IN THE PREVIOUS PARTS OF THESE MEMOIRS I have written about many of the people with whom I have been associated in my two musical lives at EMI and in the music hall and theatre world, but there are also many greatly talented people that I have not mentioned. So here in this Appendix I will set down a few words about some of them in both categories. I apologise if I have omitted any important names or said insufficient about some of them or got some details wrong but one’s memory tends to play tricks as time goes by.
Musician, record producer and administrator: Peter Andry was a music graduate of Melbourne University. After working for the ABC in Australia and playing flute in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, he came to the UK in 1953 to study music under conductor Sir Adrian Boult and composer William Lloyd Webber, father of Andrew and Julian. He worked briefly as a freelance flautist and conductor and then in 1954 joined Decca as a classical record producer. In 1956 he moved to EMI with his fellow-producer Victor Olof and together, under David Bicknell, they ran the classical part of the famous HMV label. He later succeeded Bicknell as head of EMI’s international classical record business and so became my boss during much of my time at EMI. Peter was an excellent work colleague with an urbane sense of humour and an easy manner with the sometimes difficult artists he had to deal with. He made a great commercial success of his thirty years at EMI and later went on to establish Warner Classics as a major international group. He also worked with various charities including Music Therapy Charity, the Lynn Foundation and The Australian Music Foundation that supports young Australian musicians at the beginning of their international careers. In 1997 he received the Order of Australia Medal and in 2004 he was made an OBE by Her Majesty the Queen.
In 2008 I collaborated with the journalist Robin Stringer to assist Peter in writing his memoirs entitled Inside the Recording Studio: Working with Callas, Rostropovich, Domingo and the Classical Elite (Scarecrow Press).
Peter Andry with the Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland and HRH Prince Charles at an Australian Music Foundation Gala
Photo from Peter Andry’s personal collection
Peter Andry presenting to the German soprano Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf an award from the Hugo Wolf Society honouring her late husband, the EMI producer Walter Legge in 1981. (left to right) Keith Hardwick (EMI transfer engineer), Hugh Graham (EMI booklet editor), Shirley, Lady Beecham (widow of the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham), Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Peter Andry.
Robyn Archer. I never played for the Australian singer, writer and director Robyn Archer but our paths crossed in both my lives in music. I was working for EMI Classics in 1981 when I got a letter from EMI Australia asking me to set up recording sessions at Abbey Road for an Australian performer called Robyn Archer to make an LP of Brecht Songs. Ms Archer duly arrived at my office and we went through the procedure of organising the recording in a very formal and business-like way. For the project, I allocated one of EMI’s principal classical producers who found dates for the sessions at Abbey Road and engaged the London Sinfonietta and conductor Dominic Muldowney. At that time I was also playing for Aba Daba at the Pindar of Wakefield and a few nights later who should arrive to see the show but Robyn Archer to get some feeling of traditional music hall for her impersonation of Marie Lloyd in her one-woman show A Star is Torn. Needless to say, she was astonished to find this important EMI Executive (me) sitting at the piano in a fancy waistcoat and bowler hat bashing out 'Daisy, Daisy'! The Brecht LP was a big success and she went on to record a second volume.
The next thing that happened was that in May 1982 Robyn appeared at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, in A Star is Torn in which she brilliantly portrayed a number of female singing stars whose lives had ended tragically. These included Janis Joplin, Patsy Cline, Judy Garland, Bessie Smith and Marie Lloyd and I was there most nights playing for sing-alongs in the bar. So yet again, Robyn found me, the important record company executive, playing for the bar entertainment at Stratford East. I always felt that it was too much for a show like A Star is Torn that was entirely music, for the audience to leave one lot of music in the auditorium to find themselves bombarded with even more music of a similar kind in the bar during the interval. But Philip Hedley, who was running the theatre at that time, felt that the sing-alongs in the bar were a tradition at the Theatre Royal and asked me to continue doing them as many nights as I could manage. There were two pianists accompanying A Star is Torn at Stratford East (Grant Hossack and Jeremy Wesley) and when Robyn’s manager arranged for the show to transfer to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End, Robyn asked me if I would like to play second piano at Wyndhams but I was still working full time in the office at EMI so I felt it would be just a bit too much to take on, especially if the show had a run longer than just a few weeks, which it did. I felt sorry to turn down an engagement in a prestigious West End theatre but it was one of those rare occasions where my two musical careers collided and I had to let EMI take precedence.
Robyn went back to Australia where she moved into the field of directing, mainly Arts Festivals in Canberra, Adelaide and elsewhere, and also carried on writing as well as continuing to perform. She later became a speaker and public advocate of the arts in Australia. Robyn has received a large number of honours and arts awards including Officer of the Order of Australia and Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Letters (France).
Kent Baker was a highly personable actor and entertainer from the North of England who appeared in some of Joan Littlewood’s shows. He was a member of Ken Hill’s company at Stratford East and was in Ken’s adventure plays like Land of the Dinosaurs and for a long time he and Toni Palmer formed a superb duo singing in the bar for the entertainment before the show, during the interval and afterwards. When the bell sounded for the end of the interval he would say to the punters in the bar: ‘That’s enough of entertainment—now back to the show!’ Kent made a very effective music hall chairman, his friendly, engaging manner being quite unlike the pompous character portrayed by Leonard Sachs in the TV show The Good Old Days. Kent also had a repertoire of stage numbers including a Dixie song called ‘South of the Mason Dixon Line’ that he had written himself in which he had a set of false arms which kept getting longer and longer out of his sleeves as the song progressed. Another of his songs, which he wrote in homage to Liza Minnelli, was ‘Kent with an E’ although that was a bit rude! And he loved to do the Jimmy Durante number ‘A Real Piano Player’ with me accompanying as best I could. As well as Stratford East, Kent appeared many times at the Pindar of Wakefield as both Chairman and solo performer, and also at Chats Palace and other venues.
Larry Barnes was a genuine Pearly—the Pearly King of Thornton Heath— and his Pearly Queen was Maggie Stables who sometimes appeared in Hiss and Boo shows and was a magistrate when not singing cockney songs on stage. Larry had two main acts, one of which was interminably boring and the other a real classic. The boring act was Escapology in which he escaped from sets of real handcuffs from various eras and then got out of a genuine straitjacket as Harry Houdini had done in years gone by. He would get a volunteer from the audience to check the handcuffs and put them on his wrists before he escaped from them, and then the volunteer would strap him into the straitjacket and return to his seat. Larry would then start writhing and twisting his body to get out of the jacket in one minute while I played the Dam Busters March. As Larry got older this became more and more a physical effort for him and I had to keep extending the music until he finally stepped out of the jacket, clearly exhausted.
