The 18th Division Players

By Sears Eldredge

In response to the success of Malayan Command’s Arms and the Man (and perhaps a little sense of rivalry), 18th Div. H.Q. requested that Capt. Charles Wilkinson of the Northumberland Fusiliers, form a Dramatic Society.[1][i] Canvasing the 18th Division Area for an indoor location, the Entertainment Committee found a N.A.A.F.I.[2] building with a stage that, if it could be acquired, could be easily remodeled to fit their purposes.   

The N.A.A.F.I. building in the India Lines, Changi, Singapore.
Photograph by Capt. Charles Wilkinson.

Over in the Selarang Area, “The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party” had also located a potential indoor venue – the former gymnasium of the Gordon Highlanders – where they could perform additional shows. Here they could hold their audience’s attention for a longer period of time – fifty minutes rather than their half-hour tour shows. So, they put everyone and everything they could muster on stage—songs, instrumentalists, comedy sketches, a magic act, and a ballroom dance number, as well as the ventriloquist, Tom Hussey, with “Joey,” his dummy—for Sing As We Go, their first show in this new indoor locale.

Highlights of their next show, Cheerio, included a telepathy act with Syd Piddington and Russell Braddon that would become one of their great concert party acts,[3] and a piano duet by Herb Almond and Fred Stringer.                 

How these two pianos were “acquired” are intriguing stories. One piano – an upright – had been obtained without the Japanese knowing about it.

One night, some months later, a party of engineers, led by Sergeant Keith Stevens of the 2/12 Field Company, making use of one of the gaps in the fence, made their way stealthily to an unused building in the former British naval base, in which a piano had been discovered. Without anyone’s authority they took possession of the heavy Robinson upright and carried it through the scrub and swamps back to the camp, a distance of about two kilometres. This was a daring and highly dangerous exercise, for if the lads had been discovered outside the wire they probably would have been treated as escapees; and the usual penalty for attempting to escape was death.[4][ii] 

“The Piano.” Cartoon by George Sprod. Courtesy of Michael Sprod.

The other piano – a grand – was actually acquired with the help of the Japanese. Some Australians on a day-long working party cleaning up the debris at Raffles College of Singapore University found it. As Boardman tells the story,

Not a full size grand, but one of the intermediate sizes. And they said to the Japs, “Can we take it back?” And they couldn’t care less, you see. So to get it on the truck they had to take the legs off, and the pedal. And, of course, when you see a baby grand without those things, it’s just a flat box.

So they put it in there. And then some of them sat on it on the way back. And they came back, and they said, “Boardie, try this out!” And in front of the theatre was all cement. And to play it I had to kneel down. Somehow, they got the Cantonese to build some legs on it and put on its pedals — and we had two pianos then.[iii]

[1] Wilkinson was passionate about theatre and his diary recording the planning of shows, their rehearsals and performances, as well as his attendance at other productions, has been a godsend.

[2] Navy, Army, Air Force Institute. An education and recreation center.

[3] Piddington and his wife would continue this mind-reading act to great acclaim after the war.

[4] This is the treasured upright piano that the concert party would bring back with them to Australia after they had been liberated and now resides at the Australian War Memorial.

[i] Wilkinson, Diary, 3 June ‘42.

[ii] Boardman, J. “The Changi Piano – and the Little Organ – The True Story,” Legacy Torchlight, 8.

[iii] Boardman, J. Interview, 25.

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

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:

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