Category Archives: British Pre-War Concert Parties

Singapore/Malayan Concert Parties, “Stand Easy”: The Singapore Services Entertainment Committee Concert Party Part 3

By Sears Eldredge

27 November, was spent getting word through to Penang about the “Stand Easy” Concert Party’s arrival there on the 28th.  At Sungei Patani, as time for the evening show approached, the women were late for their call, claiming that their transport had broken down: “a coincidence,” Thorpe wryly observed, “which seemed to occur with monotonous regularity.”[i] But the two shows that evening played to packed houses: “Everything worked like clockwork, and we had a wonderful reception.”[ii]

The next day the company arrived at Penang, located on an island off the coast, having taken the ferry there from Butterworth. (The East Surrey Regimental Band did not accompany them to Penang but had returned to their base at Alor Star.) Their show the following night, 29 November, was to be performed in the theatre at the Gulgor Institute.  Here, again, there was confusion regarding their accommodations. In spite of arrangements having already been made, Lt. Morison telephoned the luxury Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang and booked rooms for himself, Thorpe, and the ladies. 

Publicity flyer for the “Stand Easy” Concert Party. Courtesy of Leofric Thorpe.

When they woke up the next morning, they discovered that all troops in Penang had suddenly been recalled to barracks. The international situation in the Far East had seriously worsened overnight but all that the public was told was that the recall was a “purely normal precaution taken in view of the present situation.”[iii] So instead of performing for the troops as intended, “Stand Easy” would be performed for the civilian populace in Penang.

That night Thorpe and Gwillim had everything ready for the show, but when “Beginners” was called (the Stage Manager’s call notifying actors that they should be on stage for the opening number) all the O.R.s were present, but not Morison and the two women: “Lt. Morison and the ladies had not arrived when there were only five minutes to go before the show. I was in a real panic, and knew nothing about them. I could not get through on the telephone, and I was worried that taxies had been impressed by the Government and had not been available.”[iv]  

In desperation Thorpe quickly started revising the program putting himself in as Compere. At the very last minute, the others arrived complaining that the taxi promised by Gwillim had not arrived as scheduled, even though everyone had been told earlier to arrange their own transportation. In spite of these difficulties, the show went quite well—with two exceptions. Just as the curtain closed after Pearson’s solo number, he collapsed from exhaustion. He later revived and was able to accompany Arthur Butler later in the show when the second problem occurred. 

The audience were enjoying the show very much, but were much more boisterous than usual. During Butler’s female impersonations, they gave a lot of laughter and cackling from one section of the audience. Later I found that it was the cook sergeant who was drunk. Butler eventually walked off the stage and refused to continue work that evening. We put the next turn on almost at once, and not much damage was done. Butler was the most temperamental as well as one of the best artists in the cast.[v]

The next day, 30 November, a review of “Stand Easy” appeared in the Penang Gazette which said, among other laudatory comments,

Nothing more appropriate, breezy and elevating could have been devised and presented for the amusement of the lads in the Service. Definitely, it is an antidote for the “bloody-mindedness” among troops who see nothing but rubber trees for weeks and months. . .. No words of praise are too high for these artists. They are devoting their talents and energy for the benefit of the troops, but they can derive gratification from the knowledge that it is a jolly and topping show.[vi]    

Since all the troops had been confined to barracks, the concert party would not have an audience that evening for their second set of performances. Instead Gwillim was asked if they might put on a show for non-commissioned officers that night in the Sergeant’s Mess. Unable to speak to Morison and the ladies because they had gone off for the day to visit a local tourist attraction, Thorpe spoke to the rest of the cast and they agreed to do this special show. He arranged the program and they had their first chance to rehearse an Opening Chorus since they had been on tour. The show in the Sergeant’s Mess that night was very successful and Butler in a forgiving mood went over to the Canteen and performed his act for the lower rank O.R.s.

The next day, 1 December, Nella Wingfiled, left the concert party claiming that she was worn out. Capt. Horsfield, their volunteer helper from Alor Star, was recalled to his unit. And instead of checking on their own status with their HQ back in Singapore, the remaining members of the “Stand Easy” company moved on, as scheduled, to their next stop, Ipoh. On 2 December, the scenery was unloaded and set up in the auditorium at the Chinese High School in Ipoh. But as the crisis in the Far East deepened, they decided they had better “check up on the future of the Show” with their Headquarters in Singapore. Thorpe: “Lt Morison spoke to Colonel Hill, who said that we had been called back some time ago. Where the message went, I do not know.”[vii] Cables were immediately sent notifying the other scheduled sites of the tour’s cancellation. Then, as it was too late to catch the afternoon train, it was decided that they would leave early the next morning, 3 December, at 0212. In the meantime, Gwillim saw to having the settings and equipment crated up and sent back to Singapore. That night the concert party gave their final show in the O.R.’s Mess to the Malay Volunteers who had also been called to active duty. After the show, all the members of the concert party left on the train for Kuala Lumpur, except for Morison and the sisters who traveled by car, arriving there at 0700 hrs. the next morning. At Kuala Lumpur, the “Stand Easy” Concert Party disbanded: some to their units near Kuala Lumpur; others to Singapore. But Morison and the two Tennen sisters stayed over night in Kuala Lumpur before returning to Singapore, claiming they were too tired to travel any further.[viii] Upon his return to Singapore, Thorpe immediately started to write his exhaustive Official Report of the concert party tour.

RICE AND SHINE, BRITISH PRE-WAR CONCERT PARTIES CONTINUES, 29TH SEPTEMBER 2021, 10AM


[i] Thorpe, Report, 16.

[ii] Thorpe, Report, 16.

[iii] Sunday Gazette, No. 48, Vol. 16, Sunday, November 30, 1941, 1.

[iv] Thorpe, Report, 17.

[v] Thorpe, Report, 18.

[vi] Penang Gazette, n.d.

[vii] Thorpe, Report, 19.

[viii] Thorpe, Report, 19-20.

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

Singapore/Malayan Concert Parties, “Stand Easy”: The Singapore Services Entertainment Committee Concert Party, Part 2

By Sears Eldredge

Lt. Morison himself would Compère the Singapore Services Entertainment Committee Concert Partyshow. Counting Morison, Thorpe, and Gwillim, the concert party numbered thirteen. All members of the concert party, except Gwillim, were expected to participate in the comic sketches as needed. Their troupe would be officially known as “The Singapore Services Entertainment Committee Concert Party.”

There was little time for rehearsal before they were due to leave Singapore and Morison had made no plans for the Opening Chorus and Finale—those parts of the show in which all the members of the company traditionally participated—so Thorpe suggested that that these be selected and rehearsed on the train to Kuala Lumpur.

I also suggested that we had a Coffee Stall[1] constructed, and had a Finale with the cast round it, in various attires. Buskers to come on, give short turns, and get sent off by a policeman. Finally, the policeman to be carried off by the cast, and return dancing the Lambeth Walk with the Proprietress of the Stall, and the whole Company—accompaniment from several accordions and a piano.[i]  

Morison agreed to these suggestions, and then blithely announced, “You can leave Singapore on Friday 21 Nov when you like, I am going by road with the ladies.”[ii] With Morison and “the ladies” traveling by automobile, any rehearsal of the full cast on the train to Kuala Lumpur was now out of the question.

Their show was called, “Stand Easy: A Military Cocktail.” (“Stand Easy” is the British Army command for “At ease.”) Leaving Singapore at 1900 hrs on 21 November, they arrived in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of the Malayan Federation, the next morning. That day was spent getting travel documents in order. Here L/Bdrs Pearson and Butler joined the group but Quinton and Rackstraw had not been notified about the departure, and their Commanding Officer proved quite intransigent about releasing them from their units. It finally took a personal call from Thorpe to their G.O.C., Major General Keith Simmons back in Singapore, to do the trick.  Simmons insisted that he “wanted all the necessary artists to accompany us, and that he would arrange for both.”[iii] That night they were off by train from Kuala Lumpur to Alor Star [Alor Setar], the northern most encampment in Malaya. During the journey, the performers entertained the occupants of the buffet car till close to midnight. Then Thorpe persuaded Morison that they should “work out a suitable running order for a show of this nature, and it was not until 0300 hrs that I had written the final draft ready to give it to Sgt. Gwillim next morning to have printed at Alor Star by the evening.”[iv]  

The schedule called for the “Stand Easy” Concert Party to begin its tour with performances at Alor Star on 1 & 2 December, 1941, and then work its way back down the west coast of the Malay Peninsula concluding with a show at Kuala Lumpur on 8 and 9 December. The company arrived at Pari Station—the nearest train station to Alor Star—at 0610 on 1 December, and then had to be transported by lorry to the town of Alor Star that was more than seventy miles away. When the lorries with their equipment arrived at the Alor Star Cinema where they were to perform that night, Thorpe immediately started to unpack and set up the stage. He was helped by Capt. Horsfield and his crew from the military base. At one point, Thorpe went off to talk with a Mr. Hanley, the Bandmaster of the East Surrey Regimental Band, who agreed to provide the Overture and Interval music for their show. 

