Mr. Michael Flanders
The Times (London), 1975
Michael Flanders, the actor and lyric-writer, who has died at the age of 53, was long familiar on the London stage, particularly in the two-man entertainment with Donald Swann where he described himself as "the big one with the beard who writes all the words and does most of the talking" (both of them, he said, "for want of a better word", sang). Since a severe attack of Poliomyelitis while serving in the RNVR during 1943 he had been confined permanently to a wheelchair.
Born in London, in March, 1922 and educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, (where he read History), he directed and acted for University societies and began as a professional at the Oxford Playhouse in l941 as Valentine in You Never Can Tell. Later he served as an able seaman in a destroyer on convoys to Russia and Malta, and after his ship was torpedoed during the African landings as an officer in Coastal Forces. Now, he contracted polio; at last, when out of hospital, he became a writer, and later a broadcaster.
Donald Swann, a light composer and accompanist, had been with Flanders at Westminster (they put on a revue there in 1940) and the pair started a professional collaboration with material for various intimate revues, particularly for three devised by Laurier Lister -
Penny Plain, (St. Martin's, 1951), to which, among other things, they contributed "Surly Girls" with decor by Ronald Searle, and "Prehistoric Complaint"; Airs on a Shoestring (Royal Court, 1953) for which they were the principal writers (and in which Max Adrian sang " Excelsior" and the company joined in "Guide To Britten "); and Fresh Airs (Comedy, 1956) where again, most of the work was their own. Presently - and this was the zenith of their association - they became performers themselves. On New Year's Eve, 1956, they put on a new show At The Drop of a Hat, described as an " after-dinner farrago", and modestly-presented and wittily filled out; it opened on the bare stage of the little New Lindsey Theatre at Notting Hill Gate but went on at once to the West End and a run of 759 performances. It was then that London heard "Tried bv the Centre Court", "The Hippopotamus" ("Mud, mud, glorious mud"), and "The Honeysuckle and Bindweed", "Misalliance", and other songs that enabled Flanders and Swann to hold a theatre on their own.
They would sustain the entertainment, in various forms and in many places. Thus, they played, for example, throughout the United States (New York, 1959) and in Australia and New Zealand (1964); Flanders was married in New York to an American girl, Claudia Davis. The show developed into its second programme At The Drop of Another Hat in 1963; this had two London scenes - at the Haymarket and the Globe - and from it came such things as "Slow Train", "Armadillo Idyll", and what a critic called the celebration of old brass bedsteads in any normal English pond.
Flanders, in his difficult circumstances, kept an unchallenged warmth and urbanity. During his career he made innumerable broadcasts of all kinds on radio and television; at one stage he was chairman of The Brains Trust. He wrote the libretti of two operas; translated (with Kitty Black) Stravinskv's The Soldier's Tale - and in 1962 appeared as The Storyteller in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Aldwych, London. In 1964 he received the OBE.
Time for a chorus of glorious mud
The Daily Telegraph, 19th June 1993
The Peterborough column
By Quentin Letts
DEATH stares Donald Swann in the eye. Swann, composer, pianist and former
partner of the late Michael Flanders, has been struck by cancer. With
typical self-effacement he has decided to go public with his condition.
He tells the story well, so well that one curses the disease that has put
this peaceful, thoughtful man on a life expectancy of weeks. 'It is rather
haunting,' admits Swann, in the Sixties half of one of the best-known comic
turns in the world. 'The idea that you do not know how much time is left
gives life a new intensity, so I have a feeling that, as well as sleeping
and resting a lot, I am also racing around.'
Swann, 69, first noticed something was wrong last year on a trip to Russia,
where he had terrible backache. Tests found cancer of the prostate gland,
spine and pancreas. He describes his battle since then in a coda to a new
edition of his autobiography, Swann's Way, to be published later this month
by Arthur James.
There came, first, a spell in a hospice, where one day he performed a
concert with one of the nursing staff. Within minutes everyone was joining
in a chorus of 'Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud'. Slowly he learned to face up to his
disease, and to 'riding downhill' to the next world.
Despite the sensation of 'letting go, letting go', he has already lived
beyond his doctors' prediction of three months. He felt well enough to
travel to the tiny Greek island of Kasos. At the airport he used a
wheelchair, just like his old partner Flanders. Swann recalls: 'I thought
'from this position he wrote all the lyrics which enabled me to pay for this
holiday'. It heartened me to think that again he had touched my life. Once
more, Flanders, I tip my cap to you'
He could play the fool at the drop of a hat -
Composer whose famous partnership with Michael Flanders put the melody into
mud, mud glorious mud
The Daily Telegraph, 25th March 1994
DONALD SWANN, the composer and entertainer who has died aged 70, was the
musical and comedy partner of the late Michael Flanders; in their revues
they epitomised English nonsense humour in the good-natured tradition of
Flanders's lyrics - whether about London omnibuses, gasmen or animals - were
usually satirical but never bitter or heavy-handed. Swann's sprightly
melodies, which he played with an admirable touch on the piano, were larded
with musical jokes.
