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
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
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 At the Drop of Another Hat
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."