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Minstrel Magic

George Mitchell - A Lovely Man

The Story of the George Mitchell Choirs




Eleanor Pritchard




Saron Publishers


Published by Saron Publishers in 2017

Copyright © 2017 Eleanor Pritchard


Every effort has been made to trace the copyright holders of the photos used. Thanks to the BBC, Alamy, the Press Association and the Robert Luff Estate for permission to use photos. Any information about any other copyright holders will be gratefully received and will be redressed in any future editions

Thanks to Macmillan for permission to quote extensively from The Bandsman’s Daughter by Irene Thomas


All rights reserved


No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser


ISBN-13: 978-0-9956495-4-5



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DEDICATION


To Michael

CONTENTS

Acknowledgments

Foreword

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Afterword

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

There are so many people to thank. Everyone has welcomed me into the Mitchell family with warmth. I hope their joy and love for the days they spent with George comes across - he must have been a very special man.

Firstly George’s widow Dot Marshall who, with her second husband John, has been endlessly supportive over innumerable coffees and lunches. She has given me unprecedented access to her archives. Thanks to the ex-singers, dancers and technical people who played a part in George’s story - they are too many to name, but special thanks go to Keith Leggett, Glyn Dawson, Peter Pennington, Peter Clare, Peter Kingston, Richard Archer, Maggie Savage, Ann Mann, Daphne Bell, Jeff Hudson and Harry Currie. Also to Pat Heigham, Douggie Squires, Charles Chilton, Don Maclean and John Henshall. I’m grateful to the sole remaining Musketeer John Boulter for the time he has taken in phone calls and face to face chats to provide me with inside information. Thanks to all those involved in the Minstrel reunions - John and Dana Asher, and Angie Astell in particular - for making me feel so welcome. Thanks too to Maryetta, Mary and Maggi for lovely memories of afternoons over tea and photos.

I had huge help from Jeff Walden at BBC Archives, and also from Patricia Convery at the Arts Centre Melbourne, who opened their archives on a day to suit me, despite normally being closed.

Special thanks to John Want who created the wonderful cover in memory of his father Les, one of the show’s principals.

I could never have survived the many ups and downs of this book without the support of my fabulous family. Thanks to my daughters, sons-in-law and beautiful, funny, weird and wonderful granddaughters. Without my husband, I would have been a nervous wreck long before now - my love as always.

Final and very special thanks must go to Head Minstrel Roy Winbow. Without his help, encouragement, daily texts, emails and red wine, this book would certainly never have been finished. He is a true friend.

SOME NOTES

All money conversions in this book use thisismoney.co.uk, though this is a notoriously difficult area in which to be accurate. They are included merely as a guide.


The observant reader may notice that some people interviewed for this book are quoted in the past tense and some in the present. This is deliberate and indicates whether the person is still with us or not.


Please be aware that some terms, now seen as outdated or even offensive, occur in contemporary quotes used in this book.

FOREWORD

‘George Mitchell won a bet the other day but lost his argument. We had met in Piccadilly Circus. Just then Jack Benny walked by. “Amazing place, London,” said George, cigarette in hand as usual. “Nobody ever recognises anybody. I bet you the price of a drink that nobody recognises Jack Benny.” We followed Jack the length of Regent Street to Oxford Circus. George won his bet. “There you are,” said George triumphantly. “This is the safest place in the world to hide yourself.” Just then a woman approached him. “Excuse me troubling you, Mr Mitchell, but please could I have your autograph?” Sunday Chronicle 1951


This is the story of the man behind one of the greatest success stories in post-war entertainment. His choirs broke world records throughout the 1950s and 1960s on stage, screen and records. In 1961 the Black and White Minstrel Show was hailed as the greatest light entertainment programme in the world, sweeping the board at the first Golden Rose of Montreux Festival and giving the BBC the accolade as producers of the world’s best light entertainment show. Twenty years later, the BBC was doing its best to pretend the show had never existed, airbrushing it from history. Just what had gone wrong?


But like the music, it refuses to die...

