27 May

Vivian Ellis

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Almost everybody has enjoyed the music of Vivian Ellis who created more than 60 English stage musicals and was behind many of the popular songs which thrilled listeners before and after the last war. Close your eyes and think back to the exciting tune that introduced the BBC Radio "Paul Temple" murder mysteries.

 

Can you remember the title? It was Vivian Ellis’s Coronation Scot named after the famous express train and inspired by the clickety-clack of the rails as the composer made regular trips from his home up to London. But it was only a small part of his musical repertoire, indeed his well-known songSpread a Little Happiness even made the pop charts in a recent recording, more than 60 years after it was first heard.

Born at Hampstead, London, in 1904, Vivian Ellis was educated at Cheltenham College and initially trained as a classical pianist under Dame Myra Hess. But before he was out of his teens he contributed to a 1922 London revue called The Curate’s Egg and so much enjoyed the experience that from henceforth he was completely hooked on the stage, his subsequent career comparing more than favourably with anybody else in the profession. All told he featured prominently in nearly 70 West End shows in 36 years — almost two a year and with World War Two putting things on hold in the middle!

While still only 25 he produced a smash hit musical which established him at the forefront of popular composers. Mr. Cinders was a modern Cinderella with the roles reversed and brought together a partnership which is still remembered with affection. The songs Spread a Little HappinessI’m a One Man Girl, and the brilliantly witty On the Amazon were performed by Binnie Hale and Bobby Howes, the two main stars of a show which ran for 528 performances at the Adelphi Theatre.

The brains behind the production was Julian Wylie who, after touring successfully with it in the provinces, hoped to persuade his former home, the London Hippodrome, to stage it in the West End. They refused and he was forced to sell it to a company who asked someone else to direct it instead. Wylie was both outraged and embittered but the tables suddenly turned when J.A. Malone’s alterations failed to impress the public and he was invited back. Malone responded with the classic phrase "Over my dead body" — and promptly expired! Wylie’s magic did the rest and the show became a classic.

During the Thirties, there was nearly always at least one Ellis production running somewhere in the West End and their popularity can be gauged by the leading stars who performed in them — Jack and Claude Hulbert, Hermione Baddeley, Cicely Courtneidge, Richard Murdoch, Anna Neagle, Jack Buchanan, Florence Desmond, Elsie Randolph, Beatrice Lillie, Naunton Wayne, John Mills, Patricia Burke, Ralph Reader, and a great many more.

In addition, Ellis’s musical directors included Ray Noble, Lew Stone, Carroll Gibbons and Geraldo, with all the other top band leaders of the period recording his entertaining music at every opportunity. Not even Noel Coward or Ivor Novello could match that!

Four of the shows from this time were scripted by the prolific librettist Guy Bolton (1884-1979) but probably the most famous productions were Running Riot (207 performances at the Gaiety Theatre), Jill Darling (242 at the Saville), and Under Your Hat (512 at the Palace).

War then intervened during which Ellis served as a Lt.-Commander in the RNVR. Happily, he emerged relatively unscathed and in 1946 staged Big Ben. But by now British musicals were beginning to change from the cut-glass Oxford accent of the Thirties and were moving inexorably towards the imported American showbiz creations epitomised by Annie Get Your Gun and Oklahomaboth of which coincided in 1947 with what was arguably Ellis’s greatest ever success.

Bless the Bride was a full-blown British musical in the best traditions and is still a great favourite with amateur dramatic societies. The original production paired the French film star Georges Guétary opposite Lizbeth Webb, and the immortal songs Ma Belle Marguerite and This Is My Lovely Daybecame immediate hits. Other members of the cast included Brian Reece (soon to become famous as BBC Radio’s "PC 49"), Anona Winn and Betty Paul. The librettist was the redoubtable A.P. Herbert (1890-1971), parliamentarian, novelist and editor of Punch with whom Ellis also collaborated onStreamline, Big Ben, Tough at the Top (1949) and The Water Gypsies (1954). This latter delightful production took place at the Princes Theatre and was set in the contemporary new reign of Elizabeth II. It starred Dora Bryan, Roy Godfrey, Pamela Charles, Peter Graves and Doris Hare but, like so many other musicals down the years, never quite achieved the success which it initially promised or deserved.

