Category Archives: Changi POW Camp Concert Parties

Christmas, 1942

By Sears Eldredge

In his memoir, Death Camps of the River Kwai, Thomas Pounder writes of their first Christmas in Changi:

Our first Christmas as prisoners of war was very near and naturally out thoughts were of our families at home. How were things going with them? None of us had heard anything or had any letters from home for over twelve months. Was the bombing still as bad? How many of us would return after the war only to find a heap of rubble where once stood our homes? Worse still, to find members of our families had fallen victims to the Luftwaffe. As our thoughts went out to them, so we hoped and felt certain that they too would be thinking of us at this time.[i]

To relieve the anxiety and homesickness, POW cooks, as well as entertainers, tried to prepare something extra special for the holiday celebrations. A petition had been made to the Japanese to allow the POWs to make and deliver toys for the European children interned with the adults in Changi Gaol. The Japanese agreed and POWs in both the 18th Div. and in the A.I.F. set right to work.[ii]  

Christmas Carolers.  George Sprod.
Courtesy of Michael Sprod

On Christmas Eve on the padang in the 18th Div. Area, Padre Foster-Haigh’s Choir, even with the singers missing who had been sent Up Country, presented their Christmas concert, including excerpts from Handel’s Messiah.[iii] It’s probable that Ken Scovell’s newly composed “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” for Male Chorus was sung at this time as well (to listen to this piece, click on the button below). [1]

“Gloria in Excelsis Deo” for Male Chorus by K T Scovell

At the Con Depot in Selarang, the main hall, which had previously been used for performances (their Little Theatre), was now occupied with returned working parties as well as hospital patients, so McNeilly and Hanger dismantled the stage, took it outside, and rebuilt it as an open-air theatre.

Together with flood lights. I think it impossible to have a more magnificent setting amongst the trees and gardens of the Y M Rest gardens. We hung red and blue curtains at the back and heaped up bowls of flowers at the side. The lights shining on these gave the desired effect. Hundreds of men sitting on the lawn and seats in the gardens listening to the Xmas Carols and stories of Xmas.[iv]

There was another concert on Christmas night. “At 20.30 hrs. a large open air concert was held on the hockey ground [wrote Wilkinson]. Horner was compère and the dance band did stout work. It was again floodlight and there was a very large audience.”[v] But the celebration was almost ruined by two Javanese troops caught trying to steal the last of their precious chickens. They were given a good beating, sending one to hospital.[vi] On the evening of Boxing Day (26 December), Wilkinson went with friends to a show by POWs from Java in The Kokonut Grove, a new open-air theatre in the 18th Div. Area.[vii]

This was the show in which Medical Orderly Idris Barwick “attempted an effeminate part” as a member of the chorus line, “The Beri Beri Girls”: 

We winked and “cooed” at the officers showing them our very masculine knees with very suggestive eye rolling and jerking our heads. The men behind started cat calling, “How about looking our way,” etc., then just as we were dancing off (I was the last to leave) my brassiere worked loose and slid down to my waist and the stuffing fell out. The lads went crazy shouting all kinds of remarks and suggestions.[viii]


[1] This electronic realization of Scovell’s Gloria is by Chris Latham, artist-in-residence at the AWM. He has been commissioned to write a series of requiems to honor the soldiers who fought in the war. 


[i] Pounder, 54.

[ii] Wilkinson. Diary. 21 Dec. ’42.

[iii] Wilkinson. Diary. 24 Dec., ‘42; Inglefield, 32.

[iv] McNeilly, Misc. documents. n.p.

[v] Wilkinson. Diary. 25 Dec. ’42.

[vi] Wilkinson. Diary. 25 Dec. ’42.

[vii] Wilkinson. Diary. 26 Dec. ’42.

[viii] Barwick, 31.

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

Gentlemen Only

By Sears Eldredge

The “New Windmill Theatre’s” revue, Gentlemen Only (the company now billed as “The 18th Divisional Concert Party”) opened The Palladium Theatre on 21 December.[i]

Program cover for Gentleman Only. Desmond Bettany.
Courtesy of the Bettany Family.

In a wry take on the show’s title, Desmond Bettany’s cover for the program shows one of the checkpoints many POWs would have to pass through to get to the Palladium Theatre in the Roberts Hospital Area. (This program was done for the revival of the show in January, ‘43.)

With the New Windmill Theatre now in the hands of the Japanese, and the 18th Division’s new theatre still under construction, Greenwood and his “Nitwits” Orchestra left the Windmill company and moved over to The Palladium. They weren’t the only ones to do so: the actors Derek Cooper, Hugh Eliot, Rich Goodman, and Jon Mackwood soon followed suit. And so did Chris Buckingham, Milburn Foster, and Aubrey King, who became respectively, The Palladium’s Stage Manager, Lighting Designer, and Costumer. (Besides performing as a female impersonator, Cooper would also design sets.) The American seaman 1st Mus, J. J. Porter (who had arrived with one of the new Java Parties), started work at The Palladium as Musical Arranger for Jack Greenwood, but would eventually take over as Band Leader.


[i] David, 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

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

Working Parties Return

By Sears Eldredge

In mid-December, the 10,000 POWs remaining at work sites in Singapore were ordered back to Changi, and they continued to pour into the camp right though the Christmas holidays, placing great stress on the housing accommodations and food rations there.[i] Those Working Party concert parties who were in the midst of rehearsals for their Christmas shows, brought back all their costumes, makeup, props, and other paraphernalia with them determined to produce their shows at their new locations in Changi.

Renovations at the old Garrison Cinema had proceeded speedily. By late December it had been rebuilt and refurbished with a new roof, an enlarged stage, split log benches for seats, electric lights, and witty murals painted by Ronald Searle, Derek Cooper, and Stanley Warren on the auditorium walls.[ii]

Since the Garrison Cinema was in the Roberts Hospital Area, which housed the bed-down sick from the British and Australian Divisions in Changi, a multi-national theatrical organization was formed to run the new theatre. The Entertainments Committee consisted of British Padre E. C. Weane as Chairman, Australian Capt. Alan Bush as General Manager, and [British?] Jack Wood as the Foyer and Box-Officer Manager. Renamed “The Palladium” (after another popular London theatre), it would become the most prestigious performance venue in Changi.[iii] The original idea had been to use The Palladium as a venue for touring shows, but it soon developed into a producing venue as well.

Eric Bamber, who had had little prior experience with military concert parties, was amazed at what had been accomplished in the renovation:

Well, by this time we’d assembled a theatre staff. We’d got carpenters, we even had an electrician . . .. He tapped into the main source of power going from the Singapore power station down to the mainland . . .. Because he tapped it with a makeshift electrical connections of telephone wire. I mean the damn things were lethal. If you, if you touched something, you know, [sound effect-phew], they’d flare if they got wet, anything like that. But we had electrical power . . . and the bulbs were stolen, and sockets were stolen, and eventually we lit the theatre up. 

Well, the thing right now [was], we had a theatre, which had seats, and a stage, and a roof, and a staff, but we had no show.[iv]

That situation didn’t last long.


[i] Wilkinson. Diary. 19 December ’42.

[ii] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #6.

[iii] Bamber, Interview, Reel #6, transcription pages 10-13.

[iv] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #6.

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 Garrison Cinema Discovered

By Sears Eldredge

It was during this time that the old Changi Garrison Cinema was rediscovered by Alan Bush and Eric Bamber just off the path leading from the 18th Div. Area to Roberts Hospital. It sat in a clearing down a flight of steps at the bottom of an incline. Shelling during the battle for Singapore had caved in its roof, and its orchestra pit was filled with water, but the structure that remained was sound and had distinct possibilities. Renovation work started immediately.[i] A sketch by Ronald Searle shows what those renovations should be.[1]

Playbill for December ‘42.

In the early part of December, Horner’s New Windmill Road Show was still touring. On the 14th, he introduced a song he had composed, entitled, “When We Are Free,” an excerpt of which is given here.

When we’re free yes, when we’re free

Oh how happy we shall be.

 When we see the last of Changi tree[2]

Oh what a wonderful day for you and me.[ii]

In the Southern Area, a new group of performers from the Straits Settlement Volunteer Forces [S.S.V.F.] tried to duplicate the activities of “The Mumming Bees” Concert Party, which had been deployed to Thailand. 


[1] Not made available for this blog.

[2] The “Changi tree” was an exceptionally tall tree in the heart of the Garrison that was ordered blown up by the British during the battle for Singapore Island so that it couldn’t be used by the Japanese as a reference point for their artillery.


[i] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #6.

[ii] Horner, 61.

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

Toneel

By Sears Eldredge

The N.E.I. POWs from Java had many talented musicians and theatre personnel among them. Most of the officers spoke English but their troops did not, so they needed some sort of entertainment in their own language to keep up morale. “Some Dutch Officers from the A.I.F. Area came to see me to borrow some plays,” wrote Wilkinson, “so that they could translate them into Dutch and produce them in the A.I.F. Theatre.”[i] 


[i] Wilkinson. Diary. 23 Nov. ’42.

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

Miscellaneous News Items:

By Sears Eldredge

Reorganization and Consolidation

As the last drafts of British, Dutch, and Volunteer Force POWs departed for Thailand, those remaining in Changi were informed that due to the huge decrease in the number of POWs in the camp, “all units would be closed up in smaller areas.”[i] Thus began a reorganization and consolidation of Changi into a smaller, more manageable perimeter.        

Then, on 9 November, due to another alarming spike in diphtheria cases, The New Windmill Theatre was ordered closed again. Horner decided that if the men couldn’t come to them, their theatre would go to them, and he proceeded to produce The New Windmill Road Show which played to the British and Dutch troops in the 18th Div. Area on alternate nights.[ii] 

When the threat of the diphtheria epidemic had passed, the New Windmill Theatre was not returned to “The New Windmill Players” as had been expected. Instead, the Japanese commandeered the NAAFI building for their new HQ in Changi, throwing out and burning all the sets, costumes, and props.[iii] As no other indoor space was available, the Windmill producers decided to build a new open-air theatre.

Death of Major-General Beckwith-Smith

On 20 November, the men in the 18th Division received word that their beloved G.O.C., Major-General Beckwith-Smith, had died of diphtheria on Taiwan. “We wonder whether to cancel this evening’s show,” Horner wrote, “but as it will disappoint so many and ‘Becky’ would be the last man to want any cancellation, we’ve decided to carry on.”[iv]


[i] Wilkinson. Diary. 26 December’42.

[ii] Horner, 64.

[iii] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #6.

[iv] Horner, 64-65.

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 Massive Troop Departures

By Sears Eldredge

In the last week of October, all of the British POWs from Fortress Signals in the Southern Area, as well as many from the 18th Division, started to be sent to Thailand to work on the railway. Huxtable . . .

. . . was glad to hear from [Denis] East that the theatrical and concert group to which he belongs are not to be moved with the rest of the 18th Division. By some means or other, exemption for them had been obtained from the Japanese, so the Windmill Theatre will be able to carry on although it expects to be moved inside our wire.[i]

But this wasn’t exactly true. Foster-Haig lost half of his choir and Fergus Anckorn and other entertainers from “The Optimists” were included on these drafts. Who wasn’t included was East’s own group, “The Changi Celebrity Artists.” By the first week in November, all the 18th Division drafts and all of the Singapore Fortress troops, including their concert party, “The Mumming Bees,” had been sent Up Country (see Chapter 1 of my online book for more details).

Playbill for November ‘42.

On November 3rd, the “A.I.F. Concert Party” mounted their first original revue with a book: a piece called, Hotel Swindellem. The plot follows two characters through various misadventures at the Hotel (which lived up to its name).

Although the Australians had been spared from sending any troops in these recent drafts, their concert party’s’ Variety Show two weeks later contained another Slim De Grey original song, “They’ve Taken My Old Pal Away,” which verbalized what many of the POWs in Changi felt about being separated from mates they had served with for a long time (only the first and final verses are given here):

They’ve taken my old pal away,

Somewhere over the sea.

Now [sic. Then?] we were so happy and gay,

But now life seems empty to me.

Now everything seems to have changed.

Like sunshine that turns into rain.

We were together in trouble,

In fun a good double,

But they’ve taken my old pal away.[ii]


[i] Huxtable, 89-90.

[ii] De Grey, “Changi Souvenir Song Album,” n.p.

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

Lights Up!

By Sears Eldredge

By 10 October, the A.I.F. concert party was ready to open their new garage theatre with a long Variety Show. When they first moved into the theatre, electricity had not yet been restored, so the resourceful Australians found alternative methods of lighting their stage using pressure lamps filled with petrol that had been siphoned off from parked Japanese vehicles when I.J.A. officials came for meetings with the POW Administration. “Risky work,” conceded Jack Boardman, “and some day we would not know until the afternoon whether there would be lighting for the show that evening.”[i] 

But it wasn’t long before their theatre had electricity. Boardman again: “Needless to say, each week saw better lighting in the theatre. Progressively footlights, overheads, a switchboard with dimmer and a spotlight were introduced.”[ii] Taking advantage of this new lighting, “Happy” Harry Smith inserted a new routine into his “tit and bum” act. Strolling onstage dressed as a “lady getting on in years” with “an enormous bust,” Smith start singing in a contralto voice while “ogling officers sitting in front seats by using a mirror to reflect a spotlight [on them] while he sang, ‘The Sunshine of Your Smile’. At the end, during the applause, he would lift up his skirt and remove the socks forming his bosom with the words, ‘There’s gold in them thar hills!’”[iii]

“203.” Fred Brightfield. AWM. Courtesy of Jack Boardman.

The drummer, Fred Brightfield, drew a colored pencil sketch of the stage in their new theatre. A row of footlights can be seen along the front of the stage. The black box intruding into the middle top left of the sketch is a floodlight suspended from a pipe batten. Another light, this time a clip-on flood, is attached to center of the orchestra railing.

On stage, the comedy sketch “203” is in progress.[1] The title refers to the number of the harem girl who has found favor with the Maharajah. John Wood is the blonde dancing girl performing the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” “Happy” Harry, the punkawallah, and Jacky Smith, the Maharajah.[2][iv]

On the audience right proscenium wall is a large placard printed with the words to the Australian National Anthem, “Advance Australia Fair.” On Audience Left, under a clock, was another placard which read, “SILENCE during the overture PLEASE.”[v] 

Once established in their new indoor theatre, the concert party made two important changes in their programming: instead of producing a different show every week, which had become difficult to sustain, they would now present a new show once a fortnight; and, except for their weekly tour to Roberts Hospital, their audiences would come to them. 

On 20 October, their variety show contained a new song by Slim De Grey: “Waiting for Something to Happen” which gave voice to the POWs’ boredom (only the opening and closing verses are given below).  

Waiting for something to happen,

Turns all our laughter to tears.

There’s no use a-worrying,

No use a-hurrying,

We may be waiting for years.

Waiting for something to happen,

Might even drive you insane.

So we’d all be happier,

Feel a lot snappier,

If something would happen again.[vi]

They didn’t have long to wait.                                                          


[1] This is a revised version of their pre-war concert party sketch.

[2] Seated in the orchestra are Ray Tullipan (bass), Erv Banks (banjo), Jack Geoghegan (guitar), Roy Arnel (alto sax and clarinet), Dave Goodwin (tenor Sax), Eric Beattie (violin), Jack Boardman (sitting center with his back to us at the upright piano), Jack Garrett (squeezebox & guitar), Fred Stringer, Les Jacques, Tom Hoffman & Erv Warne (brass), and Fred Brightfield (drums). Bill Middleton, their Conductor, does not seem to be present.


