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 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 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
 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.
 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