Category Archives: 1943

Christmas Pantomimes, 1943

By Sears Eldredge

Program cover for Aladdin. Desmond Bettany. Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

The former Command Players in their new Little Theatre (formerly Smokey Joe’s) mounted Aladdin: A Christmas Pantomime written by Rich Goodman with a huge cast featuring Norman Backshall as Aladdin, John White as the Princess, and Hugh Elliot at Widow Twankey. It included a Chorus and a “Ballet” of eight harem dancers. Musical arrangements were by J. J. Porter, scenic design was by Derek Cooper, and costumes were by Fred Cooper. Chris Buckingham was the Stage Manager.

The A.I.F. Concert Party opened their pantomime, Dick Whittington and His Cat, on New Year’s Eve. It was produced by John Wood with a book by Leslie Greener. Settings were by Murray Griffin, costumes by Teddy Druitt, lighting by Clarrie Barker, and music/lyrics by Ray Tullipan and Slim De Grey with Bill Middleton directing the orchestra.

Performed by concert party regulars: Keith Stevens played Dick Whittington, his Cat was played by Bob Picken, Ron Caple played Widow Twankey[1]; and Doug Peart, the Sergeant Major.

Dick Wittington and His Cat. A.I.F. Pantomime. Xmas, 1943. Painting by Murray Griffin. AWM.

Both shows were huge successes—just what the M.O.s’ ordered for sick and recovering troops. And so ends 1943. In early 1944, the POWs in Changi would begin the third year of their captivity.


[1] Yes, Widow Twankey appears in more than one pantomime, so there can always be a clothes washing scene where suggestive remarks are made about the state of the underwear.  

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

Another Short Wave Broadcast and The Return of “F” Force

By Sears Eldredge

Another Short Wave Broadcast

The fifth in a series of recordings for short-wave broadcasts “from AIF hospital in Malaya” occurred on 16 December. The Australian announcer, Capt. Alan Bush, reminded his listeners that on the last broadcast they had heard the “very colorful number ‘The Race that Rules the Rhythm of the World.’”[i] (Whether this song is referring to the Japanese or the White race is ambiguous.[1]) Then he launched into the first sketch:

Announcer: All roads today led to Circular Quay [Sydney] to welcome home thousands of soldiers returning after years in Malaya. As we reach the Quayside, we behold the tall, lean, sun-tanned Anzac marching down the gang-way. . .. And there’s a pretty girl with a beautiful blue-eyed baby in her arms waving to them. This will be a touching wartime reunion and I’ll take the portable microphone over close and we’ll listen to their conversation.

A.  My darling little wife, gee it’s great to be back.

B.  Sweetheart you are looking wonderful.

A.  Yeah! And so are you, honey, but tell me, whose baby is that?

B.  Why, that’s our little Benny.

A.  Our little Benny? But I’ve been away for four years. That kid can’t be more than 6 months old.

B. Don’t you know, Benny’s from Heaven?

Then came a takeoff on the song “Pennies from Heaven” closing with the lyrics,

Now every kid must have a Dad,

They’ve always taught us.

But little Benny had,

A flying fortress.

No use to ask the preacher,

St. Peter’s the one to see,

For Benny’s from heaven

And not from me.[ii]

The mention of “a flying fortress” as the father of the “blue-eyed baby” is a reference to the American airmen stationed in Australia as part of the war effort. Everyone seemed to know the saying, “The Yanks are overpaid, oversexed, and over here.” Fearing the worst about the G.I.’s behavior with their sweethearts and wives, this was a warning to the “girls” back home to toe the line.

The Return of “F” Force

That same day, 16 December, members of “F Force” began to arrive back in Changi. “Most were in very poor state of health and their morale at a low ebb,” observed Nelson.[iii] The Australian returnees would be accommodated in huts on the padang in Selarang Barracks.[iv] The British returnees would be relocated to the Garden & Woods Area.

Four days later Huxtable reported that “All the AIF of F Force are back except such as are still in hospital,[2] too sick for the four and a half days train journey.”[v]

One of the Aussies who came back at this time was Stan Arneil. His diary records the moment when they emerged from their transport boxcars.

