Banned Ballads, Noël Coward, a miscarriage of justice and an itsy-bitsy-teenie-weenie bikini
Remembering words of songs might get you into trouble.
If I’d retained my lessons at school as well as I remembered words of songs, I might have come top of my class.
I particularly liked funny songs – called novelty songs, I later discovered – such as Charlie Brown and Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. I can still remember all the words today. It’s an achievement that’s served no useful purpose in my life, but at least those two songs never got me into trouble.
My mum and dad had few cultural interests and never went to concerts, ballet or the theatre. So from an early age my exposure to the performing arts was limited to Carry On films in which Sid James and Kenneth Williams traded sledgehammer double entendres. But Dad’s younger brother was more outgoing, adventurous and worldly.
Uncle Cedric and Auntie Yvonne thought nothing of driving from Pietermaritzburg to Durban in their Ford Fairlane to listen to celebrity speakers like the popular American psychologist Dr Murray Banks or catch an entertainer at the Hotel Edward’s Hansom Cab. They also bought the records. After listening to Banks on their radiogram, I briefly toyed with becoming a celebrity psychologist and getting paid for saying wise and witty things – preferably to an enraptured audience rather than psychiatric patients.
But the funniest record in Uncle Cedric’s collection was Banned Ballads. Although I couldn’t understand many of the words and didn’t catch most of the jokes, I still found it hysterically funny. My favourite tracks were Balalaika, Spitzikovsky and That is the End of the News. In retrospect, I realise those tracks were associated with the three pillars of the performing arts I knew so little about – music, ballet and live theatre.
The show – recorded in 1959 in front of a live audience – was introduced by radio personality Clark “Clakkie” McKay: “Good evening to you all and welcome to the Hansom Cab. Sitting at the piano behind the BIGGEST moustache I’ve ever seen is your host and entertainer Bill Williams!” I began wondering how a cab could be handsome but was then caught up in the first song about a “luscious, dark-eyed maiden”.
Bill Williams chortled: “Did I say a maiden?” The audience guffawed, but I didn’t catch the joke. The line “she’s got the cutest balalaika in the Balkans” also got a big laugh. I didn’t know what the Balkans were but the way the audience laughed when he expounded on the many virtues of her balalaika convinced me it was a rude word – and I had a fairly shrewd idea what it referred to.
Spitzikovsky was about a Russian ballet dancer who, while performing a solo, had the misfortune of splitting his tights. Pandemonium broke out in Covent Garden and the song presents different, and sometimes ribald, audience responses – to which Spitzikovsky stoically “turns the other cheek”. This is followed by a double entendre that would have made Sid James and Kenneth Williams green with envy. “With perfect self-possession he leapt in the air once more / While his fans agreed they’d never seen a thing like that before.”
I’d get my cousin Peter to play my favourite tracks over and over while Mum and Dad had drinks on the veranda with Uncle Cedric and Auntie Yvonne. The final track began with Bill Williams’s announcement that he was ending with a song from Noël Coward’s show Sigh No More. Noël Coward? Well, whoever he was, That is the End of the News was even funnier – especially the bit about grandfather eating an apple and then making a “rude noise” in the Methodist chapel.
Mum and Dad walked in at the point where he was singing, “We’re so glad that Elsie’s miscarriage / Occurred on the Wednesday after her marriage”. If they were relieved I didn’t ask what a miscarriage was, their relief was short-lived because I asked if they’d give me the record for my next birthday.
Had Banned Ballads really been banned, Mum and Dad wouldn’t have been able to buy it for me when I turned 11. The Entertainments Act of 1931 had been legislated with a view to censoring films rather than stage entertainments or publications – so no faceless bureaucrat was going through Bill Williams’s repertoire with a fine-tooth comb. But that was all about to change. The National Party government was contemplating Draconian legislation to criminalise the dissemination of dangerous political ideas, profane language, impure thoughts and below-the-belt humour.
