WHEN THE CURTAIN came down on the first night of The Sentimental Bloke at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, on 4 November 1961, composer Albert Arlen knew he had a hit on his hands. His belief that his musical version of the beloved verse of C.J. Dennis would be a success was vindicated. Not only did the show play out its allotted six-week season, its run was extended to five months and it toured for another nine (making the producers J.C. Williamson very happy), but it would go on to become Arlen’s most successful show, and one of the most produced musicals in the annals of Australian musical theatre.
But J.C. Williamson’s took some convincing. Their on-again, off-again interest in the show, redolent of so many other local projects that never got off the ground, had been going on for seven years. First pitched to them in 1954, their initial reaction was ‘disinterest’. Three years later they had a change of heart, took a two-year option on the piece and paid Arlen and his co-authors, Nancy Brown (his wife) and Lloyd Thompson, one pound. There followed a Sunday night reading at the Empire Theatre, Sydney, with the cast of The Pajama Game, which included Toni Lamond, Bill Newman and Jill Perryman. The audience of 50 included Sydney’s main theatre critics.1
Nothing happened. The option lapsed and was not renewed, apparently because ‘The Firm’ thought the show too similar to My Fair Lady.2 To all intents and purposes the project was dead.
The idea for turning The Sentimental Bloke into a musical took root in 1950, when Arlen met novelist George Johnston (My Brother Jack), and they decided to work together on an adaptation of C.J. Dennis’s poems. After two years and one long synopsis, Johnston withdrew because of other commitments. Arlen and Brown, then living in Canberra, approached career diplomat and actor Lloyd Thompson, who was twenty years their junior, to see if he would be interested in working with them. He was.3
They agreed that Arlen would write the music, Brown and Thompson would work on the book, and all three would collaborate on the lyrics. As an idea for a musical, the property was sound: it had achieved previous success as a book (1915), two movies, one silent (1919) and one sound (1932)4, a radio serial (1938)5, a stage adaptation (1922) and a ballet (1952)6, which had been filmed by the ABC for TV.
Dennis’ verse narrative The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke was first published in 1915. At the time, its set of colorful characters and colloquial language tapped into the larrikin streak of the Australian psyche. It was widely popular.
Bill (the Bloke), a larrikin Melbourne boxer, sees his ideal girl, Doreen, at the market and a friend arranges an introduction. A romance begins, but Bill’s jealousy of a more sophisticated rival, the ‘Stror ’at Coot’, throws a spanner in the works. Bill and Doreen make up, he meets her mother, and they get married. Bill’s Uncle Jim turns up with an offer they swap city life for one in the country, working his fruit farm. They accept, and later begin a family.7
Dennis got the idea for ‘The Bloke’ when he was staying on a farm near Melbourne. The owners had an attractive daughter, and the farm laborer they employed fell hopelessly in love with her. The parents didn’t take kindly to this, and squashed the romance. Heartbroken, the young man confided in Dennis. He said, ‘but don’t they understand, I love her.’ Dennis was so touched that he conceived the idea of ‘The Bloke’, whom he modeled on the boy. He set the action in Melbourne rather than the country, to enable him to broaden his scope of characters and situations.8
In musicalising the property, Arlen purposely wrote the score in the musical style of 1913 when syncopation was beginning to be heard in popular music.9 The lyrics and book used material from Songs of a Sentimental Bloke and The Moods of Ginger Mick. The musical basically followed the story of Bill and Doreen’s courtship through to their marriage, with excursions to the theatre and the Melbourne Cup. Ginger Mick, Bill’s mate, still sold rabbits, and a lot of the action was set around the pickle factory where Doreen and Rose worked. Mr Smithers (the Stror ’at Coot) became the manager of the pickle factory.