The people from Changi stood back and uttered not a word. It was really quite strange. We lined up on the road as best we could and stood up as straight as we could. Those who couldn’t stand up straight were on sticks. And those who couldn’t stop shaking with malaria were held by their friends. We thought this was what we should do as soldiers to say that we were not beaten. The sergeant major dressed us off and we stood in a straight line as he went over and reported to Colonel Johnson. Johnson went over to [GCO] Black Jack Galleghan and he said, “Your 2/30th all present and correct, sir.” And Galleghan said, “Where are the rest?” The major, he was a major then, said, “They’re all here, sir.” And we were. Black Jack Galleghan, the iron man, broke down and cried.  It was an incredible scene. We wanted to show them we were soldiers.[vi] 

If the word from “H” Force about POW treatment Up Country wasn’t bad enough, the word from “F” Force would be worse—much worse.

Huxtable saw “young Wycherley, the pianist and accompanist, but all the rest of the celebrity concert party, who used to entertain us so delightfully both here and at Roberts Barracks have been wiped out by disease,[3] with the exception of the violinist Denis East. The latter, we hear, is still in hospital up north,[4] but recovering.”[vii] 

Huxtable was aware that for many of the returning POWs, it still wasn’t over. “Since the last date of entry,” he wrote in his diary, “I have taken part is some hard work at the hospital and seen much tragedy and death from sickness. The men are so emaciated from malaria and other disease that they die easily.”[viii] 

This horrific situation made it all the more important that the concert party Christmas shows not only had to be excellent in execution but wild with laughter.


[1] The ambiguity allowed any Japanese to understand it his way while the listening POW audience understood it a different way.

[2] Up Country in Kanburi Hospital Camp (see my online book, Chap. 4 “The Interval: Thailand and Burma).

[3] Not entirely accurate. Because he couldn’t keep up with the rest of the marching troops, Reginald Renison was beaten to death on the long march up to their work sites on the border with Burma. John Foster-Haigh died of starvation in a camp in Burma.

[4] Actually, East was in Kranji, a hospital for chronic cases that had been established in the northern part of Singapore Island. According to my interview with East, he insisted that he had never gone Up Country.


[i] Frey, Kerrin. Shortwave Radio Transcript, 1.

[ii] Frey, Kerrin. Shortwave Radio transcript, 1-2.

[iii] Nelson, 124-126.

[iv] Huxtable, 144.

[v] Huxtable, 144.

[vi] Arneil, in Nelson, Prisoners of War, 68.

[vii] Huxtable, 144.

[viii] Huxtable, 145.

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

1st Short Wave Radio Broadcast & The Return of “H” Force

By Sears Eldredge

1st Short Wave Radio Broadcast

The A.I.F. made their first recording for short wave broadcast to Australia on 18 October. But it was not one of their shows that was broadcast: it was an original script, which included as many names of POWs as possible and coded references to their health and situation. Huxtable was part of a group of officers and men who “played” the audience, applauding as directed.[i]

Playbill for November/December ’43. November 2nd saw the opening of “Keep Singing” An Oriental Adventure by Ray Tullipan and Slim De Grey at the A.I.F. Theatre. It ended with a “Jungle Dance” supposedly performed by the African-American tap dancer, “Bojangles of Harlem.”[1] On 11 November, Lord Babs, an adaptation of a book by P. G. Wodehouse, opened at The Command Little Theatre, produced by Jack Fitzgerald. Credits list S. J. Cole as the General Manager for “Command Theatres, Inc.”.[2] On 16 November, the A.I.F. Theatre staged a new Variety Show in which the opening number was entitled “Outward Bound”—surely a takeoff on the popular play at The Little Theatre with lyrics more hopeful about their own destination.

December 1st saw the opening of Emlyn Williams’ play, A Murder Has Been Arranged presented by “The Command Players” at the A.I.F. Theatre. Besides the excellent acting, it was notable for the fact that there were five female impersonators in the cast. On the 12th, the A.I.F. Concert Party mounted We Must Have Music, a Variety Show with a surprise appearance of “Santa Klaus” and “Jingle Bells” during the Finale.

