The talent of Vivian Ellis ranged with assurance right through the English musical theatre for over 70 years, from the revues of C.B. Cochran between the wars to post-war operettas with A.P. Herbert, and was to prove so quintessentially English that for a while it seemed Ellis stood alone in resisting the all-powerful, pounding Broadway musical which had invaded the British stage from the mid-1940s.
Years before either The Boyfriend or Salad Days piped up on behalf of the small-scale, two pianos-and-drums show, Ellis had proved that an Englishman could write songs as well as anyone in the world.
Big Ben (1947) may not have been exactly a hit, but its successor, Bless the Bride (1947), undoubtedly was; and though he never had another success to match it except his first, Mr Cinders (1929), the length of a show's run has little, as he well knew, to do with its quality.
Tough At The Top (1949), And So To Bed (1951) and Water Gypsies (1955) won favour with the connoisseurs not merely on patriotic grounds as asserting the art of English musical comedy with a character of its own in the face of the transatlantic model but as creating a specifically home-bred feeling of gentle, intelligent and anti-brash entertainment for playgoers weary of the slick and noisy.
Kenneth Tynan for instance reckoned Water Gypsies, about the life of people who live on canal barges, to be only inches short of "a matchless museum masterpiece" as a Cockney pastoral in which it seemed as if Hammersmith had become "a rural hamlet peopled with quaint bargees whose joys are homely and whose destiny is perforce obscure".
The partnership between Ellis and Herbert, a Punch humorist and parliamentarian, became something of a landmark in British musical theatre; and it never prospered better than in Bless the Bride, an enchanting period piece, as revivals at Exeter (1985) and Sadlers Wells (1987) reminded a younger generation. If that partnership restored Ellis's faith in himself - he never lacked self-confidence but after the Second World War in which he served in the Navy he had trouble resuming his theatrical career until he worked with Herbert - he had after all been a notable songwriter and score-composer in the 1920s and 1930s, to such an extent that the leading critic of the day James Agate, proposing a Ben Travers farce as musical material observed: "Messrs Cole Porter and Vivian Ellis should be mobilised and kept without food and drink till they have written 36 more songs."
Vivian Ellis was born into an Edwardian musical family at Hampstead: his mother played the violin every day while she was pregnant in the hope that the new child would be musical, and his grandmother studied with Arthur Sullivan at the Royal Academy of Music under Cipriani Potter, who had known Beethoven, and saw that each of her nine children learned a musical instrument.
Young Vivian, who later became a pupil of Myra Hess, was intended for the concert platform. As a youth he was inspired to begin composing by the sinking of the Titanic. "It began with three agonised blasts on the ship's siren and finished up with runny bits as the waves washed over the stricken vessel."
Under his father's will however the youth was put into a bowler hat to join the family business in the City. He loathed it. He preferred Tin Pan Alley. He joined a music publishers, Francis Day and Hunter, in Charing Cross Road where as a song plugger he would play and sing up to a hundred new songs a week. "It was bliss."
He wrote numbers for theatrical revues in their heyday between the wars. He wrote for Bobby Howes, Binnie Hale, Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge, Sophie Tucker and Flanagan and Allen. He had a hand in a show dedicated to the impresario Andre Charlot, a rival of Cochran in an era which often took its plots for musicals from pantomimes.
This brought him at 24 his first triumph, Mr Cinders (1929), which reversed the Cinderella legend as a lyrical romance between an impoverished young bounder and a millionaire's daughter whom he mistakes for the parlour maid.
Its revival at the King's Head, Islington in 1983 transferred to the West End for a long run and a tour; and when Sting sang the song "Spread a Little Happiness" from it as a theme tune for the Dennis Potter feature film Brimstone and Treacle, Ellis found himself at the top of the charts.
He was at the local ironmongers. The BBC traced him. "You're now in the top five," they said. Ellis later invited Sting to lunch at the Garrick. He turned up on a motorcycle without a tie "but luckily I happened to have a very nice one in my pocket," said Ellis.
As a result of the early success of Mr Cinders he found himself writing for half a dozen shows in one season in a style which James Agate used to call "the most knavishly witty music imaginable". He wrote for the leading stars of revue and musical comedy, including Jack Buchanan of course, and he wrote so much that a columnist observed: "The single most remarkable thing about Mr Cochran's newly announced revue for 1932 is that it will not have music by Vivian Ellis."
It was from one Herbert's poems - "I still miss him for the laughter. Unlike Gilbert and Sullivan we never had a cross word" - that Ellis came up with perhaps his most moving song, "Other People's Babies", "Mother to dozens and nobody's wife."