PROLOGUE

The large room in the Shropshire country club buzzes with talk and laughter as people greet friends they haven’t seen for years. Black and white balloons float above round tables set for lunch. Former Black and White Minstrels and Toppers crowd round display boards filled with photos, theatre playbills and record sleeves. Minstrel CDs play constantly in the background. Noise levels rise until someone spies a figure in a wheelchair approaching.

‘Hush, he’s coming. Remember, he knows nothing about this.’ The word spreads rapidly, and the noise dies away, leaving the buzz of expectation still vibrating around the room. Everyone turns to watch as the glass doors at the far end of the room open, and a man in a smart grey suit is wheeled in by his wife. When The Saints Go Marching In blares from the speakers and immediately the entire room joins in.

In shock, the man in the wheelchair does a double-take, as he realises he knows all the people assembled. He stares around before joining in the singing himself. Laughter and applause break out, and the man buries his head in his hands, quite overcome. Turning to his wife, he asks, ‘Did you know about this?’

‘George, this is your day,’ says organiser ventriloquist Neville King. ‘We want you to make the best of it, mate. We want to thank you for the best years of our lives.’

So just who was this man who inspired such loyalty that, twenty years after the last televised Black and White Minstrel Show, cast and crew had travelled from as far away as New Zealand to attend his 80th birthday? The story starts in Falkirk, Scotland, in 1917...

CHAPTER 1

Squalling and crying, the baby who was to change the face of light entertainment in Britain forty years later was born on February 27, 1917, into a country enduring one of the worst winters of the twentieth century. It was also a country at war, though no one could have foreseen the impact on this baby of a future world war.

His mother Barbara named him George, and together they joined his grandfather’s household in the little village of Carronshore, today part of the Falkirk district in Scotland. In 1917 it housed about a thousand people, all dependent on the dominant Carron Iron Works or the Carron coal mines, which supplied the fuel for the foundries. The Carron Company had been founded in 1759 and ten years later was described as ‘the greatest of the kind in Europe….above 1200 men are employed.’ It was still the largest foundry in Britain, now involved in producing munitions for the British Army. This was a close-knit community. Everyone knew everyone else, bound together in a way that only mining and iron works areas can be, constantly living with a sense of shared danger. Sons followed fathers down the mines or into the foundries, and no one strayed far from home.

George’s grandfather John Laing was a prominent member of the community and a legend in his own right, still remembered as forming Falkirk’s first choral union. He was driven by music, but no one gave a thought to a career in music in the late nineteenth century, so he worked for seventy two years as a check weighman at the ironworks, reserving choral singing for what little leisure time remained after he came home from work. As precentor of Carron’s United Presbyterian Church, he conducted Sunday singing, then during the week, he’d hurry home from work to wash and change, before burnishing his silver conductor’s baton. This precious item had been presented to him in 1891 by the Carronshore Musical Association, an association he’d founded in the 1870s. Then he’d leave to rehearse one or other of his choirs. At one time, he ran three amateur choirs, many of whose singers were miners from the Carron Company mines, as were his audiences. Years later George was asked why his grandfather chose choral music, instead of orchestral or bagpipes. George dryly responded, ‘My grandfather was a true Scot. Singing is the cheapest way to make music.’

Not only did John work for the Carron Company but their house was owned by the company, as were all the homes in the area. Rid Row – or Red Row as it was known because Carron painted every door and window red – consisted of two dozen houses, built right opposite the blast furnace which lit the houses up all night long. George recalled a local story: ‘One of the local lads saw his neighbour repainting his door green, and he said, “What are you doing, Jock?” “I’m painting the door.” “That’s no paint, paint’s red.” ’ As George said, ‘Terrible joke.’

The house on Rid Row, always full of song, was also full of people, always teeming with friends and relatives. John himself came from a relatively small family, having only four brothers and sisters, but he and his wife Jeanie had twelve children, and his brothers and sisters produced large families to rival John’s. His brother George had ten children, and brother Alexander managed eleven! Many inherited Grandpa John’s flair for music. Two played the bagpipes and accompanied the family choir. ‘That’s why they say Scotland the Brave. If you can sing with those things playing, you’ll sing with anything,’ recalled George wryly. George’s mother Barbara was the seventh of John’s brood and a soloist at the United Presbyterian Church for nearly twenty years. And it was in this church choir that Barbara met Robert Mitchell who also came from a large family, having ten brothers and sisters. Music dominated his life as well, as he sang with the Gellatly’s Male Voice Choir. They were married on September 11, 1915, when Barbara was thirty and Robert twenty-five. When George was born, Sergeant Robert Mitchell was ‘somewhere in Mesopotamia’.

Robert had a mixed war. With the Scottish Horse, he played a prominent part in organising his unit’s variety shows, prefiguring the similar achievements of his son in another world war. George remembered, ‘My father was taken prisoner in Italy, and there he was kept for two years. Severely injured by a load of shrapnel, he was forced to march to Germany’s Langensalza prison camp where he got Red Cross parcels with tea bags and other goodies but no cigarettes. With his usual luck, his prison guard had distant relatives in Edinburgh – he spoke pretty good English and told Dad he’d love a cup of English tea. Dad dried used bags on a rafter to get a decent second cup and offered the guard three tea bags for a pack of cigarettes.’

Although he was decorated by the Italians, Robert always said he was classified as a deserter because he should have gone to Dunkeld in Scotland for demob. When the troop train arrived in Edinburgh, they were told to line up for the lavatory and then return to the train. But Robert stepped into the bar of the Caledonian Hotel, had a few whiskies and strolled up Princes Street to the Waverly Hotel, had a few more and knew he could catch a bus home from there. So he was never demobilised. ‘A bit later on, this tall guy comes into the house, the war’s been over about a year; I was told this was my father,’ recalled George. ‘I went up to Dunkeld where the Scottish Horse were, and his name wasn’t there. It wouldn’t have worried him much.’ According to Dot, George’s widow, ‘He hated his father at first’ but Robert soon became idolised by his little son.

The Mitchell family continued to live with John and Jeanie after Robert’s return, filling the house even more, and giving George a baby sister Jean in 1920. George remembered the Laing cottage fondly: ‘There were two huge rooms and a little kitchen. The beds were double deckers, with curtains across so there were two whopping great beds three feet from the ground and then, about six feet from the ground there were another two great beds on top of them, with curtains around them too. So it was quite a climb up to the top bunk. In some cases, it was tough for the smaller children because where there was a crush, the big one went down the centre, and the two others were put down the other end, so their faces were up against the feet of the one in the middle. Fortunately, I was so small that my grandfather kept me in his room. As I grew older, I fully expected to get into one of those beds but I didn’t.’

The beds weren’t the only cause for merriment: ‘There was a little hut in the field opposite, 200 yards away up a steep slope. It smelt a bit, now that was the loo which served three other houses too. At night it was hard to find for a wee toddler. I remember absolutely bursting late one night and crept out trying not to wake anyone. I ran across the fields with what little moonlight there was, only to return to the house yelling my head off and crying my eyes out. I screamed that I’d tried to go to the toilet, but somebody had left a wheelbarrow in there, and I couldn’t pull it out. Grandpa got his boots on and said, “Come on, lad.” He went off at great speed and came back laughing and said, “That’s old Tum in there, and he’s got a wooden leg, and it sticks straight out when he sits on the loo seat.” Oh dear, so much for the wheelbarrow.’

John spent most evenings away from the house, either at the district council or with his choirs, but when he got home, he always insisted on waking George. George’s earliest recollection is of ‘my grandfather waking me several nights a week, always after choir practice, and his first remark was, “You’re not sleeping, are you, son?” I’d open my eyes, and he’d say, “There you are, son, there’s the pandrops.” He always stuck a little bag of sweets under my pillow whenever he got in.’ He’d sing baby George nursery rhymes, and sometimes more ribald songs never meant for infant ears: ‘They say I whistled before I could talk. Squire Chodomleigh was the first song I learnt. Whether I mispronounced a word or there was a saucy word in it, I can’t remember, but it was always good for a laugh from the grown-ups.’

