Tag 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

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

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