Plans had been made for a rehearsal late that afternoon before the first show, but Morison and the “girls” showed up late, so this “rehearsal was really rather a farce, but those who were uncertain what parts they were taking were informed and as no one has to say more than a line or two in any black-out, they were able to memorize these.”[v]   

Having worked all day to get the stage ready for performance, Thorpe only had fifteen minutes to wash his face and put on makeup before the overture began. Because no Opening Chorus by the full company had been rehearsed, the show opened with “Two Hits And A Miss” with Nella, Frankie, and George. There followed a typical concert party playbill of solo turns and comic sketches, such as “The Letter” with Ken Morison as “The Soldier,” and Babs Tenner as “The Temptress”; “Seeing Stars” with “Gloria d’Earie” impersonating famous female performers; and “Accordeonly Yours,” with Nella Wingfield.  Babs did her Hula Dance after the Interval.  And for the Finale, the full company, without any prior rehearsal, performed the “Coffee Stall” number, “At The Dolly Varden.”  

Without the necessary rehearsals, their first show did not go well. Thankfully, the house was only half full, as the troops had just returned from a military exercise and none of the posters sent from Singapore had been put up. And, as this was the troupe’s first real runthrough of the show, the volunteer stage hands were totally in the dark about their duties backstage.

The show ended at 2115 hrs., and Thorpe, Gwillim, and their novice crew had forty-five minutes to strike the “Coffee Stall” set and reset the stage for the opening of their second show which would begin at 2200 hrs. By this time word of mouth about the show had spread and the house for the second show was full of entertainment-hungry troops. When the second show ended shortly after midnight, it had been deemed a “tremendous success.”

But this was not the end of the bungling for the day. Morison had again fouled up Thorpe’s accommodation arrangements for the company, so there was one final round of incompetence for Thorpe and Gwillim to endure and straighten out. 

The second day at Alor Star went much better: “During the morning, the dhobie [wash] was collected, and dresses were pressed ready for the evening show. The Sergt in the Band had arranged to borrow a piano from Chinese School, and the men went off to collect it.”  By the time the cast was due at the cinema, it had started to rain heavily but that didn’t dampen the attendance or the success of the two shows that night: “Two more excellent performances were given, and the audiences were hysterical in their appreciation. They were not only packing the hall and sitting tightly in the gangways, but also were standing outside in the rain eight deep, sheltered only by their groundsheets.”[vi] The Brigadier General in charge at Alor Star gave a speech of appreciation after the show and invited everyone in the cast to the Officers’ Mess. But only Morison, the ladies, Sgt. Gwillim, Rackstraw, Quinton, and Thorpe went so as not to offend the General as they needed his approval to take the Regimental Band with them to their next stop. Rackstraw and Quinton performed at the party which broke up about 0330 hrs.[vii]

The most gratifying thing the following morning was finding out how the show had been enjoyed. One could stand and listen in any direction, and everywhere our songs were being sung and whistled, and our jokes repeated.  It was obvious that the Concert Party had fulfilled the sponsors’ object.[viii]

Their next stop was Sungei Patani—again for two shows a night on two successive days, 26, 27 November. Here, again, there was a mix-up in their accommodations and the O.R.’s were assigned to huts, with no beds, mosquito nets, or lights. When Gwillim returned to the huts, he “found the men in a very disconsolate state, and saying that they would prefer to find what accommodation they could in the town, and return to Singapore the following day.” Gwillim informed Morison and Thorpe of the crisis and they went to talk to the men. L/Cpl Laurie Allison, an Australian who had joined the British Army before the war, came to the rescue. He was a member of Thorpe’s own Fortress Signals Company on detached service in Sungei Patani. He and Peter Gwillim were good friends.  

When the concert party arrived, they were scheduled to billet with the Leicesters but did not like the setup there and asked to billet at the Volunteer Drill Hall. Because I could speak Malay, the RSM asked me to arrange and supervise their bedding, etc., aided by the Malay soldiers. 