The Return of “H” Force

In early December, the POWs in Changi were shocked when the survivors of “H” Force unexpectedly returned from Up Country. Capt. Wilkinson was relocated to the Old Garden & Woods Area; others to a new camp at Hanky Park. But many of the Brits (like Ronald Searle, who almost died Up Country) and Australians (like George Sprod) were sent to Sime Road Camp on the outskirts of Singapore, where R. M. Horner had been dispatched to start weekly entertainments to take their minds off the recent past. On 14 December, he wrote in his diary:

The remainder of ‘H’ Force have now come down from Thailand – the total death rate of our force of 3,320 is now 823. ‘F’ Force are also on their way down either to Bangkok or possibly another camp in Singapore. Their casualties are over 3.000 already and they are dying at a rate of 8-12 a day. They lost a lot from cholera and pure starvation. As 18 Div. had a large number on this force I fear I’ll have lost many friends.[ii]

Now the POWs in Changi would hear firsthand about the killer work details, the cruelty, starvation, disease, and death suffered by their mates Up Country. [See future blog on Sime Road Camp].


[1] This was a highly unusual Finale, which raises all sorts of questions. Was this performed by an Aussie in blackface, or by one of the Dutch/Indonesian troops? Did it try to convey some sort of coded message about the war to the audience about their own “oriental adventure”?

[2] Note the use of the plural here. 


[i] Huxtable, 139.

[ii] Horner, 116.

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

Out of Bounds

By Sears Eldredge

On 14 July, the POWs got word from Japanese H.Q. that the British and Australian units within Roberts Hospital would start moving to Selarang Barracks Square in a week. (This will eventually place The Palladium and Command Theatres out of bounds—but not their players and production staff. When they did move, they would take all their costumes, props, lighting, curtains, etc., with them to their new locations.) They would move to the Old Convalescent Depot in Selarang which had become Command and Southern Area Headquarters.

Concurrently, “30 medical officers and 200 Royal Army Medical Corps other ranks” (known as “K” Force) were sent to Thailand, which caused POW Command H.Q. in Changi to fear that some sort of epidemic had broken out Up Country.[i] How right they were. The troops Up Country were dealing with cholera.

Playbill for August/September/October ’43. In early August, the A.I.F. Concert Party shared their theatre with a N.E.I. concert party. What they staged was a musical comedy in Dutch seen by Huxtable:

. . . about two young bloods touring the world.[1] They were smart, well-groomed and clever, and the female impersonators were good. One of the latter, in fact, was quite ravishing in a long, blue evening gown, blonde, beautiful and languorous . . .. I was sitting with Smith-Ryan, and next to him sat a Dutch officer who helped a little with translation.[ii]

Over at the Kokonut Grove Theatre, which was about to go out of bounds, the N.E.I. POWs stationed there produced, Faust: An Operetta in Three Acts. The last show at the Palladium, which was also going out of bounds, was Alan Bush and J. J. Porter’s The Little Admiral. Meanwhile both the musical, Everybody Swing, produced by John Wood, and the revue, In The News, were performed at the A.I.F. Theatre.

Programme cover for Everybody Swing. Des Bettany.
Courtesy of The Bettany Family.

In September, the Aussie’s produced Let’s Have a Murder, a musical mystery play written by Slim De Grey. They were also given word that the Japanese planned to record their shows for short wave radio broadcast to Australia— “as an indication to the world of how happy we all are here at Selarang Barracks,” thought Huxtable.[iii]

October saw the opening of The Time of Your Life, produced by British POW, Ken Morrison, at the A.I.F. Theatre,[2][iv] followed on the 19th by The Fleet’s In, produced by Bennie McCaffrey, which featured a “Toe Dance” by Charles Wiggins to a trumpet duo playing music from the West End musical, Mayfair. At The Little Theatre, Osmond Daltry produced Sutton Vane’s thought-provoking mystery play, Outward Bound.

Program cover for Outward Bound. Desmond Bettany. [3]
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Outward Bound is a serious play about the passengers on a boat headed to an unknown destination. What an audience discovers is that the passengers have all died from various causes, and their unknown destination will be either to Heaven or Hell. Only the young couple, appearing on the boat as they prepare to commit suicide are saved from death by the barking of their dog. It was directed by C. J. Buckingham (prior to this he had only functioned as Stage Manager). Former actors from The Palladium Theatre were in the cast. Huxtable, who saw the play on 10 November, thought it “a difficult play to produce successfully before troops, but in spite of that it was most successful. [F. W.] Bradshaw and [Osmond] Daltry are both professional actors. Daltry lost an eye and a leg (thigh amputation) [in the Battle for Singapore] and has to get around on crutches. Bradshaw, young and handsome, has been in Hollywood, I believe.”[v]

