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By the way ...




Not long ago I referred to the long-lost world of the old-style theatre pit musician. Even today, of course, there are provincial theatres which use an orchestra from time to time, though, sadly, most can do little more than produce an electronic organ and perhaps a drummer for the Christmas panto. Certainly until well into the 50's every town of any size possessed a small theatre orchestra of sorts. Players earned their modest salaries by playing for twice-nightly variety shows and performances by touring operetta companies. During the day, some of the musicians would also perform in cafés and restaurants, and augment their modest salaries by private teaching - a useful activity which many small towns these days might well envy.

In my youth I used to deputise at times as a pianist in our local music-hall band. It was hard work - two shows each night (at 6.30 and 8.15) plus a Saturday matinée. Most of the players as well as the conductor were pretty serious drinkers so there developed a hallowed routine to fill the brief gap between the two evening performances. As customary at the time, each programme concluded with the playing of the National Anthem (the first six bars only). As the final chord was sounded, instruments were already being decommissioned. A mad rush to the under-stage exit followed. Unfortunately ours was a sea-front theatre with the nearest pub a fair distance away - up a hill too - but this did not deter the players as the nightly mini-marathon got under way. The landlord of The Raglan Arms had been well trained and the regular order would be already lined up on the bar. Drinks were dispatched in record time and a lively sprint to the Gents was followed by a mad rush back down the hill, a dive under the stage, an immediate seizing of discarded instruments, and a down-beat from the conductor to mark the first chord of the overture and the beginning of the second house.

During the average music-hall programme there was little respite for the orchestra, although sometimes one was lucky. If there was a lengthy sketch in which no music was required, an additional thirst-quencher would sometimes be practicable. I recently came across a nice story in a periodical called Music Hall Memories (December 1925). The pit musicians at one London theatre had gleefully found that their current variety bill ended with a 25-minute playlet - allowing ample time for a quickie before returning to play the National Anthem. Unfortunately, at the final Saturday performance, conductor and players had forgotten that, as the week progresses, every show speeds up a bit and ends a precious few minutes earlier. Anyway, while the sketch was playing, the musicians raced off to refresh themselves, leaving the flute-player - presumably a teetotaller - to collect in the band parts. Maybe the band had just been paid and felt unusually expansive - or maybe someone on stage forgot their lines and left something out.... Anyway, the musicians duly rushed back to the theatre expecting to be just in time for their formal, final display of patriotism - but were dismayed to see that the audience was already leaving the theatre. At the stage door they were greeted by a smug-looking flute-player hailing the conductor by shouting proudly:

  It's all right, guv'nor! The show's over and I've played 'The king' already.  

As they say, it is the thought that counts - and I am sure that His Majesty would have appreciated the flute-player's selfless ardour. Has a concluding National Anthem ever been played before by a single flute, one wonders?


Copyright © Richard Graves, November 18th 1999


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