The Musical Robert Farnon Never Wrote

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Former Radio 2 producer Anthony Wills uncovers the extraordinary tale behind a lost musical of the 1950s

Some readers may recall reading in JIM180 that in 2009 my company Golden Sounds Productions restored and recorded an operetta called A Queen For Sunday with book by Alfred Dunning and lyrics and music by Leslie Julian Jones. Leslie (1910-73) was a family friend who rented a flat in my parents’ house in the 1950s. He had already composed A Queen For Sunday in the late 1940s and was now working on a musical adaptation of the 1941 novel No Bed For Bacon, written by Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon – real name Seca Jascha Skidelsky (known as "Skid" to his friends). Brahms and Simon had written other books together, notably A Bullet In the Ballet (1937).

No Bed For Bacon is set in the time of Elizabeth I (so the "Bacon" referred to is Sir Francis Bacon, who never gets the second-hand bed the Queen has promised him) and tells the story of Viola de Lesseps, a lady-in-waiting who is besotted with the players at the Globe Theatre, and Shakespeare in particular. In order to join the company (which employs only male actors) Viola disguises herself as a boy and impresses Shakespeare and theatre impresario Richard Burbage sufficiently to obtain a walk-on part in one of their plays. During the performance the theatre catches fire and the company is forced to re-locate to the other side of the Thames. Shakespeare subsequently meets Viola at the court without realizing that she is the boy actor, and they fall in love.

I decided to do some detective work on the origins of the show that Leslie Julian Jones was composing and uncovered a remarkable chain of events, which I will now try to summarize.

In 1957 Caryl Brahms had been approached by a young man named Ned Sherrin who had read No Bed For Bacon while at Oxford and felt it might make a good musical. He thought the show should be called What You Will! which, apart from being a very bad pun, was the alternative title to one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, Twelfth Night. The hook was that Shakespeare had named the heroine of Twelfth Night Viola, which implied that he might have had a relationship with someone of that name. Sherrin suggested that his Oxford friend Leopold Antelme should be commissioned to write the score. Antelme, who was four years older than Sherrin, had written the music for several OUDS revues and the two of them subsequently worked on several shows together, including some of the songs in producer Laurier Lister’s Airs On A Shoe String, starring Denis Quilley, which had been staged at London’s Royal Court Theatre in April 1953.

The following year, 1954, Sherrin and Antelme collaborated on a musical, Gentleman Upcott’s Daughter, which they subsequently offered to Owen Read, Head of Drama at BBC Bristol. After a great deal of consideration involving several layers of BBC management it was accepted, and the orchestration was placed in the hands of Max Saunders. Denis Quilley and Jane Wenham (who was to be married to Albert Finney in 1957) were cast in the leading roles.

The show was recorded in Bristol on 8 January 1956 with the augmented BBC Chorus and the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Frank Cantell. Leopold Antelme was present at the recording, which was broadcast on the West of England Home Service just two days later. Antelme requested a copy of the tape but as a failsafe he decided to tape it at home as it was being transmitted.

The show was well received. The BBC Audience Appreciation Report said "These songs, unsophisticated and gay, were the kind to set the errand boys whistling and the toes tapping, and they were woven effectively into an equally simple story." The writers were therefore somewhat disappointed to receive a letter from Owen Read stating that the actual listening figures were not sufficient to warrant a repeat broadcast. It was then that Ned Sherrin decided to approach Caryl Brahms with the idea of turning No Bed For Bacon into a musical.

Antelme now set to work on the score but then discovered that Miss Brahms had also approached several more established composers including Arthur Benjamin (who famously wrote Jamaican Rumba), Larry Adler (then riding high with the theme from Genevieve) and ….. Robert Farnon. Why they turned her down I do not know: it may have been a question of money, or perhaps they were simply too busy. The task eventually fell to Leslie Julian Jones, who was an established composer of revue material for the likes of Hermione Baddeley and Hermione Gingold, as well as light music pieces including Postman’s Knock. Antelme took no further part but two of his numbers ended up being used in the finished show: a setting of Shakespeare’s Fear No More The Heat O’ The Sun (words from Cymbeline) and a song called The First Day Of Summer, which had been performed as a duet by Denis Quilley and Jane Wenham in the afore-mentioned BBC broadcast.

Eventually What You Will! was finished, and in 1957 it was tried out in an amateur production at the West Horsley Village Hall in Surrey. Leslie and his wife, the choreographer Hazel Gee, had already produced two revues for the West Horsley Institute Players, an amateur society which also contained several professional actors. Brahms and Sherrin attended a performance and were impressed. My father and I recorded it on a Grundig machine and the tapes were submitted to actor-manager Bernard Miles, who was looking for a production for his newly opened Mermaid Theatre in the City of London. Miles turned it down in favour of Lock Up Your Daughters!, a bawdy romp based on an 18th-century comedy, Rape Upon Rape by Henry Fielding, and set to music by Lionel Bart with lyrics by Laurie Johnson.

