Tag Archives: NAAFI

Two New Concert Parties

By Sears Eldredge

The 18th Div. Dramatic Society was given the N.A.A.F.I. building as requested and they set right to work making the necessary structural improvements.[i] They would christen this new space “The “New Windmill Theatre.”[1] 

Locating a suitable play from the scripts available in Changi’s libraries had proven more difficult, but A. A. Milne’s 1923 “absurd comedy,” The Dover Road, was finally selected.[ii]  After their first rehearsal in the N.A.A.F.I., Wilkinson thought the show would go off well. And then reality set it: “Webb and his 39 men went off this afternoon. I wonder if we shall ever see them again.”[iii] July 10 . . . 

. . . was a full dress rehearsal with an audience of about 50. It consisted of all the people who have done so much to get the theatre and the show ready, e.g., Sappers, Scenery Artists, Electricians and so on. It went well and we had all the props, food, etc. The “Kippers” have been most realistically made by the cook at “A Mess”, Div. H.Q.[iv]

During the month, another new Entertainment Unit appeared in the 18th Div. Area with a modern dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar performed in St. George’s Church, a converted mosque, situated next to the Officers’ Barracks. It was produced by Alan Dant with costumes and settings by Ronald Searle, one of the Royal Engineers in their midst. 

Searle, who would gain enormous fame after the war for his satirical cartoons of British life, became a costume and set designer for several concert parties in Changi.[2] His design concept for Julius Caesar was heavily influenced by Orson Welles’ sensational 1937 modern dress adaptation of the play in New York which interpreted the play as the rise of Fascism. Searle’s set designs for the first part of the play show a fixed set of arches and how they could be employed for either interior or exterior settings.

The Dover Road

11 July was the opening night of The Dover Road performed by “The New Windmill Players” at their new indoor theatre. The scratch orchestra quickly put together to play pre-show and interval music, became known as “The Nitwits.” It was led by Jack Greenwood, who had been a professional trumpet player in civvy street, and recently arrived from Java with a detachment of British POWs. With him came an American POW, the “angelical pianist,” Jack Cooper. Eric Bamber, a British O.R., joined these musicians as their drummer.[v]

In the audience for opening night was D. S. Cave, who was amazed at the renovations which had taken place in the old N.A.A.F.I building:

The Windmill . . . has been converted into a small theatre by the addition of tiered seats. Owing to a shortage of cut wood the rear and higher seats have no floor and patrons sit like pillar saints, high above the floor. The curtains bear a painting of a Malay girl in an abbreviated sarong and a smile, and a Chinese girl playing a lute without even a smile. Round the walls are some neat cartoons. One shows Mr. and Mrs. Blimp holding aloft shooting sticks flying the Union Jack, captioned ‘Remember you are British; sit still as the siren sounds’. Another depicts an army field urinal with an arrow pointing outside. This is matched by one showing a matron guarding a door marked ‘Ladies’ and an arrow pointing to the heavens.”[3][vi]

And contrary to expectations, they had lights! – the POWs had been able to build a small power station which provided the needed electricity.[vii] But there was no set per se for the show, only a backdrop, a window frame suspended in air, and some furniture that had been scrounged or made in the camp. To overcome for this difficulty, a character called “Prologue” verbally set the stage for the audience.[viii]      

The opening night had been planned as a gala event with an invited audience: “The G.O.C. (General Beckwith-Smith) was in attendance as it was a special programme for his birthday,” noted Wilkinson. “There was a large audience of invited guests, consisting of all Unit Commanders, Senior Officers of the Division and representatives of O.R.s . . . The G.O.C. made a speech at the end and the whole thing had a real first night atmosphere. The show went well.”[ix]

With the success of their first offering, “The New Windmill Players” immediately made plans for their second. The Dover Road was scheduled to run until 14 August by which time all the troops in the 18th Division would have seen the show as well as patrons from other Areas.

Casting Crisis

But on 20 July the Players had a casting crisis on their hands when the I.J.A. confirmed the rumor that had been circulating in the camp. With thousands of POWs on their hands in Changi and Singapore and relatively few I.J.A. or I.N.A. forces to guard them, the Japanese greatly feared that a breakout might be organized. To prevent such a possibility, all the Senior Officers above the rank of Lt. Colonel were ordered removed from Changi and sent overseas, supposedly to Japan. They were to leave on 21 July – the next day. It was, in Wilkinson’s words, “the greatest blow we have had since we surrendered.”[x] With Lt. Col. Dillon and Archie Beavan (members of the cast) scheduled to go with them, it would end the run of The Dover Road unless understudies could be quickly found. They were. Cpl. Oliver Thomas (formerly of “The Optimists”) and Capt. Tunbridge, were given four days to learn their lines before they had to go on stage.[xi] Capt. Wilkinson took over as producer-director of the fledgling company.

