Magazine article The Spectator

Hats Off

Magazine article The Spectator

Hats Off

Article excerpt

I was surprised, if not astonished, to hear that the Michael Flanders and Donald Swann show At the Drop of Another Hat was last performed in New York as long ago as 1967. Was it really 34 years ago? I saw them on stage in London some time before that and both these wonderful performers are still fresh in my mind as are their gently witty and elegant songs.

The lyricist Tim Rice narrated a two-part tribute to the pair on Radio Two (Tuesday) in Hat Trick, with many extracts from A Drop of a Hat and the sequel. Fortunately, they're preserved on CDs as the shows were recorded by George Martin in a theatre. Martin realised the audience was part of the show and Flanders and Swann's spontaneity would be lost in a studio. There is even supposed to be a video of one of the shows.

They first came together for a revue at Westminster School during the war, Flanders writing the words, Swann the music. As the theatres were closed, theirs was the only revue running in London at the time (Tony Benn was a stage-hand). Both went on to Oxford, Flanders reading history, Swann languages. Swann's interesting ancestry - a Russian-born father with English origins, a Muslim mother from Azerbaijan - encouraged his linguistic talents (his middle name was Ibrahim); he would perform songs in Russian and Greek. Flanders, a tall, impressive figure, was destined to become a great actor but contracted polio while serving in the Navy off the coast of North Africa. It was so severe an attack that he remained in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He tried to return to Oxford but his old college, Christ Church, refused him readmission, his daughter recalling that Christ Church told him, `We're not a school for cripples.'

Flanders took up radio acting and in 1948, Swann approached him to collaborate in writing songs for other performers. It was the musicologist John Amis who encouraged them to perform themselves. Flanders was self-conscious about his disability but at the Dartington Music Summer schools, where they were helping out, Amis persuaded them to mount a cabaret which the classical musicians present loved. Amis, incidentally, in his 1994 obituary of Swann in the Independent, described him as `one of the great melodists of our time'. An offer from a theatre in Notting Hill led them to the West End in 1956 with A Drop of a Hat, which ran for two years. …

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