Sunday was the day for Church music. The entire family, now numbering fifteen, marched to church three times every Sunday: ‘The bell started ringing at 10.45, but if you waited for its summons, you were too late, for by then, every seat was filled! Before we left, dolled up in our Sunday best, Grandpa issued each child with a clean neatly folded handkerchief, three peppermint sweets [pandrops] and a coin for the collection – a penny for the older children and a halfpenny for those of us under five. He led the way with my grandmother, followed by the youngest children leading back to the eldest in strict order of seniority. As we crossed the fields, there was a singing rehearsal. When we reached a certain clump of bramble bushes, Grandpa would reach into his pocket for his tuning fork, strike it on the heel of one of his boots and say, “Remember now, this is your note.” After church, he’d hoist me onto his shoulders, holding onto my legs and I’d hang onto his head, and he’d march me up Aidenhead’s Brae, quite a climb, because the Salvation Army played there on Sunday mornings and we never missed that.’ When they got home, his grandmother whipped George’s suit off, replacing it with his dungarees, then an hour or so later, put his suit back on him, and everyone would set off back to church.

John soon took George’s musical education a stage further: ‘Once I started walking, he dragged me to choir rehearsals, three or four a week, carrying me on his shoulders along the railway track to the rehearsal hall. They went on quite late, but he always made sure I slept in the following morning. He took me anywhere where music could be heard, even to the Salvation Army on the street corner.’

At some stage during these early years, John was doing a Spot the Ball competition and let young George mark where he thought the ball was. As a result, John won a solid gold hunter on a heavy gold chain which he wore for the rest of his life. George well remembered his grandfather’s words: ‘George, you’ll fall down a drain many times and always come up with a gold chain around your neck.’

George had a special place in John’s heart: ‘I think he must have been psychic. Otherwise, why would he have left me all his music treasures – his ebony and silver baton, his music, his metronome? Also a writing desk with his name on it and a Bible. With dozens of grandchildren in the family, he could have chosen any one of us. None of the others had anything. He said to me, “You’re going to be a musician, my son, you wait till you grow up.” My mother thought the baton would bring me success, although Grandfather would probably turn in his grave if he could hear the sort of numbers it conducts now.’ Although later features mention George never went on stage without this baton, it was far too precious to risk. His widow Dot says, ‘He’d lose batons, break them, sit on them, snap them, so he would never risk this precious memento from his grandfather.’

But Robert had itchy feet, and Carronshore wasn’t the place for him. They moved first to Leeds and then to London, where Robert quickly established himself as a sales executive for a heating engineering firm, Sankeys, but ‘had about five firms selling all sorts of strange things. I think he got the first coloured baths that came over from Germany and special wooden fireplaces designed. He had his fingers in about sixteen pies, and he used to write articles for magazines.’

Although George was sad to leave his beloved grandfather, music was to stay in George’s life. Although both Robert and Barbara loved singing and were very fond of opera, Robert couldn’t take anything too heavy. He was a Mozart fan. When George was 11, Robert decided to introduce him to opera. Despite having doubts - Wagner is pretty heavy going for a schoolboy - he chose a performance of Siegfried, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. It became the turning point in George’s life.

As the curtain rose, Robert started to say, ‘How do you…?’ George was leaning forward anxiously in his seat. ‘Shhh,’ he reprimanded his father without turning his head. And that’s how he remained until the curtain came down for the interval. ‘Like to stretch your legs?’ asked Robert. ‘No, I’ll stay,’ said George. ‘We might miss something.’

