The West Sussex Gazette, December 15, 1938
The other evening, I had the good fortune to be assigned by this paper’s editor to attend a performance given at the Whittington Village Hall by an ensemble of performers going by the name of The Servants’ Ball. Individually, they comprise banjulele (a sort of banjo and ukulele crossbreed) player and step dancer Ewan Wardrop, fiddler Ben Paley, Rob Harbron on concertina, Ben Nicholls playing upright bass with Julian Hinton at the piano and Evan Jenkins providing assorted percussion.
Their repertoire ranges wide across a number of popular musical style, some steeped in the folk traditions of this country, Europe and the plantations of America, others harking back to the days of Victorian music hall or reflecting such contemporary fashions as the current enthusiasm for ragtime music. Indeed, they are well versed in popular passions, opening their programme with an instrumental number entitled ‘Egyptian Princess’ reflecting the current craze for Egyptology, it’s snake-charmer rhythms prompting several members of the audience to engage in what is termed a “sand dance”, its strutting movements modelled on tomb paintings, emulating the famous comedy routine of music hall act Wilson and Keppel who, you may recall, enjoyed a successful run at the London Palladium as recently as 1932. Had Howard Carter been among the throng, I feel sure he would have joined in.
Their repertoire for the night intermingling such dance tunes with songs of music hall vintage, they proceeded to delight, Wardrop, a ukulele player to rival George Formby, singing ‘The Bird On Nelly’s Hat’, a turn of the century vaudeville cautionary comedy ditty composed by Arthur Lamb and Alfred Solman about a lovestruck lad being fleeced of all his money by the titular golddigger.
Returning to instrumentals, led by concertina, they had the audience taking to the floor for the polka-influenced ceilidh tune ‘Number One Dance Step’ on which Wardrop demonstrated his foot tap talents to great effect before drawing applause and roar of approval as Hinton launched into the well-known ‘Champagne Charlie’, the lyrics written by Birmingham factory worker Joe Sanders who, under his music hall stage name of George Leybourne introduced the song, sponsored by champagne firms, into his act in 1868, boosting his income to almost fivefold to £120 a week.
Returning to dance tunes, introduced with a roll on the drums, next up was ‘Sultan Polka’, composed by Charles Louis Napoleon d’Albert for Sultan Abdulaziz I of the Ottoman Empire, this was followed in turn by ‘Pretty Little Dear’, not, as you might think, the 1926 comedy number by Frank Crumit, but rather another concertina dance tune, this of Sussex origin, which I understand the ensemble learned from the work of the renowed Scan Tester from Horsted Keynes, whose Country Dance Band often perform at such local functions.
Allowing the crowd to take a respite from their lively footwork, it was back to music hall for ‘I’m A Man That’s Done Wrong’, or, to give it the full title, ‘I’m a Man That’s Done Wrong to my Parents’, a sorrowful lament of a ne’er do well spurned by his family, Wardrop singing “I once wronged my father and mother, Till they turned me out from their door, To beg, starve or die, in the gutter to lie, And ne’er enter their dwellings no more” dating back to the end of the 1880s and reputedly written in Dorsetshire by one H. Strachey.
Having had time to catch their breath, the revellers were then encouraged back on to the floor for ‘Wild West Gallop’, a lively tune encompassing fairground whirligig, minstrel rag and quadrille and, from there, bearing the time of year in mind, straight into ‘Winter Cotillions’ medley before, accompanying himself on piano, Hinton returned to sing ‘Beautiful Boy’, an amusingly far fetched Victroian tale of no known authorship about of how a young lad was forced to undergo any number of surgical procedures, such as stretching his mouth wider, to make him to look more attractive to the opposite sex,with some unfortunate side effects. Let us hope the medical profession never encourages such nonsense.
Coming to to the close of the evening, they had time for two further tunes, Harbron leading them in the bouncing along ‘Les Rats Quadrille’, composed in 1844 by Gervasius Redler for student dancers or “les petits rats”, and returning to the fad for all things Egypt, Egyptian Ballet, an adaptation from Ballet égyptie by the composer Alexandre Luigini’s. Finally, it was the turn of Nichols to lend his stentorian vocals for a lugubrious six-minute variation of the children’s lullaby of ‘Old King Cole’ with the lyrics revised to talk of the monarch summoning Paganini, Paulo Spagnoletti and the London-born Nicholas Mori to satisfy his predilection for trios, the mock serious song continuing to talk of his secretary declaring a mole on his face as “boding something would take place but not what that something would be” and how the musicians parted company when the king started snoring on page 44 of Giovanni Battista Viotti’s ‘Concerto in G’, their dozing alcohol-doused patron then setting himself alight with his pipe and exploding, the number finally ending by inviting listeners to view the records at the British Museum in Bloomsbury.
A perfectly agreeable night of dancing, laughter and merriment that sent the party goers home happy and humming the tunes, I would not be surprised if, in say 80 years, some similarly enterprising folk musicians didn’t reprise the programme to afford equal delight to their own audiences.
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A (possibly) serious video about The Servants’ Ball: