“The Optimists”: Territorial 18th Infantry Divisional Concert Party

By Sears Eldredge

In the fall of 1940, once the fear of a German invasion of Britain had lessened, Brigadier General Beckwith-Smith, the Commander of the Territorial 18th Army, ordered that an official Divisional concert party be established that would tour the Division’s installations in Britain to entertain his troops during their long and difficult training exercises for their next deployment. As a young officer in the Coldstream Guards during W.W.I in France, Beckwith-Smith had undoubtedly witnessed concert parties operating behind the lines during the conflict and been impressed with their effectiveness in keeping up the morale of the troops. Because of his superb leadership skills (demonstrated during the retreat at Dunkirk during May and June, 1940), he had been promoted and given command of the Territorial 18th (East Anglian) Infantry Division with the responsibility of preparing his troops for desert warfare in the Middle East. 

To underscore its purpose in raising and keeping morale high, this troupe would be known as “The Optimists.” The inspiration for its title may have come from a professional civilian concert party, “The Co-Optimists” which had been enormously successful in the London theatre since its debut in 1921, although the troupe had disbanded in 1935.  

To find performers for the new concert party, notices were sent to all the military units within the Division requesting that they send forward any known performers in their midst. Two men sent forward from the same Regiment were the recent inductees, Fergus Anckorn and Denis East.

Fergus Anckorn had been a professional magician whose stage name was “Wizardus.” He had been performing magic since he was fourteen and was the youngest person ever accepted into The Magic Circle, an association of professional magicians in England.

The Young Magician Fergus Anckorn. Courtesy of Fergus Anckorn

Denis East had been a professional violinist in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. It was East who recalled the details of their auditions for the concert party:

And we were called into Norwich first of all to give a performance without knowing what it would lead to, on the stage of just a small theatre. And it was attended by a lot of people who weren’t in the Army at all but, in fact, they [were] part of the 18th Division Headquarters. And the General, he sat at the front. And we always knew whether he approved or not of what we were performing because [imitates loud laughter], and you’d hear this I think all over Norwich, you know. . . .

Anyway, we had this concert. And the outcome of it was that “Old Becky,” as we called him—General Beckwith-Smith—immediately demanded the release of [those selected for the concert party] straight away to come to Norwich and live in Norwich with him because he was forming the Divisional concert party. And so, we [he and Anckorn] were both sent in my lorry because we were actually drivers.[i]

At its start, the 18th Div. concert party was headed by a civilian producer from E.N.S.A.[1] named Holland, a professional theatre person chosen to train the ensemble, develop the show, and organize the tour. According to Anckorn, the cast consisted of ten men drawn from the ranks. 

Well, there was myself, a magician. There was Oliver Thomas, he was an imitator. And there was Dennis East, a violinist. Fred Coles was a wonderful piano accordionist. Then we had a pianist called [Jack] Appleton, a brilliant pianist. 

And, sometimes, as a sort of guest, when we were in the area where his regiment was—we had a little chap [Cyril Wycherly] who was a bit of a rake, he was always out with the women, and he could sometimes never be found; he’d be gone for a couple [of days] and was sleeping around. But he was the most superb accompanist that you’ve ever heard. Also, a [graduate] of one of the music academies. Well, he looked like a tramp, and acted like one . . . little hands – and if he was in the area, would accompany Dennis East on the violin.[2] But otherwise the accompanist for Dennis East was the accordionist Fred Coles, and he could do anything.   

And a fellow called Downey. John Downey had been a vocalist in a dance band somewhere, so he was our vocalist. And Richard Goodman was a spare character in there. He was one of the actors when we put on sketches. Normally when we put on sketches, we all threw our lot in. But he was there as that; that’s all he could do. And, he could play the piano. 

And then we had a chap called [Reginald]Tonsley (funny how these names are coming back to me). He was a comedian from show business, and he played the drums in the band.