Dennis’ original verse ‘A Spring Song’ was the inspiration for the song ‘Springtime Craze’, ‘The Intro’ provided ‘Intrajuiced’ and ‘I Dips Me Lid’, ‘Mar’ was the source for ‘Poor Dear Pa’, and ‘The Mooch Of Life’ became ‘Life’s Wot Yer Make It’. The latter used many Dennis stanzas, including:
Life’s wot yer make it; an’ the bloke ’oo tries
To grab the shinin’ stars from out the skies
Goes crook on life, an’ calls the world a cheat,
An’ tramples on the daisies at ’is feet.
The authors also used ‘The Play’, in which Bill interprets Romeo and Juliet in the argot of the street, in its entirety. It ultimately became the hit of the show. ‘I Dips Me Lid’ and ‘Intrajuiced’ captured the Bloke’s vernacular perfectly, ‘Piccalilli Lil’ and ‘Sunday Arvo’ were fun numbers for Rose and the company, and ‘My Sentimental Bloke’ was a sweet ballad for Doreen.
When the Arlens’ original pitch to J.C. Williamson’s met with indifference in 1954, they sold their piano to finance a trip to London to try and interest producers there. They pitched it to the George Black management, the Tom Arnold office, Jack Waller, Hugh Beaumont (Tennant’s) and Vida Hope. Beaumont thought it was gibberish, the Arnold management wanted to change the setting from Melbourne to London, and the Melbourne Cup to the Derby. Only Hope liked it. Arlen’s London publisher, Ascherberg’s, thought it was well-written but had no appeal for an English audience. Disillusioned, the Arlen’s returned to Australia.10
The Elizabethan Theatre Trust’s Hugh Hunt expressed interest in reading it, and having done so, declared the book ‘dreadful’. When J.C. Williamson’s option and professional showcase went nowhere, the Arlens began to despair. During this period, they wrote another show, The Girl from the Snowy, which the Canberra Repertory Society decided to mount in April 1960. The show was so successful that it broke house records. It inspired the Arlens to go it alone and mount a season of The Sentimental Bloke with the same company at the Albert Hall, Canberra, the following year.
With Arlen on piano and Brown playing Rose, the show came through with flying colors as the headline in the Canberra Times (8 March 1961) claimed: ‘Sentimental Bloke Captivates Audience.’ They called it ‘an outstandingly successful piece of sheer entertainment, quite brilliantly funny’, and said, ‘Albert Arlen’s music had the lift and the sentimental quality which unified the play’. They thought Bill [Edwin] Ride was perfect as The Bloke (Bill), and Douglas Skinner as Ginger Mick and Nancy Brown as Rose ‘shone with life.’ They liked the adaptation, and loved ‘The Play’.
With a glowing notice in the only paper in town, the production had no trouble in selling out its short season, which meant that when Sir Frank Tait and John McCallum came to the last performance, they had to sit on stand-by chairs.11 They were pleasantly surprised by what they saw, but were still cautious about picking up the rights. Again nothing happened—until, a few months later, the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, suddenly became available for a six-week window; the rest, they say, is history.
