“The Cathay Players”

By Sears Eldredge

Anticipating the return of the remainder of “H” Force in late 1943, Ronald Horner was posted from Changi to Sime Road to encourage entertainments and to be their Officer in Charge. On 9 December, he wrote: “Am in charge of entertainments here, so far can’t get hold of a piano, but we have an open-air theatre that needs patching up, but has a natural auditorium of a grass bank that will hold 3 or 4,000.”[i]

Caricature of Ronald Horner. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at: www.changipowart.com

After what they had been through Up Country, the POWs at Sime Road were eager to purge their memories of that experience and release their energies in more positive activity, so Horner was able to quickly established a small concert party, “The Cathay Players,” and started to produce shows. Unfortunately, it was the rainy season, so shows were frequently rained out.[ii] But the weather cleared for Christmas and Horner noted that their holiday show “was a great success” with an audience of about 1,500 in attendance.[iii]  

Among the musicians and theatre performers at Sime Road was the artist, Ronald Searle, who recorded the playbill for a Variety Show that went up on January 9th. This document tells us who those first performers in the “Cathay Concert Party” were. The show opened with the “Attap Serenaders,” followed by the comedian Charlie ‘Arvey. Then came Bill Williams as a “personality vocalist” followed by the Dutch Illusionist, Trouvat. Next on the playbill came the blackface comic duo Long and Whelan, followed by the Australian cartoonist George Sprod singing, and closing with Australian “Professor” Alan Roberts.[iv]

Royal Air Force O.R. John Beckerley, who had been captured on Java, became good friends with Alan Roberts at Sime Road.

Alan Roberts: university lecturer and known by all as The Prof! Very small, you could tap him on the head when he got cross: most of the time. He was most intellectual and most scathing with those who were not: like most of us. I had a long face, [and] a disciplinarian—an Army Provost Marshal Major—also had a long face.  Known as Desperate Dan he also had a foot wide ginger moustache.  Alan Roberts wrote a funny sketch where I as a female fortuneteller complete with large glass ball telling his fortune: how he’s going to get his hands on the good goodies stored wherever. ‘Much fiddling’, I say to Alan’s delight. “Just what I want to hear,” says Alan. “How do I get my hands on it?” LIGHTS GO OUT. . . THEN ON. I’m standing before him complete with a foot wide ginger moustache. Alan, “Good God, Desperate Dan!” The major was not a friendly man . . . standing ovation for me.[v]

    “Desperate Dan”
Caricature of Alec Morris Dann.
Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.
View more of Desmond Bettany’s artwork at: www.changipowart.com

The next week, the Variety Show showcased Trouvat with a 20-minute hypnotism act. Thereafter, the concert party began to produce weekly shows on Saturday nights.

Also at Sime Road was a Dutch/Indonesian café called “The Flying Dutchman” in Hut #4 where you could buy coffee and Indonesian finger foods. Here is where Ronald Searle displayed his posters for shows as well as his costume designs and set renderings.[vi]

By 17 January, the concert party had acquired a piano but they still needed a curtain. And they had grown in number to the point where multiple shows were in rehearsal simultaneously. Horner reports, “I’m producing ‘Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean,’ we also have Shaw’s ‘Man of Destiny’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ in rehearsal as well as ideas for a ‘Ragbag Revue’ . . . Jap interpreter has asked for words and music of my ‘When we’re free’ song—as I haven’t yet sung it here, I wonder how he’s got to hear it.”[vii]

On the 24th, there was a piano recital by Bill Williams, which greatly impressed Australian POW James Boyle:

With us at Sime road was Bill Williams — a sergeant in the RAF and a man in a million. He too could keep the interest of his audience from his first number to the last, and seemed capable of catering for all tastes. Bill’s programs usually consisted of popular songs for which he played his own piano arrangements, interspersed with a dash of light classical.[viii]

On 27 January, Horner, pleased with what he had accomplished in way of entertainment, wrote, “The Sat. night variety shows are going with a great bang, we have about 2,000 [in attendance] each time. Sang ‘When we’re Free’ tonight and got the audience to join in.”[ix] Surprisingly enough, the Japanese interpreter who had been given the lyrics had not had the song banned.


[i] Horner, 115.

[ii] Horner, Ibid.

[iii] Horner, Ibid.

[iv] Searle, R. “Notebook,” n.p.

[v] Beckerley, J. Letter. 26 July 04.

[vi] Nielsen, Mrs. Jane Booker. Email 6/18/2015.

[vii] Horner, R. 118.

[viii] Boyle, 146-147.

[ix] Horner, 118.

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: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

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