Friday 22 February 2008


Who says nostalgia isn’t what it was? The other night I went with a couple of blogger-friends, Polkadots and Diva of Deception, to a retrospective show at the National Film Theatre celebrating the work of the musical comedy duo, Flanders and Swann.

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!
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!
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!

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


Boll Weavil said...

I too grew up with those songs and although I never knew what the artists looked like or even understood the lyrics,I can still sing along with all the tunes ! My father, whose brand of humour was usually quite restrained, kept all their records and led me from them into the work of their forerunner Noel Coward and successor,Ronnie Barker.Few others come close.

SharonM said...

Lovely, interesting blog Brian - I can just about remember them!

Brian Sibley said...

BOLL - Yes, Noel Coward was clearly an influence but - despite being public school/university men - I always think of F&S as being rather more in tune with the prolitareate!

Interesting that they both attended Westminster School where another humorous rhymester, A A Milne, was educated...

LisaH - So glad to have jogged your memory!! ;-)

Anonymous said...

This brings back some good memories: my (older) sister and I were taken to the Haymarket Theatre by my parents to celebrate her successful O Level results. They had already seen "At the Drop of a Hat" and thought we were both old enough for "Another" - we both enjoyed every minute. A family favourite was "Madeira M'Dear". I still think the lyrics are brilliant.
(Known as Moany in Emborios)

Phil said...

Did you see the recent Armstrong & Miller series on BBC1? They did a series of sketches as two characters who were remarkably like Flanders & Swann. Except rather than using Flanders's clever wordplay and subtle double ententes, their songs always ended up being extremely bawdy.

A bizarre tribute, but a delightful one nonetheless!

Brian Sibley said...

ANON (Shelia)- Lucky you to have seen them in, as it were, the flesh...

'Madeira M'Dear'... Ah, yes, such brilliant lyrics: "She lowered her standards by raising her glass, Her courage, her eyes and his hopes..."

PHIL - I've missed Armstrong and Miller (though have heard about them); fascinating that a performance style so much of its time and so much a hang-over from the days of revue and (before that) music hall should become so 'contemporary'.

Diva of Deception said...

Phil - it's interesting that you say that the style has become contemporary....

One of the things that I kept thinking, as I sat at the NFT next to a Brian Sibley who was gasping for breath from laughing so much, was that I could easily see Flanders and Swann performing in a tiny venue at the back of the Pleasance at the Edinburgh Fringe. There was so much material that was very much 'today' such as moans about finding somewhere to park and yellow line restrictions, dieting and the varied types of diet to be had and even digs at themselves and each other. I know that if permission was ever given for a similar show to 'Rejoyce' there would be long queues for tickets and not all the people would be there to reminisce. My memories are vague and limited - although I was very surprised at how many songs had been lurking in the back of my mind. The Gasman, Honeysuckle and Bindweed, Mud (obviously) and more.... maybe I had seen more of them than I at first thought I had or was it just memories of Children's Favourites on Saturday mornings?

Whatever, it was a superb evening of fun, laughter and convivial company. Thanks Brian!

Brian Sibley said...

DIVA - My (Your/Our) pleasure! :-)

Anonymous said...


I'm a musician, and find myself haunted by the wonderful songs on your adaptation of LOTR for the BBC.

Did you use the Tolkien/Swann melodies? I'm looking to locate recordings of these songs, and have been surprised not to be able to find a complete CD of the Tolkien/Swann collaborations anywhere.

I'd imagine there'd be a substantial market for such a recording, especially if it gathered together the various versions from different sources: the BBC radio play, concert performances by Swann & co, etc.

Any info would be great,


Sebastian Palmer

Brian Sibley said...

SEBASTIAN - The music in the BBC's 'The Lord of the Rings' was composed by Stephen Oliver. However, I do know - and like - the settings by Donald Swann. I first heard them when an LP was released with the songs sung by William Elvin accompanied by Swann.

The last time that Swan's book of musical settings was republished (a few years back now) it contained a CD of that LP, but recordings of the Swann-songs no longer seem to be available. You should ask HarperCollins to re-release the CD.

Carole said...

Great post. I love Flanders & Swann.

Becky Leff said...

I just found your blog and post on Flanders & Swann. I love them, too! I was introduced to the duo by hearing "Ill Wind" on classical radio stations. I'm a French horn player and so of course I love this clever adaptation of Mozart. I finally decided I wanted a copy for myself rather than waiting to see if I would hear it on the radio. I bought a CD and became enchanted with more of the songs and the banter. I have written my own blog post about Flanders & Swann, if you'd like to take a look: