Despite the fact that the archive footage was almost entirely in black and white and with all the fuzziness of 405-lines, this was an evening of pure blissful delight.
For those who don’t know, actor Michael Flanders and musician Donald Swann began collaborating as a revue-writing partnership while they were pupils at Westminster School. Then years later, in 1948, they teamed up and began writing songs for such performers as opera singer, Ian Wallace, and comedienne, Joyce Grenfell.
It was in December 1956, that Flanders and Swann hired the small, 150-seater New Lindsey Theatre Club in Notting Hill where they debuted, by way of an experiment, a three-week run of their first two-man revue - or “An After-Dinner Farrago” as they called it. The poster announced: At the drop of a hat - MICHAEL FLANDERS & DONALD SWANN will perform - regardless. Top price seats were 10/6, the show began at 8 o'clock with, potential patrons were asked to note, 'Bicycles at 10'!
It was an act of faith that paid off: within a month, they had an agent and the show - now officially called At the Drop of a Hat - was on stage in the West End where it ran at the Fortune Theatre for two and a half years before opening on Broadway and touring the USA and Canada as well as, on their return to the UK, the provincial theatres of Britain.
A second show, At the Drop of Another Hat, opened at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in 1963 and had two runs in London as well as a four-month stint on Broadway and, once again, a tour of the UK, the USA and Canada as well as Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. By the time they hung up the hat in April 1967, eleven years after that hesitant try-out in Notting Hill, Flanders and Swann had given almost 2,000 performances of their songs and monologues.
I first became aware of Flanders and Swann at the age of about 13 when a family friend, George Fitzgerald (a hard-line devotee of F&S!), loaned me the LP of At the Drop of Hat. Already a devotee of Gilbert & Sullivan and the musical comedy of Victor Borge (as well as knowing several of the F&S songs from recordings by Ian Wallace) I was totally mesmerised by the witty lyrics of Michael Flanders and the instantly memorable music of Donald Swann, performed in their contrasting - but complementary - baritone and tenor voices with unflagging zest and verve.
It wasn’t long before I knew all the words to ‘The Omnibus Song’ (correct title, by the way: ‘A Transport of Delight’), ‘A Song of the Weather’ ("January brings the snow, makes your feet and fingers glow..."), ‘The Gnu’ (who was “the gnicest work of gnature in the zoo”) and several others.
When, out of common decency, I eventually had to return George's LP, I began saving up my pocket money in order to buy the EPs - I could only afford the small discs! - of the songs from the two Hat shows and their collection of animal songs, The Bestiary of Flanders and Swann, that I especially loved because they were so clearly in the mould of two of my literary heroes, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.
I was soon learning more songs from those albums, such as the tales of ‘The Warthog’ (whom nobody loved) and ‘The Armadillo’, who has an unrequited love affair with an abandoned tank on Salisbury Plain, as well as ‘Ill Wind’ (with its tongue-twisting lyrics set to Mozart’s Horn Concerto) and ‘The Gas Man Cometh’ beginning (oh, so innocently): “‘Twas on a Monday morning that the gas man came to call…”
It was around this time that I first saw Flanders and Swann (other than as photos on record sleeves) when they appeared on TV on the Royal Variety Performance and I remember these two unlikely stars - the bulky, bearded Flanders, who (as a polio sufferer) was in a wheelchair and the slight, bespectacled Swann hunched over the piano keyboard - tearing up the theatre!
How did they do it? And on an almost empty stage - apart from the piano, a rug, a standard lamp and/or hat-stand...?
It was, as Flanders announced in introducing the evening, "a revue without scenery, without costume - except for our normal informal evening wear, worn throughout the Empire - and, also, without a cast." And yet they filled stage with their larger-than-life characters and creatures and conquered their audience with their charmingly irreverent and idiosyncratic humour.
After Flanders’ death in 1975, I followed Swann’s solo career as he wrote his autobiography, composed settings for the verses of J R R Tolkien and collaborated with broadcaster, Frank Topping, on another two-man show. We corresponded briefly and met once when he came to a talk I gave about Mervyn Peake at the Battersea Arts Centre - a venue that was not far from his home in what, according to Flanders (who lived in Kensington), Swann referred to as "South Chelsea"...
But I never lost my affection for F&S's original, stylish brand of musical comedy and, sometime towards the end of the twentieth century, I began plotting with my late friend Tony Miall - a superbly talented musician and performer - the devising of a tribute show to this incomparable duo and their songs.
Unfortunately, we were unable to secure the rights (bigger names were already on the case), but when, in 2000, with our friend and fellow performer Polly March, we devised and staged a revue in Malta, we included in our repertoire ‘The Gas Man’, with its saga of “unending domestic upheaval”, and - to amuse our colonial audience - ‘A Song of Patriotic Prejudice’, with its rousing chorus: “The English, the English, the English are best - so up with the English and down with the rest!”
If you don't know this spirited (politically incorrect) anthem to xenophobia, enjoy it now as it was performed for their Americans audiences...
What was fascinating, watching this old footage of F&S at the NFT - over forty years after it was filmed - was just how dynamic and full of physical energy their performances were, despite one of them being wheel-chair bound and the other being shackled to the piano.
Not only that, but how a great many of their songs - filled with comic-angst over dieting, flying, parking and the technological advancement of modern living, plus far more serious issues such as war and the rumours of war - seemed as topical and of the moment as when they were written. As for the comedy and nonsense, of course, that always was - and still is - timeless.
Quite an achievement, I thought, not only to hold a modern day cinema audience used to seeing everything in wide-screen colour, for two hours, but - more than that - to have us applauding the songs as if we were attending a live concert and even, at the end of the screening, singing along with the immortal ‘Hippopotamus Song’...
Mud, mud, glorious mud!It was, quite simply, joy unbounded and I, for one, can't wait until these classic shows are available on DVD and I can sit through it all over again!
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood!
So, follow me, follow,
Down to the hollow,
And there let us wallow in glor-or-or-or-ious mud!
For more information about these two geniuses of musical comedy visit Flanders & Swann Online and The Donald Swann Website.
Images: Portraits of Flanders and Swann by Angus McBean