img416When Mrs M suggested a family outing to our local theatre to see an act based on the songs of Flanders and Swann, I agreed in a sort of ‘well, I won’t enjoy it as I’m far too familiar with the originals but it’ll be a nice evening and will broaden the little ‘un’s cultural horizons’ sort of way. I had visions of a couple of blokes ploughing through the most well know of Flanders & Swann’s tunes with none of the subtlety of the originals, none of the contextual humour and accompaniment from the Junior Choice Book of the Piano (much as I’d seen Noel Coward’s comic songs delivered in the style of Victoria Wood’s ‘Let’s Do It’ while the piano accompaniment was simplified down to a Bobby Crush riff). Well, as so often, I was completely wrong, and I’m delighted to admit it.

To say that Tim Fitzhigham and Duncan Walsh Atkins channel Flanders & Swann would be a disservice (not to say to perpetuate a horrible modern cliché). Armstrong and Miller did that superbly in their pastiche as Brabbins and Fyffe, but that needed the physical representation of F&S to make the surreal (and often obscene) flights of song fancy work. In Tim and Duncan’s case, they inhabit their subjects and come out the other side. Thus, rather than do the easy thing and perform Michael Flanders’ part (the lead in most of the vocals and all the linking repartee) from a wheelchair, Tim’s performance suggest how Flanders would have been on stage had he not contracted polio while he was in his twenties. Indeed, you only have to watch how animated Flanders was even confined to a chair to see the energy he put into his act. Similarly, Tim’s repartee between songs stays very, very close to Flanders’ original patter in structure and phrasing, whilst making almost imperceptible changes to render the whole relevant and timely. That’s something you can only do if you’ve studied not only the script, but also the character of the originals in painstaking detail. Although Swann was the more reserved of the two on stage, Duncan’s role is no less critical to the success of the whole; his piano playing, like Swann’s, must look effortless, improvised at the right moments, deliberately plagiaristic at others, but always faultless and timed to perfection around his partner’s delivery – and it is.

Flanders + SwannMind you, it’s no surprise they’re good at it. The show was born in 2001 when Tim and Duncan did a fundraiser for a local cottage hospital; since then they’ve toured the UK virtually every year, beaten a path to Edinburgh on regular occasions, toured Australia, and done a number of one-off special occasions including performances in Donald Swann’s own home in front of his family. In fact, their performing life together now exceeds that of the originals whose revues, ‘At the Drop of a Hat’ and ‘At the Drop of Another Hat’ ran from 1956 to 1967 (though F&S had worked together since meeting at school in 1939 and first appeared in revue in 1953).

The choice of material also spans the breadth of the F&S songbook. Of course, the well-known tunes are there – it would be a crime to leave them out. The Gasman Cometh, Have Some Madeira M’Dear, and A Song of Patriotic Prejudice, along with the animal songs that were a staple of the Home Service and Children’s Choice, featuring Gnus and Hippotomuses (or is it Hippopotami?) various. But it’s the less familiar songs, either from the revue LPs, the Bestiary LP or even more obscure sources, that give the performance its depth. Thus we had some of their touching and bittersweet ballads: the Armadillo, the Warthog’s Lament and Misalliance (the tragic tale of the doomed affair between Honeysuckle and Bindweed); the short and silly – Pee Po Belly Bum Drawers; the MidCentury topical – All Gall (a tribute to the single-mindedness of the French President), The Wompom (a paean to new all-purpose materials) and House & Garden (a satire on 1950s trends in interior décor) and, compulsory in any British town, A Song of the Weather. We were treated, too, to some of Michael Flanders’ monologues, again meticulously memorised and delivered, along with what I’m sure was a touch unique to Tim and Duncan of a performance of Ill Wind accompanied on music stand and hosepipe.

flyer1cropThe finale, though, was pure Flanders & Swann at their very best: two quintessential Englishmen paying tribute to two quintessentially British modes of transport, the London bus (or, to be accurate, the “Big six-wheeler, scarlet-painted, London Transport, diesel-engined, ninety-seven horsepower omnibus”) and the branch line steam train. Tim and Duncan’s rendition of ‘Slow Train’, cataloguing the country stations and halts slated for closure under Beeching’s 1963 reforms, beautifully captured the elegiac qualities of the original and clearly demonstrated the genuine affection they have for Flanders and Swann’s work. The audience loved them, which gave us all a perfect excuse to enjoy a typically F&S encore, full of Russian Hippopotami (or is it – well, you know) and an exhausting gallop through the Fire and Safety Regulations for Theatres and Places of Entertainment.
Flanders and Swann have always epitomised for me the timeless wit of late 1950s British revue. I’ve performed their songs in front of audiences who’ve never heard of them or their work, and raised laughs on the cleverness of their lyrics and musical references alone (well, it can’t have been down to my talent), but I’ve always wondered what it must have been like for my Mum and Dad, watching them live at their peak at the Fortune Theatre in 1950s London. Catch Tim Fitzhigham and Duncan Walsh Atkins in performance, and you’ll get the closest you’ll ever come to finding out.

You can read more about Tim and Duncan, and the dates of their upcoming gigs on their website.