On 17 October, David Nelson records that Command was opening a “new theatre.”[vi] According to Huxtable,

[this would be the] former building where Smokey Joe’s restaurant used to be. The walls of the big entertainment hall still carry the cartoons in black and white, painted by Private Rogan of the Convalescent Depot, depicting Walt Disney figures and similar characters. This hall, being in the original NAAFI building, had a proper stage and they have enhanced the effect by rooting up the floor in front of the stage and constructing a pit for the orchestra.[vii]

It, too, would be known as “the little theatre.”[4] Now the Command Players had both an indoor and an outdoor theatre.


[1] Interesting enough, this was the same plot of a show, Zijn Groote Reis (His Big Journey), produced by Dutch POWs in Chungkai POW Camp, Thailand, on 15-16 September 1944.

[2] In mid-August, Morrison, a compere and leading player in shows at the Palladium, received a letter from his mother that told him his wife had been killed in an air raid the previous December. [Capt. A. Smith-Ryan diary, PR00592]

[3] Bettany got the playwright wrong on his program cover.

[4] “Little” refers to the limited number of audience members that could be accommodated in the auditorium. Outdoor theatres could accommodate a lot more.


[i] Nelson, 100.

[ii] Huxtable, 132.

[iii] Huxtable, 137-138.

[iv] Mack, Show Log.

[v] Huxtable, 141.

[vi] Nelson, 116.

[vii] Huxtable, 144-146.

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

Further Consolidation

By Sears Eldredge

At the beginning of May, the huge Southern and 18th Division Areas of Changi were shut down and the troops remaining in them moved elsewhere into a smaller, tighter perimeter.[i] These closings would include the loss of the theatres in those Areas (six in the 18th Division alone), unless they could be dismantled and re-erected elsewhere. With troops being crowded into other’s Areas, Unit distinction became more difficult to maintain. But more intermingling by the troops meant more possibilities for creative interaction. Not only had guest performers from one concert party already appeared in other Division’s shows, but new producers and new entertainment troupes with combined personnel were formed, such as seen above with “The United Artistes Players” at the Palladium. Interestingly enough, no instances of artistic jealousy or concert party rivalry has been found in the literature, but you can’t put that many musicians and theatre performers together without some sort of rivalry going on.   

Smokey Joe’s

The ultimate meeting place was Smokey Joe’s in the Selarang Area. Originally a Java Party snack bar operated by the Dutch in an attap-roofed hut.[ii] But with its huge success, it was taken over by Command H.Q. as a money-making venture for all the Divisions and moved to a more accommodating location.  

An old N.A.A.F.I. canteen was taken over, and painters, decorators and electricians performed wonders, under the circumstances. The decorative work, by A.I.F. artists, was fine, the walls being covered with the topical adventures of well-known comic strip personalities.[iii] 

The N.A.A.F.I. had a stage at one end and a bar at the other. Its official opening as an eating place/cabaret with twice weekly floorshows was on 31 May 1943. In Changi, it was the place to be!

But of all ranks, British, Aussies, Yanks, and Dutchmen (brown and white), representing all services, is not easy to describe. The evening hours were filled in contentedly, with a snack to enjoy, noise of the re-echoing band, the concentration on the cabaret turns which came on at various times.[iv] 

One night, John Wood appeared there in a floorshow “as an entrancing blonde in filmy silver and blue.”[v]

Playbill for June/July ’43. June saw The Five Moods of the Theatre ending its run at the Palladium; Midsummer Follies: Being A Riot Of Fun And Merriment, written and directed by Alan Bush,opening at the Command Theatre (with the Palladium Theatre Orchestra directed by J. J. Porter); and a Variety Show at the A.I.F. Theatre. July 6-9 saw a new producer, Jack Fitzgerald, present Love Laughs: A New–Gay–Romantic–Musical Comedy, at the Palladium, with six female impersonators in the cast, including Garland and Stevens from the A.I.F. Concert Party; and the musical comedy, The New World Inn, re-written by George Donnelly at the Command Theatre.


[i] David, 48.

[ii] Nelson, 85.