Like the Canberra Times, Tait and McCallum were so impressed with Ride as Bill that when it came time to cast the professional production, they imported him from Canberra. He took leave of absence from his Canberra post, which was Under Secretary to Burma. His father was Vice Chancellor of Hong Kong University.12
Rosemary Butler was cast as Doreen, and Gloria Dawn, recently being brilliantly funny in Once Upon a Mattress, was Rose, with Frank Ward as Ginger Mick, her sidekick in the comedy stakes, along with Alton Harvey (Mr Smithers—The Stror ’at Coot), Robina Beard (Mabel), Judith Roberts (Gertie), Maggie Gray (Sal), Jean Battye (Ma) and Robert Levis (Uncle Percy). Veterans Letty Craydon and Lulla Fanning rounded out a top-flight cast. Harvey had always been Arlen’s choice for the Stror ’at Coot, after he saw him stop the show as Mr Applegate in Damn Yankees.13
William Rees was contracted to direct the show, but tragically went into a diabetes-induced coma the day before rehearsals were due to start, and died.14 John Young replaced him. Sets and costumes were designed by Cedric Flower (he had originally designed them in 1951 when the Arlens first started working on the project), Hal Gye’s original iconic illustration for the book was used on the program cover, and the dances were created by Betty Pounder. Arlen was musical director and again played piano in the pit. None of the score was altered between Canberra and Melbourne, but Dawn and Ward, using their vaudeville–variety experience, enhanced their comic roles to great effect.15
The press were unanimous in their praise: ‘For my money it’s a great big rosy double header hit’ (Melbourne Sun, 6 November 1961), ‘The Bloke’s alright—I dips me lid to those who have been associated in bringing to the stage this musical,’ (Weekly Times) ‘The Bloke is here to stay—Once again we salute The Bloke for its sheer irrepressible vitality,’ (The Age, 6 November 1961), ‘This Bloke is fair dinkum—As a piece made in Australia it is probably the best yet in its class (Listener In). Geoffrey Hutton in The Age also praised Brown and Thompson’s book, saying, ‘they ‘have treated Dennis with the respect due to a genuine piece of folk art.’ Of the actors, he said Edwin Ride was ‘poised and vocally rich,’ Frank Ward’s Ginger Mick was ‘sprightly and endearing,’ and Gloria Dawn’s Rose was ‘richly funny as we expected her to be.’
At the time of The Sentimental Bloke’s November opening at the Comedy Theatre, Brown was appearing as Widow Corney in Oliver! which was playing opposite at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Exhibition Street. In an unprecedented move, the J.C. Williamson management allowed her to skip the curtain calls of Oliver! so she could appear on stage as one of the authors of The Sentimental Bloke, when the first-night curtain fell.16 The show played five months in Melbourne, closing on 17 March 1962. During the season Patsy Hemingway replaced Rosemary Butler as Doreen.
The first stop on the tour was Adelaide, where the show opened at the Tivoli on 20 March 1962. The press was just as enthusiastic as in Melbourne, with The News headlining its review, ‘This Bloke Real Bonza Show,’ and The Advertiser, ‘The Bloke a Winner.’ The latter also said the show ‘has several numbers that could well set people doing what they have not done in a long while – whistling in the street and at work.’ They also claimed the top-acting honors went to Ward and Dawn: ‘They won the hearts of the audience and held the show together.’ Adelaide-born Rosemary Butler returned to play the role of Doreen in her hometown. The show played three weeks, closing on 14 April 1962.
Brisbane followed, with even more laudatory reviews. ‘Bloke—Fair Dinkum—Brisbane last night showed that the Sentimental Bloke is still their kind of cove,’ (Sunday Mail, 22 March 1962), ‘The Bloke is a beaut show—Enough to make any dinkum Australian burst with pride and laughter,’ (Brisbane Telegraph) and ‘I liked The Sentimental Bloke. I have seldom heard an audience receive a show with such affection,’ (Courier Mail). The production followed My Fair Lady into Her Majesty’s, where it opened on 21 April 1962. Dawn and Ward again stole the notices with the Sunday Mail claiming them ‘the show’s scene-stealers.’ Patsy Hemingway was back in the role of Doreen for the Brisbane season, which played a healthy eight weeks, closing on 16 June 1962.
The next stop was Sydney, which was always going to be a hard town to conquer. While The Sydney Morning Herald liked aspects of the production, décor and choreography, they carped that Arlen’s tunes were ‘bland rather than striking, stale at their worst, reminiscently nostalgic at their best.’ Ride, they said, had ‘mechanical elements in his acting,’ Ward sounded more English than Australian, Patsy Hemingway’s soprano had an ‘unsympathetic glare,’ and Harvey’s Stror ’at Coot was ‘so fantasticated as to strain the conventions of the piece.’ They reserved their unqualified approval for Dawn who they said ‘more than any other performer keeps the evening aglow. It is true that her acting sometimes moves too far in the direction of vaudeville or variety, but there is such an audible leer in everything she says and so much dying-duck-in-a-thunderstorm humour in what she does, that her performance is hugely enjoyable.’ The show opened at the Theatre Royal on 20 June 1962, and closed four months later, on 10 October.