But even if Banned Ballads had eventually made it on to Jacobson’s Index of Objectionable Literature, it would have been too late to shield me from its immoral influence. Although Mum and Dad missed out on seeing Bill Williams live, I gave them regular private performances, usually during supper. I’m sure they occasionally exchanged worried glances but I didn’t notice because – like so many actors – I was caught up by the sheer brilliance of my own performance, even if I didn’t know what I was saying.
I thought Bill Williams was really famous. I mean, he’d made a record. Two, actually. He performed at The Edward – the smartest and most expensive hotel on Durban’s beachfront. The liner notes on the sleeve of Banned Ballads state that he’d performed “in Beirut and Pakistan, India and Cyprus; London’s famous West End knows him like a brother, and now most of Africa is getting to love him.” So he was world-famous.
He’d been in the RAF for 15 years before being taken prisoner in the Far East. He managed to procure a small portable organ and performed to the sick and dying in hospitals on the Burma Railway – a.k.a. the Death Railway – while, in his own words, “a guest of the Japanese during the war”. It’s entirely fitting that he should be depicted behind bars on the record sleeve because the first stage performances he gave were in Singapore’s notorious Changi Prison.
I did a Google search and came up with practically nothing. No fond memories to remind us of the fraternal embrace with which West End café society had once clasped him to its fickle bosom. The only reference I did find was on a blog called “Facts about Durban” in which one contributor – Neill Jackson – wrote that he’d last seen “a rather jaded Bill” at the Athlone Hotel in the early 1970s. He went on to say that “his routine hadn’t changed and a great time was had by all”. I’d heard the story – apocryphal but not without an element of truth – that he’d begin his show with a full bottle of whisky strategically placed on his grand piano and it would be empty before he took his final bow. That’s not a recipe for showbiz longevity and probably lubricated the slippery slope from the Berkeley Club in the West End to the Athlone Hotel on the Umgeni.
The Hansom Cab was the brainchild of David de Pinna, manager of The Edward. His wife was Nadia Doré – a top British vocalist during the big-band era who worked with the legendary bandleaders Ambrose, Geraldo and Jack Payne – and their son is the celebrated singer and actor Michael de Pinna. Michael immortalised the catchphrase “Yebo Gogo” in Vodacom television commercials and kept audiences entertained for two decades strutting his comedy as a ponytailed sleazeball in an itsy-bitsy-teenie-weenie-leopard-print bikini.
Showbusiness is indisputably in the De Pinna family gene pool and David did much for entertainment in a city that enjoyed a reputation for being a cultural backwater. Apart from introducing local audiences to Bill Williams, he gave a professional leg-up to Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke and brought out such entertainers as Peter Maxwell and Rex Harrison’s son Noel who, in 1968, had a megahit with “The Windmills of Your Mind”.
Michael de Pinna remembers Bill Williams and his wife Maggie. For several years they lived in the old wing at The Edward, where they ran up their bar bill and had histrionic arguments. After the De Pinna family moved to Johannesburg in the early 1960s, Michael never saw him again. By the time Bill was headlining at the Athlone, Michael was in London. When I asked if he knew what had happened to Bill, he said he thought he’d probably gone back to England and died in obscurity. “Most of them do,” said Michael ruefully.
Fast-forward to a few months ago. I was sitting on a balcony overlooking the tidal pool at Shaka’s Rock while listening to the audiobook of Masquerade, Oliver Soden’s 2023 Noël Coward biography. By now I knew who Coward was. In fact, last year I wrote a play – Leading Ladies – in which the actresses Marda Vanne and Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies put on Coward’s Blithe Spirit at Johannesburg’s Standard Theatre in 1944.
Blithe Spirit opened shortly after Coward had toured the Union – as South Africa then was – raising money for Ouma Smuts’s Gifts and Comforts Fund and performing at military bases. So both Coward and Williams did shows for Allied troops during the war. And then I remembered Williams had also sung a Coward song – That is the End of the News from Sigh No More.
