Flanders and Swann were an unusual act. Michael Flanders was bearded and confined to a wheelchair, whereas Donald Swann at the piano, had a boyish intellectual look and was referred to by his partner as ‘an all round egghead’.
But who these days would pay to watch a West End musical that had no scenery, two grey curtains as a backdrop and a cast that admitted to hiring their suits from Moss Bros?
In the 1950s Flanders & Swann revue ‘At the drop of a Hat’ was one of the biggest hit shows and consisted of two men in dinner suits, a piano and an audience singing along with the chorus of a song about mud and an hippopotamus.
Although their material was humorous neither considered themselves comedians. Flanders thought himself a writer of comic songs and Swann said of him that he was “at once a poet, an actor and a master of a very curious skill – spontaneous improvisation”.
They performed all over the world, and Swann translated much of their material into foreign languages. Irrespective of the host country, they were always met with enthusiasm while singing about things that were particularly British – like the weather, trains, workmen and snobbery.
Michael Flanders was born on March 1, 1922 the son of Peter Henry and Rosa Laura (Laurie) O’Beime, who was a professional musician. Donald Swann’s parents met while his father was working for the Red Cross in Russia during World War One. He was born in Wales in 1923.
Both attended Westminster School in London and worked together on a revue called Go To It, and then went on to Christ Church College, Oxford. Their paths diverged for a few years. Swann was already a committed Christian and pacifist and joined the Friends Ambulance Unit in Greece where he began his love affair with Greek folk music.
Flanders joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and although he survived a torpedo attack off Africa he succumbed to polio in 1943 and was confined to a wheelchair.
Swann returned to Oxford to study music which is where Flanders met him again wearing tortoiseshell glasses and playing the lute in a production of a Greek tragedy. Swann had already decided an a career in music after having some work accepted for a revue to be staged by Laurier Lister.
The latter invited them to illustrate a talk he was giving at the Bath Octagon and finding that the audience appreciated their work, Flanders and Swann began to work on more numbers. Flanders wrote the words and Swann the music, and they opened in revue on New Year’s Eve in 1956 at the New Lindsey, a small intimate theatre in Notting Hill, London. They called the show .
It was so successful that three weeks later it was transferred to the Fortune Theatre in the West End where it ran for 759 performances and in 1960 transferred to Broadway where it received similar acclaim.
Flanders and Swann’s first animal song, about a family of hippopotamus, and the only one with a repeated chorus, became their catch tune:
“Mud, mud. glorious mud
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood
So follow me, follow, down to the hollow
And there let us wallow in glorious mud.”
Listen to a snippet here (click on left of player).
Everybody sang it; they sang it in Russian, in Tongan and Indonesian. Audiences thought nothing of sitting in theatres and singing about mud and hippos, however surreal it may have felt later.
Styles of humour may come and go, but what makes us laugh rarely changes. Those things that made us laugh in the 1950s make us laugh today. Buses, for instance:
“We like to drive in convoys, we’re most gregarious”
Or the weather; after eleven months of snow, wind, rain, hail and no sun:
“Freezing wet DECEMBER then…
Bloody JANUARY again!”
Listen to a snippet here (click on left of player):
On workmen, after the painter has blocked up the plumbing and damaged the carpentry:
“On a Saturday and Sunday,
they do no work at all,
So it was on the Monday morning that the gas man came to call”.
Listen to a snippet here (click on left of player):
Flanders and Swann’s appeal was to the ordinary man frustrated by the conveniences, or rather inconveniences, of modem life. “If God had intended us to fly by aeroplane he would never have given us the railways.”
They reflect on the sad loss of the slow train and stations like Kirby Muxloe, gone forever with white-washed pebble walls and the up-line. They sang about the League of British Bedstead Men and the Society of Left Footed Boots that pollute the rivers – songs that would find favour with the ‘greens’ of today.
Flanders’ humour may have been caustic but Swann later commented on his ability to draw attention to serious matters in a humorous way. The Reluctant Cannibal refuses to eat the man in the pot and his father, ‘ chief assistant to the assistant chief’ remarks that this road can only lead to even more disruption, like not making war.
The first show led to a second – ‘At the drop of another hat’ which was as successful as the first and there were many calls for them to continue performing and touring. But both had other projects that they were more interested in, even though these did not pay as well. Flanders continued his acting career but died suddenly on April 15 1975 from a cerebral haemorrhage whilst on holiday in Wales. They broke all the rules by performing so long and then broke them all again by refusing the calls to return.
But they have left behind their legacy: The Complete Flanders & Swann box set containing all their music from Amazon.
They had become an institution, but as Michael Flanders remarked: “Who wants to live in an institution?”
© John Barber – originally published in Yours Spring Special 1999
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