The Hippopotamus Song, with its chorus 'Mud, mud, glorious mud', was their
most celebrated number and was translated into 18 languages; Swann himself
sometimes sang the chorus in Russian.
Two of their revues - At the Drop of a Hat (from 1957) and At the Drop of
Another Hat (from 1963) - enjoyed long runs in the West End and New York and
toured around the world. Flanders's confinement to a wheelchair meant that
the whole performance was delivered from a sitting position; there were no
special effects, and nothing but Swann's piano and a lamp-stand for props.
The entertainment rested on the songs, Flanders's monologues and the comic
rapport between the pair. Swann appeared as the boyish subordinate who would
listen with lively interest while his partner conversed with the audience,
and then occasionally go 'slightly berserk' as he tried to hog the stage
with a turn at the piano.
'It is an astonishing entertainment,' commented the late W A Darlington in
The Daily Telegraph. 'When the curtain rises, your natural reaction is to
wonder how they will keep things going for the whole evening. But once their
insidious brand of lunacy gets hold of you, you believe they might easily
keep things going for a week if they wanted.'
Swann was not only musically inventive and dexterous but also accomplished
the rare feat of listening in an entertaining fashion.
'Sometimes,' Darlington noted, 'he will sit quiet with quick darts of head
and eyes which remind me of a big bird on a perch. Sometimes he will give a
sudden plunge of restrained ecstasy as one of his partner's shafts strikes
home. Sometimes he merely looks interested, but he never goes out of the
picture or fails to contribute to it.'
Though Swann collaborated with a number of other artistes, the music he
wrote without Flanders never enjoyed the same popular acclaim.
Many of his compositions reflected both his Christian beliefs and his desire
to modernise church music. These included an opera, Perelandra (after C S
Lewis's allegorical story Festival Matins) and three books of new carols.
But Swann's serious work was criticised for lacking 'musical personality'
His sincerity was not in doubt, though. Swann was a lively participant in
Church affairs, and in 1964 delivered a sermon in St Paul's Cathedral in
which he claimed that satire and song could cleanse the soul from the
dreariness of ordinary living.
He also participated in religious programmes on radio and television.
Towards the end of his life he joined the Society of Friends.
Donald Ibrahim Swann was born at Llanelli on Sept 30, 1923. The family
history was exotic. Donald's great-grandfather, Alfred Trout Swan, a draper
from Lincolnshire, emigrated to Russia in 1840 and married the daughter of
the horologer to the Tsars.
At some point the Swans acquired a second 'n' in their name.
The family, though resolutely English, was deeply involved in St Petersburg
Alfred's son became a manager in the Russo-American India Rubber company;
his son, Herbert (Donald's father), was a medical student at the time of the
Russian Revolution and married a Muslim nurse from Ashkahabad. Recruited
into the Red Army, at the end of 1919 he escaped with his wife to Britain,
where he found a job as an assistant to a doctor in Llanelli.
He then acquired a practice in the Walworth Road in London, so young Donald
was raised in the Elephant and Castle. His mother died when he was 11, but
he could remember her singing Russian gipsy songs and accompanying herself
on the guitar, while his father played the piano. The boy learned both
He was educated at Westminster, where he met Michael Flanders and first
performed in a revue with him; he also studied piano and composition as a
special student at the Royal College of Music. Swann went on to read Russian
and Modern Greek at Christ Church, Oxford - though his university career was
interrupted by the Second World War.
In 1942 he registered as a conscientious objector and joined the Friends'
Ambulance Unit. Later he transferred to the Friends' Relief Service and did
three years refugee work in Greece and the Middle East.
After the war he returned to Christ Church and took part in revues and
dramatic productions. Shortly before coming down in 1948 he had a song
accepted by the director and producer Laurier Lister. Thus encouraged, he
decided to try to earn a living as a composer and accompanist.
Michael Flanders was then freelancing as a lyric writer, and together they
began to contribute songs to London revues - among them Airs on a Shoestring
(1953) and Fresh Airs (1956), which won an Ivor Novello award.
Swann did not work exclusively with Flanders, though. He wrote the music for
the revue Pay The Piper (1954) and collaborated with Philip Guard for the
musical play Wild Thyme (1955).
His first joint performance with Flanders was in a show at Whistler's
Ballroom in Cheyne Walk in 1950. At the Drop of a Hat opened at the small
New Lindsey Theatre Club in 1956, and Flanders and Swann were amazed at its
At first they shunned the offer of transferring to the larger Fortune
Theatre, being more concerned with their burgeoning careers in broadcasting
and composing. But after 'some 48 to 72 hours of no sleep' they accepted.
At The Drop Of A Hat opened at the Fortune in January 1957 and ran for two
years. It then transferred briefly to the Edinburgh Festival (under the
title At The Drop Of A Kilt) before opening in October 1959 in New York,
where it ran for seven months. It also toured America from 1960 to 1961, and
Britain and Ireland from 1962 to 1963.