His other act was Paper Tearing, which he performed to perfection. He would come on stage with several rolls of newspaper and proceed to tear them systematically as he sang the music hall song ‘If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between’. After tearing each roll he would unwind it to reveal various things. Early in the song he would sing: ‘Wiv a ladder and some glasses, you could see to ’Ackney Marshes’, at which point a roll of paper, after tearing, would be shown to have turned into a ladder. When Larry suddenly extended the ladder up towards the heavens there would always a reaction from the audience: a gasp or a laugh or even a round of applause; it was a magical moment. At the end of the song, the final roll of paper when opened up would be seen to be a row of several houses hanging side by side. It was a brilliant act and a piece of authentic historic theatre. Larry also did a magic act, which was infinitely preferable to his Escapology, but it was usually the latter that he opted to do when he was on a bill. He constantly smoked a smelly pipe and one always knew when Larry was around by the pong of the pipe, but that was part of Larry. It is believed that he had genuine Gypsy heritage but I don’t know anything more about that, although he always carried a rather large knife, something like Crocodile Dundee, which he maintained was of Gypsy significance.
Maggie Beckitt was a multi-talented all-round performer in all kinds of musical theatre who proved also to be adept at music hall. She and her husband, the operatic tenor John Larsen, featured in many music hall bills I played for in places like the Pindar of Wakefield and The Tramshed at Woolwich Arsenal, and they were part of my regular resident company at Rugantino’s, an Italian restaurant in Fleet Street, where I found myself unexpectedly presenting music hall for a year or so. Maggie was expert at doing comic songs like ‘Goodbye Little Yellow Bird’ and John brought a touch of class with numbers like ‘Girls were made to love and kiss’ and ‘Where is the life that late I led?’ John had been a member of the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company and scored a great personal success as a matinee idol when the company visited Australia and he sang opposite June Bronhill in The Merry Widow. He also appeared in Australia in a number of musicals like The Student Prince and The Desert Song.
David Bicknell is of major significance in the history of my time at EMI. When I moved from the pop side of EMI Records (EMI’s UK operating company) to the parent company EMI Ltd in the mid-1960s, David Bicknell was head of the International Artistes Department, the part of EMI that made the major classical recordings all around the world that were too expensive or too important for any of the local branches to make. David had joined The Gramophone Company (better known as HMV) in 1927 as assistant to the legendary recording producer Fred Gaisberg in the company’s International Artistes Department. He continued as a junior producer until the end of the 1930s when Fred retired and David went into the armed forces when the war started.
After the war, Bicknell became the producer for the HMV classical label and recorded people like the Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles, the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli, the American violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the Italian conductor Guido Cantelli. A few years later he was appointed head of the International Artistes Department where he remained until his preliminary retirement in 1969 when he became Company Archivist and he retired fully in 1971. Throughout his time with the company he retained the services of Gwen Mathias as his secretary and personal assistant. Gwen had joined as a young girl as clerical assistant to Fred Gaisberg in around 1914 and stayed on to work for Bicknell until well beyond normal retirement age. Between them they spanned the most significant history of the classical part of the HMV catalogue and I learned a great deal from them both about the classical record business and the history of EMI.
I first met Stewart Brown when I was still on the staff of EMI Classics and he came to me to licence some of EMI’s historical recordings for release on the Testament Label, which he ran as a hobby. He had been a professional clarinettist playing in the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and free-lancing in the major London Symphony Orchestras but he gave up the clarinet when he started to manage a portfolio of rented property which he inherited after his father died. After I retired from EMI I started to do some work for Testament on documentation, editorial and proofing and enjoyed being part of the success that Testament continued to achieve as it licenced recordings from EMI, Decca, Pathé Marconi, RCA Victor, the BBC and major German and Austrian radio stations.
The two Testament projects that afforded me the most satisfaction and pleasure were the release of the live recordings of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung from the 1951 Bayreuth Festival conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch and the first ever stereo recording of Wagner’s Ring cycle from Bayreuth 1955 conducted by Josef Keilberth and produced by Peter Andry. Both these extremely important recordings had been ensnared in contractual difficulties involving Decca, EMI and Wolfgang Wagner representing the Bayreuth Festival Management that prevented their release, but Stewart, with his combination of business skill, charm and persistence, managed to resolve all the problems and issue the recordings on Testament to great critical acclaim.
Another Testament release that I greatly enjoyed was the 80th Birthday Tribute CD to the great Australasian soprano Dame Joan Hammond in which we included her million-selling record ‘Oh my beloved father’ along with her other most popular titles. I was delighted to meet the diva, whose 78rpm discs I had collected back in Sydney and she came to dinner at Stewart’s house where after many years she met up with Stewart’s mother-in-law, the operatic contralto Monica Sinclair, who had sung Suzuki to Dame Joan’s Madama Butterfly at Covent Garden.
As well as having unerring judgement in choosing material to release on Testament, Stewart is also a great connoisseur of fine food and drink, and the greatest vintage French wines I have ever drunk were at Stewart’s dinner table.
Deirdre Dee is a vivacious, bouncy singer, dancer and actress who had been in the ground-breaking musical Hair in the West End and who was adept at performing in music hall and variety with her ability to charm the male customers with whom she flirted shamelessly in songs like ‘You made me love you’. Another of Deirdre’s achievements was a one-woman show about the great music hall star Marie Lloyd, which she performed at many fringe venues, sometimes with me playing. When Deirdre and Michelle Summers formed the Song and Supper Music Hall company they suggested that I might be one of the regular pianists and I was very happy with this arrangement. On one occasion, Deirdre and Michelle organised a visit to Norway to promote Song and Supper and they took with them Geoffrey Robinson to be the chairman and me as accompanist. It was the depths of winter and we went to a large hotel in Trondheim where the snow was piled up outside against the windows. We did several small-scale shows using the drummer from the hotel’s resident band and I think we acquitted ourselves well under the circumstances but it was a hard slog and I don’t know how effective the visit was in increasing our audiences back in London. After Song and Supper closed, Deirdre opened a flourishing business organising corporate entertainment events like Mediaeval Banquets, American Hoe-Down nights, French Can Can nights and other similar jollies. Unfortunately, nobody wanted the Old Time Music Hall night that Deirdre offered, so work for me from that source dried up. At the time of writing Deirdre still offers courses in life coaching.
Dockyard Doris. Adelaide Hall may have been the most illustrious female star I ever played for and Barbara Windsor the most famous, certainly in the UK, but the one that was the funniest, the most glamorous in her own way and the most personable was Dockyard Doris. But, hang on a minute, Doris was not female—she was a rather grumpy man called Colin Devereux. But when Colin put on his wig, his frock, his jewellery and his make-up, the wonderful Dockyard Doris emerged in all her vulgar glory. It was at the Brick Lane Music Hall that I worked frequently with Doris and also at the Sebright Arms pub in Bethnal Green. To see Doris performing as Sophie Tucker, or singing the rather rude East End song ‘One Sunday Over the Lea’ or doing a tap-dance in a short dress singing ‘On the Good Ship Lollipop’ as Shirley Temple was a joyful experience that could not be beaten. Doris was quite stout and had a round face that was full of naughtiness but she was immensely likeable, especially when she would stay as Doris off-stage and appear in public at social events in and around Hackney and rub shoulders with the Mayor and other Council dignitaries.
