For the next year and a half, “The Optimists” Concert Party would tour to the 18th Division’s training facilities in the British Isles.
We were a bit like a circus [wrote Fergus Anckorn] in that we all lived together, travelled together and each had a job to do in erecting the stage, proscenium etc. We were entirely self-sufficient, with props, scenes, stage, lighting and sound. We travelled all over the country with the 18th Division, performing somewhere every night. We would arrive at about 5 pm and the show would start at 7:30 p.m. and finish about 10 p.m. If we were lucky, as in Edinburgh, Scotland, we would perform in one of the big theatres or cinemas.[i]
Like scavengers, the concert party “lived off the land,” Anckorn explained, supplementing their minimal equipment and furnishing when opportunities presented themselves.
And sometimes we would be performing in theaters and we would “accidentally” take some of their lighting home with us when we went. So we built up quite a stock of decent lighting and stuff like that . . .
And I remember in one place we went to an RAF establishment where they had their own theater. And they had electric curtains, you know, beautifully done that had been made by one of the fellows there. And the electric curtains were done with windscreen wiper motor from the car. So we borrowed that that night and went away with it. And this was a great thing, you know, after we’d left you’d get people looking for us, “Do you know where the concert party went?”[ii]
Anckorn had an endless fund of stories about their adventures on tour. One was the story of their stay at the Abbotsford Hotel in Melrose, Scotland, during the winter of 1940-1941, where it was so cold, they took up all the floorboards and burned them for warmth.
And one Old Dear saw us poor soldiers in the freezing cold—because you couldn’t turn the tap on and get water or anything, there was nothing, it was frozen solid—and she sent us a grand piano to amuse ourselves with. And that burned better than the normal floorboards. [Laughter] Disgusting, because it was a beautiful piano, and she gave it to us with no strings attached. We thought, good, let’s get warm tonight. All the keys, you know—ivory—it all burned beautifully. And that beautiful piano went the way of all the other things in that hotel.[iii]
Because the concert party was excused from daily fatigues and training exercises due to their rehearsals and nightly performances, they were resented by some of the troops for receiving preferential treatment. In order not to exacerbate the situation, they were billeted out of the way of the regular troops and slept in the top floor garret of the hotel. As Anckorn tells the story, one day General Beckwith-Smith held an inspection of the hotel and when he got to the garret, the Sergeant Major tried to prevent him from entering by telling him there was nothing to see in there.
And so the General said, “Well, what do you do in there, what is the room for?” “It’s the concert party.” “Oh, well, [let’s] see that.” So he opened it. And there we were, lying on the floor. And the Sergeant Major blew his top. [Anckorn mumbles words in an angry Sergeant Major’s voice, before returning to his own voice.] And the General said, “No, no, don’t wake them up. You know, that’s my concert party.” (He loved us.) And he wouldn’t let us be disturbed. So once again, there’s a Sergeant Major we had to look out on after that, because he’d been told off because of us.[iv]
“The Optimists”’ program for their show was the standard mixture of musical numbers, specialty acts, and comic sketches.
But our show would always start off with an Opening Chorus, with the band and everything, and us singing. Appleton was on the piano; Tonsley was on the drums, and . . . so we would start off with a rousing Chorus to introduce ourselves . . .
Hello everybody, how do you do?
We are here to please you, and you, and you.[v]
And then would be some sort of an introductory speech given by Oliver Thomas . . . and he would say, “Introducing Dennis East,” who would give a rousing couple of bars on the fiddle. “And Gus Anckorn (they called me Gus).” And then I would get up and produce four aces from someone’s head, you know—on the stage—we were sort of seated round tables as if we were in a cafe.
So that was how each one of us was introduced, so they knew who they were gonna get then, and they would be looking forward to one or the other of us.
And then the show proper would start. Someone would come and do a specialty act . . . one of us, me, the violinist, or Oliver Thomas . . . interspersed with blackout sketches . . . most of sketches were blackout sketches.
“Blackouts” were a type of comic sketch where the punch line was delivered as the last line of the sketch and was immediately followed by the lights being doused. The punch line anticipated a delayed response in the audience, so their laughter on “getting it” would take place in the blackout which only reinforced the humor.