At The Drop Of Another Hat opened at the Haymarket in 1963 and later toured
Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong before returning to the Globe in 1965.
After taking the show to New York from 1966 to 1967 Flanders and Swann ended
their stage partnership - although they remained friends until Flanders's
death in 1975.
Even during the Hat years Swann never excluded other ventures. In 1958 he
set music to some poems by Sebastian Shaw, and performed and recorded them
with Shaw in London Sketches. He later composed music to the poems of other
writers including J R R Tolkien, C Day Lewis, and John Betjeman.
Under the pseudonym Hilda Tablet he wrote satirical music for the poet Henry
Reed for BBC Radio. In addition to church music, his other work included a
number of songs and operas written in collaboration with Arthur Scholey.
His concert entertainments after 1967 included An Evening in Crete, Between
The Bars, A Late Night, Swann With Topping and Swann Con Moto.
Swann was a quondam president of the Fellowship Party, a pacifist political
organisation, and belonged to a number of other humanitarian and pacifist
He published an autobiography, Swann's Way, in 1991.
He married, in 1955 (dissolved 1983), Janet Oxborrow; they had two
In 1992, already ill with cancer (though the disease was still undiagnosed),
he revisited Russia. Early in 1993 he went to the Greek island of Kasos.
Confined in a wheelchair at the airport, he remembered his old friend
'From this position,' Swann reflected, 'he wrote all the lyrics which
enabled me to pay for this holiday. It heartened me,' he concluded, 'to
think that again he had touched my life. Once more, Flanders, I tip my cap
PATRIOTIC PREJUDICE by Flanders and Swann
And crossing the Channel one cannot say much
For the French or the Spanish, the Danish or Dutch;
The Germans are Germans, the Russians are Red
And the Greeks and Italians eat garlic in bed.
The English are moral, the English are good
And clever and modest and misunderstood
And all the world over each nation's the same -
They've simply no notion of Playing the Game;
They argue with Umpires, they cheer when they've won,
And they practice beforehand, which ruins the fun
The English, the English, the English are best
So up with the English and down with the rest
It's not that they're wicked or naturally bad:
It's knowing they're foreign that makes them so mad
Obituary: Donald Swann
The Indenpendent, 25th March 1994
By John Amis
Donald Ibrahim Swann, composer and entertainer: born Llanelli 30 September
1923; married 1955 Janet Oxborrow (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1983),
1993 Alison Smith; died London 23 March 1994.
DONALD SWANN, composer of Youth of the Heart, a bestiary of ditties about
armadilloes, gnus, rhinos and hippos as well as songs about gasmen, London
buses, even honeysuckle and bindweed, will no longer be seen, bespectacled
and touchingly manic, at the keyboard as he was before, after and during the
world-wide fame of the various Drop of a Hat revues, with his bearded,
wheelchair partner Michael Flanders.
Swann was born in 1923 at Llanelli in Wales, of a father who spoke English
always with a strong Russian accent and a mother who came from Transcaspia,
speaking very little English at all. Donald's great- grandfather was a
draper rejoicing in the name of Alfred Trout Swan (the second 'n' comes and
goes in the family like a Cheshire cat). He left Lincolnshire to settle in
St Petersburg in 1840 and it was not until the Revolution that Donald's
father decided to return to the land of his ancestors. Herbert was a doctor
who had married a Muslim nurse called Naguime and brought her to England; he
qualified again in the UK and by the time Donald's sister Marion was two
Herbert was a glorified locum tenens in Wales.
When Donald was three Herbert Swann bought a practice in the Walworth Road,
Elephant and Castle, and there the two children grew up, Donald at first
going to Dulwich College Preparatory School and then to Westminster School
as a King's Scholar. The family was hard up and it was some time before a
good upright piano was installed above the surgery at No 92. Herbert and his
brothers were all keen one-piano-four-hands duettists (a Russian speciality)
and they had a large collection of the classics and the Russian repertoire
which Donald and his family used to play; and myself, too, for I had become
friends with Donald at the Prep during our last year there, 1935.
By this time Naguime had died and English became the language of the
household. Although Donald never spoke to me about his mother, I think he
felt her loss very deeply; his sister was at school, his father was busy
with his patients, and Ada, the wall-eyed daily, was handy with the macaroni
but not motherly.
Donald Swann was assiduous in the classroom but wild in the playground,
pitting himself in the 'break' against a line of boys before collapsing into
protracted fits of giggling. His table manners were grotesquely awful. At
the annual hobbies exhibition he showed manuscripts of little piano pieces
penned in his spidery, almost unreadable writing - alas, it got worse over
the years. A letter from him took longer to read than it took him to write.
At this time Swann's musical interests were entirely classical with strong
leanings towards Rachmaninov - he could give a nifty reading of the fearsome
E flat minor Etude Tableau, opus 39, also of pieces by Scriabin (Donald's
uncle Alfred had written the first biography of this composer in the English
language) and Nicolai Medtner (with whom the family was on visiting terms in
his Golders Green exile).