I have seen and worked with a number of drag queens, but Doris was the one that I remember with the most affection. Sadly, Colin Devereux died of cancer at the age of fifty but it was Doris that everybody mourned. I am indebted to Brian Walker for his recollections of Colin and Doris in his book Tales of the Old Iron Pot.
Brian Hall was a talented actor and entertainer with whom my association was all too brief. I first met him when he turned up at Chats Palace to see one of our variety shows and then Brian Walker invited him back to appear in the next show. I knew who he was from his appearance as the chef in Fawlty Towers and his roles as a hard man in films and on TV but I was surprised to find just how warm and amiable he was and what a loveable personality he had both off stage and on. He sang comedy songs like ‘Swim, Sam, Swim’ and ‘If you could see her through my eyes’ (referring to Fanny the Pig) with great effect and the audiences loved him. It was a tragic loss when he died from cancer at the age of 59.
John Harris was a year ahead of me in Sydney at the Marist Brothers College, Randwick, but he was well known to the whole school because he was in the Cadets and played the Last Post on his trumpet on Anzac Day and other ceremonial occasions. Towards the end of my schooldays I teamed up with John and another young man called John O’Grady to form a dance band called The Tony Johns because of our names! The trumpet, piano and drums did not blend particularly well but our rhythm was strong and the sound we made carried well in the halls and other venues where we played. As described in the main text, the band was quite successful and was never short of engagements. In the early days, the band also included John’s father, Reg, on banjo because we needed his services as a driver to transport us to our gigs but when John became old enough to get a Driver’s Licence at the age of 17 we discretely did without his father’s services when John could get use of the car without its banjo-playing owner!
Our drummer John O’Grady was a keen cricketer and for our gigs on a Saturday night we usually had to go and dig him out of a cricket match at some local oval in order to get him to the engagement. Our repertoire included a lot of ‘Old Time’ dances like the Pride of Erin, the La Bomba, the Canadian Three-Step and the Progressive Barn Dance as well as the usual Quicksteps, Foxtrots and Waltzes and seemed to please our dancers as well as those who engaged us. We had several favourite numbers including ‘Harlem Nocturne’, Glen Miller’s ‘In the Mood’ and Woody Herman’s ‘Golden Wedding’ and we were at the cutting edge of Rock ‘n’ Roll when we started to play Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ from the 1955 film Black Board Jungle, which is considered to be the starting point of the ‘rock’ era.
Later, John Harris introduced me to the conductor of the NSW Public Works Department Symphony Orchestra, Volney Pursehouse. John played trumpet in the orchestra, his sister Patricia played flute and his father Reg played cello. The orchestra needed a pianist to provide a kind of ‘continuo’ role, mainly for the lower parts during early rehearsals when only a few players turned up, but when a concert date approached then loads more instruments arrived including tubas, bassoons, cellos and double basses for the bottom end of the music, so the piano was hardly needed. It was very cheeky of me to have put myself forward for this role as I had absolutely no knowledge of classical music and even less of what those strange Italian words on the music like Allegro, Adagio, Piano, Fortissimo, Sforzando, etc. meant. But, thanks to the patience of Mr Pursehouse, I got a crash course in score-reading and learned a great deal about classical music that stood me in good stead later with my job at EMI. I remember a public concert at the NSW Conservatorium at which I had the nerve to play piano solos of Chopin’s Polonaise in A and his Waltz in C sharp minor, in both of which the left hand owed more to the Shefte College of Music than to Frédéric Chopin. But the audience applauded so I got away with it!
Then in about 1956 I played for an amateur production of The Boy Friend directed by Maureen Walsh at the Randwick CYO (Catholic Youth Organisation) in which John Harris rather surprisingly set aside his trumpet and acted as conductor to direct the actors and the small orchestra positioned around the piano. At one performance he also played the role of the elderly Lord Brockhurst with great effect, extracting much fun from his song ‘It’s never too late to fall in love’. By then the company knew the work well enough to do without a conductor and I directed the performance from the piano. John only ever performed music as a hobby and had a long and successful career as an engineer in telecommunications.
Vincent Hayes was born in Galway, Ireland, but was brought up in London where he began working as an actor, touring with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He then developed his skills as a comedian and went into variety and pantomime and later music hall. At one time he was landlord of a pub in King’s Cross near the Pindar of Wakefield where the Manchester politician Allan Roberts got to know him. In the 1980s, Allan Roberts, who used to come to the Pindar to see his fellow Mancunian Peter John perform with the Aba Daba Music Hall company, acquired a pub called the Lord Hood in Bethnal Green. This was an old run-down suburban pub left standing on its own in a small piece of public land after all the surrounding houses had been demolished. Allan installed Vincent as landlord and asked Peter John to put on music hall there. The performing area was quite small, as indeed was the bar in which the show took place, and the company had to make do with the minimum of space for what was laughingly called their dressing room. The stage, as it was, consisted of several upturned empty beer crates and the performers had to be careful they didn’t fall off it. Because of the lack of space there was only room to have a couple of performers on each bill and one of the men also had to act as chairman. At Allan’s suggestion, Peter John encouraged Vincent to be in the show and act as Chairman and his rapport with the audience made it apparent that this was a role that suited him very well. I was the regular pianist at the Lord Hood and Roy Kean also appeared there frequently as Chairman cum performer. But because the pub was so small and had only the one open bar it was not possible to charge admission for the music hall shows and financial difficulties caused the pub to close after about one year when it quickly fell into disrepair.
Several years later, in 1992, Vincent opened the Brick Lane Music Hall in what was the worker’s canteen in the old Truman’s Brewery in Brick Lane, East London. It was a spacious, handsome venue, with appropriate decoration by Brian Walker and ample dressing rooms in what had been a shooting gallery elsewhere in the building. Vincent always chaired the shows at Brick Lane and I played regularly there during its early days. The place soon acquired a reputation for top class entertainment with equally good food and drink available on the premises. In 2002 the Brick Lane Music Hall moved to a new location in Silvertown where it still continues to function at the time of writing.
This is the opening night of the original Brick Lane Music Hall in 1992 with Vincent Hayes in the centre. On his right are Brian Walker in white and Dockyard Doris and on his left are Judith Hibbert dressed as a nurse and Peter John in pearlies. Behind the principals are the Brick Lane Dancers who were soon dropped from the regular programmes.
Philip Hedley I mention frequently in the main narrative but I would like to include him here to bring together some of the information about him if in a rather haphazard way. Philip was born in Manchester in 1938 and went to Australia with his English mother and stepfather (Lois and Leslie Gould) in the early 1950s where Leslie became Managing Director of the Australian branch of Philips Records. Philip did an Arts Degree at Sydney University and I first met him in 1957 when I played for the revue called Lower Education with the Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS). He was then in the next two University revues UNIK and Dead Centre in 1958 and 1959 and also in the very first Sydney production of Victoriana in 1959. As mentioned in the main text, all this and more from that time is documented in detail in the book The Ripples Before the New Wave by Robyn Dalton and Laura Ginters. At the end of 1959 Philip returned to London a year after his parents had come back when Leslie was appointed Managing Director of Philips Records’ UK branch. Philip continued his association with theatre by joining the E15 Acting School in its very first year, after attending weekly acting classes at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at Stratford East. He worked in various repertory companies as an ASM (Assistant Stage Manager) and was in charge of Lincoln Rep from 1968 to 1970 and then came back to Stratford East as assistant to Joan Littlewood from 1972 to 1974. In 1979 he took over running the Theatre Royal at Stratford East where he remained for the next 25 years.