They seemed to be in a bit of a mess, so I arranged staggered meals so that they could all be fed in between their various tasks. I ran the Volunteer’s Officer’s mess and also had appointed times for officers and the rest of the concert party.[ix]

The next day Allison saw to it that their costumes were washed and pressed on time, though “Butler had spent the day ironing clothes, until the iron fused, and then he dashed into town to get it repaired.”[x] At 1630 the East Surry Regimental Band arrived from Alor Star as requested, but Gwillim had been so busy that “they were not well catered for” and the musicians grumbled about their treatment. Capt. Horsfield, who had provided skilled labor for the concert party at Alor Star, recognized that the group was seriously understaffed, so he obtained a leave and arrived to help out. Allison arranged a buffet for the crew in an attap shed back of the stage, as they had spent all day getting the stage put up in the drill hall, but this was mistakenly consumed by members of the audience during the Interval, who thought the refreshments had been arranged for them. The first show at Sungei Patani went well even though there had been a lighting emergency: “Early in the show the main fuse put in by the electric coy[2] blew, leaving the stage in darkness. Van der Creusen was working at the time, and continued with his vocal act in the dark, and as I was prepared for this emergency, the lights were on inside a minute.”[xi]

TO BE CONTINUED, 15TH SEPTEMBER 2021, 10AM


[1] The “Coffee Stall” Scene was a famous routine written for “The Co-Optimists” Concert Party’s first show in 1921. It probably had earlier roots in the Music Halls.

[2] Military term for “company.”


[i] Thorpe, Report, 5.

[ii] Thorpe, Report, 3.

[iii] Thorpe, Report, 10.

[iv] Thorpe, Report, 10.

[v] Thorpe, Report, 11.

[vi] Thorpe, Report, 13.

[vii] Thorpe, Report, 13.

[viii] Thorpe, Report, 13.

[ix] Allison, Email, 17 August 2004.

[x] Thorpe, Report, 15.

[xi] Thorpe, Report, 15.

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

Singapore/Malayan Concert Parties, “Stand Easy”: the Singapore Services Entertainment Committee Concert Party

By Sears Eldredge

In November, 1941, Major Leofric Thorpe of Singapore Fortress Signals became involved with a concert party which toured the forward British bases in the more remote areas of Malaya. Afterwards he wrote an extensive Official Report of his experiences on this tour from which the following is taken.[1] The report was written not only to detail what happened during the tour for its sponsors and the Entertainment Committee, but to educate the readers about the proper makeup of a military concert party and the need for someone to be designated as Officer in Charge/Producer of any future parties who could provide the proper organization and leadership—which had clearly been lacking on this first tour.

For anyone who has ever toured a show, Thorpe’s report is very familiar and extremely humorous, filled, as it is, with stories of incompetence, turf wars, unforeseen mishaps, mishandling of funds, and miscommunications. But given the context of the terrible events about to engulf East and Southeast Asia in a war with the Japanese, it reads like a commentary on the unreadiness of the British forces in Malaya just before hostilities broke out. At the same time, though, it reveals the ability of Thorpe and the concert party performers to triumph over administrative bungling and put on a series of successful shows for the entertainment-hungry troops.

Even though Thorpe’s report was an official one, it is not without bias. Thorpe takes every opportunity to point out to his readers (the sponsors and the Entertainment Committee) the incompetence of the man they had put in place as Producer—the position Thorpe thought he should have had.

Major Leofric Thorpe had been posted from India to Singapore in September 1939. Soon after his arrival, he became involved with a local amateur theatre group called “The Island Committee,” comprised of rubber brokers, tin miners, solicitors, and other British colonials—and also military personnel from the units stationed in and around Singapore, especially the huge military garrison at Changi. During the next two years, Thorpe became firmly entrenched at The Island Committee as Honorary Secretary & Treasurer as well as the Stage Manager for their productions. In early 1941, in addition to their regular season of comedies and revues, Thorpe instigated the development of a series of concert parties under the title, “Fun Fare: A Roundabout of Mirthful Entertainment,” to tour the local military installations. One item on the bill was Thorpe performing a solo piece called, “Saving the Petrol Ration”: “I did my after-dinner night act of riding a one-wheel cycle, and juggling either with three Indian clubs or with five billiard balls.”[i]

Leofric Thorpe (on the right) at an Island Committee cocktail party in Singapore before the war. Courtesy of Colonel Thorpe.