After Sydney the show started its New Zealand tour. The first Australian musical to play New Zealand, it opened in Auckland on 3 November 1962 and played for 20 performances before closing on 20 November 1962. The New Zealand Herald called it ‘A Sure Winner… refreshingly different, fast moving and often riotously funny.’ Ride was said to have a ‘charm of manner and a humanity that makes Dennis’s larrikin a very likeable “bloke”,’ Hemingway was called an ‘engaging young actress,’ Ward ‘almost steals the show,’ and Shirley Broadway (who had replaced Gloria Dawn as Rose), ‘shared the comedy honors.’ Musical accompaniment was restricted to piano, played by Arlen, and percussion.
The production then went down the country, playing the major cities and provincial towns. According to Carole Walker (On Stage, Summer 2007), the show was not a success in New Zealand. Williamson’s blamed it on a scandal that erupted when it was discovered the two leads, Ride and Hemingway, were having an affair. (Ride was married with a wife in Canberra). The newspapers got hold of the story and it followed the show wherever it went. Although the management blamed the scandal for the loss, Walker believed it was more due to the New Zealanders’ antipathy to anything Australian.17
Two years later, the Arts Council of Australia and J.C. Williamson’s combined to present a hugely successful bus-and-truck tour of New South Wales and Queensland, playing 49 regional towns. Heading the cast was Alton Harvey as Bill, Colleen Coventry as Doreen, Leonard Lee as Ginger Mick, Lisa Thompson as Rose and Noel Mitchell as the Stror ’at Coot. The Pickle Factory Girls included Carole Walker (Mabel), Cheryl Morgan (Gertie) and Barbara Callick (Sal); the Pickle Factory Men, Tony Bonner and Paul Maloney, doubled as stage manager and assistant stage manager. Choreography was by Barry Collins (Charlie Skewes), based on Betty Pounder’s original, and Kath McGrath was musical director and pianist.
The one-night stand tour opened at Island Bend, Cooma, in the Snowy Mountains, in April 1964, and then continued to Bega and Nowra. Other NSW dates included Griffith, Parkes, Dubbo, Wagga Wagga, Albury, Glen Innes, Armidale, Grafton, Lismore, Newcastle, Kempsey, Goulburn, Mudgee, Moree, Orange, Bathurst, Warren, Maitland, Stanthorpe, Coonabarabran, Wellington and Nyngan.
The Queensland dates were Toowoomba, Charleville, Gympie, Gladstone, Nambour, Barcaldine, Kingaroy, Warwick, Pittsworth, Mitchell, Tambo, Blackhall, Longreach, Charters Towers, Claremont, Emerald, Proserpine, Townsville, Rockhampton, Maryborough, Mackay, Bundaberg, Scarborough and Roma, where it played two nights.18
Alton Harvey remembers the date in Mitchell, in South Western Queensland. After the performance cakes and sandwiches were always provided by the Arts Council ladies, and during the supper one lady approached him and said, ‘Oh, we did enjoy the show so much; if it was on tomorrow night we’d see it again.’ Harvey asked her if she had come far. She replied, ‘No, only 180 miles – we didn’t mind that, but the gates are a bit of a problem.’19
In 1976 the ABC produced a TV version of the musical. It featured Graeme Blundell (Bill), Geraldine Turner (Doreen), Ginger Mick (Jimmy Hannan), Nancye Hayes (Rose) and Jon Finlayson (Stror ’at Coot). Michael Shrimpton was producer, with Alan Burke directing and writing the teleplay. Musical director was Brian May fronting the ABC Melbourne Show Band, and choreography was by Joe Latona with the Joe Latona Dancers. To bring the show down to 90 minutes, Burke eliminated the excursion to the theatre and the Melbourne Cup sequence. It was recorded on 12 December 1975, but not telecast until 17 July 1976. Critical reaction was mixed, but film historian Eric Reade, writing in History and Heartburn, called it ‘superb’. He thought Blundell ‘turned in a mighty performance,’ Hannan was a ‘pleasant surprise,’ and overall it was ‘good entertainment.’20
Graeme Blundell later wrote his own version of the Dennis original, with music by George Dreyfus. The Melbourne Theatre Company production premiered at the Arts Centre Playhouse on 12 December 1985, but even though it managed to secure productions in Darwin (1987) and Brisbane (1988), the Arlen, Brown, Thompson version is still the preferred musical adaptation.
