“We can not only work and fight, but we can be cheerful doing it as well.”
Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour
I wrote the book for Radio Times, to Noel Gay’s music and lyrics, and the original production starring Tony Slattery premiered at Birmingham Rep before transferring to The Queen’s Theatre in London’s West End.
It picked up a host of marvellous reviews, (including one from US Variety which said I was “the best writer about back stage show business since Moss Hart” not that I’m bragging) and the fabulous Ian Bartholomew was nominated for an Olivier award for his performance as Wilf, and a young Tamzin Outhwaite excelled in the chorus. .
Saturday 17 October 1992
A podge in a rowdy check suit (sanitised Max Miller meets Chubby Checker avant la lettre), Tony Slattery plays Sammy Shaw, the scriptwriter and star of the wartime wireless show Variety Bandwagon. As part of the effort to persuade the Americans to come into the war, the team is about to do its first live link-up with the States. Unfortunately, nothing is going right. Hitler is showing a total lack of tact with his Blitz; war damage has blocked off some of the performers (‘Bloody Nazis. First Poland. Then France. Now the ventriloquists’). And the script has been cut to ribbons by the officious new producer (excellent Peter Rutherford), an undertaker-lookalike who thinks it’s insensitive to sing a song about hens because of wartime egg-rationing and won’t stand for any entendre that’s double. All of which would reduce the show to a minute’s silence for those who have perished.
As well as being a starring vehicle for Slattery, the show provides a good excuse for reviving the songs of Noel Gay which, whether in wistful or witty mode, have such a strong simple charm and uncynical catchiness, you feel ridiculously purified after listening to them and in David Gilmore’s good-natured production, its unpretentiousness an integral part of its appeal.
Abi Grant’s skilful book manages to be genuinely funny, both when aping the radio humour of the period (its relentless ‘Down on the Farm’ gags – ‘Oh, I’m sorry I never accept personal chicks’; ‘Open wide, let’s have a gander’ etc are as corny as Ambridge in August) and when catching the more knowing offstage wit of the performers. ‘Before this week,’ quips the visiting Hollywood star through the sound of bombing, ‘the biggest threat to my existence was Hedda Hopper.’
Tony Slattery leaves you in two minds. He plays the sort of emotionally immature comic who is always ‘on’ and finds it easier to establish a rapport with a faceless audience than to know when his preoccupied pro’s insensitivity is hurting the people in his private life.
Slattery captures the overgrown boy element very well and his performance, which is full of cheeky lapses into lewd body language, fist-in-the-mouth mimings of agony, and split second 180-degree mood-swings, is technically dazzling. He’s an actor it’s easier to admire than warm to, though, because his effects always look so clinically calculated. You don’t see Sammy; you see clever Tony Slattery asserting a slight parodic superiority over him. So when Olive (sweet-voiced Kathryn Evans) chooses his character over Jeff Shankley’s charming Hollywood star, the only grounds for her doing so, you feel, must be some misguided form of wartime patriotism.
There is much to enjoy here. Ian Bartholomew is ideally funny-sad in the Donald O’Connor-ish part of Wilf, and James Buller, as the bespectacled, love-lorn sound effects man (knocking coconuts together to herald the approach of Eddie Cantor, geddit?), emerges as the fearless hero of the hour with an appealing bashfulness. The leggy lovelies – Monty Montgomery’s magical Melody Makers – also foot it featly. ‘Here comes happiness in big large lumps,’ they all sing in the finale. That’s pushing it a bit perhaps. In Radio Times, pleasure comes in nice manageable portions.
In 2012 a new production of the show, this time starring Gary Wilmot as Sammy Shaw, had a sold out run at the Newbury Watermill and toured the UK the following year.
Radio Times at the Watermill in Newbury gives us a couple of golden hours in the company of Noel Gay’s songs says Dominic Cavendish.
12 Sep 2011
One of my fondest childhood memories is of my paternal grandparents – who came to this country as Polish refugees – bursting into a round of “Run Rabbit Run” one morning at breakfast-time, linking arms and singing merrily away in their heavy accents. So I have to declare straightaway that I have a very soft spot for that song, its composer – Noel Gay – and outbreaks of wartime nostalgia in general.
Radio Times has wit aplenty – thanks to a script by a former Telegraph TV reviewer Abi Grant. At its 1992 West End premiere, Tony Slattery took the lead as Sammy Shaw, the irrepressible host of an ITMA-style wireless variety show who lets no opportunity to wisecrack pass him by – but can’t appreciate that his long-suffering partner, Olive, is slipping through his fingers.
In Caroline Leslie’s spirited revival those roles fall to Gary Wilmot and Anna-Jane Casey – who beam brightly, sing sweetly and combine thespian affectation with considerable charm and warmth. Yet it’s Andrew C Wadsworth, brilliant as puritanical producer Heathcliffe Bultitude, casting off devotion to the BBC’s censors to reveal extrovert talents, who both steals the show and reminds you that the one of the greatest battles the country faced – against its own uptightness – rages yet.
We are in 1940s London, in the old Criterion Theatre where a live transmission of Variety Bandwagon. Frankly, I am a sucker for vintage radio, that moment where Reithianism solemnly gave an extra few years to the dying art of variety and television was closed down for the war, leaving plucky little wireless to prop up morale.
Gary Wilmot plays Sammy the star comedian, and the author has enough of an ear for fast-paced 1940s comedy to make him genuinely funny. His nemesis – who transforms to be the show’s saviour – is producer Heathcliff Bultitude: his addiction to “compliance” and “protocol” not only reflects wartime censorship but amuses those aware of newer BBC anxieties. “I am the producer!” he booms, to which the reply “Congratulations! I don’t like work either!”. Grand Blitz humour too – “There’s no need to be frightened!” “No, but when there is, I’ll be ready!”
Nobody has remembered to hand in the script, so the show might get cancelled. And an air-raid sends them all below during the interval. But the show goes on: and Noel Gay’s songs are magic. Bultitude storms through “I Took My Harp To A Party”, and “Hey Little Hen” is performed with massed ukeleles. There is even a pantomime camel. In an economic Blitz, what better than to have this Watermill production roaming the land reminding us what sort of a nation we hope we are? All together now: “Who’s been polishing the sun? Rubbing out the clouds of grey?”