Picture the scene outside London’s Winter Garden theatre in 1931. On one side of the stage door is a 17-year-old shy youth who has just bought a day-return rail ticket from Neath in South Wales, clutching a song he has specially written for the star of the show. Barring his way is a burly door-keeper who is determined to keep him out. A voice from within enquires what all the commotion is about.
"It’s only another song-writer wanting to see you."
"Well, he’s only a boy so let him in."
The youth was Harry Parr-Davies and the voice belonged to Gracie Fields who was starring in the musical review Walk This Way. It was a fortuitous meeting because inside her dressing room he discovered a piano being temporarily stored offstage. Gracie invited him to show off his wares and his new song called, inappropriately, "I Hate You", was gratefully received. After that he became Gracie’s full-time accompanist and travelling companion around the world.
Harry was a self-taught prodigy from the age of 4. Born at Briton Ferry and educated at nearby Neath in Glamorgan, as soon as he started infant school he serenaded all his school chums and teachers by playing the piano and leading a hearty chorus of "I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles" — aged all of 5 years!
He was later discovered and tutored by Sir Walford Davies and by his teens was already assistant organist at a local church. It was not long before his world famous mentor recommended a full-time classical music career but things did not quite turn out as expected.
While still only 14 he took an organ exam in London where he was heard by show business impresario Julian Wylie, who invited him to write a song for a new London show he had in mind. It started Harry off on in a new direction.
Throughout the Thirties, in addition to several other hit tunes, he wrote a string of songs for Gracie, including those for all her films, the most famous being "Sing as We Go" from the 1934 movie of the same name. It depicted an economic triumph for a group of redundant mill workers in Lancashire with the music cheering up the population in the face of economic adversity.
Her other films of the period: Looking on the Bright Side; This Week of Grace; Love, Life and Laughter; Look Up and Laugh; The Show Goes On; Keep Smiling; Queen of Hearts; We’re Going to be Rich; and Shipyard Sally were all box-office successes and owed much to Harry’s music and lyrics.
By the time war arrived in 1939 Harry had branched out into writing musicals, and his songs appeared in no fewer than 13 different wartime shows, four of which were entirely his own work.
Black Velvet opened in November 1939, shortly after the war began and included the famous blackout song "Crash, Bang, I Want to Go Home". It was staged at Harry’s favourite theatre, the London Hippodrome and the stars were Roma Beaumont, Pat Kirkwood, Carol Lynne (later Lady Delfont), Vic Oliver, and the South Africans, Max and Harry Nesbitt. Also on board was 5’ 2", 26-stone virtuoso xylophone player, Teddy Brown. The show ran for 620 performances and established Harry Parr Davies among the popular musical elite.
Haw-Haw was a revue featuring the the "Cheeky Chappie", Max Miller, and the adopted American husband-and-wife team of Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon. Come Out To Play featured Sonnie Hale and Jessie Matthews, while Top of the World included the antics of the Crazy Gang and Tommy Trinder, a sure recipe for success. Like the latter, Gangway; and Best Bib and Tucker were staged at the 2,500 seat London Palladium, the biggest theatre in the Metropolis.
The war was still in its early stages and it is not surprising the shows were so popular. Tommy Trinder and the Crazy Gang were almost synonymous with this premier West End venue while Bebe Daniels, Ben Lyon and Vic Oliver became firm radio favourites with their topical weekly comedy Hi Gang.
Harry Parr Davies also contributed lyrics to the stage version of the radio comedy show Happidrome which was staged at the Prince of Wales Theatre. It starred Harry Korris as the theatre proprietor, Mr. Lovejoy; Cecil Frederick as his stage manager, Ramsbottom; and Robbie Vincent as the gormlesss call-boy, Enoch. Other stars of the show included Leslie Hutchinson (Hutch) and "Two Ton" Tessie O’Shea.
Big Top opened shortly afterwards at His Majesty’s Theatre with a young Patricia Burke performing with established favourites, Beatrice Lillie and Fred Emney. "Bea" was the widow of band leader, Sir Robert Peel, who had died young in 1934 but she liked being called Lady Peel. Sadly, the title disappeared with the death of their son Robert who was killed during the war.
By now it was 1942 and hostilities were at their height. Like so many others, Harry was determined to do his bit for the Home Front and, with the help of George Posford, put together a show called Full Swing which opened in April at the imposing Palace Theatre. The stars were husband-and-wife team Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge, involved in a clandestine mission to track down state secrets on behalf of the War Office. The public loved them and their show, which ran for 12 months.
In 1943 although The Knight was Bold had Sonnie Hale as the titled aristocrat dreaming he was back in the Middle Ages, after successfully touring the provinces under the title Kiss the Girls, it became a West End flop and left the Piccadilly Theatre after only 10 performances. But few people noticed, because unfolding at the Hippodrome was a smash hit which everyone wanted to see.