Swann would occasionally regale me with details of life at Westminster: how
the Scholars had been punished because at a rehearsal for the Coronation
they had spoonerised the cry of 'Vivat Regina'; of playing tennis with a
certain Ustinov; of a politically minded Tony Benn already distributing
socialist leaflets; of the young Von Ribbentrop putting the weight; of beach
games with Peter Brook, and of his lessons as an external student at the
Royal College of Music, studying piano with Angus Morrison and composition
with Hugo Anson. During his later years at school he had come into contact
with a boy 18 months his senior, a budding actor called Michael Flanders.
After the Second World War started the boys were evacuated first to Lancing,
in Sussex, and then to Exeter University, where Michael and Donald wrote a
few funny songs together. The war took over before long.
After a year at Oxford Swann had a tribunal, where he was registered as a
conscientious objector; he joined the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) and
slogged away with the Quakers, whose thinking he found congenial even though
his duties included operating a mortuary trolley, digging latrines, cleaning
out operating theatres and even shaving the pubic hairs of high-ranking
Then came service in Egypt, Palestine and Greece. Swann fell in love with
Greece, the people, the language and, above all, the music, which entered
his soul and left there for the rest of his life those quirky rhythms and
exotic turns of decoration and melody. One day, near the Albanian border, he
flung his arms wide 'embracing the countryside around me which had been home
to so many different races - Albanians, Greeks, Turks, Bulgars, Romanians,
Vlachs - and exclaimed: 'What a beautiful thing it would be if this were all
one country] Surely we are all one]' ' His remarks were taken down by a
Greek soldier, he was branded as a corrupting influence and relieved of his
post. He came home in 1946.
Back at Oxford Swann added modern Greek to his Russian studies. Musically he
had gone 'light' by now. He still listened, nostalgically perhaps, to pieces
like Rachmaninov's Third Symphony, but a disastrous school performance of a
Beethoven concerto, the early numbers with Flanders, and revues in the FAU
had shown him the way his life was to go. 'Dreaming spires, my foot] I
played the piano for Sandy Wilson's revues.' But for his songs he needed a
writer, and fate saw to it that he met Michael Flanders again, the budding
young actor now crippled by polio, stuck in a chair for life, denied his
livelihood and even refused re-entry into his old college.
At this stage both of them had several small irons in the fire; Flanders was
working in radio, Swann was discovering and setting Betjeman and dishing up
some numbers inspired by Greece. The impresario Laurier Lister accepted some
of these for his revue Oranges and Lemons. This type of sophisticated revue
was popular at the time and others followed: Penny Plain and The Lyric Revue
in 1951 (the latter included one of Swann's best-known songs 'The Youth of
the Heart', lyric by Sydney Carter), Airs on a Shoestring, Pay the Piper and
Fresh Airs (1956). The stars of these shows were the likes of Joyce Grenfell
(some of whose lyrics Swann set), Max Adrian, Elizabeth Welch and Ian
Wallace. Wallace had such a success with Flanders and Swann's 'The
Hippopotamus' ('Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud . . .') that a bestiary evolved
around him and his fruity bass-baritone voice: 'Elephant', 'Warthog',
'Whale' and 'Rhinoceros'. Recordings, song-publishing and performing rights
began to provide a living.
Up to this point the general public heard only others performing the
Flanders-Swann material; but in private the pair had built up a performing
technique, either demonstrating to the stage performers or doing turns at
parties. Hitting the West End gave Swann ideas of expansion: 'I was going to
write the next Oklahoma.' Maybe because Flanders had no taste for writing
musicals, this never happened. But Swann tried, with various other writers.
The centenary of the 1851 Exhibition gave birth to The Bright Arcade, but no
backers were found for this delightful and ambitious score that included a
massive multi-faceted aria sung by Jennifer Vyvyan at parties to great
effect. 'Angels' were found, in the shape and bank balance of Joyce and
Reggie Grenfell no less, for a fantasy called Wild Thyme, but it came and
went during a summer heatwave in 1955. Similarly, a charming dream-piece
written with Sydney Carter called Lucy and the Hunter also bit the dust. A
romance that lasted longer than either was licensed in 1955, during the run
of Thyme, when Swann married one of his favourite English roses, Janet
Oxborrow, whom he had met at the Dartington Music Summer Schools.
Swann came to help me run the Dartington summer sessions and one year
Flanders came too and they performed a little cabaret one night to their
largest audience yet. Their rapturous reception, plus the loan of our
mailing list, led the pair to chance their arm at a little theatre in
Notting Hill Gate, west London. They called their 'after-dinner farrago' At
the Drop of a Hat. More rapture; and full houses.
From the New Lindsey the show moved into the Fortune Theatre in the West End
and stayed there for two years and a bit. The Royal Family came en masse,
the Cabinet portfolio by portfolio; the pair were applauded, recorded and,
eventually, transferred to New York, where the show took so well that the
years lengthened and the tours spread throughout the United States and
Canada. At the Drop of Another Hat was equally popular and long-running at
the Haymarket in London, in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, London again
and the US again. The last Hat was dropped in New York on New Year's Day
1967, having begun to drop on the same day of 1956.