Sigh No More is a musical revue that opened in July 1945 and ran in the West End for a mere 213 performances. That made it, in Coward’s book, an indifferent success – which is a polite way of saying it was a bit of a floperoo. Nevertheless, it showcased several songs that are highly rated by Coward fans. Nina – a song about an Argentinian beauty who steadfastly refuses to dance – was suggested to Coward by the rhythm of a train’s wheels on the tracks while on his South African tour. He and his accompanist Norman Hackforth completed the tune, lyrics and arrangement between Bloemfontein and Pretoria. Another well-known song from the show also has a South African connection. Matelot was performed by Pietermaritzburg-born Graham Payn. During the show he and Coward fell in love and they remained together until the latter’s death 50 years ago.
While I was thinking these thoughts – not necessarily simultaneously – I looked across the stretch of beach towards the Salt Rock tidal pool and remembered being invited to spend a weekend there with a school friend in 1960. Tony Ratcliffe was in my class at Highbury. We didn’t have all that much in common besides the nickname Tony – which, I suppose, was something.
Although a goody-goody and a bit of a drip, he had a genuine talent for getting into trouble. For example, in Standard IV we had a wonderfully creative teacher called Ted Brien. He also had a great sense of humour and introduced us to James Thurber’s quirky stories and, as a treat, would bring his gramophone into the classroom and play us Peter Sellers comedy tracks.
He also allowed us to call him Fish-face on Wednesday mornings. I wasn’t brave enough, but when one of the other boys tried his luck at 11 o’clock, Ted reacted as if he’d been addressed respectfully as Sir. Then Ratcliffe – who did have a wristwatch – called him Fish-face at 12:05 and got flogged. Ratty was that guy.
Which is why boys like Butch and Tubby – who’d earned their nicknames – sat on him in the playground and administered what we thought was Japanese Torture. When he got home, his mother would ask why his uniform was dirty and he’d tell her. The next day when she dropped him off, she’d get out of the car and make him point out the culprits. Then she’d walk over to Butch and Tubby, tell them that if they didn’t leave Tony alone she’d box their ears, get back into her Rover and drive off. She clearly thought her son could do no wrong but – if the scowls on Butch and Tubby’s faces were anything to go by – she wasn’t doing him any favours either.
Like Mum and Dad, Ratty’s parents had little interest in the performing arts. Ratty’s dad owned Stansfield Ratcliffe in Durban, which was the sole agent for Lucas lights and BSA. That’s why Ratty had a BSA pellet gun and I only had the cheaper Gecado 25. Jack and Elsie Ratcliffe played golf and spent weekends at their beach cottage at Salt Rock.
As soon as we arrived at the beach cottage, Ratty and I took off our shoes and socks to go exploring. Before we ran off, Mrs Ratcliffe warned us not to go anywhere near the water. Under any circumstances! It seemed like overzealous mollycoddling to me but I suppose we were 11-year-old boys and the swimming beach had a dangerous backwash. So we went to the tidal pool and discovered something really exciting. It was a raft – just like Robinson Crusoe’s in my illustrated edition of The Great Adventure Story by Defoe.
Robinson was on his way from South America to England when they sailed into a hurricane one night. The captain steered a course for a desert island but the hurricane was so fierce the crew had to abandon ship. They lowered the lifeboat into the angry sea and struck out for the island but were capsized by a giant wave and Robinson – “more dead than alive” – was washed up on the shore. The next morning he discovered he was the sole survivor. He saw the ship had run aground, so he swam out to the wreck, made a raft and brought provisions, muskets, a telescope, the ship’s dog and two cats ashore before the ship finally went down.
I loved that story. I could be Robinson and Ratty could be – well, maybe one of the mariners who drowned. I’d just started wondering whether paddling around on a raft would technically constitute an infringement of Mrs Ratcliffe’s stern injunction not to go anywhere near the water, when Ratty threw all caution to the wind. The raft had drifted slightly away from the edge, so he extended his left leg like Spitzikovsky going into the splits, gained a toehold – and lost his balance.