Towards the end of October, 1941, Thorpe heard about plans by a new group, the Singapore Services Entertainment Committee, to form a concert party to “entertain the troops in the rubber” – those troops guarding the isolated rubber plantations run by British colonials in Northern Malaya. It was to be funded by a local Singaporean brewery and the Singapore Cold Storage Company. Thorpe believed his two-year involvement with The Island Committee made him an ideal choice as Officer in Charge for such a touring company. But that was not to be:

“At the production of ‘Fun Fare’ at the Alexandra Hospital on 30 October, Lieut. Morison, who was working as compère in the show, announced that he had been selected by Command to be Officer i/c Concert Party, and was shortly to make a tour of the units to whom it was intended to give the show.”[ii]

The rationale given for denying Thorpe the leadership position was that his rank of Major was too high for an Entertainment Officer. He thought there might be other reasons as well.   

It was probably assumed that as Lieut. Morison had worked on the Stage in England as compère in a number of Concert Parties, that he was a suitable man for the position. Actually this was not necessarily the case, for only a few of the qualifications have anything to do with actual work as an actor.[iii]

Because of his work with The Island Committee, Thorpe was well-connected with the civilian authorities in Singapore, and it’s hard to believe that he didn’t complain vociferously to those he knew who were members of the Services Entertainment Committee. All he admits in his report is that he “accompanied the Touring Party as a result of a conversation with Inspector Blake, at the Victoria Theatre on 16 Nov.”[iv] (Inspector Blake was a member of the Singapore Straits Police and an important member of the Entertainment Committee.) As compensation, Thorpe was given the multiple roles of Stage Director, Stage Manager, and Accountant, and L/Cpl. Peter Gwillim, who had worked with Thorpe at The Island Committee, would be his indispensable clerical assistant. 

As a portent of troubles ahead, Thorpe and Gwillim learned that Morison, who had supposedly made a preliminary reconnaissance of the tour sites, had not filed any report on his return concerning vital technical information about the theatres and/or halls in which they would perform. He had, in fact, not visited all the prospective sites.

Absolute measurements of stages, prosceniums, etc were essential as the equipment to be taken from Singapore depended on these facts. Unfortunately, I had nothing to go on . . . Gwillim and I later had to arrange everything, even down to commodes and toilet paper, with very little time in which to do it. In the end I took the equipment of the Island Committee, which took up about 31 crates and boxes. Lt Morison could not even tell me where there were mains or the voltages. [v]

Nor, they would discover, had Morison made any arrangements with the local base commanders in Malaya regarding the concert party’s needs for housing, additional manpower to help setup and work backstage during the show, or additional equipment. 

And then there was the matter of the staff needed to produce a successful tour show. From his years of experience in the military and in amateur theatre, Thorpe had firm views on how a concert party should be conceived and operated if it was going to be successful: “Just as a Signal Unit is composed of a suitable number of Operators, Fitters, Linemen, Clerks, etc., so must a Concert Party have an Advance Business Manager, who goes round one stage ahead of the Company, a Stage Manager, a Producer, an Electrician, and a Carpenter.”[vi] Thorpe goes on to insist,

Here I should explain that the Mechanics of a Concert Party is equally important as the production of the show itself. It is only the method of presentation of a show which can raise it from the “entertaining the troops”, which is one of the horrors of modern war, to Theatre. It is absolutely necessary to create the atmosphere of the theatre. The audiences must feel that it is in a theatre, not in the dining room or some other place that it is very tired of seeing.[vii]  

But Morison had not allowed for any Stage Staff to be included in the composition of the concert party. When Thorpe learned of this omission, it was too late to do anything about it, so it would be up to him (along with members of the cast and any untrained troops detailed to crew work at each site) to get the staging set up. Though Thorpe knew that L/Cpl Gwillim would have enough to do with the administrative side of the tour, Thorpe was forced to ask him to take on the additional responsibilities of Property Master and Assistant Stage Manager.[viii]  

In order to have more authority in working with the other O.R’s [Other Ranks] and function at the sites in the Sergeant’s Mess,Gwillim requested that he be temporarily made a Sergeant. This was originally denied by the Committee on the grounds, “that it was not necessary to have anyone in disciplinary charge of the party, as it would be a ‘happy family’.” Thorpe knew otherwise.