Graham Hoadly is an extremely versatile actor who has appeared in many stage productions of plays, musicals and pantomimes. In music hall he has worked for all the main London companies both as a chairman and also doing superb character numbers like ‘The Galloping Major’, ‘Sweeney Todd the Barber’, ‘Brahn Boots’ and many others. He also appears in the picture of the Hiss and Boo company with Dame Hilda Bracket.
Bob Hornery was a few years ahead of me at school in Sydney and I remember being greatly impressed when I saw him playing the comic roles in amateur productions of Our Miss Gibbs and A Country Girl. He then produced the second revue I played for in Sydney called Stepping Out but after that I lost touch with him. In about 1965 I went to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, which was before the present amphitheatre and large bar were built and the audience sat in deck chairs, so there was no shelter whatsoever if it rained. I was late arriving so had not looked at the programme, but was bowled over by the hilarious performance of the actor playing one of the rustics, who kept falling asleep standing up as they rehearsed their play. In the interval I was delighted to find this was Bob Hornery who had come to London to try his luck in theatre and film. He eked out a living but failed to establish himself strongly so went back to Australia where he had more success in things like Neighbours and in stage plays. He used his musical talent in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and received two major theatre awards including the Actors Equity Lifetime Award. At the end of his career (which spanned some 60 years) he appeared in a famous production of The Importance of Being Earnest starring Geoffrey Rush with the Melbourne Theatre Company in which he repeated his ‘falling asleep standing up’ routine as the butler to great comic effect, earning him a Helpmann Award. Off-stage he was one of the funniest people I ever knew and he would keep his fellow performers in fits of laughter. I wish I could remember some of his quips but the only one that comes to mind is Bob entering the dressing room at the Pindar and declaring: ‘It’s word of mouth that’s killing this show!’
Peter John is the ultimate old time music hall performer and seems to have been in just about every music hall show I have ever played for. His ‘Chimney Sweep’ song, which he wrote himself, is the perfect example of a Victorian or Edwardian music hall comedy number and he is adept at performing songs in drag including a classic interpretation of Marie Lloyd’s famous ‘Don’t Dilly Dally’. He also does a stand-up patter routine which is full of cleverly observed human characteristics and he never fails to enhance any bill he is on.
He began his career as an actor and in 1964/65 he appeared with the National Theatre Company under Sir Laurance Olivier at the Old Vic and at the Chichester Festival Theatre in three exciting productions: Much Ado about Nothing, The Royal Hunt of the Sun and Othello. After that he went into the famous production of John Osborne’s play A Patriot for Me at the Royal Court Theatre starring the Austrian film and stage actor Maximillian Schell. This play is based on a true story about a member of the Austro-Hungarian Intelligence Service called Alfred Redl who in the 1890s was blackmailed by the Russians into a series of treasonous betrayals because of his homosexuality. It includes a notorious scene in which members of Viennese high society appear in drag at a Ball. This so offended the Lord Chamberlain, who at that time acted as censor of theatrical presentations, that he refused to grant a licence to the theatre for public performance and the Royal Court had to become a private members’ club to put on the play which caused them to incur serious financial losses. I remember the production well and the fuss it caused, which would hardly raise an eyebrow these days.
A few years later Peter first tried out performing in music hall with the Aba Daba company and this proved to be such a success that he has continued to this day working successfully in this field. It was with Aba Daba at the Pindar of Wakefield pub that he had the opportunity to create a new concept – a combination of pantomime and music hall in which the Chairman told a silly version of the panto story (as well as transforming himself into other characters as required) and the other artistes sang numbers appropriate to their panto characters. As related elsewhere in this piece, I played for several of these brilliant adult pantos and they were always a sell-out with our regular audiences.
I am grateful to Peter John for contributing to the above as well as providing information that occurs elsewhere.
Peter John appears in several group pictures in this piece (see Vincent Hayes and Dame Hilda Bracket) and here he is performing ‘Don’t Dilly Dally’ as an elderly Cockney woman who failed to follow the van to her new residence on moving day because she stopped on the way to have the old half quartern and now she can’t find her way home
Ian Jones was hired by me as a Royalty Clerk when I was at EMI Classics. Ian had trained at the Royal Academy of Music as a classical musician on the guitar and cello but was reluctant to try to pursue a career as a professional musician. When I was working for Song and Supper we generally ended our evenings with some music for the customers to dance to. On the Naticia (as described in the main text) this was usually just a short spell of me on the piano plus the drummer, but on occasion a longer dance session was required so I roped in the bass player from Chats Palace (Spike Morris) and Ian Jones, who I had discovered had a talent for playing popular music on the electric guitar in addition to his skill on the classical acoustic guitar.
Later, when Song and Supper had a residency at the Comfort Inn at Osterley, we became a regular trio with Ian on his white Fender electric guitar and our drummer Dan Simmons. Ian also had a brief try at busking on the London Underground on an acoustic guitar in a guitar duo with a house-mate called Tim and I got them to play in the bar at Chats Palace as the Ever Ready Brothers, but none of these activities on the acoustic guitar came to anything. Later, Ian moved to EMI’s Abbey Road Studios where he became a skilled remastering engineer working mainly on classical recordings and he was responsible for the remastering of From Melba to Sutherland—Australian Singers on Record under a pseudonym in his private studio at home. He later left Abbey Road to go into the Bed and Breakfast business in Wales where he continues to do audio restoration and remastering work as a sideline and plays Welsh folk music on his guitar and banjo as a hobby.
Roy Kean or Royston Henry Theseus Devere Kean, as he would introduce himself when he was acting as a music hall chairman, was a performer who went to no end of trouble with his costumes for the various songs in his repertoire. When he sang ‘Muffins and Crumpets’ he would don large prosthetic ears to make himself look rather like an elf, and his costume for ‘The Night I Appeared as Macbeth’ was more elaborate and complex than if he were dressing the entire company for a performance of Shakespeare’s play. And when he sang ‘On the Good Ship Yacki Hicki Doo La’ he made himself up as Long Jong Silver with a stuffed parrot on his shoulder and a wooden leg attached to his knee with his real leg strapped up behind his thigh, which must have been quite painful as he hopped around the stage during the song. And he carted all these costumes around on public transport, usually enough for three numbers when he was on a music hall bill. Roy certainly suffered for his art!