And I can just give you the name of another man that’s come to mind, Larry Croisette. And he was a Western cowboy-type guitarist, and he was also, by trade, a carpenter. So, he was a very big member of the concert party because he used to build stages for us like that. And we used to carry with us our proscenium, our lighting, everything.[ii]

Oliver Thomas had excellent skills as a mimic:

All over London in the late 30’s there were News Theatres – programmes consisting of Movietone News and often including an American ‘comment’ programme called, “Time Marches On.” I imitated the voice of the commentator & introduced the ‘voices’ of King Edward VIII (from abdication speech), Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Hitler, & President Roosvelt [sic].[iii]

Their Stage Manager, and all-round problem-solver, was Chris Buckingham.

Versatility was a key factor in being chosen for the concert party. Besides their own specialty, and their parts in the comic sketches, Anckorn recalled that each member had an assigned role in setting up the stage before a performance and striking it afterwards.

[We’d] get there in the afternoon, put up the proscenium, lightings—there again, every one of us had a job when we arrived. This person would be threading the [curtains], someone else was joining the bits—all the timber we had was [held together by] butterfly screws so that you could slot it together and do it all up. And Larry Croisette, the carpenter—if anything didn’t fit anywhere—he would make something on the spot that would fit in. And we had an electrician with us who could see to any electric—you see, quite often, there wasn’t the electricity supply. And sometimes there was but you needed fifty yards of cable to get to it. And someone would see to that.[iv]   

The costumes for “The Optimists” performers were modeled on the traditional Pierrot Show costumes as used by “The Co-Optimists.” Anckorn: “Black pyjama-type top with yellow bobbles down the front—four, I think. Yellow silk wide trousers and yellow rough [ruff] round the necks. Our divisional flash[3] was a yellow [windmill] on a black background. It was a stylized windmill—I suppose, because being an East Anglian Division it represented all the windmills on the Norfolk Broads.”[v] Following the seaside Pierrot tradition, the performers would change into individual costumes for their solo turns in the second act. For sleight-of-hand magician, Anckorn, this meant white tie, top hat and tails.

Anckorn remembered one night when he had donned his Pierrot silks before he left his billet instead of in the cramped space at the performance hall to save time. So he walked through the dark night to the hall in his silks wearing his greatcoat that came down to his ankles over them. After the show, some local girls were in the dressing room being chatted up by the performers when one remarked that their costumes badly needed washing and pressing—and she volunteered to do it. So they handed over their costumes expecting their return the next day.

That left me in my underpants. And I didn’t mind because it was midnight now and by the time I walked back, no one will see me. 

And then, an air raid. Now it was the first air raid that place had ever heard. They weren’t bombing us, they were going to Glasgow or somewhere, but they came over, hundreds of them. And sirens went off. And so I thought, well, we’d better get back to the billet, because we were still soldiers. (In any action we’d have to do our stuff.) So I went back down the main street, with my greatcoat and underpants. And I could see the headlines in the paper: “Soldier killed in air raid with no clothes.” [Laughter] It didn’t happen; I got them back the next day.[vi]

TO BE CONTINUED, 7TH JULY 2021, 10AM.


[1] [1] E.N.S.A. stands for the Entertainments National Service Association, a civilian organization which sent performing troupes out to the troops. For the troops, the letters came to mean “Every Night Something Awful.”

[2] Anckorn would later write about Wycherly, “He was a brilliant accompanist. Although Appleton was a terrific pianist, Wycherly was there only to accompany Denis East. You could place any music in front of him and he would sight-read it at once. It always made me marvel, as he had tiny hands, and as I say was completely non-descript. He was hopeless as a soldier—always untidy, and several times in trouble, AWOL, etc. I think he must have been sent to us just to get rid of him. But put him in front of a keyboard and he was transformed. [Anckorn, Email, 8 August 2006] The singer, John Foster-Haigh, would later call Wycherly, “A gift from the Gods. [McNeilly, “Changi Celebrity Artists,” 2-3]

[3] A “flash” was the unit’s badge or insignia.


[i] East, Interview, 5.

[ii] Anckorn, Interview, 2-4; 6.

[iii] Thomas, Letter, 31 March 01.

[iv] Anckorn, Interview, 18.

[v] Anckorn, Email, 22 January 04.

[vi] Anckorn, Interview, 13.

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Full Source List for ‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties posts, here.

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

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