Since 1991, anybody too young to have enjoyed the show has had a chance to
catch up with the experience, since the Hats are available on three CDs and
a video. Flanders resisted television until the show's very last night. The
video was lost until recently, but one can now see as well as hear replays
of this enchanting show. What made that enchantment? To talk about good
lyrics and tunes, wit and imagination is to scratch the surface. Flanders
was one of the great lyric writers of the century, Swann a genius of a
tune-smith with the rare gift of writing memorable, warm melodies arranged
with elegance and consummate craftsmanship. There is no suspicion of cliche
except in conscious parody. Nothing in Swann is contrived; the music flows
After much deliberation, Swann broke up the partnership. Long stays on long
tours did not suit him or his way of life, and he felt that there were other
things he wanted to write. Post-Hat he never enjoyed the same success but he
composed a lot of music and performed it, alone or with partners, sometimes
with a religious group, sometimes secular. He enjoyed performing and
audiences. He turned to opera with Perelandra (CS Lewis), The Visitors
(Tolstoy) and The Man With a Thousand Faces (Colin Wilson); there is a 'Te
Deum' and a 'Requiem for the Living'; for the old Third Programme he had
collaborated with Henry Reed in some delightful features about Hilda Tablet,
a butch atonal composer. Except for the last named there is nothing in the
music that would have frightened Mendelssohn or Sullivan; the Russian
heritage is there but discernible more in the cut of the melodies than in
the harmony. That is, until the last five years or so. I remember him
ringing me up one day to say: 'My dear chap, I've written some dissonances,
may I come round and play some new settings of Clare and Blake?'
Sometimes I couldn't help reflecting that Swann's passionate and expert
piano-playing - what a tenor thumb he had - seemed an integral part, not to
mention his clear and telling non-singing voice, of the success of these
non-Flanders compositions. Scoring was not one of his gifts and too often,
it seemed to me, dramatic situations relied on pianistic tremolando effects
(what Grainger called 'woggle-notes'). But there is much to explore and once
the so-called 'classical' performers dare to sing Swann's music we shall see
that he was a great deal more than 'the chap at the piano' in Drop of a Hat
that Flanders, some of us felt, somewhat denigrated; although it must be
admitted that Swann went along with this, giving the impression of a manic
I have never met anybody who knew Donald Swann who did not like him; his
friends positively adored him. And he seemed to inspire love because love
was what he was about; it came out in his life and his music. Like any
(other) saint he could mildly infuriate from time to time with his
absent-mindedness and with his seeming inability to see things, sometimes
literally, sometimes metaphorically. But one came to realise that these
minor failings came through his single- mindedness or loyalty or the
depressions that he suffered from. So were they failings?
By the time that his daughters Rachel and Natasha were grown- ups he and his
wife separated. Latterly he found deep happiness with Alison Smith, an art
historian, who had beautifully illustrated his autobiography Swann's Way
(1991), and it was a fearful blow to them that cancer interrupted their
lives and put an end to one of the great melodists of our time. They were
married at St Thomas's Hospital in August last year.
Fortunately Swann latterly recorded nearly a hundred of his songs at home on
his own Bluthner. Included are religious songs like the touching setting of
Quoist's 'Lord, Why did you tell me to love all men, my brothers?'; settings
of Tennyson, Hesse and Rossetti; a Tchaikovsky-like winner called 'Long
Lonely Year' and 'Hat'; favourites like the tender 'Armadillo' and 'The
Honeysuckle and the Bindweed (Misalliance)', 'Gnu' and many others,
including some of the Tolkien settings.
Swann singled out 'Bilbo's Last Song' as one of his own favourites:
Day is ended, dim my eyes, but journey long before me lies . . .
Shadows long before me lie, beneath the ever-bending sky,
But islands lie behind the sun that I shall raise ere all is done;
Lands there are to west of West, where night is quiet and sleep is rest.
Donald Ibrahim Swann, composer and entertainer: born Llanelli 30 September
1923; married 1955 Janet Oxborrow (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1983),
1993 Alison Smith; died London 23 March 1994.
The Times, London, 25th March 1994
Donald Swann, composer and pianist, died on March 23 aged 70. He was born
on September 30, 1923.
DONALD SWANN was the piano-playing half of the double-act Flanders and
Swann, which was formed in 1956 and which thrived for the next decade or so
on a witty repertoire of songs and monologues about gnus, hippopotami, wart
hogs and gasmen. On stage, Swann provided the perfect foil to the large and
genial Michael Flanders, who was always sophisticated and professionally
assured despite being confined to a wheelchair. Swann, on the other hand,
played the willing stooge and the complete amateur peering through his
National Health Service spectacles, revelling in his rare moments in the
limelight and, for much of the time, being forced to listen in rapt silence
to Flanders's ingenious monologues.