Siegfried bowled George over: ‘I’d never had such an experience. I couldn’t sleep for the themes that ran in my head all night. Next morning I went straight to the public library and borrowed the score.’ The very first record he bought with his own pocket money was a recording of Gotterdammerung. However, the following week, he bought Artie Shaw’s Concerto for Clarinet: ‘I realised there should be no such thing as highbrow or lowbrow music. It’s all music, some good, some bad. What I don’t go for is the musical appreciation that sets up as the arbiter of taste for everyone else, that says this or that is the only good music, and everything else is rubbish. Half the trouble with a lot of classical enthusiasts is that they forget that symphonies and operas were often written to make money. Verdi in his popular operas didn’t really need an orchestra – just a great big guitar. He made his pile, then started to write what he really wanted to when he was seventy.’

His parents found him a piano teacher and soon George was having two lessons every week, including theory and harmony. Within three months, he was writing simple orchestrations. But he was theory-happy: ‘I was a rotten pupil. I couldn’t be bothered with scales and practising footling little pieces. It was the music itself that enchanted me. I just wanted to know about music. I studied scores and heard them in my head as piano music. I wanted to know what this music business was all about – how anyone set about producing such marvellous sound.’ His parents became tired of suggesting he practise and being told, ‘I can’t be bothered – I want to go out to play.’ After nine months, George refused to have any more lessons: ‘I’d learned enough to play the piano to satisfy myself, and I’ve improved with the years!’

Even though music was once again his passion, he began to revel in school life. Attending Southgate County Grammar School, he proved to be a bright boy, particularly good at maths, music and perhaps surprisingly sports. Although it might be hard to imagine him as an athlete, it was here that he excelled, playing halfback for the football team, and excellent cricket and tennis, which he loved. He was good too because, in summer 1945, he was part of the RAPC team which played at Wimbledon. With the war in Europe over, Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Club staged a series of matches between Allied servicemen. George played on Court 2 in the finals against HGN Lee, who had been a member of Britain’s winning 1933 Davis Cup team with Fred Perry and Bunny Austin, though perhaps inevitably he lost.

Robert encouraged George at school but thought history and Shakespeare were rubbish: ‘Dad reckoned Henry V Part 11 was actually Part Eleven as he said that was what it felt like. He read loads of history books – he said they were a load of rubbish as they were always written by the winners – so he reckoned most history was propaganda, only accepted by people who couldn’t think for themselves.’ George’s academic prowess was such that he was presented with the School Prize, a complete leather-bound works of Shakespeare (which, given his views on Shakespeare, probably didn’t please Robert particularly!). George won this prize two years running, leading Robert to say, ‘Well, someone had to.’ George thought that being sent to a top notch school (at considerable cost) might have had something to do with it!

The headmaster, a Mr Everard, loved Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and so the school staged one every year. George volunteered every time – ‘I was very keen’ – but sadly he always found himself at the back of the stage. ‘I couldn’t sing so they’d shove me as far back on stage as possible, with instructions not to sing too loudly. They said although I could read music, I couldn’t pronounce it. As I was fairly tall, I was always the policeman at the back or the sentry standing behind the rest with a spear, or a very tall Japanese servant in The Mikado. Everyone made sure I didn’t get within ten yards of a kimono.’

Even though George was to lead a very crowded life, he never forgot his early days. In July 1952, he revisited his old school, where he adjudicated at the House Musical Festival, raising much laughter when he wryly commented that one house’s entry in the musical trio section did not have their instruments tuned correctly. The School’s magazine recorded, ‘Mr Mitchell’s criticisms were concise and to the point. (He) told us how pleased he had been to attend the Competition but said he would like to be invited next year as a guest and not in the unenviable capacity of adjudicator so that he may enjoy the entertainments the more.’ The following day the school was delighted to learn that ‘George had presented the school with £20 (£2,000) for a cup to be competed for by the various House choirs and for some similar encouragement of choral music in the School.’ Ex-pupil David Cooper recalls an old school friend telling him that George caused a minor sensation amongst the non-musical boys by parking his pink Cadillac outside the school. Sadly there’s no record of George ever owning a Cadillac, let alone a pink one.