This I knew to be a mistake because the ‘happy family’ was to be faced with some extremely long hours of very hard and monotonous work, and being in many cases temperamental, I realized that occasions would arise when a leader would be required, though his strongest weapon would be tack rather than the Army Act.[ix]   

With Thorpe’s persistent urgings, Gwillim eventually did receive his temporary promotion to Sergeant.

Thorpe also had strong convictions on the range of talents needed to cast a successful touring concert party: “The Cast must contain a Low Comedian, and a Comedienne, an Ingénue, a Compère, at least one Dancer, several singers and instrumentalists, suitable people to play light and heavy parts in Sketches. Two Pianists are needed.”[x] But to Thorpe dismay, Lt. Morison had already chosen the members of the cast before Major Thorpe had been assigned to the company—some by audition and others he simply appointed—with little regard to the need for balance and variety among the limited number of performers permitted on the tour. 

Morison had selected a group of seven Other Ranks along with three civilian women: “To my horror I found that two untrained girls were to accompany the party, Babs and Hilda Tennen, who had never worked on any Stage in their lives, and who were, as far as I could see, merely going to have a holiday at the expense of the sponsors.”[xi] Thorpe got Morison to promise that Babs, who had once done an “after dinner” Hula Dance, would take lessons at a local dance studio before they left on tour. The other woman in the cast was (Mrs.) Nella Wingfield, an actress and accordion player. 

Frankie Quinton (on the left) and friends in Singapore before the war. Courtesy of Mrs. Frankie Quinton.

Among the O. R.s were Frankie Quinton, an accomplished accordion player; Fred Rackstraw, who did tongue twisters and “character studies;” Van de Creusen, another accordion player; Harry Pearson, who did impersonations; the pianist, George Rushby; Johnnie Thomas, a singer; and the female impersonator, Arthur Butler, “who was already well-known on the concert states of Malaya as Miss Gloria d’Earie.”[xii]   

Pre-war photograph of Glorie d’Earie [Arthur Butler] standing outside his barracks in Singapore. Courtesy of R. T. Knight & Pamela Knight.

On 23 July 1941, had Butler appeared as an item with photograph in Vera Adrmore’s gossip column, “People & Places,” in the Malayan Morning Star. He was scheduled to perform “her impersonations act” at a birthday party for two women. Wray Gibson would also be present with his accordion.[xiii]   

According to Tom Wade, Bombardier Arthur Butler “was slim and gracious, with small features and ardent brown eyes. He was always known as Gloria and the jokes about him were almost as numerous as they once use to be about Mae West. It was said that when he gave an order to the gunmen in his battery, they would always reply, “Yes, darling’.”[2][xiv] Stories about his escapades as “Gloria d’Earie” in Singapore abound. One anonymous source wrote that Butler, “undertook, on one occasion, to spend, dressed as a woman, an afternoon and evening in the city visiting Raffles Hotel and meeting people without being recognised as a man. And he got away with it.”[xv] Another, by “Tiny” Knight, was that Butler, who was an amateur boxing champion, flattened some sailor who tried to pick him up on one of his “drag” forays into Singapore.[3]

TO BE CONTINUED, 1ST SEPTEMBER 2021, 10AM


[1] A copy of the report was given by Thorpe to this writer.

[2] This has got to be misremembered. The reply was surely, “Yes, dearie.”

[3]Told to this writer by “Tiny” Knight during a meeting at Tamarkan, Thailand, in 1998.


[i] Thorpe, Letter, 26 Sept. 2002.

[ii] Thorpe, “Stand Easy” Report, 1.

[iii] Thorpe, Report, 1.

[iv] Thorpe, Report, 3.

[v] Thorpe, Report, 2.

[vi] Thorpe, Report, 4.

[vii] Thorpe, Report, 2.

[viii] Thorpe, Report, 4.

[ix] Thorpe, Report, 3.

[x] Thorpe, Report, 4.

[xi] Thorpe, Report, 4.

[xii] Wade, Prisoner of the Japanese, 46.

[xiii] Malayan Morning Star, Tuesday, July 23, 1941, 4. Clipping courtesy of Stephanie Hess.

[xiv] Wade, Prisoner of the Japanese, 46.

[xv] Anonymous, 43.

