Television Toppers under the spotlight

It has recently emerged that the musical theatre sequence in the 1955 film The Dam Busters was performed by the Television Toppers dance troupe and filmed in the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith.

The information comes from one of the dancers, Jackie Lee, whose daughter Susie Ball has recently posted some comments on an earlier post on this blog. Jackie is seen second from the right at the start of the routine and second from the left at the end. Unfortunately she can’t now recall the name of the singer.

The whole routine was filmed in a day: the dancers were given their routine to learn when they arrived. They shot the first half before lunch, and the other half afterwards. They were introduced to Richard Todd, playing Guy Gibson, who is seen in the film in the audience. During the song and dance routine, Gibson notices how the spotlight operators on each side of the stage move their lights to follow the singer as she moves from side to side. This is supposed to give him the idea for using intersecting spotlights on the Dams Raid aircraft to keep to a fixed height while approaching their targets. In truth, the idea of using spotlights came from a scientist at the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and they had been installed several weeks before the raid.

In the 1950s, the Television Toppers were one of Britain’s best known female dance troupes and were contracted to the BBC. They first appeared on television in 1953 and are probably best remembered for their appearances on BBC TV’s Black and White Minstrel Show, which ran from 1958 until 1978. The Toppers were also much in demand for personal appearances and openings. Jackie Lee left them in 1958 when she got married.

Jackie also remembers that the soldier-style costumes worn by the dancers were borrowed from the Empire Leicester Square and made by the well known West End wardrobe suppliers, Berman’s. Costumes in this style were very popular during the war, and would have complemented the music used in the sequence. Earlier research published by this blog has revealed the song to be “Sing, Everybody Sing” by John P Long.

[Thanks to Jackie Lee and Susie Ball for their help.]

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Dam Busters in six sheets

Pic: Ray Hepner Collection

A giant six-sheet size poster for the 1955 film The Dam Busters recently came onto the market, and was bought by our old friend, the collector Ray Hepner. He is now having it professionally mounted on linen so that it can be displayed.
Although the size (approx 81 inches square) is known in the poster trade as a ‘six sheet’, the poster was in fact printed in four parts with overlaps (which you can see in the picture above). Because most posters this size were displayed on outside hoardings, and then pasted over the following week, they are quite rare and much sought after by collectors. You do, however, need a pretty big wall on which to display something this size. Clear that space, Jeeves!

BBC repeats interview with Michael Anderson

BBC4 WarFilms

Somehow I missed this BBC4 documentary the first time it was aired in 2013, but I’m happy to say that I caught up with it on Monday evening. The journalist Simon Heffer, who has a longstanding interest in the British war films genre, wrote and presented a fascinating programme which looked at the plethora of 1950s films about the war.
What made it even more interesting were the interviews with the people who were involved with these films. These included the actors Donald Sinden, Virginia McKenna and Sylvia Syms, and Guy Hamilton, who directed The Colditz Story. For me, of course, the star of the show was Michael Anderson, the director of The Dam Busters.
Interviewed in his home in Canada and looking very spry, Anderson described the first time he had heard Eric Coates play the Dam Busters March and knew instantly that this was the music for the film. He also praised R C Sherriff’s script, a ‘masterpiece of understatement’, something that he was keen to preserve in his direction. And he confessed that he was still moved by the final scene, where Gibson tells Barnes Wallis, distraught at the loss of 56 men, that even if all the men had known that they wouldn’t be coming back, ‘they’d have gone for it just the same. I knew them all and I know that’s true.’ Wallis isn’t really consoled, but he accepts what Gibson says, and suggests that the CO should get some sleep. This Gibson cannot yet do, and he delivers the film’s final line of dialogue: ‘I have to write some letters first.’ Without another word, Wallis stumbles out of shot and Gibson marches towards his office, exchanging salutes with a passing sergeant. As John Ramsden remarks in his BFI monograph: ‘It is as fine a moment as actor, screenwriter or director ever managed in a film, and coming at the very end, its result is devastating.’ (John Ramsden, The Dam Busters, Tauris 2003, p.95.)
Anderson has had a long and distinguished career in the cinema. He was nominated for the Best Director Oscar for Around the World in 80 Days (the film itself won Best Picture that year).

Fifties British War Films is being repeated on BBC4 on Friday 12 February at 0140. Or you can watch it on iPlayer for the next four weeks.

 

Sing, everybody – we’ve found the song!

Music1 loresMusic2 loresMusic3 loresPics: Ray Hepner

This blog’s good friend Ray Hepner has turned supersleuth, and had an incredible result. I wrote last week about the music which is heard in a short scene in the film, ‘The Dam Busters’. This shows the actors Richard Todd and Basil Appleby, playing Wg Cdr Guy Gibson and Flt Lt Bob Hay, watching a chorus line perform a song at a London music hall. Neither the song nor the performers are listed in the film’s credits.
Ray has now tracked down the sheet music for the song, which is in fact called ‘Sing Everybody Sing’. The words and music are by John P Long, and it was published in 1942. Long had several hits in the first half of the 20th century, the most notable of which being ‘Oh, It’s a Lovely War’, written in 1915 with Maurice Scott. This of course later provided the title song for the 1960s musical play and film ‘Oh What a Lovely War’.
According to this listing (scroll down), ‘Sing Everybody Sing’ was recorded during the war by Jenny Howard with Victor Silvester and his orchestra. It is not yet known who were the singer and orchestra featured in ‘The Dam Busters’, which was not released until 1955. More may follow.

Update: 5 February 2016
Ray Hepner has sent a new, slightly earlier, piece of sheet music, which shows that the original artistes associated with the song were Ernest Binns’ Arcadian Follies.

Music4 lores
Thanks to Ray Hepner.

In the spotlight

Dam Busters Sing Soldier

Every Dambuster aficionado knows that some scenes in the 1955 film The Dam Busters were fictionalised or embellished for dramatic effect. One of the most famous of these is when Guy Gibson and Bob Hay are seen at a musical in London, and notice how the spotlights are trained from either side to highlight the singer. This gives Gibson the idea of using the intersecting beams from two aircraft Aldis lamps to enable it to fly at a fixed low altitude. (The real story is that the mechanism was devised by Benjamin Lockspeiser, a scientist at the Ministry of Aircaft production, who remembered that a similar solution had been tried out by RAF Coastal Command earlier in the war.)
This scene was obviously filmed in a real theatre – the historian John Ramsden reckons it might have been the London Coliseum – with a real singer and chorus line. The performers, however, do not appear in the credits, and likewise there is no acknowledgement of the writers of the music and lyrics which are performed on the stage while our heroes ponder their logistical problems.
Over the last few years there has been the occasional comment on this blog wondering if readers could come up with the words to the song, and also the names of the writers. After much careful deliberation and repeated listening, the consensus is that the lyric is:

Sing, soldier, as you march along
Sing, sailor, sing a shanty song
Let the sound float around everywhere
Soon the pilots will pick up the air
Boom-tarara! Sing, worker, make a cheerful sound
Let it ring, have your fling, like the birdies in the spring
And sing, everybody, sing!
Sing, soldier, as you march along
Sing, sailor, sing a shanty song
Let the sound float around everywhere
Soon the pilots will pick up the air
Boom-tarara! Sing, worker, make a cheerful sound
Sweet music makes the wheels go round

But still no one has yet come up with the names of the writer or composer. However, this blog’s good friend, Ray Hepner, has hit on another clue. He was recently watching a 1943 film called Variety Jubilee, which has been rereleased on DVD.

-Variety_Jubilee-_(1943)

This stars a number of popular music hall stars such as Marie Lloyd and George Robey as themselves. Amongst the lesser known acts was a man called Slim Rhyder, whose speciality was cycling tricks. In this film, he comes on and does a turn, while the ‘Sing Soldier Sing’ music is performed by the orchestra alone, without a vocal. But once again, there is no credit given in the film to the writers.
So we now know that the song was around in 1943, and could therefore even have been performed in front of real life RAF wartime personnel. The references in the lyrics to soldiers, sailors, pilots and workers would also lead one to think that they were written during the war.
It is quite likely that sometime in the future someone who knows the answer to this mystery will google the lyrics and come across this post. If that is you, then please get in touch!
[Thanks to Ray Hepner]

Listing for Variety Jubilee on IMDB and Wikipedia.