But George’s health was worrying his parents. His eyes were never strong but more worrying still was something that had the doctors baffled. One day, sent to the corner shop for eggs, he collapsed half way home, breaking all the eggs. Despite protesting he couldn’t remember what had happened, he got a clip around the ear from a very annoyed Barbara. When it happened again, a few weeks later, they took him to a doctor, but no one could find the answer. It wasn’t until he went into the Army in 1940, that an alert medical officer diagnosed Menière’s Disease, a disorder of the inner ear which causes bouts of severe dizziness and sickness. This dogged him throughout his life, causing particular problems on stage, as one later choir member Frank Davies remembers: ‘George had tremendous courage. He would continue conducting even as his face grew darker and darker as he suffered the onset of an epileptic fit, which he would slowly bring under his control. What he went through to achieve that, only he really knew, though he once chose to discuss it with me at great length. The cliché, the show must go on, was abundantly apparent in George’s brave attitude, on many more than one occasion.’ Daphne Bell, later such an important part of the Mitchell organisation, recalls him having ‘dizzy turns, always a worry as to whether he’d remain on his feet’. And Maryetta Midgley remembers being with George ‘in a corridor, he clutched a hook and held his head. He never made it a thing.’ Though it wasn’t epilepsy, the impact on George’s life was potentially as severe. George’s widow Dot recalls, ‘Once in the early Sixties, he fell onto a Tube line, missing the live wire by inches.’ But by force of will, he fought to carry on a normal life.

Robert’s wanderlust never left him, and although the family never moved from London, Robert and Barbara spent most summers and some winters touring Europe: ‘I had wonderful trips, Cannes, Nice, Menton, Rome, Verona, Pisa and Naples – fantastic.’ Even Britain held its attractions and Robert would often whisk them away at a moment’s notice: ‘It was, “Where are we going today, Barbara? Let’s go down to the Old Ship at Brighton for lunch.” And that’s what they’d do. My parents were gipsies, off somewhere all the time, and I loved it.’

Despite this carefree attitude, the family was financially secure, so much so that they employed a housekeeper: ‘As the years went on, we had a lovely Irish housekeeper Mary Sullivan, great soul, who’s been with the family ever since and is absolutely wonderful.’

Having money meant Robert could indulge in his passion for cars, a passion George shared all his life. At a time when few people sported a car, Robert always had the latest motor. George remembered one in particular: ‘It was a Trojan, something like an Army tank going across the Dales.’ These cars were stretched to their limits during their European holidays.


Despite Robert taking the family away on an extended European holiday six weeks before George sat for his matriculation at 16, George still managed to do well in his exams, gaining a Distinction in Maths. He had no idea what he wanted to do next. Still passionate about music, he never considered it as a job possibility: ‘Music was my hobby, my interest in life, but I never gave it a thought as a career.’ Robert had a good friend John Douglas, a dour Scott who stood no nonsense. Not an obvious friend for the fun-loving Robert, John headed up a large City firm of accountants, Sawyers in Budge Row, and agreed to give George a job. £500 (£31,000) secured his articles, a sum George thought ‘ridiculous’. Robert put half down, and George agreed to pay the rest by instalments from his wages. ‘I’ll make an accountant of him all right,’ John Douglas told his father.

George’s first task involved a leather-bound volume approximately four inches deep. Inside were a thousand flimsy pages each inscribed with columns of £ s d. ‘I want you to check the addition,’ said Douglas, which George managed within his first day and proudly handed the volume back to his boss. ‘That’s fine. I’ve got another thirty-nine like that,’ said Douglas. ‘You can start on them tomorrow.’ Stacked in two columns, the volumes almost reached the ceiling, enough to put off any but the most determined student. However, George was certainly that. But matters weren’t quite what they seemed. Far from being a test of the fledgling accountant’s mathematical ability, George discovered that the thousands of columns were a test of character. He was being tested for conceit rather than calculation. ‘We use adding machines,’ he was eventually told. ‘The boss just wanted to see if you’d stick it.’