Set amidst Second World War intrigue The Lisbon Story proved to be a huge success and played from June 1943 until July 1944 when heavy bombing forced the temporary closure of more than half of London’s theatres. During this time it notched up 492 performances with Patricia Burke (later to become Jimmy Clitheroe’s mother in the radio comedy series "The Clitheroe Kid"), in the star role of Gabrielle, a theatrical star who escapes from the Nazis in Paris, only to be executed by them during the final scene in Portugal. Press reactions to this ground-breaking musical were mixed, however, "The heroine is shot at the end!" gasped the Manchester Evening News while the Daily Mail described it as "The Gestapo set to Music!"
The public had no such qualms. They were at war and here was a musical bringing Nazi realities right home to the London theatre. With Vincent Tildsley and his Mastersingers colourfully dressed as Portuguese sailors merrily whistling their way through the hit song "Pedro the Fishermen", the show would have run longer had the Luftwaffe allowed it.
Nevertheless, after only three months on tour it returned to the Stoll Theatre for a further 54 performances. It was also turned into a film with Patricia Burke fresh from duty with ENSA, joined by the redoubtable Richard Tauber (now a British citizen), singing "Pedro".
Jenny Jones was about a Welsh miner with 18 children who wanted to make it 21! Another Hippodrome musical, it opened in October 1944 and ran for 153 performances. The stars were comedian Jimmy James and Carol Lynne but it was cherub-faced Welsh choirboy soprano, Malcolm Thomas, who captivated the audience each evening.
Harry’s end-of-war offering was the revue Fine Feathers (1945), starring Jack Buchanan and staged at the Prince of Wales. It was followed a year later by The Shephard Show at the Prince’s Theatre. Produced by the impresario Firth Shephard, it starred Douglas Byng, Marie Burke, Richard Hearne (Mr. Pastry), Eddie Gray and Arthur Riscoe.
Amazingly, while still writing music, Harry enlisted in the Irish Guards but when Gracie Fields was asked to join ENSA she said it would be impossible without her accompanist. He was therefore extradited specially for the job but then, even more surprisingly, joined the Lifeguards based in Knightsbridge. At least he was close to the West End!
In addition to all his other work, Harry wrote several screen songs for George Formby, the banjulele-playing goof from Lancashire who was actually far from being the gormless person he made out. Many of George’s Thirties and wartime hits came straight from Harry’s crafted musical manuscripts.
In 1949 he teamed up with Manning Sherwin to compose Her Excellency. Produced by Jack Hulbert it starred his wife Cicely Courtneidge playing the role of an upper crust British ambassador in South America. Another Hippodrome success, it ran for 252 performances.
Dear Miss Phoebe followed at the Phoenix Theatre in October 1950 with lyrics by Christopher Hassall who had served Ivor Novello so well. It was an adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s "Quality Street" which told the tragic story of a Napoleonic war hero returning to a sweetheart he does not recognise. Peter Graves and Carol Raye took the leads in a show which had 283 curtain calls.
Penultimately — but nobody could have guessed it because the composer was arguably at his peak — came Blue For a Boy, with lyrics again by Harold Purcell. It opened at His Majesty’s Theatre only a month after Dear Miss Phoebe got under way with the large rotund figure of cigar-smoking Fred Emney dressed in a blue romper suit and making life a misery for his stepfather and new bride. The arch-clown Richard Hearne added to the fun of a show which ran for more than 650 performances.
In 1953 came Harry’s swansong. The Glorious Days starred Anna Neagle dreaming she was the reincarnation of several famous women in history, including Nell Gwynn and Queen Victoria, a role she had played before. The setting was not really in keeping with the new Elizabethan times, however, and it only managed eight months at the Palace.
Although not a stage production, the 1949 film Maytime in Mayfair was a musical related to London’s West End. Michael Wilding, Anna Neagle, Peter Graves and a young Thora Hird did the honours in a plot which saw the manageress of a dress shop thwarting all her rivals and ultimately winning the day.
According to Harry’s sister, Billie David, her brother had little social life and lived alone in digs. His shyness and phobia of doctors proved to be his undoing. On 14th October, 1955, instead of seeking medical help he took to his room and died from an internal haemorrhage caused by a perforated ulcer.
It was an unnecessary death and one which robbed the musical theatre of a man in his prime. Only 41 years old, he had many more active years of service ahead of him and, probably because he never acted or sang in his own shows, became something of a forgotten figure.
Only now — thanks to a small dedicated band of enthusiasts — is the work of Harry Parr Davies being properly recognised.
SHOWS AND REVUES INVOLVING
THE MUSIC OF HARRY PARR DAVIES
Black Velvet 1939
Come Out To Play 1940
Top of the World 1940
Big Top 1942
Best Bib & Tucker 1942
Full Swing 1942
The Knight Was Bold 1943
The Lisbon Story 1943
Jenny Jones 1944
Fine Feathers 1945
The Shephard Show 1946
Her Excellency 1949
Dear Miss Phoebe 1950
Blue for a Boy 1950
The Glorious Days 1953
Reproduced by kind permission of This England magazine.