Plays For Yesterday

Beyond The Fringe promotional poster (1961).

While I was doing the initial research for what eventually became The Larks Ascending, a history of comedy on BBC Radio 3, I was surprised and intrigued by how often ‘name’ performers would fit these decidedly smaller scale projects around significantly higher profile engagements, notably Kenneth Williams recording spoof documentary series A Tribute To Greatness in between lengthy theatrical stints and film work. The reasons for this are quite simple – in the days before repeat fees and merchandising revenue really existed, and each programme or show or performance stood or fell on its own terms, it literally didn’t pay to turn down anything if you would otherwise have had a gap in your schedule. As Kenneth was so fond of reminding chat show audiences, “it’s all work, darlings!”.

This did cause me to consider, however, how this contrasted with today’s general working model for comedians, and how stage shows that now would be available to stream while they were still on an active run just faded from existence back then, despite the fact that they probably earned their stars the biggest money of all at the time. I wrote a few pieces playing around with this thought – you can find another one specifically about the changes in approaches to merchandising in Not On Your Telly, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here – and this theatrically-slanted one remains a particular favourite of mine. In fact you can find an expanded version of this in Not On Your Telly as well.

If you’ve been hanging around here for a while, then it’s likely you will be aware of how obsessed I am with sixties television and music, and in particular the manner in which the ephemeral nature of popular culture back then means that much of it is now lost forever, or at least shorn of its context to the point of indecipherableness.

Although lost TV is more celebrated, and perhaps rightly so, the same can also be true of music, particularly with songs that formed part of a band’s live set in those pre-Official Souvenir Tour DVD days. How many of you out there were left utterly baffled as to why Pink Floyd’s Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast – an audio collage of ambient instrumental jollity, looped bits of speech and vague kitchen sounds – or The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Music For The Head Ballet – little more than an unremarkable fairground-esque harpsichord waltz – should be occupying prominent positions on albums, only to later discover that the latter literally was music for a ‘Head Ballet’, used in live shows to accompany an alarming display of choreographed head-jerking, and the former a truly ridiculous ‘only in 1970’ frying-bacon-on-stage sonic experiment with accompanying breakfast-related whimsical commentary from the band? Incidentally, in the lone surviving live recording, you can actually hear the audience having hysterics at said whimsy; and they say prog rockers had no sense of humour?

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band performing the Head Ballet on Pathe News (1966).

Of course, in all of the above cases and more, a bit of dedicated detective work and indeed educated guesswork will normally fill in the gaps to a greater or lesser extent. When it comes to sixties stage plays, though, you’re pretty much onto a loser from the start. This was, of course, a time when television had yet to reach saturation point and was only broadcasting for a couple of hours a day anyway, and people would still go to the cinema two or three times a week regardless of what was on; demand for the theatre was still equally high, to the extent that browsing through the various available listings and adverts almost suggests that they were struggling to produce enough new shows to meet demand. And there were so many fascinating-sounding off-the-wall ventures in those pre-organised smash days too – Private Eye’s satirical musical Mrs Wilson’s Diary, early Doctor Who cash-in Curse Of The Daleks, the endless outbursts of whimsy from Anthony Newley and Lionel Bart (the latter’s Blitz! having a poster that boasted possibly the most ‘sixties’ design of all time), and many, many more long-forgotten efforts that Dominic Sandbrook could potentially use as a shorthand indicator of how the tide was turning either ‘for’ or ‘against’ something in wider society.

Sheet Music for Far Away from Lionel Bart's Blitz! (1962).

And yet, precisely because of that lack of a cross-platform multimedia market, there’s very little evidence of any of these stage shows left, especially those that – like most of the above – closed after a couple of weeks and were promptly forgotten about. There’s the reviews, publicity photos and scripts – though you can’t always guarantee that one will still be around, or even then that it’ll be easy to access – and in some cases a soundtrack album, and in some even rarer cases a big screen adaptation or truncated television presentation (though that said most of those will be long wiped anyway), but getting a sense of what the overall production was like and how the performers approached their roles is nigh on impossible. Even Harry Secombe’s famous turn in Pickwick – which, lest we forget, was where latterday standard If I Ruled The World originally came from – was never really captured as anything beyond an Original Cast Recording. Well, there was a BBC television film based on it, but that’s not strictly the same thing.

Revivals are all very well and good but the problem is that they’re exactly that – a modern day take on something where nobody’s quite sure what the original was like. Yes, miracles do sometimes happen – not least the rediscovery of the long-lost television taping of Beyond The Fringe in pretty much its entirety – but if you’re looking at something from before the home video boom then chances are you’re going to struggle to get much detail on it. And even some from after that; surprisingly, there doesn’t appear to be a recording of either of the stage shows spun off from The Young Ones in circulation. Yes, you can dig out details, statistics and box office totals until you’re literally submerged by paperwork, but none of it can really tell you what the actual performances were like. So if you want to draw conclusions from something more substantial than a list of dates, you’re best off sticking with television and pop music.

Mind you, having said all that, if anyone out there can figure out exactly why the cast of radio sitcom The Glums saw fit to record a vocal version of the theme from Soviet-irking early BBC spy thriller The Little Red Monkey, then you’re doing better than anyone else ever has.

Curse Of The Daleks promotional poster (1965).

Buy A Book!

You can find an extended version of this feature in Not On Your Telly, a collection of columns and features with an emphasis on ‘lost’ media. Not On Your Telly is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Pre-ordered for the interval, obviously. If they did that in those days.

Further Listening

You can hear more about a more recently stage play that’s disappeared from history – the Ernest Hemingway musical Too Close To The Sun – in the edition of Looks Unfamiliar with Carrie Dunn here. There’s also a similar look at the stage production of When Harry Met Sally with Emma Burnell here.

Further Reading

I’ve Heard Of Politics, But This Is Ridiculous is a feature on That Was The Week That Was and some of the other less well-remembered offshoots of the satire boom; you can find it here.

For more Curse Of The Daleks-related material, please visit the excellent The Space Museum here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.