[iii] Penfold, Bayliss and Crispin. Galleghan’s Greyhounds, 323-324.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

The Shows Go On

By Sears Eldredge

In the midst all the commotion caused by these massive troop movements, the concert parties remaining in Changi continued to perform and audiences continued to attend them. One way to relieve anxiety about any upcoming deployments, it appears, was to attend a show. Seeing friends off and then going to a show would also help you forget your sadness. The only difficulty for directors was when sudden cast changes had to be made because one or more members were being sent away.

Playbill for March/April/May ’43. Among the productions playing during this time were the original musical Dancing Tears, written by Alan Bush, at the Palladium; G. B. Shaw’s play, Androcles and the Lion, at the Command Theatre; Two Masks—two one-acts (one of which was The Monkey’s Paw) at the Kokonut Grove Theatre[1]; and the variety show, Ship A’hoy, at the Hippodrome. S. J. Cole toured the principal theatres in Changi with Audition, hoping to find new players for his shows. In Selarang, the A.I.F. concert party memorialized their captivity with their 1st Anniversary Show and Val Mack proudly noted their accomplishments during the past year:

Early in April saw the completion of twelve months’ solid work by the A.I.F. concert party. It had staged, in the year, 134 sketches, 152 songs, 61 musical items, 74 specialty numbers and three complete plays — including a Christmas pantomime — before appreciative audiences totaling over 300,000.[i]

April performances saw S. J. Cole’s The Show Goes On at the Command Theatre, which had “Judy” Garland (borrowed from the A.I.F.) in the cast as well as a most unusual turn: “Belisha’s Soldiers . . . Original Changi Marionettes.”

Program cover for The Show Goes On. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Five Moods of the Theatre, performed by “The United Artistes Players,” directed by Jack Greenwood[2] opened at the Palladium, which was followed by a revival of I Killed the Count.

In May, “the wild and merry” Max Revels: A New Crazy Show went up at the Palladium, and the new Japanese Camp Commandant, Captain Takahachi, sat in the front row enjoying himself immensely.[ii] (Attendance by a Japanese officer at a show had never happened before in Changi.) The A.I.F. Concert Party toured with Nudovia, an original musical comedy,[3] and mounted the revue, Slab Happy, in their home theatre. And the Little Theatre mounted a stage adaptation of the radio play, He Came Back, by Fred Cheeseborough with settings by Ronald Searle that would run through July.

Program cover for He Came Back. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

[1] This may have been a show by American POWs from Java as this show had been performed there earlier in Bicycle Camp in ’42 (see future blog on POW entertainment in camps on Java).

[2] Compered by Ken Morrison, Leofric Thorpe’s nemesis. Where had he been hiding?

[3] Which had characters named Silas Roosevelt, Jerry Bilt, Van De Bilt, and Winnie.


[i] Mack, Show Log.

[ii] Nelson, 95.

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

The “Speedo”

By Sears Eldredge

Meanwhile, over a thousand miles away in Thailand and Burma, the POWs building the railway were entering the “Speedo Period”—the desperate push by the Japanese engineers to get the railway completed to the new earlier deadline set by Tokyo. During this period, the POWs would work extended hours and seven days a week without adequate food or medical supplies. Corporal punishment was harsh and frequent. As a consequence, sickness and death increased at an alarming rate, so urgent calls went out to Singapore for more POW workers.

On 20 March, massive evacuations from Changi began. “D” Force, which contained 2,750 British and 2,250 Australians—”fit men for heavy manual labour in a malarial climate”—was the first to leave for Up Country destinations. “There were emotional scenes,” recalled Murray Griffin, “as the parties moved out with the concert party band playing ‘Now is the Hour’ and ‘Waltzing Matilda’.”[i]

A week later, “E” Force, consisting of troops from the Southern Area and the A.I.F., was sent to Kuching, Borneo. 500 Australians were then sent on to Sandakan on the other side of the island (see future blog on Borneo).  