The songs they performed ``I'm a Gnu,'' ``The Gas Man Cometh,'' ``The
Hippopotamus Song,'' ``Have Some Madeira, M'Dear'' typified a certain
strand of gently satirical English humour. Flanders's lyrics, though sharp,
were never bitter or heavy-handed, Swann's sprightly tunes were larded with
musical jokes. They needed no other props than a standard lamp and a grand
piano. ``Everything in the programme is as well made as a piece of
carpentry, and this includes the ensemble balance between the two partners,
'' wrote The Times's drama critic of their first musical revue, At the Drop
of a Hat, in 1957, ``Mr Swann, boyishly subordinate, uttering inaudible
protests and hogging the stage whenever he gets a solo; Mr Flanders
urbanely conversing with the audience and keeping his colleague (`the Enid
Blyton of light music') firmly in his place.''
Although he always seemed to be the quintessential Englishman, Donald
Ibrahim Swann was actually born in Llanelli to Russian parents who had fled
the revolution, and grew up speaking Russian as his first language. The
family moved to London when he was three. His father was a doctor, his
mother a Muslim nurse from the Caucasus.
Swann was hence exposed to exotically foreign musical influences from an
early age. His mother sang Russian gypsy songs and accompanied herself on
the guitar, a paternal uncle was a composer and a maternal uncle played the
balalaika. Swann was never far from a piano and composed his first piece at
the age of 13 on the day his mother died, as an antidote to grief. Like
Flanders he was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford.
The two became friends and first collaborated when Swann was 14 on a school
revue. Flanders recalled him then as ``small and beetly'', but said he was
the best pianist in school.
Swann went up to Christ Church in 1941 to read languages, but the war
interrupted his studies. Although he had been brought up as an Anglican, he
had by then become a Quaker and felt obliged to register as a conscientious
objector. But he still saw an active war in the Friends Ambulance Unit,
working with refugees in Greece and the Middle East. Afterwards he returned
to Christ Church to read Russian and Modern Greek, and became president of
the Oxford University Russian Club. Sandy Wilson and Kenneth Tynan both
used him as a pianist in their undergraduate revues and, not long before
graduating in 1948, he had a song accepted by the director Laurier Lister.
Encouraged by this professional endorsement, he decided to set himself up
as a freelance composer and accompanist.
Flanders, who had by this time been stricken with polio and was confined
to a wheelchair, was also freelancing as a lyric writer. The two teamed up
again and contributed songs to revues and shows: Penny Plain (1951), Airs
on a Shoestring (1953) and Fresh Airs (1956). Swann wrote the music for Pay
the Piper (1954) and Wild Thyme (1955). The BBC played his music on both
the Light and Third programmes.
Up until this point, performances of their own comic songs had been
limited to enthusiastically amateurish private shows for friends. Gradually
news of their double-act spread, and they were encouraged to assemble the
best parts into a two-hour revue for which they obtained a short booking at
the small New Lindsey Theatre Club, opening on December 31, 1956. Against
all their gloomy predictions, At the Drop of a Hat received ecstatic
notices and by the end of the month had been forced to transfer to the more
spacious Fortune Theatre. There it clocked up 808 performances and played
to everyone including the royal family and Harold Macmillan, then Prime
Minister, who went twice.
The show ran for three years and transferred to the Edinburgh Festival in
September 1959, where it was known as At the Drop of a Kilt, before
crossing to New York. American audiences, when they first encountered the
pair in 1959, hardly knew what to make of them: ``An over-age altar boy who
is losing his hair,'' began the Herald Tribune's bewildered critic on
Swann. ``Sometimes his head would fly higher than his hands while he was
attacking the piano. In one number he began to cackle noticeably. After a
while, he stopped everything to do a song entirely in Greek.'' But, despite
the self-conscious Englishness of their humour, Flanders and Swann quickly
won over American audiences in the same way they had the British, and after
215 performances on Broadway the revue went on the road for a
coast-to-coast tour of America and Canada.
They returned to the West End in 1963 with a sequel At the Drop of
Another Hat which successfully repeated the winning formula. This time, the
show included an ominous song about nuclear explosives, ``Twenty Tons of
TNT,'' which contrasted starkly with the overall geniality of their other
Through all this Swann had continued to work on other material. In 1958
he performed London Sketches with Sebastian Shaw and in 1961 wrote an opera,
with a libretto by an old Oxford friend, David Marsh, based on C.S.Lewis's
Christian allegory Perelandra. By 1967 he had begun to feel artistically
strait-jacketed by the Flanders and Swann format. Amicably enough in the
circumstances, he and Flanders went their separate ways, Swann turning his
attention full-time to more serious musical pursuits.
He set poetry to music, including Greek narrative verse and works by
Tolkien, Betjeman, Cecil Day Lewis and Sydney Carter. He was an active
churchgoer and, at the 1975 meeting of the World Council of Churches in
Nairobi, collaborated with Dr Donald Coggan, then Archbishop of Canterbury,
to present a new musical version of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. If
none of these later works had the hummability or popularity of earlier
tunes, then Swann expressed no regrets about moving on, and accepted the
predictable requests for ``The Hippopotamus Song'' at concerts with great
good humour. Last year his portrait, painted by Binny Mathews, took its
place in the National Portrait Gallery.