He was at his best when chairing music hall at the Lord Hood in Bethnal Green in the mid 1980s where I was the regular pianist. (See under Vincent Hayes above for more information about The Lord Hood.) The pub was located in rather a rough neighbourhood and Roy’s chairman was hardly a macho character. For example, one of his lines was to say that he was ‘as happy as a pig in chiffon’, but the audiences at the Lord Hood absolutely adored him and it was his finest hour. The landlord, Vincent Hayes, moved on to open the Brick Lane Music Hall in Spitalfields, where Roy continued to appear, but not with the adulation that he had enjoyed at the Lord Hood. When we started the shows in Brick Lane, I happened to mention to Roy that Spitalfields was a very historic area where the grand houses of the original Huguenots still stood; the huge, rather forbidding, Hawksmoor church brooded over the landscape, and one could still see the actual locations of all the Jack the Ripper murders in nearby Whitechapel. Roy became so interested in all this that he researched further on London history and eventually went to work as a tour guide for the London Big Bus Tours Company, where his acting talent stood him in good stead for enlivening his commentaries. Royston appears in the picture of Christine Pilgrim.
Michael Kilgarriff or ‘Killy’, as he universally known, is a multi-talented man who is a first rate music hall chairman and a skilled author so it is not surprising that he has written the ultimate hand-book about putting on a music hall show: It Gives Me Great Pleasure and a second volume It Gives Me Further Pleasure. He has also produced a comprehensive guide to music hall artists and popular songs from 1860 to 1920 Sing Us One of the Old Songs and a large number of Joke books. In 2010 he delighted his friends and colleagues with a book of theatrical reminiscences from 1967 to 1979 called Back Stages.
As well as his work in music hall, Killy has had an extensive career on the stage (including playing giants in Palladium pantomimes), appearing a number of times on TV (especially in Dr Who) and recording numerous voice-overs for films and adverts. He is also an accomplished pianist so he has been known to accompany music hall shows that he was chairing, which is a clever trick if you can do it, which I certainly can’t!
Right is a picture of a group of distinguished guests who attended the launch of Killy’s book Back Stages enjoying an amusing speech being made by fellow thespian Johnny Dennis in June 2010 at the Groucho Club. From left to right: me, Johnny Dennis, Andrew Sachs (Manuel in Fawlty Towers) Peter Baldwin (Derek Wilton in Coronation Street) and Sir Donald Sinden.
Picture © Michael Kilgarriff, used by permission
Annabelle Lee, which was her real name, was one of the stalwarts of Aba Daba at the Pindar when I first joined the company. She sang some extremely saucy songs, whose clever lyrics were by her husband Richard ‘Kip’ Carpenter, a writer of children’s TV shows such as Catweazle and Robin of Sherwood. The songs included ‘I’m always in the saddle on a Sunday’, ‘Always take mother’s advice’ and ‘I was a good little girl till I met you’ for which Kip had written new lyrics that were much naughtier than the originals. For example:
‘We made love on a table once
We’d had too much champagne.
I don’t think we’ll be dining
At the Café Royal again!’
For each song Annabelle had an individual dress, each more glamorous than the one before. Sitting at the piano on stage alongside her as she sang I initially wondered whether my playing was too loud and covering what I thought was her rather smallish voice. I needn’t have worried. One night I was standing at the back of the room when another pianist was playing and Annabelle’s voice came pinging towards me like an arrow with every word bright and clear. What I hadn’t realised was that as an experienced stage performer, she had that technique called ‘projection’ which the younger generation of TV performers didn’t always acquire.
Ian Liston was an actor who appeared in many TV series such as Crossroads, Coronation Street, Brookside, The Bill, Dr Who and The Onedin Line and several major films including Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, A Bridge Too Far and Scum. He produced a number of plays and musicals in the West End including Nunsense and Groucho.
He founded the Hiss and Boo Music Hall Company in 1977 and presented many famous stars in tours all over the country such as Barbara Windsor, Leslie Crowther, Dame Hilda Bracket and Roy Hudd. He also toured stage productions of Cluedo and Mr Men. His picture appears several times elsewhere in this piece.
Joan Littlewood was one of the most influential British theatre directors in the middle of the 20th century and has been called ‘The Mother of Modern Theatre’. From the 1930s onwards she toured with her company Theatre Workshop doing outstanding productions that became widely noticed. In 1953 she and her company settled at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, where she directed a number of highly successful plays and musicals, several of which transferred to the West End, including The Hostage (1958) by Brendan Behan, Lionel Bart’s Fings Ain’t Wot They Used t’Be (1959) and probably her most successful show: Oh What a Lovely War (1963). After the premature death of her partner Gerry Raffles in 1975 she stopped directing and went to live in France. I mention Joan frequently in the main text and write about the shows directed by her at Stratford East in which I was involved.
Jim McManus was an actor that I first met at the Pindar. He had worked for the BBC on the radio serial Mrs Dale’s Diary, which is where he had met Aline Waites and she used him as one of her regular performers at Aba Daba, both as an act and as a chairman. His solos included ‘Sister Sarah (Sitting in the Shoe-Shine Shop)’, which he did as a pantomime song-sheet number, the 1920s pop song ‘Brokenhearted’, and a sentimental monologue by Harry Chapin entitled ‘Mr Tanner’ to which I added a musical background. But it was as a chairman and variety show compere that Jim was at his best and he brought many an evening at Chats Palace to uproarious life with his clever ad-libbing as the host. Brian Walker includes recollections of several hilarious occasions involving Jim at Chats Palace in the chapter entitled ‘It Might Be Alright on the Night!’ in his book Tales of the Old Iron Pot. Jim has had numerous TV roles in series like Dr Who and Heartbeat and was in several films including Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as Aberforth Dumbledore. Among his many stage appearances, was a particularly successful recreation of the comedian Tony Hancock. See picture under Violetta.
When I first met Ruth Madoc at the Pindar in what must have been the late 1970s she was a jobbing actress who had already been in several films including Fiddler on the Roof, Under Milk Wood and The Prince and the Pauper. In our first shows together she was singing comedy songs like ‘The Next Horse I Ride On’, but she wanted to do something that involved straight singing and she brought along the music of the Rodgers and Hart standard ‘Ten Cents a Dance’. We found a suitable key and she went on to give a power-house performance of this torch song, in which I was able to pretend I was an orchestra as I hammered out the saxophones and trumpets on the piano. It turned out to be one of the most satisfying numbers I ever did at the Pindar and I had great admiration for the way Ruth sang it.
One day in 1979 she told us that she had been asked to appear in a new TV comedy series being written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft. This was the hugely successful Hi-de-Hi about the staff in a holiday camp and Ruth’s performance as the Welsh camp hostess Gladys Pugh is still remembered by the public with great affection. Soon after filming had begun, Ruth told me that they had just done a scene that involved a sing-along around the piano and the pianist was hopeless. She said she had told the producers that she could get them a pianist who really knew how to play for a sing-along, but alas my phone never rang. Another disappointment, as Old Mother Riley used to say! Ruth went on to have a good career on TV and in the theatre. Very recently I saw her in the UK tour of The Wedding Singer where she was great, and after that she was in the tour of the Gary Barlow Calendar Girls musical.
