Tag Archives: New Windmill Theatre

Changi Concert Parties: Jan.—Dec. ‘43

By Sears Eldredge

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

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

Renewed Troop Deployments

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

“A Riot of a Night”

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

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

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

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

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

Badger’s Green

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

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

 

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


[1] Federated Malay States Volunteer Force.

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

[3] Netherlands East Indies.

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


[i] Wilkinson, Diary. 14 Jan. ’43.

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

[iii] David, 46.

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

Note that all the documents in this series of blogs reside in Sears A. Eldredge Archive in the De Witt Wallace Library at Macalester College, 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota, 55105

Sear’s book, Captive Audiences/Captive Performers: Music and Theatre as Strategies for Survival on the Thailand-Burma Railway 1942-1945, was published by Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014, as an open-access e-book and is available here: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/thdabooks/22

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

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

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

Return to Normal

By Sears Eldredge

After their return to regular quarters, the “P.O.W. WOWS” continued their revues, one of which featured a new song by Bob Gale, “Some Day I’ll Come Back To You, Dear”:

 Someday troubles will be over,

One day right will conquer wrong.

Peace will come to stay forever,

And at last, we shall view,

All our dreams come true.[i]

On Saturday, 10 September, Australian Medical Officer Charles Huxtable, as he had done many times, accompanied two patients from Roberts Hospital to see the Variety Show in The New Windmill Theatre (the same show that had been running prior to the “Selarang Incident”).[1] There he saw Fergus Anckorn perform his “Egg Trick,” described here by Anckorn’s close friend, Norman Pritchard: 

He [Anckorn] did this show where he takes a handkerchief out of his pocket — silk handkerchief — stuffs it in his hand, opens his hand up: it’s not laying there. . . handkerchief has gone into the egg: the egg shell.  And he explains this to the audience tries to make them feel that [they’re in on it] . . .

But just in case you’re not quite sure, he breaks the egg into a tumbler . . . and the egg and yolk falls out. So – the egg trick.[ii]

A marvelous trick, but the backstory about how the egg for this trick was obtained is even more remarkable: 

[Anckorn] saw the Jap Commander, who gave him a bit of paper to go to the store to get the egg he needed for the show. But when he got to the source of supply, the Jap had asked him how many he wanted. So, he just realized there was no number on the order. 

            So he says, “Fifteen” . . . 

And I thought he was going to do this egg trick every night for two weeks — with fourteen eggs. And Lester Martin, Gus, and I got a pin — each a pin — and totally took a section of the egg out — a section of the shell out large enough to get the yolk out, put it in a saucepan, and made a lovely omelet . . . which the three of us ate.  

And the next day after the show, the General pulled him in and asked for an interpreter.

            “What happened to the other eggs?”

So Gus said ([he] had to think pretty fast), “Rehearsals!” And he got away with it.[iii]  

Back in the India Lines, I Killed The Count, opened on 17 September to tremendous applause. “Jack” Horner’s comic abilities in his Cockney character role almost stopped the show.[2][iv]Searle’s interior setting with scrounged, or POW-made furniture, was much praised. The sketch of the set design in Searle’s IWM Art folder is done in red and black on brown paper.[3] It shows a standard three-fold interior setting with a door in each wall. Notes on the sketch show how the setting could be constructed from a series of flats pinned together. And at the left of the sketch are notes listing the furniture and props required.

Toward the end of the month, another new theatre (“The Glade”) and concert party (“The Gladiators”) appeared with a production of Old King Cole performed by the S.S.V.F.[4] POWs in the Southern Area.


[1] Huxtable’s unpublished diary has been instrumental in recovering this history of entertainments in Changi..

[2] Horner was also passionate about theatre and the publication of his diary by his family has been an invaluable resource.

[3] The image was not made available for this blog.

[4] Singapore Straits Volunteer Forces.


[i] Anckorn, F. collection, n.p.

[ii] Pritchard, Interview, 28.

[iii] Pritchard, Interview, 28-29.

[iv] Horner, Diary, 48, pb.

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 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