Tag Archives: Brigadier General Beckwith-Smith

“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