It was a steep learning curve, but George loved it – the order, the precision, the clarity of the figures. Soon he was being sent out to audit the books of big organisations all over London. But the testing continued. After five days with the makers of a well-known food product, he returned with his final audit complete. ‘Back already?’ said John Douglas. ‘Did ye know that’s usually a two-week job?’ ‘Well, there you are, sir,’ said George ‘And there’s no mistake. You can see the figures tally all right.’ He stood back and waited. Surely even old Douglas could not withhold a brief word of praise for such speed and efficiency? But the face of the Scot remained sphinx-like. He looked up and over his heavy-rimmed specs. ‘Oh, they tally, do they?’ he repeated. ‘And have ye never heard, young man, of compensating errors? I want you to go back tomorrow and check all your figures again.’ George certainly later approved of these methods. ‘Everything I did had to be checked and double-checked. I was not wild with enthusiasm for this method of teaching, but it has been invaluable to me. It made me terribly careful and accurate. I suppose it turned me into a perfectionist.’

Sawyers carried out work all over the country, and George was soon spending most of his time away from London. The first time he was asked to audit a company outside the capital, he didn’t realise the implications: ‘They were a big firm, Fray Bentos who made Oxo cubes. I thought it would be good fun but didn’t realise what auditing a company of this size really meant. Then I understood I’d be away for fifty weeks. I thought this was a bit crazy, but it sounded good. I was on a gravy train for a year, and it was all marvellous, ’cos I never took my salary, such as it was because I still had to pay for my articles, I just left the money there. The rest of the time, my expenses were all paid, plus I had 17/= a day (£55) for sundry expenses. Fray Bentos had a depot in virtually every main town in the UK, so I’ve been in every good hotel in Britain, such as the Adelphi in Liverpool, the Black Boy in Nottingham, the Gresham in Dublin, the Caledonian in Edinburgh. It was terrific, quite a trip, and got me well in with the old boy [John Douglas].’ George spent his evenings cramming from textbooks and ledgers, and soon passed the intermediate examination of the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

But music was still uppermost in George’s mind. He took every opportunity to visit the Albert Hall, Queen’s Hall, Covent Garden, Sadler’s Wells; anywhere that concerts and opera, especially Wagner, were being performed: ‘I watched Henry Wood, Beecham, Adrian Boult and Toscanini every night for a week for a shilling behind the tymps doing a complete Beethoven cycle. I also saw Lauritz Melchior in Otello. Little did I realise I would talk to Sir Adrian years later in the coffee queue at Aeolian Hall or that John Barbirolli would be conducting at EMI Abbey Road studios adjacent to me.’ And he carried on building up his record collection: ‘Wagner continued to be my hero until I discovered Schumann. Now Wagner is my second favourite composer.’ Saturday nights he played with a dance band but still treated it as nothing more than a hobby. ‘I played piano in a dance band for fun but was never interested in light music. It sounds crazy now, but I had no intention of doing it professionally.’

But childhood issues with his eyes surfaced again: ‘Long nights at the books, late evenings with a band…it began playing the deuce with my eyes.’ Much of his childhood reading far into the night by the light of a shaded lamp had started the damage. As an apprentice accountant, he further strained his eyesight by the day-after-day scrutiny of accounts books. At first, there was just strain and headaches, but Robert feared his son was going blind. After one accountancy exam, the trouble became so serious that Robert took George to a specialist whose verdict was grave: ‘Your son’s eyes are very bad. I’ll prescribe new glasses, but they’ll probably do him only six months.’

CHAPTER 2

In 1933, during the strangely-timed European holiday just before his Matriculation exams, George became friendly with a young German lad. George and Fritz, also aged 16, shared a passion for tennis and spent much of the holidays playing. But Fritz was also a mountain rescuer and one day, took George up the highest mountain in the area, an odd pastime considering George’s Menière’s. This was George’s first experience of climbing, and this was proper mountain climbing! George had never been more scared in his life. They took a day and a half, most of which Fritz and his mates spent hauling George up on ropes. When they reached the top, George nearly lost consciousness, but at least he could say he got there. He and Fritz often spent summers together for the rest of the decade and in September 1938 found themselves somewhere on the German borders, just in time to witness the annexation of the Sudetenland. Fritz, George and the local kids thought it great fun, posing for pictures on a tank, throwing rose petals at the Germans, along with the locals who were delighted because they expected the Germans to bring money and prosperity.