Swann's reflections on Christianity were contained in The Space Between
the Bars (1968). Other books of his were Swann's Way Out (1975) and the
autobiographical Swann's Way: A Life in Song (1991).
Michael Flanders died in 1975. Swann was divorced from his first wife
Janet in 1983. He had been suffering from cancer for the past two years and
is survived by their two daughters, and by his second wife, Alison.
Revue revival gives witty Swann songs a new voice
The Sunday Telegraph, 27th March 1994
By Christy Campbell
THE obituaries of Donald Swann, exemplar of the gentleman comic songster,
last week evoked another age, one of white tie and tails, of elegance and
wit, of cleverness. It all seemed so long ago. Surely no one was still
interested in all that whimsical stuff about gnus and hippopotami?
But, as alternative comics rise unchecked and crudity becomes essential,
musical revue is back. Kit and the Widow, Flanders and Swann's spiritual
heirs in the two-men-and-a-grand-piano tradition, have just finished a
10-week residency in London's West End.
And last week the three women who comprise Fascinating Aida opened their act
at the Lyric, Hammersmith, also offering an evening of comic songs. Wit is
back and making money.
'Lyrics you can hear - with the entertainment in the words, not all that pop
stuff,' is the secret of success according to Kit Hesketh-Harvey, half of
Kit and the Widow, who was smitten by the gnu song as a schoolboy.
Flanders and Swann classics concerned big-game animals, gasmen, iron
bedsteads, libidinous Madeira-drinkers and omnibuses. They celebrated the
eccentric furniture of English life. Kit and the Widow cover similar ground
but make modern concessions with topics such as doubting bishops and Aids.
Fascinating Aida are up to date too, their elegant veneer giving a gloss to
adultery, political correctness and supermodels - 'any subject except
paedophilia,' according to their lyricist, Dillie Keane.
The point is that both acts present themselves in the tradition of revue.
Kit and the Widow acknowledge their creative debt - last Thursday they
interrupted their sell-out show with a moment's silence on the news of
Swann's death. 'The teenagers in our audience looked terribly sad,' said Mr
Hesketh-Harvey. At their height in 1959-60, Flanders and Swann were one of
the biggest comedy acts in the world. At the Drop of a Hat ran in New York
for more than 1,000 performances.
Swann, the Welsh-born composer, and Flanders, the nautically bearded
lyricist confined to a wheelchair by polio contracted during the war,
seamlessly picked up the salon-entertainment tradition of Noel Coward.
The entire Royal Family turned up one night in 1957 to sing the gnu song in
chorus from the Dress Circle. The Queen Mother loved it.
Then along came the satire boom and protest singers to make it all look
terribly old-fashioned. The pair drifted apart. Flanders died in 1975.
But the formula is working for Kit and the Widow. 'We can be as smutty and
political as any so called alternative comedian,' says Mr Hesketh-Harvey.
'It's amazing what you can get away with when your material is delivered in
a clipped accent.'
The Widow (his nickname - his real name is Richard Sissons) exudes a bashful
diffidence from the piano as the show progresses through witty dissections
of government policy and modern manners.
Princess Margaret is a fan, just as she was of Flanders and Swann - and the
pair are available for engagements at grand country-house weekends. They
were booked for last year's Conservative Party Conference - but turned the
offer down. 'We have an anti-fox-hunting song - 'Nobility and vermin at the
ditch - and it's hard to know exactly which is which',' Mr Hesketh-Harvey
says. 'But we've done that number at hunt balls and got way with it.'
Flanders and Swann also delivered more than English whimsy. The night after
their royal patronage, Harold Macmillan visited the show. He was observed to
smoke a large cigar, sing along to the hippopotamus song with Lady Macmillan
and laugh at an improvised lyric called There's a Hole in My Budget. The
Prime Minister was applauded as he walked to his car.
Times have changed. Kit and the Widow's and Fascinating Aida's material is
rougher and their lyrics are tougher than the gentler wit of Flanders and
Swann. But the charm is the same. 'And,' confides Mr Hesketh-Harvey, 'we're
dead suave as well.'
Follow me, follow down to the hollow
The Times, London, 10 August 1994
by Kate Bassett
Under Their Hats, King's Head, N1
"MUD, mud, glorious mud." Many's the time I merrily fudged my way
through those immortal lines when scarcely more than a burble in my baby
bath. Not until now, naive as I am, did I know who was responsible: the
musical double act of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. Taking off in the
mid-1950s, they lightly entertained Broadway and West End audiences both
satirising and epitomising postwar Britishness until they parted in 1965 as
the wackier Beyond The Fringe comedy boom boomed.