Brahms and Sherrin then changed their minds again and decided to commission Malcolm Williamson (then Master of the Queen’s Musick) to write a completely fresh score for What You Will! The show opened at the Bristol Old Vic in 1959 under the title of the original novel, No Bed For Bacon. Brahms and Williamson were both eccentric and quick tempered and during rehearsals Williamson famously emptied a pint of beer over her head (or wig, actually)! The production received a favourable review in the Times and undertook a brief tour of the provinces including Croydon and Golders Green: it failed, however, to attract audiences and subsequently disappeared. Brahms and Sherrin went on to write I Gotta Show, a black re-telling of the Cinderella story which was presented at London’s Garrick Theatre in december 1962, starring Cleo Laine, Elisabeth Welch and Cy Grant. This time the music was written by Ron Grainer and conducted by Peter Knight.

Nearly 30 years later after What You Will!, in 1998, an extraordinary thing happened. A film called Shakespeare In Love, starring Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare and Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola, swept the board at the Hollywood Oscars. It was so clearly based on No Bed For Bacon and this was taken up by the Daily Mail and other papers, who approached the screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard for comment. Stoppard said he had glanced at the book but was not influenced by it. By then I was working for BBC Radio 2 and seized the opportunity to raise the matter with Ned Sherrin when we both attended the Vivian Ellis Musical Theatre awards: but he "didn’t want to know". My theory (and it is only a theory) is that some kind of financial deal was reached with the estates of the original writers, but Brahms and Simon and Leslie Julian Jones were all dead, so there was no-one else to ask.

There the matter lay, but I wanted to ensure that What You Will!, of which I still had the tapes, did not vanish forever. I played it to the critic Mark Steyn, who had written and presented some Radio 2 documentaries for me, and he agreed. Leslie Julian Jones’ daughter, Candida, who is now a freelance TV producer, had been pleased with my reconstruction of A Queen For Sunday and was happy for me to do the same for What You Will!. Budgetary constraints forced me to limit the project to just four songs, two by Leslie Julian Jones and two by Leopold Antelme, all of which had been sung in the show by Lady Viola. I dusted down the tapes and sent them to master arranger Paul Campbell, who was working with John Wilson on the Proms concerts of Hollywood and Broadway musicals and had done a sterling job on A Queen For Sunday.

The problem was that neither Candida nor I had a copy of the score or even the script, so Paul and I had to transcribe the songs laboriously from the rather primitive tapes, after which I decided to arrange them for soloist, ladies chorus, piano, double bass, drums and percussion. I had recently seen a production of Jerry Herman’s Dear World starring Betty Buckley at the Charing Cross Theatre and been impressed by a young singer named Katy Treharne. Katy auditioned for me alongside two other singers and won by a mile. My old Radio 2 friend Annie Skates, who now works as a vocal coach on The X Factor and whose group Capital Voices is much in demand for concert work, supplied the chorus, and the songs were recorded, with Iain Sutherland conducting, at Resident Studios in Willesden Green in May 2013.

At that very moment something equally astonishing happened. Out of the blue Candida received a letter, forwarded by her agent, from Basil Ede, who had played the part of Shakespeare in the 1957 production. Basil, who is now 82, enclosed a photograph of himself as the Bard and said how much he had enjoyed playing the part and what an inspiration Leslie and Hazel had been to the company. The show was especially significant for him as he had met his wife, who was in the chorus! Basil went on to become a world famous bird illustrator. At the age of 38 he suffered a stroke but managed to teach himself how to paint with his other hand. Basil knew that Chip Coveney, who had played Lady Viola, was also still alive and living in France. Meanwhile I had searched the internet and found that Leopold Antelme was also still with us. Leopold, now 86, has kindly provided much of the information for this article. By the time it appears in JIM I shall have been to his home to present him with a copy of the recording and listen to his vintage recording of the BBC broadcast referred to above. I’ll also send the original Lady Viola a copy of the CD: I think she will be astonished to hear the songs she sang 56 years ago.

To bring the story right up to date, The Disney Corporation have now taken an option on the film of Shakespeare In Love, and I am convinced that in the not-too- distant future I shall be sitting in a West End theatre watching Shakespeare In Love – The Musical…. so the show that Robert Farnon never wrote will reach new audiences.

This article appeared in the August 2013 issue of ‘Journal Into Melody’

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