As the A.I.F. concert party got reestablished, each unit within the Selarang Area was ordered to provide a platform stage for the entertainers. The entertainers had to improvise everything else they needed to put on a show, including settings, costumes, and props. Australian POW S. Kent Hughes described this situation in his epic poem of their lives as prisoners, Slaves of the Samurai:
Performing in the sunset’s after-glow
In convalescent trousers, royal blue,
A nearly clean white shirt, a hat or two,
A waistband black, and one or two stage props,
With only palm tree fronds for scenic drops.[i]
Murray Griffin’s painting of the “AIF Malayan Concert Party” in its’ early days on tour around the Selarang Barracks area depicts the scene Hughes described in his poem. Griffin had been sent with the Australian 8th Division to Malaya as a war artist not knowing that he would have three and a half years as a POW in which he would produce an extraordinary collection of sketches and paintings documenting the lives of the Australian soldiers in Changi POW Camp. Later, when the Concert Party moved into permanent quarters, his artistry would also be employed in designing sets for their shows.
Musical instruments, Jacobs wrote “were hard to get, and we got no assistance from the Japs, but it was surprising what we found tucked away in the men’s kits. We finished up with a portable organ, several trumpets and cornets, violins, clarinets, a banjo, and two piano accordions.”[ii]
It was Oswald “Jack” Boardman, a slender, dark-haired, unassuming young soldier everyone knew as “Boardie,” who played the small portable pump organ (harmonium) “like he had been born with it.”[iii] The harmonium achieved a kind of mythic stature within the A. I. F. camp during this early period of their captivity:
The centerpiece — an organ frail, whose frame
From week to week was never quite the same,
As wire and slats were added to prevent
Disintegration of the instrument — . . .
In Changi camp it reached its greatest height
Of popularity and sheer delight . . .
No singer in the street, no country priest,
Would guess that in a prison camp — Far East —
A rickety and old harmonium
Could cause such happy pandemonium.[iv]
George Sprod was not quite so sure that it was a “happy pandemonium.” He thought the soulful accompaniment of the harmonium made it difficult for the performers to do their best.
Such music as they were able to conjure up came from an ancient harmonium, the church strains of which had an inhibiting effect, it must be said, on the ebullience and sparkle of the song and dance men. I mean, you can’t do much in the way of light-hearted cavorting to an instrument that at any time seems likely to break into ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ or ‘Tell me the Old, Old Story’.[v]
[i] Hughes, 93.
[ii] Jacobs, 16.
[iii] De Grey, 30.
[iv] Hughes, 95.
[v] Sprod, Bamboo, 62.
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