Gardening: A jolly start to the revolution

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The Independent Online
I hope you are not doing anything tonight. Radio 2 is broadcasting a dazzling remake of Julian Slade's Salad Days, preceded by a documentary that whizzes back to 1954 when the show was first done.

Slight to the point of silliness, snobbish to the point of embarrassment: these were and are the verdicts of the cynical. The show was first staged as an end-of-season summer romp by the Bristol Old Vic. It was such a hit that it transferred to the Vaudeville, and its five-year run restored the theatre's fortunes. Slade's show had been preceded and even presaged by Sandy Wilson's The Boyfriend, and quite soon Sandy and Julian became the staple of Kenneth Williams's and Hugh Paddick's camp routines in Round the Horne, with their mad argot concocted out of ballet-speak ('lallies' for legs, and all that).

The Julian/Sandy gags live on in references in The News Huddlines, whose presiding genius, Roy Hudd, is in the Radio 2 Salad Days (along with Tony Slattery and just about everybody else).

Regular readers will know that I have once or twice banged on about the idea that much high-tone art of the Fifties was about a world of contentment ripped apart by totalitarianism, war and The Bomb. Salad Days speaks of quite another world. We had just seen Festival of Britain events, the high point of which for me as a toddler were the nonsense machines made by Emmett. We had, too, the anarchy of Ronald Searle's schoolboy Molesworth books - in which I most remember the 'uterest wet and sissy, fotherington-tomas' with his 'girlie' cries of 'Hullo clouds, hullo sky'. This was just the armour

5we needed against boarding school. Searle's drawings for Molesworth went with Geoffrey Willans's words. In The Curse of St Trinian, Searle was the sole creator of a world of schoolgirls in suspenders and trouble. Republished by Pavilion last year, the sketches have girls wrestling with whisky, cigarettes, machine-guns and pot.

Salad Days had just a touch more bottom than might be supposed. It concerns a magic piano whose power to make people dance offends the hypocritical Minister of Pleasure and Past-time. His machinations are undone by a little blackmail on the matter of his night-club dalliances. Shades of an anti-Establishment view there. And something, too, of a swipe at the over-regulated world that hung on after the war (and was perhaps disliked in the West End in its reincarnation as Labour politics).

Tim and Jane, just down from 'varsity', secretly marry and take temporary charge of the piano, partly because she cannot bear the thought of her mother fixing up a suitable marriage for her and he cannot face being fixed up with a good job by his powerful uncles. The pair (brilliantly done in the R2 remake) are so well-spoken and jolly that one does not easily notice that they are rebellious kids who are behaving far more bravely than most of the young actually did. They are precursors of a sexual and anti-career revolution that would really get into its stride in the next decade.

It is hardly surprising that the piece should be subliminally intelligent. Slade was a Cambridge man (to Wilson's Oxford). The original Bristol company included Eric Porter and Alan Dobie, who went on to be staples of television and stage, as did John Warner, the original Tim and the tramp-uncle in the R2 version.

It is easy to sneer at the suburbanites who trekked up to Town to eat a supper at Schmidt's (three storeys of sawdust floors and waiters of nearly unbelievable rudeness), and take in Slade's froth. It is hardly surprising that the show spawned its own rebellious counter-cries. Salad Days was cheerfully upper class and played to the middle class. But it also played to the university young, and it is hard to imagine that they did not notice and enjoy the piece's mockery of the verities of some of their parents.

Salad Days is not just a period piece, of interest solely to nostalgics or the curious. Some of the songs will live for ever. But there is more to it than that.

The other night, I watched a Seventies BBC version of R C Sherriff's Journey's End (a story of class and affection in the trenches) which also went (in 1928) from unlikely, small-theatre production to huge success. It is a good example of what was later to be dismissed as a 'well-made' play. It is, I suppose, in the same sort of league as Terence Rattigan's writing, which has always, and rightly, been revived on the fringe.

Modern audiences are perhaps supposed to peer into these pieces, as into Salad Days, as though their only value is in showing how silly things were then. They may seem charming or quaint, but they pack a punch because they tell us what we have lost, and they retain their original power to touch us.

The other night, watching The Life of the World to Come, the cryonic-suspension (body-freezing) comedy at the Almeida, some of this came thumpingly home. It is not a bad play, but what with the endless loud-mouthing and swearing and nudity, you have got a sort of farce with only a smallish power to shock or challenge, and barely any to charm. Worse, there was only one character to like: he was the bent executive who thought the whole idea of freezing the terminally ill for later revival was a scam redeemed only by its being the acceptable face of euthanasia. I could get to like him.

A man in a suit - the very image of what Roy Hudd calls a Jew-ish theatrical agent - turned to me in the urinal and said: 'This thing's far too grim. It'll never take.' Mind you, they said Journey's End was too grim to succeed. The cryonic capers looked to me too slender to work: but then there were people who said the same of Salad Days. Best not to presume what constitutes magic in the theatre.