That evening, General Percival was in the audience as the guest of honor, and he came with all of his Malayan Command Staff along with General Beckwith-Smith[4] and the Australian G.O.C.[xii] This performance was supposed to be their farewell concert. But the 21st came and the officers’ departure did not happen. It was postponed until the end of the month.

On 30 July, the “St. George’s Players” opened their second Shakespearean production, Macbeth, produced again by Alan Dant with sets and costumes again by Ronald Searle. It would tour to four different venues within the 18th Division.

[1] The “Windmill” in the titles referred not only to the “flash” of the East Anglian 18th Territorial Division, but may also refer to the well-known London theatre of the same name.

[2] . In Searle’s IWM Art folders are costume and set designs for Julius Caesar. Unfortunately, these were not made available for this blog.

[3] It was Ronald Searle (and, most likely, Derek Cooper) who had painted the murals.

[4] 18th Division G.O.C.

[i] Wilkinson. Diary. 11 June ’42.

[ii] Wilkinson. Diary. 15 June ‘42

[iii] Wilkinson. Diary. 18 June ’42.

[iv] Wilkinson. Diary. 10 July ’42.

[v] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #5.

[vi] Cave, 9.

[vii] Cave, 9.

[viii] Bamber, IWM Interview, Reel #5.

[ix] Wilkinson. Diary. 11 July ‘42.

[x] Wilkinson. Diary. 17 July 42.

[xi] Thomas, Fax, 31 March 01.

[xii] Wilkinson. Diary. 17 July ’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

The 18th Division Players

By Sears Eldredge

In response to the success of Malayan Command’s Arms and the Man (and perhaps a little sense of rivalry), 18th Div. H.Q. requested that Capt. Charles Wilkinson of the Northumberland Fusiliers, form a Dramatic Society.[1][i] Canvasing the 18th Division Area for an indoor location, the Entertainment Committee found a N.A.A.F.I.[2] building with a stage that, if it could be acquired, could be easily remodeled to fit their purposes.   

The N.A.A.F.I. building in the India Lines, Changi, Singapore.
Photograph by Capt. Charles Wilkinson.

Over in the Selarang Area, “The A.I.F. Malayan Concert Party” had also located a potential indoor venue – the former gymnasium of the Gordon Highlanders – where they could perform additional shows. Here they could hold their audience’s attention for a longer period of time – fifty minutes rather than their half-hour tour shows. So, they put everyone and everything they could muster on stage—songs, instrumentalists, comedy sketches, a magic act, and a ballroom dance number, as well as the ventriloquist, Tom Hussey, with “Joey,” his dummy—for Sing As We Go, their first show in this new indoor locale.

Highlights of their next show, Cheerio, included a telepathy act with Syd Piddington and Russell Braddon that would become one of their great concert party acts,[3] and a piano duet by Herb Almond and Fred Stringer.                 

How these two pianos were “acquired” are intriguing stories. One piano – an upright – had been obtained without the Japanese knowing about it.

One night, some months later, a party of engineers, led by Sergeant Keith Stevens of the 2/12 Field Company, making use of one of the gaps in the fence, made their way stealthily to an unused building in the former British naval base, in which a piano had been discovered. Without anyone’s authority they took possession of the heavy Robinson upright and carried it through the scrub and swamps back to the camp, a distance of about two kilometres. This was a daring and highly dangerous exercise, for if the lads had been discovered outside the wire they probably would have been treated as escapees; and the usual penalty for attempting to escape was death.[4][ii] 

“The Piano.” Cartoon by George Sprod. Courtesy of Michael Sprod.

The other piano – a grand – was actually acquired with the help of the Japanese. Some Australians on a day-long working party cleaning up the debris at Raffles College of Singapore University found it. As Boardman tells the story,

Not a full size grand, but one of the intermediate sizes. And they said to the Japs, “Can we take it back?” And they couldn’t care less, you see. So to get it on the truck they had to take the legs off, and the pedal. And, of course, when you see a baby grand without those things, it’s just a flat box.

So they put it in there. And then some of them sat on it on the way back. And they came back, and they said, “Boardie, try this out!” And in front of the theatre was all cement. And to play it I had to kneel down. Somehow, they got the Cantonese to build some legs on it and put on its pedals — and we had two pianos then.[iii]

[1] Wilkinson was passionate about theatre and his diary recording the planning of shows, their rehearsals and performances, as well as his attendance at other productions, has been a godsend.

[2] Navy, Army, Air Force Institute. An education and recreation center.

[3] Piddington and his wife would continue this mind-reading act to great acclaim after the war.

[4] This is the treasured upright piano that the concert party would bring back with them to Australia after they had been liberated and now resides at the Australian War Memorial.

[i] Wilkinson, Diary, 3 June ‘42.

[ii] Boardman, J. “The Changi Piano – and the Little Organ – The True Story,” Legacy Torchlight, 8.

[iii] Boardman, J. Interview, 25.

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