Set model for the 'Horse Racing' scene designed by Kenneth Rowell for The Australian Ballet’s production of The Sentimental Bloke, 1985
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
The next major event in the show’s history was John Lanchbery’s arrangement of Arlen’s score into a ballet for the Australian Ballet. Premiering on 5 May 1985 in the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Robert Ray’s choreographic adaptation of the musical play, with design by Kenneth Rowell, was praised by some and dismissed by others. The approvals were: ‘The Bloke is a must for everyone, ballet fans or not,’ (Daily Telegraph, 10 May 1985), ‘Robert Ray’s choreography to Albert Arlen’s music has crowd-pleasing charm,’ (Sunday Telegraph, 12 May 1985), ‘Cries of delight from the besequinned first-night audience,’ (Daily Mirror, 14 May 1985); but there was a very big thumbs down from Jill Sykes in The Sydney Morning Herald (11 May 1985), who called it ‘forgettable,’ and ‘a mindless interruption of banality or frivolity, according to your taste.’ Nevertheless, the Australian Ballet took the piece to Russia on their 1988 tour where it played the Kirov Theatre (now the Maryinsky Theatre), Leningrad (now St Petersburg), Moscow and Odessa. It had a later Australian revival in 1995.
Following the initial production, the show became a staple on the amateur circuit, and has been produced consistently to this day. It was chosen to open the Parramatta Bicentennial Cultural Centre, in a joint production with Q Theatre, on 12 March 1988. Grant Dodwell was Bill, and June Bronhill, in one of her last musical theatre appearances, played Ma.
An original cast recording was made of the show at one of the last performances of the Melbourne season, when Patsy Hemingway was playing Doreen. It was recorded with two microphones in the pit of the Comedy Theatre, and released on the Talent City label (TC003), and later reissued by the World Record Club (WRC 5/4371). It contained an Overture and ‘Springtime Morning’ Ballet, ‘Rabbit-Oh’, ‘Piccalilli Lil,’ ‘Springtime Craze,’ ‘Intrajuiced,’ ‘I Dips Me Lid,’ ‘Sunday Arvo,’ ‘I’m A Cove With Wimmin,’ ‘My Sentimental Bloke,’ ‘For Me Sheila And Me,’ ‘Little Birds In Their Nest,’ ‘Workin’ For The Boss,’ ‘Cup Day In Melbourne,’ ‘I’ve Backed The Winner Of The Cup,’ ‘’Er Poor Dear Pa,’ ‘Life’s Wot Yer Make It,’ and ‘Happy Is The Bride.’ Talent City also released Edwin Ride’s ‘The Play’ (Romeo and Juliet), on an EP (TV021).21
In 1967 the ABC recorded a studio cast album of the score (not released until June 1968) with Jill Perryman (Rose), Neil Williams (Bill), Jimmy Hannan (Ginger Mick), Janet Crawford (Doreen) and Bobby Bright (Stror ’at Coot), with the Augmented ABC Melbourne Dance Band and Chorus conducted by Frank Thorne. It is not as complete as the original cast LP, dropping ‘Workin’ For The Boss,’ ‘Cup Day In Melbourne’ and ‘Happy Is The Bride’.22
The ballet version of the score was recorded and released on ABC 456 684-2 in 1998. The ABC also recorded a selection of songs from the score with Brian May and the ABC Melbourne Show Band and Chorus on their Australian Musicals Now LP (RCA CAMS-173 (1971). The arrangement was by Ivan Hutchinson who also conducted the orchestra on that track. The selection included ‘Life’s Wot Yer Make It,’ ‘I Dips Me Lid’ and ‘My Sentimental Bloke’. Two songs were featured in the ABC TV program Once in a Blue Moon – A Celebration of Australian Musicals, and were released on CD (ABC 5223902/1994). Robyn Archer sang ‘Sunday Arvo’ and Michael Cormack performed ‘I Dips Me Lid’. David Campbell also included ‘I Dips Me Lid’ in an Australian Musical Medley on his album Yesterday and Now (Philips 532714-2/1996).