When Mrs Ratcliffe saw her son looking like a drowned rat, she turned her disapproving gaze on me. It was one of those why-does-he-always-do-something-wrong-when-he’s-with-you looks. It was an inauspicious start to the weekend. What could I do to salvage the situation? As we sat down to supper in frigid silence, I had a blinding flash of inspiration. Mrs Ratcliffe’s name was Elsie and I knew a song that mentioned her by name. It seemed the perfect way of getting back into her good books. So I launched into, “We’re so glad that Elsie’s miscarriage / Occurred on the Wednesday after her marriage”.
I sat alone in the spare room for more than two hours while I waited for Dad. Driving home that Friday night in his Zephyr, I knew I’d let him down. But I still didn’t know what I’d done wrong. Was it that I’d used a grown-up’s first name? If Dad did give me an explanation, perhaps he settled on that one. He certainly didn’t explain what a miscarriage was. And he didn’t tell me the words of the song insinuated that Jack and Elsie Ratcliffe – paragons of respectability and, furthermore, members in good standing of the Kloof Country Club – had had sexual intercourse before they were married. Actually, Dad never got around to telling me what sexual intercourse was either. He just wasn’t that kind of dad.
In 1945, Joyce Grenfell performed That is the End of the News on stage. According to a contemporary review in The Times she did so as an “insanely cheerful schoolgirl”. I listened to her performing the song on YouTube and this was how she diagnosed Elsie’s medical condition: “We’re so thrilled, Elsie’s in trouble, / That hernia she had has turned out to be double.” Double hernia? What about her miscarriage?
The Lyrics of Noël Coward – published in 1965 – prints the couplet as above. Although Coward doesn’t spell it out in his Introduction, this version must have been used when Sigh No More opened in 1945 and was retained in the book as a faithful record of the stage show. Everything else in That is the End of the News is exactly as Bill Williams performed it. It’s unclear when Coward first conceived of – if the reader will forgive the phrase – Elsie’s mildly scandalous medical misfortune. But by the time The Noël Coward Song Book appeared in 1953, it was the authorised version. So if Bill didn’t actually have his ballads banned, Coward appears to have been somewhat less fortunate.
I’ve consulted all three biographies, his autobiographies, his published letters and diaries and haven’t found a reference to this particular song incurring the displeasure of the Lord Chamberlain – the official censor of theatrical entertainments in Britain until 1968. However, in 1920 his office had insisted on the removal of the word “damn” from Coward’s first produced play – I’ll Leave It to You – and ever since then he’d had to navigate his plays and shows around the submerged icebergs of prudery and respectability.
Twenty-five years later, when preparing to submit the script of Sigh No More to be licensed, it’s conceivable that Coward heaved a sigh of resignation, crossed out Elsie’s miscarriage, wrote the anodyne couplet and submitted that for approval – as he was all too aware of the Lord Chamberlain’s unflinching dedication to defending public morality in general and Elsie’s reputation in particular.
Nevertheless, by 1953 Elsie had miscarried. As there was no commercial imperative to revive Sigh No More in the West End, he’d never have needed to go head-to-head with the Lord Chamberlain about Elsie’s altered medical record.
Bill Williams can count himself lucky that Jack and Elsie Ratcliffe never bought tickets for his show at the Hansom Cab. There’d have been pandemonium the likes of which had not been witnessed since that awful night when Spitzikovsky split his tights.
If blame is to be apportioned for this miscarriage of justice it should be laid squarely at the feet of Noël Coward. After all, he wrote the words: I was simply the messenger. On the other hand, if Dad had told me that day at Uncle Cedric’s that a miscarriage was when a lady lost a baby and that it was a sad thing, I may not have performed it with such glee.
On that long-ago Friday night in Salt Rock I didn’t have another song in my repertoire that mentioned an Elsie, but I certainly could have come up with something else to lighten up the funereal mood at supper. Perhaps Charlie Brown by The Coasters – with the refrain, “Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me?” Too obvious?
So how about Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini? But I suppose Elsie Ratcliffe would not have been amused – after all, it’s a song about a luscious dark-eyed maiden who’s afraid to come out of the water because her itsy-bitsy-teenie-weenie bikini doesn’t quite cover her balalaika. DM