Between 18-26 April, “F” Force made up of British and Australian troops, which included Padre Foster-Haig and members of his musical group (inc. the pianist/symphony orchestra conductor, Renison and the singers, Aubrey King and George Wall, etc.), were sent to northern Thailand (see Chapter 2, “Jungle Shows Thailand” in my online book for a more detailed account of the fate of this group).[ii]

On 25 April 1943, “G” Force (various groups) was sent to Japan where there was also a huge labor shortage.[iii]

Then, with still urgent calls for more workers for the railway, “H” Force, made up of British and Australian POWs “with as many officers as possible with bridge-building and road-making experience” was sent to Thailand between 5-17 May.[iv] Among these troops would be the artist Ronald Searle, the female impersonator Michael Curtis, the actor/director Capt. Wilkinson,[1] and cartoonist George Sprod—and, in a break with precedence, two performers from the A.I.F. Concert Party: the singer, Doug Mathers and the ventriloquist, Tom Hussey.

On 15 May, “J” Force went off. Speculation was that they were headed for Japan.[v]

When these deployments were complete, the number of POWs left in Changi had changed dramatically:

Changi Camp, in February 1942, had held approximately 52,000 prisoners of war. By the end of May 1943, however, most of them had departed and were working for the Japanese in Burma, Thailand, Borneo, and Japan, those remaining in Changi numbered only 5550 officers and men.[vi]

And many of those POWs were either in hospital or in convalescent wards so unable to fulfill camp duties.[vii]


[1] That Wilkinson is on “H” Force seems indisputable. In my online book, I mistakenly placed him on “F” Force.


[i] Griffin, 28.

[ii] Nelson, 87.

[iii] Nelson, 25.

[iv] Nelson, 5-17 May.

[v] Nelson, 94.

[vi] Penfold, Bayliss and Crispin. Galleghan’s Greyhounds, 320.

[vii] Ibid.

Symphony Orchestra & Choir on Tour

By Sears Eldredge

Elsewhere in Changi, Reginald Renison’s 18th Division Symphony Orchestra was performing at different venues as it toured the Changi Areas in the first two weeks of March.

When it opened at the Palladium, the concert was dedicated to Padre Foster-Haigh, who was its producer.

Our Symphony concert which ran at the Palladium Theatre was a glorious success [Foster-Haigh wrote]. We had an orchestra of twenty-two players conducted by Reginald Renison, who is a very fine solo pianist; a former pupil of Myra Hess, & an able lecturer. His playing of the Schumann Pianoforte Concerto with orchestra was a delight & really a high spot in the concert. In addition to the orchestra, we had a Male Voice Choir of forty voices conducted by myself & another able musician named Kenneth Scovell, a music master in one of our English Schools & quite a good composer of anthems; while as Leader of the Orchestra we had Denis East, a very fine violinist & a member of the London Philharmonic Society. In Cyril Wycherley, a cinema organist from Ipswich I had a firsthand accompanist. During the series of concerts, I sang on five occasions. It was as much as I could do in addition to my other work. The remaining nights the soloist was Aubrey King, a most likeable fellow & a promising soloist.[i]

Mr. Terrai

After the Symphony performed in the A.I.F. Theatre, Foster-Haigh was approached by a Japanese interpreter called Mr. Terrai who had attended the concert. “He was so thrilled with the performance, that he came personally to thank me, & have a chat about music in general. . .. Mr. Terrai is a most charming conversationalist & knows a good deal about the great masters. He told me that he had a gramophone library of five hundred records, & enjoys opera & modern songs.” Foster-Haigh learned that Terrai was a Christian and before the war he taught English Literature at one of Japan’s universities. “What a strange world it is & how mixed is man!”, he writes after the meeting. “Virtually Terrai & myself are enemies because our countries are at war & yet we found a common meeting place. Music and literature made us friends.”[ii]


[i] Foster-Haigh, 7.

[ii] Foster-Haigh, 8.

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

First Anniversary of Surrender

By Sears Eldredge

The POWs in Changi were now approaching the first anniversary of their defeat and surrender. Not a time for celebration, surely. But less they forget what had happened, two groups of entertainers produced shows that would remind them.

Journey’s End

“The 18th Divisional Headquarters Players,” an all-Other Ranks’ Company, opened their presentation of R. C. Sherriff’s World War I drama, Journey’s End, at The Hippodrome on in early February. It was produced by Denis O’Brien and Stuart Ludman.