Ellis wrote most of his Bless the Bride songs not at the piano but while gardening. "Gardening has been a great thing for me ever since I used to grow lettuces and sell them to my mother for a penny each."
Retaining his Edwardian manners to the end, Ellis took a serious interest in the work of modern composers and songwriters. The Performing Right Society of which he was made president in 1983 gives the Vivian Ellis prize annually to likely young musicians. "When I was young I couldn't get anyone to listen to me but they do have to learn harmony, orchestration, counterpoint. It's the only way to write show music."
He used to say that what he valued in a song was melody. "Witty words are very nice. They are better with a memorable tune." Ellis's tunes bore abundant testimony to that.
I first became aware of Vivian Ellis and his music when I was taken as a schoolgirl to The Fleet's Lit Up in 1938, writes Elizabeth Forbes.
All I remember of that occasion is that I enjoyed it enormously. Consequently it was a pleasure to meet the composer himself in the early 1940s, when he was a lieutenant in the RNVR and I was a Wren, in Plymouth.
Vivian, after some time in an uncongenial posting, was made Entertainments Officer, which suited him perfectly, and was a great success as he enveigled all his theatrical friends down to Plymouth and Devonport to sing to the sailors.
He was given the use of a decent piano in the ballroom of Admiralty House. There were in fact two pianos in this huge room, one at either end, and Vivian was kind enough to allow me, an extremely poor pianist, to play four-hand duets with him. Our favourite piece was The Warsaw Concerto by Richard Addinsell, Vivian's friend and exact contemporary. The film Dangerous Moonlight, in which the Concerto is ostensibly played by Anton Walbrook (actually Eileen Joyce), had just been released.
Once, when we were both in London, he took me to tea with Dame Myra Hess, who had been his teacher. Though friendly, she frightened me considerably, especially when she took Vivian to task very severely for not continuing with his career as a concert pianist.
I was then posted away from Plymouth, and did not see Vivian again until after the war, when he invited my family and myself to the first nights of Big Ben and Bless the Bride. By then I was well and truly stuck into opera and while, like every other young female of my acquaintance, I fell madly in love with Georges Guetary in Bless the Bride, I did not perhaps appreciate Vivian's music sufficiently. At the revival at Sadler's Wells in 1987 I was more percipient.
I first met Vivian Ellis in 1982 when we were in rehearsal at the King's Head, Islington for Mr Cinders, writes Dan Crawford. I thought I would be meeting someone deeply retired. I was very mistaken. From that time right up until three days ago I found him the most active mind I have ever worked with.
He saw that the song "Spread a Little Happiness" would be better shifted from the girl's to the boy's role, and Denis Lawson's rendition in the original revival led to an out-and-out hit at the King's Head and a 15- month run in the Fortune Theatre in the West End. When Mr Cinders transferred into the West End, it was decided that we needed a new song, perhaps a title song in the second act.
Vivian and the lyric writer, Greatrex Newman, completed the song, "Please Mr Cinders", in a weekend over the telephone. Although Vivian had written in many different styles in the ensuing 54 years, the song brilliantly reproduced the Twenties in a way that only an original could. (Noel Coward once said to Sheridan Morley that no one represented music of the Twenties and Thirties better than Vivian Ellis).
A professional collaboration turned into a devoted friendship; Vivian was best man at my wedding, and we communicated weekly and finally daily. We presented Spread a Little Happiness, a compilation of Vivian's work with Sheridan Morley, in 1992 which was another huge success at the King's Head and later transferred to the Whitehall Theatre. I was able to appreciate the scope of Vivian's enormous talent not only as a composer but also a lyric writer.
A year ago we decided to revive Listen to the Wind (first produced in 1954) and set a date for production for Christmas 1996. The script needed adapting as the original was rather lengthy and rambling. This was done initially by Humphrey Carpenter and in the latter stages by Vivian and myself.
Vivian flourished with creativity and gave an extraordinary commitment to the project. He wrote three new songs, all of which are splendid, and with his vast knowledge of how to make music work in theatre made considerable contributions to the text.
He has been described by Beverley Nichols as a musical genius who ranks with Lehar and Strauss, and was also thought by many to be the best and most witty conversationalist. I can attest to both of these. We have lost a national treasure.
Vivian Ellis, composer: born London 29 October 1904; Deputy President, Performing Right Society 1975-83, President 1983-96; CBE 1984; died London 20 June 1996.Reuse content