Hillie Marshall is a classically trained soprano who used to put on a number of different musical evenings such as Gilbert and Sullivan, Music from the Musicals, Variety and Old Time Music Hall: the last under the name of Edwardians Unlimited. I played for a number of these music hall shows, sometimes just Hillie and her colleague Julie Neubert, who both displayed great versatility to cover the whole range of music hall material. Hillie began as a radiographer in the NHS but moved into the theatre in stage musicals and pantomimes and also ran a very successful singles club Dinner Dates for over twenty years. In more recent times she has turned to writing books about personal relationships and has become an ‘agony aunt’ in newspapers, magazines and on radio, TV and on the internet.
Syd Marx was another of those highly experienced Variety artists who was a pleasure to work with. Like Tommy Shand, he was a multi-instrumentalist but unlike Tommy, who always wore shabby clothes and appeared rather dishevelled, Syd was always well turned out and gave a highly polished performance. He played tunes on a variety of things, not all of which were musical instruments, including a carpenter’s saw and a stirrup pump. He also played the unusual brass instrument called the post horn and his rendition of the ‘Post Horn Gallop’ always excited the audience. At the end of his act he would get the audience to join him giving the responses to the old song ‘Minnie the Moocher’ with which Danny Kaye had had such success at the Palladium in 1948. Syd told me he was very pleased to find me as his accompanist because I could play old-fashioned traditional pieces of music on a piano whereas at many of the engagements he was getting at that time there would be a boy band with three or four guitars and a drum kit, which made it impossible for him to do his act in the normal way.
Roger Neill first contacted me at the suggestion of the Australian director, critic and impresario Leo Schofield, who had known Roger when he was in Australia. Roger had started his career in a rock band and worked in advertising for ten years with Saatchi and Saatchi in the UK. He lived and worked in Sydney in the 1980s where he was chairman of the Lintas Advertising Agency before returning to the UK. He has made a study of Australians who went to Europe and had successful careers around the end of the nineteenth century like the sculptor Bertram Mackennal and the opera diva Dame Nellie Melba, and one such Australian was the photographer Henry Walter Barnett. When curating an exhibition of Barnett’s work for the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, Australia (which also showed in Sydney and Melbourne), Roger intended to produce a CD of some of the musicians in the exhibition but when the number of exhibits was reduced the CD project was no longer viable. Nevertheless, Roger had already contacted me at EMI to set up the CD and we have remained close friends ever since. When Roger attended a presentation I gave in 2003 at Australia House of ‘Australian Singers on Record’ he urged me to produce a set of records on the subject called From Melba to Sutherland which we eventually did together in 2016 as described in the main text. In more recent times Roger has published a book called DIVAS on the legendary singing teacher Mathilde Marchesi and her pupils, of whom Melba was one, and he is currently working on another book about a musical family called Simonsen who were based in Australia and I have been assisting him on both books with some editing.
Toni Palmer was in the original 1960 West End cast of Fings Ain’t Wot They Used t’Be, alongside Barbara Windsor as one of the two prostitutes, and then she had a principal role in Lionel Bart’s Blitz! Before that Toni had appeared as a dancer in a number of 1950s West End musicals like Pal Joey and Guys and Dolls. She also worked in several London clubs such as Winston’s and Danny La Rue’s Club and appeared in a number of TV dramas and several major films. Toni was a good sport and threw herself into the bar entertainment at Stratford East leading the singalongs alongside Kent Baker, partly because her partner and later husband was Ken Hill who was running the theatre for a year or so and staging his colourful adventure plays like Land of the Dinosaurs, The Count of Monte Christo, Bloody Mary (starring Toni), The Invisible Man and other shows.
On one occasion in 1978, Toni asked me would I accompany her at an audition for a new West End musical, which was Bar Mitzvah Boy. For the audition, she was going to sing a number specially written for her, which I think was called ‘Flashlight Fanny’, a crib of the George Formby hit ‘Fanlight Fanny’, and she didn’t trust whoever was going to be at the theatre playing for the auditions. So we bowled up one morning at Her Majesty’s Theatre and on the bare stage was a piano on one side and a table at the other side at which sat the creative team including I presume Jack Rosenthal, Don Black and Jule Styne as well as whoever directed it and the MD Alexander Faris. I recognised Styne and Faris but the others did not mean anything to me. Anyway, Toni sang her song and answered the questions put to her by the creatives and when I asked her later what transpired she said she was offered the part but in spite of it having a song, it was actually quite a short role and she didn’t fancy spending every night at the theatre sitting in the dressing room so she turned it down. The show only ran for 78 performances so she might as well have done the part and had it as an entry on her CV.
Paul Peters was a handsome young man who ran his own music hall company in London for which I sometimes played. It was always a lot of fun as Paul and his artistes, including me, crammed into a small car with all our costumes and gear and set off with much hilarity to do a gig. Paul liked to do a range of comedy drag numbers and some of his characters can be seen in the montage below. It was a great loss when Paul died at far too early an age, but I remember him with much affection.
Christine Pilgrim is an Australian actress that I first met at the Pindar of Wakefield with the Aba Daba company. She specialised in comic songs covering a wide range of material from genuine Victorian music hall songs like ‘It’s the same the whole world over’ to Stephen Sondheim’s ‘I never do anything twice’. She also did a stand-up comedy routine which was unusual for a female back in those days. I sometimes accompanied her when she took engagements in pubs and clubs as a solo act but that was really hard going because many of the audiences were extremely unresponsive and preferred to play Bingo than sit and listen to a female entertainer doing stand-up comedy. She also appeared in the Sunday Night Variety shows at Stratford East.
Christine Pilgrim with her son Tommy on a lorry touring the streets of Hackney publicising Chats Palace with me on the piano. Behind Christine is Roy Kean and on the left in full Pearlie gear is Larry Barnes. I have no idea who the little girl is – she just seems to have come along for the ride. The sign-writing at the bottom is by Brian Walker
Sandy Powell was one of the veterans of Variety for whom I played only once, but it was a pleasure to work with such a polished artist….well, he had been polishing his act for many years and it showed in the skill with which he got his laughs. He had been a big star as a comedian in the days of radio in the 1930s and made a number of films but he never achieved the same popularity in the era of television that he had had earlier in his career. His stage acts included using a ventriloquist dummy which fell apart with hilarious effect as he tried to operate it, and this is what he gave us at the Tramshed at Woolwich Arsenal.
Geoffrey Robinson, who had the distinguished looks and demeanour of a military Major or Captain, regularly appeared as chairman with Aba Daba and Song and Supper. Geoffrey was a member of the Magic Circle and had appeared as a magician on children’s TV. He also played the musical saw, and his dry but witty chairman’s patter always added a level of sophistication to the shows. For example, after a particularly chaotic number by one of the company’s crazier comics, especially Terry Bayler who had appeared with Monty Python, he would usually say: ‘Thank you, Mr Bayler, for whatever it was you did!’