Program cover for Journey’s End. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

Sherriff’s tragedy takes place in a dug-out on the Western Front in March 1918, in the days leading up to the final spring offensive by the Germans. A group of British officers and men, led by a young Captain, are ordered by High Command to go over the top in what will clearly be a suicidal mission as the massive German attack begins. These events couldn’t help but remind the POW audiences of General Wavell’s orders issued before he left Singapore: “There must be no thought or question of surrender. Every unit must fight it out to the end and in close contact with the enemy.”[i] 

From actor Donald Smith’s lengthy account of the POW production, it appears that the producers believed that Sherriff’s play promoted the idea that their lost cause created a special bond between the officers and men which ennobled them (which by implication so hadn’t the Battles for Malaya and Singapore). But Sherriff’s own attitude about the war in which he had fought, was much more ambiguous. The original 1928 production was also widely praised as an anti-war play that revealed not only the incompetence of the military leadership but the terrible wastage of human life.[ii] This ambiguity would affect audience response to this POW production as well.

After several highly successful performances before British officers and men, the performers faced their first audience of Australians. Rain started to fall during Act I, which did not help the mood of the audience forced to sit in the wet and watch. During Act II, catcalls and jeers from the audience began to be heard—the Australians were proving to be “not very tolerant,” wrote Smith. By Act III, when Smith was about to make his first appearance, the rain had stopped.

As I made my brief appearance as the German prisoner, there was a great roar of applause, and for a moment I stood, dumbfounded, wondering for whom this ovation was intended. Then I realized that it was intended for me! The sympathy of the audience had apparently gone over to the Boche.[1] I was listened to attentively, and without comment. As the sergeant-major searched me and relieved me of my precious letters, much against my will, the audience growled and booed. As I made my exit, I was given another round of applause.[iii] 

The context in which a performance takes place can greatly change how it is received and interpreted by its audience. The Australian POWs, identifying with the German POW, were having nothing to do with any attempts to mythologize the hell they had gone though in the battles for Malaya and Singapore into notions of “solidarity” or “nobility.” 

The Admirable Dyeton

A day later [9 February] in the Command Area, the all-officer “Command Players” opened their adaptation of James M. Barrie’s 1902 “withering satire on the social order,”[iv] The Admirable Crichton, renamed The Admirable Dyeton. Barrie’s original play was about a group of worthless British aristocrats who undertake a voyage on a yacht to the South Pacific and end up shipwrecked on a deserted island. For two years they survive by the ingenuity and leadership skills of their butler, Crichton. 

Program cover for The Admirable Dyeton. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

The POW version written by Digby Gates, 9th Gurkhas, and produced by W. Hogg Ferguson, made sure that their audiences would not miss the connections between the play and their own past experience. Act I takes place at “Divisional HQ on Jingalore Island, Night of the Capitulation” during which Corps Commander Lieut. General Sir Endimion Cholmondcley Featherstonehaugh plans to lead an escape party of Staff Officers and Administrative Other Ranks.[2] Act II opens ten days later on a Desert Island where Featherstonehaugh and Company had landed by faulty navigation. And for the next two years, it is Sgt. Dyeton, an Administrative Clerk from Divisional HQ, who assumes command and saves the day (Act III). 

In Barrie’s original final Act (Act IV), the characters have been rescued and have just arrived home again. Now the old order reasserts its rank and privilege, and the butler, Crichton, without complaint, resumes his “proper” former position. In Digby Gates’ version, the Officers are rescued and return to “Divisional HQ. Somewhere in India.” And there Dyeton, too, resumes his “proper” position as Administrative Clerk. 

Padre John Foster-Haigh, for one, did not miss the connections to the past:

It . . . showed us in a most entertaining way how an orderly room sergeant was more fitted to command & had more strength of character than the commanding officer. It was great fun & a very clever play. It was really a play leveled against inefficiency & roused a good deal of comment among Senior officers.[v]

About this same time in Convalescent Depot’s outdoor theatre, McNeilly hosted the 18th Div. Celebrity Artists for a concert of “Light Music.” To get their stage ready, he took old sheets, dyed them, and then sprayed them with colored paint to hide the blood stains. “Not a bad effect,” he writes.[vi] This time there had been no intent to make a comment on the surrender anniversary, but in a way, it had—at least for us.


[1] Slang term for the Germans.

[2] This had to be a pointed allusion to the controversial escape of General Wavell and other Senior Officers to Australia before capitulation.


[i] Wavell’s Orders, AWM PR 85/145

[ii] Gassner, 693.

[iii] Smith, D. 62.

[iv] Gassner, 567.

[v] Foster-Haigh, Diary.

