Tag Archives: Audio Clip

A Tale of Two Questions: St Spiv, the musical

 

Hello Ronnie, how are ya? Ronnie, I want you to say hello to my son, here, this is Jeff
– Jeff, this is Ronnie Duncan.

Until recently, one of the more puzzling artefacts in the Ronald Duncan Collection was a recording of a set of musical theatre songs identified as ‘Music for Ezra Pound’s plays’. This identification did not ring true – the greeting and introduction recorded on the tape were very clearly addressed and it seemed almost as unlikely that Duncan should be involved in discussions about music for Ezra Pound’s plays as it did that Ezra Pound would be known as ‘Ronnie’. However, aside from the songs, the only significant pieces of evidence offered by the recording as to its origin were that one of its participants was named ‘Jeff’ and that he was the son of the other speaker. Here, then, was our first question: What was this recording? Without knowing all of Duncan’s work intimately, and with seemingly little else to go on, the recording joined a number of cryptic items that we hoped to understand better as the project unfolded.

The question was answered when Caroline Walter (project archivist) found a reference to a musical production of Duncan’s novel St Spiv in a letter from Jerry Wayne. With this information and some very helpful correspondence with Jeff Wayne’s assistant, Lindsey Key, Caroline was able to confirm that the recording is a demonstration tape of a musical theatre adaptation of St Spiv by none other than Jerry Wayne and his son Jeff Wayne, the creator of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.

Ronald Duncan, proudly highbrow, seems an unlikely partner in the creation of a musical, but the collaboration came about through Eric Glass, agent to Ronald Duncan and London agent to Jerry Wayne. Glass, a recurrent figure in the collection, was himself a well-known character within literary and theatrical circles who had also worked briefly with MI5 during the Second World War in an operation to divert funding for Nazi spies in Britain away from its intended recipients. When informed that Jerry Wayne was interested in producing musicals for the London stage, Glass suggested a number of stories that might be suitable for adaptation, one of which was Duncan’s St Spiv. Arrangements were made, the script, lyrics, and music were written, and, after arriving in the UK to set things up, Jerry and Jeff went to stay with Duncan for a few days at Mead Farm, Welcombe, to work on the musical.

Jeff Wayne playing the piano at Mead Farm, c. 1966.

A farcical tale of a Cockney spiv who finds himself possessed of miraculous healing powers, St Spiv had existed in a number of formats before it came to the attention of Jerry Wayne in 1964 – as a short story (The Cockney Circus), as a play and, latterly, as a novel (first published in 1961). By mid-1965, its latest incarnation was being foreshadowed by the press and, on the 10th of June 1965, The Stage reported that Jerry Wayne was to present it in London in the September of that year, noting that the musical was based on Duncan’s novel and that ‘Mr. Wayne [had] adapted the book and [written] the lyrics to music composed by his 21-year-old son, Jeff Wayne.’ In May, a similar article from the Evening News, London, had reported that St Spiv would be presented in ‘the fall’, as well as a production of Two Cities (based on Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities), also adapted by Jerry and Jeff Wayne. Of these two musicals, only Two Cities was to appear before the public proper. Although it received a club performance and professional demonstration recording, St Spiv was never to make it to the open theatre. But why? This was our second question.

In a letter dating from the 10th of March (probably of 1966), Jerry Wayne asked Duncan to send him the reviews of St Spiv ‘… when it played at the new Arts Theatre’, and, in the same letter, he dealt with a number of script editions needed before setting a date for the show to appear. The tone of the letter was a positive one, and Wayne ended it by writing ‘I therefore feel it is absolutely imperative that no further time is lost in accomplishing this rewrite.’ Artistic differences, then, seem not to have been the cause of the show’s demise; likewise, and based on the lively and catchy numbers preserved by the informal demo-tape, it seems unlikely that quality was the problem. Instead, and as in many cases of musico-literary collaborations, it seems that a rift opened between the collaborators on the matters of rights and royalties. In a letter to Duncan dated the 6th of May 1966, Eric Glass suggested that negotiations had reached an impasse – the 30% required by Duncan was too distant from the 15% offered by the co-producer, Stanley Gordon. Taking the view that he could negotiate no further, he wrote

… I think in the circumstances all we can do is try and sell the film rights or find a musical author or lyric writer who may be prepared to start from scratch on your original novel.

It is very sad that after all this time the deal has come to nought…

As a coda to this post, here is the end of the last song from the show, which is both accidentally apt and rather enjoyable.

 

 

Written by Andrew Cusworth. We are very grateful for the assistance of Jeff Wayne and his assistant, Lindsey Key, and for Jeff Wayne’s permission to share parts of the demonstration tape and the photograph of Jeff Wayne at Mead Farm.