[i] Boardman, J. 21 August 03.

[ii] Boardman, J. 21 August 03.

[iii] Boardman, J. “Notes”; Sprod, Bamboo, 63.

[iv] Boardman, J. Handwritten Notes on Brightfield’s sketch.

[v] Boardman, J. “Notes.”

[vi] De Grey, “Changi Souvenir Song Album,” n.p.

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 New A.I.F. Indoor Theatre

By Sears Eldredge

Neither the sudden reversal regarding their gymnasium playing space, or the “Selarang Incident,” stopped the Aussie concert party from performing the show that had been in its final rehearsals. On Sept. 30th, Keep Singing—their first original revue written by Slim De Grey and Ray Tullipan—opened at a hastily arranged venue somewhere in the Selarang Area. This was also the first appearance of the troupe under their new leadership and name, “The A.I.F. Concert Party.”

It wasn’t long before they found another location in Selarang for their permanent theatre: a bomb-damaged garage. Frazer Harvey and his construction crew went to work and quickly got the new space transformed into a theatre that would seat close to a thousand audience members. 

 The A.I.F. Theatre in Changi. Wash drawing by Murray Griffin.
AWM #38598.

In Murray Griffin’s drawing you see the new A.I.F. Theatre built into the garage. It was completely open on one side but curtains could be pulled across this opening to shut out any daylight or rain when necessary. Audience seating was in two sections: on the level main floor and in the stalls at the back. All seats were made from split palm logs, but the stalls were supported by large posts made from rubber trees. At the far end is a proscenium with a raised stage built on a foundation of solid oak rifle racks; an orchestra pit in front. Scenery would be improvised from old tenting and anything else they could scrounge or steal. Compared to their old gymnasium theatre, the acoustics in this new theatre proved to be excellent even without a microphone.[i]

Playbill for October ‘42.

The month of October found Prom Concerts still being presented every weekday evening at the Pavilion Theatre in the Southern Area; the “P.O.W. WOWS” continuing with their latest show in the 11th Div. Area and on tour; The Dream still playing at the Command Theatre, and I Killed The Count running at the New Windmill Theatre until another diphtheria outbreak temporarily closed the theatre.


[i] Boardman, J. “Notes,” n.p.

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

Two Master Musicians:

By Sears Eldredge

Denis East

On Tuesday, 29 September at Roberts Hospital, Huxtable was able to see a performance by the “Changi Celebrity Artists” in the Officers’ Ward:

Dennis East and Coles played violin and accordion.[1] George Wall and Aubrey King sang. Fowler and one other masqueraded in women’s clothes, a delightful skit.

Afterwards, East told me about a concert tonight over at Selarang, so at 7 p.m. I met the Windmill Theatre troupe at our gate and marched with them to Selarang. Padre Haig led us and there were about 50 present, including the choir and a few hangers-on. The concert was held in the very pleasant hall, with platform, at the Convalescent Depot. . ..  Dennis East played a Mendelsohn concerto that lasted about 25 minutes. When I asked him on the way home how they had the music for the piano accompaniment he told me that they had written the whole arrangement from gramophone records which they had managed to obtain during their imprisonment![i]

Reginald Renison

In the 18th Div. Area., the brilliant O.R. pianist, Reginald Renison, had started to organize a Symphony Orchestra composed mainly of officers.

“I remember going with him to a rehearsal,” [wrote his friend Fergus Anckorn]. “When he walked into the room, nothing much happened. He tapped the music stand with his bamboo baton and got silence. He then addressed the officers saying, “Gentlemen, I am sure you must be aware that the protocol is that when the conductor enters, the orchestra rises to its feet”. He then walked out, and re-entered, when they rose to their feet as one.”[ii]


[1] A sketch by Ronald Searle of East playing the violin was not made available for this blog. East had lost his original violin in the Battle for Singapore. But he and a friend constructed a new one out of various pieces of wood found in Changi.


[i] Huxtable, 81.

[ii] Anckorn, F. Letter, 17 July 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

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