Under Their Hats is a retrospective revue of their numbers with comic
monologues and the history of their careers intertwined. Performed by a
black-tie cast of six, that distinguished old warhorse Moray Watson among
them, the show pays tribute to the talent of this singing and piano-playing
team. ``I'm a gnu. How do you do?'' runs one of their greatest hits. I have
to say I ceased to find this sort of nonsense enormously amusing soon after
casting my nappies aside. However, some of the audience attending press
night, definitely not born yesterday, were guffawing and singing ``Nothing
quite like it for cooling the blood'' (from the classic ``Hippopotamus
Song'') as if they were having the time of their lives. I felt a certain
You probably had to be there in the 1950s if you are fully to appreciate
this calibre of humour restaged. Although they were more decorous than
contemporary ``rock'n'roll'' stand-up, Flanders and Swann were not
consistently sophisticated intellectually and artistically. Some of the
numbers, like the ``Song Of The Weather'' are not worth preserving. The
basic jokes, repeated choruses included, seem slow-moving today.
On the other hand, Flanders's lyrics, hoarding great lists of adjectives,
are crammed into Swann's helter-skelter pastiche scores. Such innocent fun
can be heartening. The numbers get bogged down in insincerity when the cast
put on their serious faces and sing about TNT. Louise Tomkins, required to
play the dolly girl parts, looks as if she may break out in a simper.
But overall this is a spry production with several zippy performers. Most
notable are Duncan Wisbey and Stefan Bednarczyk (with a touch of Richard
Stilgoe and an operatic voice): both dexterous pianists with acting ability,
a fine sense of the silly and an assured stage charm. Meanwhile, Susie
Blake makes a pleasing sloth singing upside down, and Watson is in fine
fettle in his loopy monologue about man pitted against the olive.
American producer who took Beyond the Fringe to Broadway
Alexander H Cohen
The Times, London
24th April 2000
Alexander H. Cohen, Broadway producer, was born on July 24, 1920. He died on April 22 aged 79
ALEXANDER H. COHEN achieved his greatest successes as the American producer of a series of small, intimate entertainments such as At the Drop of a Hat with Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May.
On a different scale, he was responsible for a series of epic New York stage productions including the 1964 Hamlet with Richard Burton, The Homecoming by Harold Pinter, and Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy with Geraldine Page, Michael Crawford and Lynn Redgrave. Broadway, however, will best remember him as the impresario who brought the Tony Awards to national television and invented the Nights of 100 Stars.
Amid all this he also produced seemingly endless revues, starring the likes of Yves Montand, Maurice Chevalier and Marlene Dietrich.
A colourful and prolific showman, Cohen was a product of the golden age of Broadway, when one man could afford to put on a play or a musical. His second production, Patrick Hamilton's Victorian thriller Angel Street, proved to be one of his biggest hits, running for 1,295 performances. It was later made into the film Gaslight with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman.
But, along with other theatrical producers, he found it increasingly difficult to draw a scream from his audience: "What TV has done is usurp our place," he told an interviewer. "If you spin your dial after 11pm, you will find five or six things that will scare you to death." Increasingly he found himself immersed in comedy and musicals.
Cohen was quick to spot the New World's love affair with the British stage, and during the 1950s he was a regular visitor to London scouting for productions to import to New York. After his Flanders and Swann success of 1959, he transported the complete London Coliseum production of Aladdin, with its cast of 75, to Broadway. And in 1965 he cajoled the London County Council into parting with a supply of London street signs, which he erected on Broadway to publicise the Sherlock Holmes musical Baker Street.
By this time he was producing shows on both sides of the Atlantic, having launched himself in the West End with The Doctor's Dilemma in 1963, a collaboration with the London production office of H. M. Tennent. He opened his own business in London six years later and soon had four shows running simultaneously.
But Cohen was persistently involved in squabbles of one sort or another. He railed against the "atrocious manners" of London theatre critics who accepted two tickets but used only one, keeping the spare seat as a place to park their coats. And after Marlene Dietrich gave an interview in 1973 about his management of her television show, he issued a writ for libel.
The Tony Awards began in New York in 1947, but when he took over as producer in 1967 Cohen expanded the format to include numbers from the best musical nominees and sold the concept to the ABC television network. The Tony Award broadcast often revolved around a theme such as the renaming of a theatre or a tribute to a Broadway composer. Cohen drove the operation for 20 years until a disagreement with the American Theatre Wing. He also produced other television extravaganzas, including the Emmy Awards.
Alexander Cohen was educated at New York and Columbia Universities but dropped out in order to make some money. He began his career producing Ghost for Sale at Daly's Theatre, New York, in September 1941. It failed spectacularly. Nor was it his only flop: other expensive failures included Jerry Herman's Dear World with Angela Lansbury, and Richard Rogers's last musical, I Remember Mama.
In 1998 Cohen took to the stage himself in a one-man revue called Star Billing at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre, in which he reminisced with self-deprecating humour about his long and eventful career as well as offering pearls of wisdom for the future of the theatre.
His last show, NoŽl Coward's Waiting in the Wings, starring Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris, is currently playing on Broadway.
Cohen married Jocelyn Newmark in 1942. His second wife was Hildy Parks, whom he married in 1956. She survives him, as do their two sons and a daughter.