[vi] McNeilly, Notes, 3.

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

Changi Concert Parties: Jan.—Dec. ‘43

By Sears Eldredge

Playbill for January/February ’43. At the beginning of the month, the panto, Jack and the Beanstalk, transferred to The Palladium Theatre for a short run, temporarily displacing Gentlemen Only which would be revived after the panto had completed its performances; Cinderella held forth at the A.I.F. Theatre; Horner’s New Windmill Road Show continued to tour; and in the Southern Area, the F.M.S.V.F.[1] mounted their own concert party, “The Vol-de-Rols,”[2] which put on a variety show in their Glade Theatre. 

Wilkinson, who was in rehearsal with R. C. Sherriff’s Badger’s Green, saw Gentlemen Only at this time and was amazed to find they “had 14 Instrumentalists in the orchestra. Two of them are outstanding and are professional American band players. One plays a trombone [J. J. Porter] and the other a saxophone [Musician First Class “Hap” Kelly]. They also have a double bass which has been made in the camp.”[i]

Renewed Troop Deployments

After the Christmas/New Year’s holidays were over, major troop movements into and out of Changi continued. Between 20 January and 5 February, all of the recently arrived “Java Rabble,” as well as many of the N.E.I.[3] forces already in Changi, were crammed into boxcars and sent Up Country to Thailand. Australian Medical Officer Weary Dunlop was placed in charge of a group of Australians and N.E.I. troops who would be known as “Dunlop Force.”

“A Riot of a Night”

On Saturday night, 30 January, a dance was held in the gymnasium of the Selarang Barracks. According to a writeup of the event found among Leonard Stewart’s papers, this was the second such dance.[4] It had been advertised as “A Riot of a Night” with “First Class Music” and “Plenty of Women.” “A bevy of talented girls were procured,” it reports, “their beauty being truly outstanding. They had the men folk gasping with desire. . ..” And it goes on to name twelve “women,” such as: “Misses. Pansy Anderson, Nudey Nolan, Ophelia Ralph,” etc.—obviously men in drag. The dance attracted a “large crowd from near and far.”

If this writeup is to be believed, it was “a riot of a night,” with an officer throwing a bottle of booze through a side window, etc. Another getting lacerated lips from trying to prevent all the contents of that bottle from draining away. And two soldiers “who had great difficulty in keeping their feet, attempted to disorganise the orchestra and were ejected after a violent struggle.” And before it was over, “[s]everal members of the A.I.F. Concert party put in an appearance . . .  and Doug Mathis, Fred Stringer and Harry Smith, favoured with items.”

The article contains lots of innuendo about what transpired between the “girls” and the men, i.e., “[Lieut. Tom Jones] affair with Flighty White however, completely left him in the air.” It closes with the claim: “After a night of unique diversions, the guests departed to the waiting taxi cabs and rickshaws. The end of another happy night.”[ii]

Given the non-existence of “taxi cabs and rickshaws” and other like details in Changi at the time, this writeup could be taken as wholly fanciful—just a fun read on a bulletin board—except for an entry in H. L. David’s diary for 22 February 1943, referring to a third dance a month later: “Went to a dance last night, jolly good show and plenty of fun about 20 chaps dressed as girls. I had to dance lady most of the evening.”[iii]

So, it seems these dances actually happened, but the author of the writeup embellished the events of the evening to give everybody a good laugh.

Badger’s Green

With their theatre still not ready, “The New Windmill Players” produced R. C. Sherriff’s comedy, Badger’s Green at The Palladium on 4 February. It would finish its run on the 18th when “over 7000 had seen the show.”[iv]

Secret photograph of Badger’s Green onstage at the Palladium.
H. D. T. Gawn. Courtesy of Judith Gawn.

 

At the end of the month, the Variety show, Zip, went up at the Kokonut Grove Theatre.


[1] Federated Malay States Volunteer Force.

[2] Believe this was also the name of a World War I concert party.

[3] Netherlands East Indies.

[4] No record of a previous dance has been found.


[i] Wilkinson, Diary. 14 Jan. ’43.

[ii] Stewart, Leonard. Paper 5 of 14] Item(s) 19 and 28 and folder 12. AWM PR01013.

[iii] David, 46.

[iv] Wilkinson, Diary. 18 Feb. 1943.

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