Another sketch—this one devised by Anckorn—involved Anckorn being a PT Instructor in the Army. (Knowing that he would be inducted if war broke out, Anckorn had prepared himself for dealing with all the “beastly men” he was going encounter in the Army by learning jujitsu.) The setup for the sketch involved the audience being told that they were going to see a jujitsu demonstration that been captured on film, but since the projector had broken down, it could only be shown it in slow-motion. And then Anckorn and Rich Goodman performed all of the jujitsu moves, including the throws over the head, in slow-motion which required tremendous strength and balance.
So these shows were a mishmash of specialty acts . . . singing . . . sketches, and plays. And I think most of us had two spots. I used to do a slight of hand spot and then a bigger thing, you know, bigger magic. Oliver Thomas would do a different lot of impression of people than he did the first act. Dennis would play some more tunes. So I think we all had an encore in the second half of the show.
Concert parties always tried to end with a rousing finish.
We’d get up in the front and sing our song, you know, “Goodbye to you, you, you, you, you, and you, and you”—that sort of thing. And then away we would go.
And, as we had an officer with us, of course, he would always be invited to the Officer’s Mess, or wherever we were, for drinks in the evening. And he would say, “Well, what about my lads?” And they’d say, “Well bring them in as well.”[vi]
About nine months into their tour, the civilian Producer left the show and was replaced by Lt. John J. Mackwood: “a sort of actor, very show-bizzy sort of little man, and he brought his wife into the show.” Mackwood had been granted special permission to bring his wife, Marianne, and another actress (“some sort of soubrette” whose name Anckorn couldn’t remember) into the concert party. These two brought the Optimists what it had been missing and had always been an essential component of military concert parties—the presence of female figures and “glamour.” In most military concert parties, the feminine presence was provided by female impersonators.[vii]
After a year of performing the same show night after night for a year, the concert party decided to develop a new totally production.
So we did another one—got that ready. And there was a song called “Sad Sunday,” or some such song. . . . And people used to commit suicide with a copy of that in their hand–“ Gloomy Sunday” . . . if they were going to commit suicide for some reason or the other they’d be playing that record or a copy in their hand.
And we put this in our show. And the officer [Mackwood] said, “Look, we don’t want this.” (Our officer was a very superstitious man.) “No, that’s a jinx, don’t—there’s a jinx in that. If we do that, the show will close down.” We said, “Ridiculous!” So that went in. And opening night was in the north of England . . . and it was the closing night. Word came through, “Everyone back to your Units.” We had to go. And our officer said, “I told you.”[viii]
With the recall to their units, they soon found themselves in late October embarking with the rest of the 18th Division at Liverpool for their voyage to the Middle East. Before they sailed, Anckorn was summoned by a Colonel and told, “We want you to bring all your conjuring stuff, ‘cause you’re going to entertain us when we’re in the desert.” Anckorn explained that he hadn’t any with him and was given a considerable sum of money to acquire some before they sailed. Placing an emergency call to the Magic Shop in London he had always dealt with, Anckorn told the clerk that he needed some magic tricks in a hurry and it was impossible for him to get to London. When the clerk learned that Anckorn was in Liverpool, he guessed why he was there and told Anckorn he would see what he could do.
The next day there was a box of magic in Liverpool. There was no way you could . . . there were no trains. I don’t know how it got there, but there it was: “Gunner Anckorn.” And it was all this beautiful stuff.
And I thought, well, I’m not going to open it; we’re just going to get on that ship. It might get torpedoed, anything. . . . I know once we’re on that tub, you know, 3,000 of us, I’ll die. So I’m not opening this box, and I’ll open it up when we get to the desert and perhaps start doing shows.
And then, off we went, through the north Atlantic with three little corvettes to take a whole convey with [German] submarines and dive bombers all over the place.[ix]
NEXT POST IN SERIES: 21st JULY 2021, 10AM
[i] Anckorn, Letter, 2 May 00.
[ii] Anckorn, Interview, 18.
[iii] Anckorn, Interview, 7.
[iv] Anckorn, Interview, 7-8.
[v] Anckorn, Email, 19 Jan. 04.
[vi] Anckorn, Interview, 14-18 passim
[vii] Anckorn, Email, 8 August 06.
[viii] Anckorn, Interview, 19.
[ix] Anckorn, Interview, 20.
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