Models on the move

IMG_10371_zpsmmekupri loresPic: © Sean1552

An alert aviation buff called Sean in Wellington, New Zealand, spotted some interesting activity back in October near his workplace. Writing on the Wings over New Zealand forum, he reported: “The rumors that five Lancaster’s were / are stored next to where I work have now proven to be true, as over the last few days I have seen three truckloads of Lancaster parts being put back into storage. These included wings, and engines and other big parts. The trucks were uncovered, so they were not trying to hide anything. Have no idea where they came from but I am guessing Masterton, as that was where there were seen last. Not sure if this means they are going back into storage as there is no further need for them (no film), or they may have finished some filming…. hopefully someone here might know. I know Peter Jackson stores a lot of his stuff here as we are always seeing his WW1 tanks and buses etc being moved in or out usually in the weeks up to ANZAC day.”
A few days later, Sean saw another shipment in transit, and took a series of photographs, one of which is shown above. The fact that one segment of fuselage displayed the code letters AJ-G is of course confirmation that the models were made for the Dambusters film remake. However, as Sean points out, there has been no clue from the notoriously secretive Wingut Films as to when the remake will go ahead.
Sources do continue to suggest that Peter Jackson remains personally committed to the project. This was confirmed in the interview given by Jackson in Oxford in the summer, which appears to have been reported only in the hitherto obscure medium of the website of Exeter College, whose ex-students include JRR Tolkien.

Asked what projects he might want to pursue next, Jackson stated he was in “no rush” to recommence filming. Nor indeed, to return to Hollywood.
“At the moment . . . a lot of the films there are not the sort of films I particularly enjoy. So what Fran and I are probably going to do is make some smaller movies, make some New Zealand movies.
“I’ve got The Dam Busters too: I’ve been working on a script with Stephen Fry over the last few years on and off. But whatever we do over the next few years, it will be quite a lot smaller.”

So there we have it. A small Christmas bonus for Dambusters fanatics.
If you want another treat, then scroll backwards in the Wings Over New Zealand posting mentioned above, and find some great pictures from the New Zealand premiere of the 1955 film:

Dambuster NZ

Bill Kerr, 1922-2014

Kerr
The number of actors left who played parts in the original 1955 film The Dam Busters has been sadly diminished over the last few years with the deaths of Richard Todd, George Baker and Richard Thorp. To this list must now sadly be added Bill Kerr, the Australian actor who played Mick Martin, who died on 28 August.
Like the rest of the cast, one of the reasons he was chosen was because of his strong resemblance to the character he would play. The director Michael Anderson said on first meeting him at a casting session at Elstree, “Gentlemen, Micky Martin has just entered the room.” Despite this, the role required him to spend 90 minutes in make up each day, having a wig, moustache and chucks behind his ears fitted, so that they stuck out more prominently.
Being a genuine Aussie allowed him to critique the accents which some of the other actors had to put on – notably the rather posh Englishman Nigel Stock as “Spam” Spafford (“Get a move on skipper, or you’ll miss the bus!”).
Like Stock and Richard Todd, Kerr had actually served in the army during the war, so donning uniform again held no difficulties. He was also one of the better known of the younger actors who took part: he had already played a flyer in the film Appointment in London, and by the time The Dam Busters was released was a regular on the radio comedy show Hancock’s Half Hour.
He returned to Australia in 1979 and played many roles on the stage, and in TV and film. He died, apparently, while watching an episode of one of his favourite TV comedies, Seinfeld.
Obituaries of Bill Kerr in The Guardian and Daily Telegraph.
Sources used: John Ramsden, The Dam Busters, Tauris 2003