooning his relentlessly upbeat interviewing style (‘Super. Marvellous. Absolutely super.’) in a scenario which saw Frost interviewing the Prime Minister of Rhodesia about playing the spoons.

Keith and Willis were prolific sketch-writers for both theatre and television. Keith’s archive is testament to this large output. The four folders bulging with skits and gags from the ‘60s to the ‘80s contain material for Roy Hudd, Ned Sherrin, Roy Kinnear, Millicent Martin, Dora Bryan and Kenny Lynch. Whilst leafing through Keith and Willis’ sketches for The Frost Report, I also found two variations on the famous ‘Class Sketch’ performed by John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. You know the one – ‘I look up to him because he is upper class, but I look down on him because he is lower class.’ The original sketch, written by Marty Feldman and John Law, aired on The Frost Report on 7 April 1966. What I hadn’t realised was that Keith and Willis came up with their own versions for Cleese, Barker and Corbett for later episodes. For the episode on Crime (8 June 1967), they play an upmarket art thief, a middle-class fraudster and a common tea-leaf (who are all treated quite differently by the snobbish judiciary). The programme on Youth (22 June 1967) sees upper class John Cleese and lower class Ronnie Corbett leading vastly different lives whilst both holding the same ambition of managing a pop group.

 The original ‘Class Sketch’ is brilliant for a number of reasons, not least Ronnie Corbett’s punchline, ‘I get a pain the back of my neck.’ Perhaps it was somewhat unusual for its time in relying on a pay-off line: in Streets Ahead Keith reflected that the vogue in the early ‘60s was for sketches without punchlines (in the style of Harold Pinter and others). However, Keith and Willis were more circumspect about the lack of punchlines in some of their TW3 output. They put it down to the fact the taxi sent by the BBC to pick up their weekly contributions was often running up the meter outside their office as they hurried to finish their sketches.

The Keith Waterhouse Archive is currently being catalogued and is expected to be available for research sometime next year.

Sources

Keith Waterhouse, Streets Ahead (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995)

04 July 2013

Ken Campbell is alive and you are dead

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On 31 August 2013 it will be five years since the death of writer, performer, director and general one-off theatre legend Ken Campbell.

In the Guardian's obituary, theatre critic Michael Coveney described Campbell as 'a perennial reminder of the rough-house origins of the best of British theatre, from Shakespeare, music hall and Joan Littlewood to the fringe before it became fashionable, tame and subsidized.'

The multifarious products of Ken Campbell's profoundly anarchistic theatrical imagination included his 24-hour long production of Neil Oram's The Warp at the ICA in 1979 - decreed by no less an authority than the Guinness Book of Records to be the world's longest play - and his production of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - performed inside a hovercraft - also at the ICA, later that same year. In the later part of his career he was perhaps best-known for his solo shows of fantastical monologues detailing all manner of odd experiences and arcane knowledge.

In 1977, the opening attraction of the National Theatre's new Cottesloe space was the full-cast stage adaptation by the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool - co-founded by Campbell with Chris Langham the previous year - of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's Illuminatus! trilogy. The British Library made an audio recording of the full 9-hour show and continued, throughout the 1980s and 90s to record Campbell's (usually solo) shows at the National. These included Furtive Nudist, Pigspurt, Jamais Vu, Violin Time, The Pidgin Macbeth and The History of Comedy: Part One: Ventriloquism.

Campbell was happy to have his shows recorded for posterity, his only stipulation being that he was not informed of the date the recording would be happening.  

Ken--Campbell-material

As well as unique live recordings, the Library has tried to acquire any commercially circulated recordings of Campbell: from the CD 'Wol Wantok' (King Mob, 1999), in which Campbell advanced the case for Pidgin English as a new world language, to the DVD edition of G. F. Newman's TV series Law and Order, in which Campbell had a rare straight acting role, as a crooked lawyer. He later described his performance in Law and Order as an example of 'tie-acting' (the actor tucks in his chin and mumbles into his tie).

The Library does not have any unique audio documentation of The Warp but it does have a copy of the video version (on six videotapes) purchased from writer Neil Oram a few years back. This is still available to purchase from Neil here, now in DVD format.

If you would like to hear (or view) any of the material mentioned in this blog post you can do so free of charge at the British Library. You will need a British Library Reader's Card however and you may need to book an appointment.   

 Listen to Ken Campbell introducing his Pidgin Macbeth in 1998 (excerpt) 

11 December 2012

Privates on Parade- Theatre of War

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Peter Nichols’s Privates on Parade (with music by Denis King) opened on Monday night at the Noel Coward Theatre, and has been garnering rave 5* reviews from the print press this week; good enough to raise a smile on even this (faux-) grumpiest of playwright’s faces.

 

 

Having enjoyed the final preview of Privates on Saturday (the title doesn’t disappoint, incidentally, with no lack of Privates’ privates on parade), I went back to Nichols archive in the British Library this week to look again at the papers relating to the play. Peter’s archive is a key component of our post-War British theatre collections– although his wickedly subversive formal experimentation marks him out from many of the more formally cautious social realist writers of the period.

The first item in the folders relating to Privates (British Library Additional MSS 78985-78988) is a glossy hotel brochure for the Merlin Hotel Group: ‘a most exciting holiday experience in Malaysia and Singapore’ with ‘a standard of service that makes you feel really important’. The ‘standard of service’ the brochure promises British visitors to Malaysia in the 1980s is a far cry from Peter’s play, set during the Malayan ‘Emergency’ in 1948, although the region’s post-war economic miracle is cheekily signposted in Michael Grandage’s new production. 
 
The play follows an entertainment unit called SADUSEA (Song And Dance Unit South East Asia), a fictitious version of the real-life Combined Services Entertainments Unit in Singapore, in which Nichols entertained the troops between 1946 and 1947. As Peter recently recalled, his unit toured a show called ‘At Your Service’

‘We’re men of the service,

We’re at your service - Entertaining you’


around mainland Malaya and Hong Kong to uninterested conscripts, unaware that the show’s performers included soon-to-be stars such as Stanley Baxter and Kenneth Williams. Privates on Parade reworks these memories into a rambunctious ‘Play with Songs’, which balances the narrative of their mission to track down Communist rebels in the jungle, and the stage world of the group’s performances – a separate play within a play that casts the audience as the show’s spectators.

The play was written in the mid 1970s, although some of the set-pieces drew on earlier sketches that Peter devised for end-of-term revues while working as a schoolteacher in the late 1940s (see ADD MS 78985), and the several stages of drafting and redrafting are documented in the archive.

Synopsis

The play was first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych Theatre, London, in February 1977, where the star role of flamboyantly camp Captain Terri Denis

‘You dare to speak to an officer like that, and I’ll scream the place down’

was played by the late Denis Quilley, and the fanatically austere Major Flack by the late Nigel Hawthorne (programmes in MS ADD 79185).

 

Cast


It’s the first time that the play has run in the West End for many years (Michael Grandage directed an earlier production with Roger Allam at the Donmar a decade ago), and it remains a subversively sly, wholeheartedly entertaining evening that is well worth catching.

Peter has talked more about his work, including Privates on Parade, for the Theatre Archive Project (Peter talks about Privates on Parade from ca. 8'50" from the player below)

 

Peter Nichols_Part 1 of 2