From the Sixties onwards, Ellis faded a little from the public eye but remained a prolific composer and in later years became great friends with a man who was perhaps his natural successor. Like Ellis, whose grandmother was the composer Julia Woolf, Andrew Lloyd-Webber came from proven classical music stock, his composer father, William, having been Director of the London College of Music. Lloyd-Webber was a person whom Ellis acknowledged as a similar master of tuneful melody which the public enjoyed and one wonders how much of his success during the last quarter of the 20th century was down to the influence of the older man?

A confirmed bachelor, Ellis lived much of his life with sister Hermione near Minehead in Somerset, where he particularly enjoyed gardening. He was nevertheless well-travelled and during the Thirties worked with George Gershwin in Hollywood when he claimed to have been the first person to hear the Variations on I Got Rhythm. He also wrote an interesting account of his experiences there which he cleverly titled "Ellis in Wonderland".

A grateful Performing Rights Society, of which he was a dedicated President, established an annual Vivian Ellis Prize for stage musical writers. His acerbic but amusing wit endeared him to all and in addition to his vast musical output he also wrote a number of humorous books. His only sadness was that his songs tended to be more associated with their original performers than with him — but then that is true of nearly all the established standard repertoire.

Vivian Ellis died on 19th June 1996, a true blue-blooded Englishman who left behind much for which we should be grateful. His epitaph is perhaps best summed up by actress Ruth Madoc who described him as "A gentleman who wrote some of the most beautiful tunes in the whole of British theatre history." 

SHOWS AND REVUES INVOLVING THE
MUSIC OF VIVIAN ELLIS 

The Curate’s Egg 1922
Radios 1922
Crystals 1922
Mirrors 1923
Little Revue 1924
The Punch Bowl 1924
Yoicks! 1924
By the Way 1925
Records 1925
Notions 1925
Headlights 1925
Designs 1925
Mercenary Mary 1925
Still Dancing 1925
Just a Kiss 1926
The Street Show 1926
The Glad News 1926
Kid Boots 1926
Merely Molly 1926
My Son John 1926
Palladium Pleasures 1926
Cochran’s Revue 1926
The Other Girl 1927
Blue Skies 1927
Clowns in Clover 1927
The Grass Widow 1927
The Call of the Legion 1927
The Girl Friend 1927
Will o’the Whispers 1928
Peg o’Mine 1928
Charlot’s Revue 1928
Vogues and Vanities 1928
Yankee at King Arthur’s Court 1929
The House That Jack Built 1929
Mr. Cinders 1929
Follow a Star 1930
Cochran’s Revue 1930
Little Tommy Tucker 1930
Blue Roses 1931
Folly To Be Wise 1931
The Song of the Drum 1931
Stand Up and Sing 1931
Out of the Bottle 1932
Over the Page 1932
Please 1933
Jill Darling 1934
Streamline 1934
Going Places 1936
The Town Talks 1936
Floodlight 1937
Hide and Seek 1937
The Fleet’s Lit Up 1938
Running Riot 1938
Under Your Hat 1938
It’s Foolish but It’s Fun 1943
Henson’s Gaieties 1945
Fine Feather 1945
Big Ben 1946
Bless the Bride 1947
Tough at the Top 1949
And So to Bed 1951
Over the Moon 1953
The Water Gypsies 1955
Listen to the Wind 1955
Half in Earnest 1958
Four to the Bar 1961

Reproduced by kind permission of This England magazine.

Footnote:

Since the above article was written, recent research has revealed that the birth certificate of Vivian Ellis states that he was born on 29 October 1903. Many reference books (including publicity material from his publishers), quote his year of birth as 1904. It seems that he was aware of this error, but for some reason he chose not to correct it. This mistake was continued in the obituaries following his death on 20 June 1996.

David Ades, 2003

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1 comment

  • Anthony Teague posted by Anthony Teague Saturday, 13 August 2016 08:07

    To that list of shows ought to be added On the Brighter Side which featured Ellis's Song of a Wood Nymph.

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