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

88th & 137th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, 11th Indian Division

By Sears Eldredge

On 25/26 November, members of the 88th and 137th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery (Support Units for the 11th Indian Division) aboard the “Dominion Monarch” in an earlier convoy, produced an elaborate concert party as they sailed across the Indian Ocean towards Singapore. Its aim was not only to help the men pass the time, but bolster their patriotism. An Entertainments Committee had been formed chaired by Padre Hosklin with Major Cary Owtram, 2nd Lt. Morley Jenkins, and several other officers and men, along with a civilian, Mr. Raymond, and Sister McGuire, as representative of the Nursing Sisters on board.

Programme cover for I Remember. Courtesy of Eve Allum.

Their show was a revue with the evocative title, I Remember. It was a first-class production with scenery, costumes—even wigs—and a cast of more than twenty-five singers, musicians, and other entertainers, featuring “Ace” Connolly and his Band, the “Kings of Swing.” Besides soldiers (and the lone civilian, Mr. Raymond), the cast included four female nurses[1] in a series of songs and comic sketches, one of the latter involving two Sisters and two Lieutenants, in “Temptation.” (With thousands of soldiers and a small group of Nurses confined together on a ship for months at a time, this sketch probably had very pointed topical allusions.)  

One soldier, who took the stage name “Akki” (but was really Bombardier Ackhurst), did a series of imitations in “Faces I Remember.” Two Indian soldiers—perhaps brothers[2]–performed in a large-cast number entitled, “Capetown,” which had been their last port of call. Major Owtram, himself, sang “Rose of England.” And Lance Bombardier Bob Gale, a member of “The Kings of Swing” Band, wrote three original songs for the show, one of which, “Distance Makes No Difference,” underscored another “message” of the revue. Gale also appeared onstage with his trio, “The Rhythm Breakers.”[3]

The next to last number on the bill was a rousing patriotic number, “Dominion’s Parade,” which included representatives of the British Commonwealth on stage promoting the theme of the show—the preservation of the Empire. Following the Finale, the audience, as the custom was, stood and joined the entertainers in singing “The King.”

RICE AND SHINE, BRITISH PRE-WAR CONCERT PARTIES CONTINUES, 18TH AUGUST 2021, 10AM


[1] Sisters Ingham, Adams, Woodman, and Hill.

[2] Sergeants. J. & A. Bhumgara.

[3] Including Gunners Goodwin and Winchester. 

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, 5510

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

9th Battalion, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers

By Sears Eldredge

Walker, a member of the 9th Battalion, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, was on the “Warwick Castle,” a luxury liner turned troopship in the 18th Div. convoy. He had been an entertainer in his unit’s concert parties during their training back in England. As they zigzagged across the Atlantic to thwart German submarines on the first leg of its journey to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Walker was asked by their Padre “to arrange a night of entertainment” to relieve the boredom. He approached his friend, Tommy Craggie, to play his “buxom daughter.” Though he had never been on stage before, Craggie jumped at the chance. From his love of the old time British Music Hall and Variety shows, Walker devised a two-part comedy sketch for performance in their main Mess Hall on 5 November. 

The scene, as he described it, took place in a poor household where the father is laboring over his “Football Pools Coupon.”[1] While he is trying to figure his odds, in bounces his “darling daughter, Genevieve (Tommy), who announces that she is going hiking with her boy-friend and will be sleeping at Youth Hostels.” The father, quite concerned that the boyfriend might take advantage of his innocent daughter, warns her not to let him kiss her or let him into her room “as your mother will be worrying.” The daughter promises not to let either of these things happen and she then leaves with her father’s blessing: “Off you go then and be a good girl!”

Time passes. The father is still enthralled with betting options when Genevieve returns with the news that she had had a wonderful time on her hike. When the father inquires whether she had let her boyfriend kiss her, Genevieve replies that she hadn’t. When he asks whether the boyfriend had tried to get into her room, she replied,

“Yes, he did Daddy but I knew my mother would be worrying, so I stopped him.”

“Good girl!”

“So I went to HIS room and let HIS mother do the worrying!”

After “that corny joke,” Walker wrote, “we descend into Victorian Melodrama.” 

In high dudgeon over the shame his daughter has brought on the family, he sends her out into the snow “never to darken my door again!” But before she goes, he asks her if she has any money.  

Daughter plucks a wad of paper money out of her stocking cap.

Dtr. I have L500 Daddy.

Pa: Genevieve! Wherever have you been?