In 1961 Chappell & Co. published two single music sheets, ‘My Sentimental Bloke’ and ‘I Dips Me Lid’ plus a Piano Selection (with lyrics), which included ‘I’m A Cove With Wimmin,’ ‘I Dips Me Lid,’ ‘Sunday Arvo,’ ‘Life’s Wot Yer Make It,’ ‘The Winner Of The Cup,’ ‘Rabbit-Oh,’ ‘My Sentimental Bloke.’ The playscript was published by Angus & Robertson in 1977, co-funded by the authors.23
The J.C. Williamson contract called for the authors to receive 7% of the gross box office receipts. In the first thirteen months the royalties amounted to over £1 million ($2 million).24
To be continued
1. NSW/Qld Tour programme, p.3
2. Companion to Theatre in Australia, p.519
3. A Magic Life
4. Australian Film 1900–1977, pp.119–208
5. The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama, p.222
6. Companion to Music and Dance in Australia, p.76
7. Selected Verse of C.J. Dennis—Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, pp.9–39
8. Author’s interview with Alton Harvey
9. A Magic Life
11. NLA News Nov 2004, p.19
12. Alton Harvey, ibid
15. Carole Walker Remembers The Bloke, On Stage, Summer 2007
16. Alton Harvey, ibid
17. Carole Walker, ibid
18. Alton Harvey, ibid
20. History and Heartburn, p.279
21. Australian Performers, Australian Performances, The Sentimental Bloke entry
23. Arlen Papers, NLA
24. A Magic Life
Nancy Brown, A Magic Life—The Black Sheep of the Brown Family, Pix Stories Unlimited, 2001
C.J. Dennis, Selected Verse of C.J. Dennis, Angus & Robertson, 1950
Richard Lane, The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama, NFSA/Melbourne University Press, 1994
Phillip Parsons (ed.), Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency, 1995
Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977, Oxford University Press, 1981
Peter Pinne, Australian Performers, Australian Performances, Performing Arts Museum, Victorian Arts Centre, 1987
Peter Pinne & Peter Wyllie Johnston, The Australian Musical: From the beginning, Allen & Unwin, 2019
Eric Reade, History and Heartburn, Harper & Row, 1979
Kenneth R. Snell, Australian Popular Music, Quick Trick Press, 1991
John Thomson, National Library of Australia News, November 2004
Frank Van Straten, Tivoli, Lothian, 2003
Barry Watts, The World of the Sentimental Bloke, Angus & Robertson, 1976
John Whiteoak & Aline Scott-Maxwell, Companion to Music and Dance in Australia, Currency, 2003
Adelaide Advertiser, Adelaide News, The Age (Melbourne), The Brisbane Sunday Mail, Canberra Times, Courier Mail (Brisbane), Everybody’s (Sydney), Listener In, New Zealand Herald, On Stage, The Stage (London), The Sun (Sydney), Sydney Morning Herald, The Times (London), Weekly Times, Theatre Programs, Sheet Music, Recordings