It’s National Poetry Day!

To celebrate Exeter Poetry Festival and National Poetry Day I have been tweeting one of my favourite Ronald Duncan poems every day this week. Why not take a look at the @UOEHeritageColl twitter feed and read a few?

Ronald Duncan published five main collections of poetry during his lifetime (Postcards to Pulcinella [1941], The Mongrel [1950], The Solitudes [1960], Unpopular Poems [1969], For the Few [1977]). In addition to these he also published a five-part epic poem ‘Man’ (1970-74) and many other individual poems. On National Poetry Day I’m moving away from the polish of published works and taking a look at some of the unique manuscripts held within the collection which offer an insight into Duncan’s life and writing process.

The poet at work

Portrayals in film and TV mean that I often imagine the writing process as a deeply organised one. The poet sits in front of his favourite typewriter, or pulls out a pocket notebook carried for such occasions, and reels off lines of beauty conveniently supplied by a voiceover. Working on the Ronald Duncan Collection has swiftly disabused me of this notion.

While the collection does contain many workbooks, and these seem to be an integral part of Duncan’s early working process, it also contains poems scribbled on paper plates, napkins, the backs of old letters and various assorted scraps of paper. To me this suggests a furious kind of franticness to the writing, an urgency that the poem must be recorded now while it is still fresh. One of the paper plates has clearly been used before being re-purposed and though it isn’t perhaps the romantic ideal of a typewriter, there’s a certain charm to the thought of Duncan wolfing down a finger sandwich or sausage roll before flipping the plate to compose a poem.

 

The gift of words

Like many other poets, a great number of Duncan’s poems are dedicated to family members and friends. Weddings, birthdays and christenings are all celebrated in verse and the grief of death is likewise immortalised. The idea of poetry as a gift is well established.

Duncan, however, takes this idea a step further than most. A manuscript poem dedicated to his granddaughter Karina reads ‘No Easter egg, my child, because I forgot to get one’ and provides a poem as a substitute. Though I’m not sure that I personally would have appreciated this exchange of chocolate for poetry as a child, it provides a lovely glimpse of family life. Another poem is dedicated ‘For Rose Marie, as good a craftsman in exchange for her parsley sauce’.

 

The art of poetry

Many of Duncan’s poems use colourful imagery to describe the natural world and a small proportion of the manuscripts in the collection have been illustrated to reflect this. The illustrations tend to be painted onto the manuscript and vary from simple bright swirls of colour to abstract representations of the poems’ subjects. The vibrant designs give a tantalising glimpse of what was in Duncan’s mind when composing the poems.

 

The final word

However familiar I become with the Ronald Duncan Collection, I am always aware that my interpretation of Duncan’s work is only one possibility. With this in mind I leave you with an audio clip of Ronald Duncan talking about poetry, one line of which I particularly enjoy;

“If you can’t hear me it is probably because I don’t speak loud enough, and if you don’t understand me it is because the poetry isn’t any good”

(please note that in some browsers the ‘Play’ button does not seem to appear. If you click before the timer on the left hand side of the sound bar it should start playing)

The Writer that Rocked

 

In the swinging sixties the bedrooms of Britain vibrated to the sounds of Rock and Roll. Opposing the monopoly of the BBC, pirate radio stations were broadcasting popular music to the masses, with none more infamous than Radio Caroline.

News cutting of an article by Ronald Duncan

50 years ago today, indignant at this flagrant disregard for its laws, parliament passed the 1967 Marine and Broadcasting Offences Act. This Act banned not only the act of broadcasting, but the operation of broadcasting equipment, or the knowing collaboration or assistance with the broadcasting of Pirate Radio stations. This meant that for the first time writers supplying Radio Caroline with scripts would also be risking jail.

Ronald Duncan was one of a number of writers who openly campaigned against the act on the grounds of freedom of speech. Writing a number of newspaper columns on the subject and going so far as to openly claim that he had broadcast from Radio Caroline every day for a month in protest, despite attesting that he hated pop music.

Extract from a workbook showing a handwritten script for Radio Caroline

A handwritten script and recording held within the Ronald Duncan collection suggest that Duncan likely followed through with his claim to write for Pirate Radio, though as these were written under the generic pseudonym ‘Mr X’ it would take a great deal of research into the depths of Radio Caroline’s archives to see if he did indeed ever spend a week aboard the ship. Either way, his campaigning on behalf of the pirate stations’ freedom of speech earns him a small place in the
annals of radio history.

Listen to a short extract of a recording of Ronald Duncan’s script for Radio Caroline below.