This is Geoffrey Robinson chairing the Song and Supper show on board the ‘showboat’ Naticia on the river Thames. I am seen at the worst piano it was ever my misfortune to have to play on. Its touch was heavy and unresponsive and I had to do battle with it three nights a week for several years during the summer months.
Photo © Tony Locantro
Tommy Shand was an unusual comic performer: a mixture of talented multi-instrumentalist and sad clown. I don’t know much about his background except that he told Brian Walker that he had been in the army where he learned to play various instruments, which became the basis for his act. Dressed in shabby clothes and wearing a battered bowler hat, Tommy would play his eccentric instruments one after the other while strange things happened. He would usually begin with a trumpet with a typewriter keyboard attached on which he would play ‘Smoke gets in your eyes’, starting with a puff of smoke (powder) emerging from the horn of the trumpet with his first blow and then he would type a letter of complaint on the attached keyboard and end with a ‘ding’ on a bell also on the trumpet when a sheet of paper would fly out of this crazy contraption which he would catch in mid-air. The act proceeded with other curious performances on equally curious instruments and finished with a solo of ‘I’m in the mood for love’ on a saxophone out of which would slowly emerge a long thin red balloon, increasing in size as it inflated, causing great amusement, especially among the female members of the audience. Tommy was a one-off who never failed to bring happiness and fun to whatever show he was in. I am again indebted to Brian Walker after lifting most of the above from his book Tales of the Old Iron Pot.
This picture above is of Tommy Shand playing the clarinet at Stratford East in one of the Sunday Night Variety Shows. It shows the regular set up of the stage with tables and chairs where the performers could sit during the show and come and go as they pleased. I can be seen at my piano on the left at the far side of the stage. The man in the red jacket is actor Michael Elphick then to the right Terry Duggan and Anna Karen with Christine Pilgrim downstage.
Trevor T Smith was a versatile actor and accomplished pianist who appeared in a number of Philip Hedley’s productions, one of which was Happy as a Sandbag in which he played the Warsaw Concerto on a piano onstage with his back to the audience. I always maintained that he was skilled at ‘back acting’, namely acting with his back to the audience but I sometimes wondered whether I was fantasising about this until I saw Jeff Goldblum in Speed-the-Plow and The Prisoner of Second Avenue. In both plays Goldblum gave superlative examples of ‘back acting’ where he was able to convey to the audience a whole range of emotions, so I decided that was also a talent Trevor really did have!
Peter Spraggon was an imposing figure of a man who had started off as a policeman but decided to become an actor, so it was not surprising that he sometimes was cast in films and TV dramas as a policeman or a detective. He brought a lot of gravitas to his appearances in music hall, both as a solo performer singing songs like ‘Goodbye Dolly Gray’ or acting as chairman when his personal authority worked to his advantage. I always enjoyed his repertoire of jokes, which he delivered in a rather lugubrious style, such as when he would say: “It’s Good Friday – It’s good any day” or announce that a woman stopped him in the street with a collection box saying: “Doctor Bernado’s Home” and he would reply: “I didn’t know he’d been away!” And he would sometimes out of the blue ask: “Who invented the jock strap?” then answer his own question with: “That master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock!”.
Peter worked with all the main music hall companies including Aba Daba, Hiss and Boo and Song and Supper, generally as chairman, and could always be relied on to add his own special personality to any bill.
(Left) Peter Spraggon as music hall chairman in 1980 at the Production Village in Cricklewood, West London. (Right) This is a publicity shot for Song and Supper with Christopher Owen and Peter Spraggon alongside a singer whose name I have forgotten at the back, me at the piano with Michelle Summers in the Pearly outfit and Deirdre Dee bottom left.
Michelle Summers is a soprano who began her career as a singer in TV’s Black and White Minstrel Show, sang regularly on the BBC’s radio programme Friday Night is Music Night, played the lead in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in the West End and often appeared with Ian Liston’s Hiss and Boo company in its national tours. Michelle contributed the bit of class with her popular ballads and songs from light opera that had been traditional in variety and music hall right back to the American days of Jenny Lind (the Swedish Nightingale) with Barnum and Bailey’s Circus and similar artists in the UK and elsewhere. Her two main party pieces were ‘My Dear Marquis’ (‘The Laughing Song’) from Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II and ‘Vilja’ from The Merry Widow by Franz Lehár. We tried out other songs for her act but none ever worked as well as those two so those are what she usually did.
Michelle and Deirdre Dee formed the Song and Supper Music Hall Company and I worked for them a great deal. I have already written in the main text about the ‘showboat’ Naticia that sailed up and down the River Thames, and the shows we did in the Empire Rooms, but I will mention here another venue, which was the Comfort Inn at Osterley. After the music hall show, we had a more substantial session of dancing than we used to have on the Naticia. For this I moved from the piano to a rather cheap and cheerful SEIKO electronic keyboard, and as well as our regular drummer Dan Simmons, who played frequently at Stratford East and on the Naticia, we were joined by my EMI colleague, Ian Jones, on his white Fender electric guitar. We played the sort of music that the punters had been hearing on package holidays to Spain like ‘The Birdie Song’, ‘Strangers in the Night’ and ‘By the time I get to Phoenix’. This made a great change for me from my usual style of playing for music hall and variety and I greatly enjoyed it.
Rita Triesman While still a young actress, Rita Triesman first began performing Old Time Music Hall before the Second World War at the Unity Theatre in London. In more recent times, she set up her own music hall company at the historic Hoxton Hall, one of the last surviving purpose-built Victorian Music Halls in the saloon style in London. Because of the Unity Theatre's links with the Communist Party, Rita decided to call her new company The Karl Marx Music Hall Company but as far as I know, she never pursued this link with communism or socialism. By the time I played for the company Rita was no longer in the first flush of youth but I always found that she created a very enjoyable ambience and it was always fun to accompany her in her own repertoire of comedy songs including 'Hang on the bell, Nelly' and 'Our 'ouse'.
Tommy Trinder was an artist I played for only once in a variety bill organised by Brian Walker for Chats Palace at the Stoke Newington Town Hall. He exhibited all the famous bonhomie and warm personality that I remembered from his films and recordings. I suppose he said: “You lucky people” in his patter but I don’t actually remember it! He made a little joke at my expense when I failed to pick up on one of his cues but, in my defence, he didn’t deliver the cue very clearly and I suspect he did the same thing with all his pianists!
I first encountered Violetta (Violetta Farjeon) when I played for my first adult pantomime at the Pindar of Wakefield. These rather risqué shows had a script by Peter John and were hugely popular. Although born in London, Violetta, whose nickname was ‘Chou’, was brought up in France as a French speaker. She began her theatrical career in music hall in London and created the role of the French maid Hortense in The Boy Friend at the Players Theatre. She was totally fluent in English but was happy to put on a caricature French accent for her performances. She appeared in a number of films and on TV but it was in music hall and cabaret that she continued to work throughout her long life. She had a repertoire of solo numbers such as ‘Le Fiacre’ which I played for her at various venues like Crispin’s Restaurant in Vauxhall as well as at the Pindar. She was always fun to work with especially when she was putting on her exaggerated French accent.