Dtr. On the Barrack Road, Daddy.

Pa: On the Barrack Road! With those Northumberland Fusiliers!?[2]

Daughter, have you been a good girl?

Dtr: Daddy, to get L500 out of those Fusiliers — Yuh GOTTA be good!

This punch line was followed by a quick curtain. And then the scene changed to one year later. Pa is still trying to forecast football results but agonizes over his daughter out there in the cruel world. He goes to the door and opens it to find a raging snowstorm and delivers his important cue line, “Not a fit night for man nor beast!”

Silence!  And then louder: NOT A FIT NIGHT FOR MAN NOR BEAST!  Whereupon a mass of newspaper ‘snowflakes’ smack him in the puss! 

This was a take-off on an old melodrama scenic device of having a Property Man offstage throw shredded newspaper in the door to simulate “snowflakes.” At this point Walker drops out of character and speaks directly to his audience,

“You take these guys out of Skid Row, give them a career in Special Effects, and this is the thanks you get . . .  Ah, Newcastle playing Sunderland. A cert draw . . . but back to the drama. . . List, oh list to the wind howling around the housetops, like a dead body being dragged along the floor (I’ll get an Oscar for this lot) And to think that it is one-year ago this very night that I cast my darling daughter, Genevieve, out into that cruel world. Will she ever come back to me, ever forgive me?”

The father repeats his actions at the door, but this time he suddenly hears footsteps approaching through the snow. The Daughter appears “clutching a bundle to her breast.” 

“Daddy, I have come home and brought you a little grandson!”

Pa and daughter embrace in tearful scene.

“But daughter, where did this little baby come from?”

“His name is Benny, Daddy, and he came from Heaven.”

“From Heaven?”

“Yes Daddy, ‘Benny’s from Heaven’” (Sings last three words)

Pa (sings) “I’ve been to all the neighbours,

                       called all over town,

                      but none remember Benny,

                      coming down.”

Dtr (sings): “The only thing that I can say is, ‘Benny’s from Heaven”’. [3]

Pa: You’re lying. Give that poor little innocent child to me. Let me gaze upon the face of my grandson. (He holds the babe and uncovers its face. The face is black.)

“The Northumberland Fusiliers??? She’s been out with the King’s African Rifles!!!”

END.[i]

At Halifax, they were secretly transferred to transport ships of the U.S. Navy which would carry them as far as India. The original intention had been to send the 18th Division to the Middle East—they had been training in Britain for months for desert warfare. But when the Japanese attacked Malaya on 7/8 December 1941, the 18th Division was diverted to Singapore, which meant another long voyage across the Indian Ocean.

RICE AND SHINE, BRITISH PRE-WAR CONCERT PARTIES CONTINUES, 4TH AUGUST 2021, 10AM


[1] Walker commented on this betting practice: “A great British pastime giving millions of working men a hope of getting out of poverty . . . to forecast 8 draws was to win a fortune.”

[2] His own unit in the audience.

[3] Parody of lyrics from the 1936 popular song by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke, “Pennies from Heaven.”


[i] Walker, Script reconstructed from several Emails: 17 August, 27 August, 28 August, 2000.

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

Outbound Shipboard Concerts

Sears Eldredge introduces our next section on British Pre-War Concert Parties; Shipboard Concerts.

In order to alleviate the potential morale problems where thousands of men were packed together on-board transport ships with little to occupy their time or minds during their long months as sea, “boredom was combated by boat drill, bingo, and amateur theatricals,”[i] wrote Jimmy Walker.


[i] Walker, Of Rice, 4.

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

“The Optimists”: Territorial 18th Infantry Divisional Concert Party, part 2

By Sears Eldredge

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]

Gunner Fergus Anckorn. Courtesy of Fergus Anckorn.

“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

“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

Introduction to British Pre-War Concert Parties

Our first series of blog posts will focus on British Pre-War Concert Parties. Introduction by Sears Eldredge:

During 1940, and later in 1941, concert parties were established by British military commands as part of comprehensive welfare schemes for troops soon to be engaged in battle. They needed some sort of organized leisure time activity to relieve the boredom that set in after arduous training exercises, aboard transport ships taking them overseas, and in isolated postings.[1]



[1]We are concerned here only with Concert Parties that will end up as POWs in Singapore and Malaya.

‘Rice and Shine’: British Pre-War Concert Parties Posts

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