(Left) Violetta (Right) Dressing Room picture of the cast of one of Peter John’s Aba Daba pantomimes at the Pindar of Wakefield (probably Dick Whittington which I think was called Dick and Pussy or it might have been Jack and the Beanstalk). Back row (left to right) Robert Lister, Jim McManus, Paddy Glynn as Principal Boy and Kent Baker as Dame. Front row (left to right) Martin Wimbush, Violetta and Pauline Menear). (Picture © Tony Locantro)
Aline Waites is an English actress who had been a regular cast member in the BBC radio serial Mrs Dale’s Diary playing the daughter Gwen. She had a successful stage career in Rep and also on TV and in 1969 she formed the Aba Daba Music Hall Company at the Mother Redcap pub in Camden Town with Barrymore Brown and the Australian actors David Ryder Futcher and Janet Browning. A year or so later it moved to the Pindar of Wakefield pub in Grays Inn Road, Kings Cross, where it became hugely successful, playing to packed houses three nights a week. Aline directed all the shows, which changed every two weeks, and she performed in the annual Anniversary Show. She also devised the ‘scenas’ which were ensemble numbers for the whole company on a particular theme like the Train Scena, the Farmyard Scena and the Mother’s Day Scena. Aline had a talent for constructing these scenas in a way that made clever use of the material and produced something more meaningful than just a medley of songs.
In 1980 she produced a political revue called Downstairs at Kennedy’s in a venue in the King’s Road, Chelsea, and with others, including her partner Robin Hunter, she wrote a number of comedy musical shows such as Gone with the Wind 2, Road to Casablanca and Fanny’s Revenge, as well as a succession of political pantomimes. In its heyday during the seventies, Aba Daba played three summer seasons in Copenhagen and toured successfully elsewhere in Scandinavia as well as in France, Germany, Canada and the USA.
Brian Walker is, in his own words, an East End guttersnipe, but an extremely talented man in a number of unexpected ways. When I first encountered him he was a member of a duo called ‘The Plastic Pearlies’ with his friend John Scott and they sang songs like ‘The Sheik of Araby’, which was hardly from the repertoire of the real London Pearlies! At that time Brian’s occupation was as a delivery van driver but he also did sign-writing in a colourful flamboyant style for the local shops and businesses in Hackney where he lived. He was also involved with a community centre at Homerton called Chats Palace where his other talents for building theatrical sets and making models was useful.
Although not a trained singer or actor, Brian loved to perform and his enthusiastic participation in the variety shows at Chats Palace always went down well with the local audiences. Brian soon found himself organising shows both at Chats Palace and at other places around Hackney, and he often booked me as pianist. When Vincent Hayes opened the Brick Lane Music Hall in the old Truman’s Brewery in Brick Lane, Spitalfields, it was Brian who did the characterful decoration of the venue and also appeared regularly in the shows. Later, Vincent engaged Brian to put on outreach shows on behalf of Brick Lane Music Hall in local venues, especially community centres and care homes. Brian became very skilled at making a little go a long way and with just one guest star, he and his talented accompanist Michael Topping, who sang while seated at his electronic keyboard, managed to put on a thoroughly enjoyable full-length show that seemed to be much more than the sum of its rather small number of parts. In 2016, Brian revealed yet another unexpected talent when he self-published a book called Tales of the Old Iron Pot, consisting of stories about his life and times in Hackney told in the most entertaining and humorous East End way.
Maureen Walsh was an Australian performer who was a member of the Randwick CYO (Catholic Youth Organisation) Club who directed the CYO production of The Boy Friend that I played for in 1956 in Sydney. I also used to play for Maureen when she got engagements as a solo performer at places like the Sydney RSL Clubs (Returned and Services Leagues). Her repertoire consisted of character numbers from stage musicals like ‘You can’t get a man with a gun’ from Annie Get Your Gun and ‘Adelaide’s Lament’ from Guys and Dolls. As I found some years later in London working the same sort of venues with Christine Pilgrim, this was hard work and the audiences often were not interested in listening to a solo female artist doing a cabaret spot and preferred playing Bingo or working the poker machines. But, like Christine, Maureen stuck at it and occasionally we would find an audience that responded well to the entertainment. Like many of my theatrical friends in Sydney, I lost touch with Maureen when I came to London in 1960.
Dame Barbara Windsor truly needs no introduction and I would say that apart from her namesake Elizabeth Windsor (better known as Queen Elizabeth II) she is probably the best-known woman in the whole of the UK. She came to fame with her cheeky appearances in many of the Carry On films and then later she became even more famous when she played Peggy Mitchell, the landlady of the Queen Victoria pub in the soap Eastenders. She appeared on stage in Fings Ain’t Wot They Used t’Be and many other shows including pantomimes and comedies like Come Spy with Me with Danny La Rue, in whose club she was a regular performer. Before she went into Eastenders, she said in her autobiography that her career was at a low ebb and that was when she started appearing in old time music hall, mainly as the legendary performer Marie Lloyd. I played for her in a number of shows, to which she always brought her own lively personality, and she was a great favourite with the audiences.
The end of a typical Aba Daba show at the Pindar of Wakefield (below) as I take my bow. The company had just finished the Farmyard Scene and the artists are (from left to right) Bronwyn Williams, Robert Lister, Annabelle Lee, Bob Hornery, Maggie Beckitt and chairman Kent Baker.
To conclude these recollections of my double life in music, I would like to pay tribute to all the distinguished colleagues I worked with in the record industry for over fifty years but more so to the incredibly talented artistes for whom it was my great privilege to play the piano in every kind of act in an amazing range of venues all over the UK. Irving Berlin was right when he wrote ‘There’s No Business Like Showbusiness’ and I was lucky enough to be able to experience that for myself, thanks to all those wonderful people I worked with over many happy years.
Tony Locantro, London, October 2020
List of books referred to in the text
David Conville, The Park: the story of the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, Oberon Books, 2007
Robyn Dalton and Laura Ginters, The Ripples Before the New Wave: drama at the University of Sydney 1957-63, Currency Press, 2018
Doug Holden, Australia’s Lost Tenor – from orphan to international superstar: Biography of Albert Lance (Lance Ingram), 2015
Michael Kilgarriff, Back Stages: letters and diaries of a performer 1967-79, Callio Viva, 2010
Michael Kilgarriff, It Gives Me Great Pleasure: the complete vade mecum for the old time music hall chairman, including production guide and nearly 600 patter entries, Samuel French, 1972
Michael Kilgarriff, It Gives Me Further Pleasure: further ruminations upon the art of the music hall chairman plus over six hundred ready-made song introductions, Samuel French, 1996
Michael Kilgarriff, Sing Us One of the Old Songs: a guide to popular song, 1860-1920, Oxford University Press, 1998
Brian Walker, Tales of the Old Iron Pot, 2016
Chiefly from the author’s collection except where noted.