But war was soon declared on Germany, and Fritz and George were not to meet again. However, Fritz’s father happened to be a German general and soon the ‘men in suits’ arrived at Robert’s home to talk to George; something similar was happening to Fritz. George never knew how they learned about their friendship, but the authorities were eventually satisfied that George posed no risk. Although George survived the war, Fritz wasn’t so lucky.

But George had other things on his mind. He had met and fallen in love with Irene who worked in the typing department at Sawyers, who, so said George, ‘was the only person in the whole place who didn’t seem very old. Everyone else must have been in their forties and fifties.’ They had a small wedding at Leatherhead on June 1, 1940, after which George borrowed Robert’s car and the newlyweds honeymooned in Torquay, trying to forget the outside world, now once again at war.

Keen to join the war fever, George tried to volunteer as soon as war was declared: ‘Of course, Father insisted it had to be the Argyle and Sutherlands or the Black Watch. But to my dismay, my dreadful eyesight meant I was rejected, which was comical because later they took you if you were half-blind. In those days they’d say something about, “You’d never get the gas mask on”, so I was thrown out of everything. The only thing left to do was to sit and wait.’ Eventually ordered to report to the Pay Corps HQ at Finsbury Park, he enlisted on September 2, 1940, and was sent to the Bank of England offices in the City. As he said, ‘it’s almost like being in Civvy Street!’ But being based in the City of London in 1940 was far from safe as the Pay Corps staff had to stay on duty during the Blitz. George was fire-watching on the Bank of England’s roof on December 29/30, 1940 when the Germans dropped thousands of incendiary bombs on the City. Everything around St Paul’s, including Sawyers, his old office, was burned and a greater area destroyed than that lost in the Great Fire of London in 1666: ‘It was quite a sight from the top of the Bank of England. It was even worse next morning when I had to march a unit to see if anything could be done. It was impossible, they were falling in holes, tripping over hoses, oh what a mess. Loads of business people were leaving tube stations and walking close to parts of buildings not totally destroyed and laughing their heads off seeing our antics. Oh, what a lovely war!’ During the Blitz Robert and Barbara were bombed out and found temporary accommodation in Tolworth, near Surbiton, Surrey. Irene went with them, and George joined whenever he had leave.

George’s department handled pay ledgers for regiments all over the globe and with vast numbers of men being transferred, moved to a hospital or posted missing, the accountancy system nearly collapsed. George dealt with queries from all over the world, work which he found easy, but he became increasingly frustrated with one particular form, dealing with used equipment and payment: ‘There was a lot of fiddling going on with this form. Nothing was tied down too closely, so identity theft was rife. But I couldn’t get anyone to agree it needed redesigning.’ It took the by-now Corporal Mitchell quite a fight to implement an amended form. But the Army quickly realised just how foolproof the new system was, and George received a special War Office commendation which he saw as one of his biggest achievements – ‘I’ll always be proud of that.’

But George wasn’t going to let a war come between him and music. He found an old piano which he started playing to relax in his off-duty hours. Once he started thumping out tunes on the piano, (hardly expertly given his mere nine months of tuition!), people quickly gathered around and sang or danced: ‘I started banging out the first notes, and everyone sang away like mad in spite of the awful canteen piano. I then jotted down a few pieces such as Trepak and the Hawaiian War Chant and wrote some very corny tunes, easy to sing.’ Gradually more and more grouped around the piano, singing along with the music and George soon realised that there were quite a lot of good voices there. One of his regular fans, an ATS girl called Dot Mackenzie, had a wonderful soprano voice and George quickly decided that they could all have a lot of fun if he developed a choir as background to Dot. He was overwhelmed with applications and chose about 16 men and girls to join them. However, he soon realised that average voices improved immeasurably if, instead of singing solo, they sang in groups. After that, he made the choir the act’s main part with solo parts as contrast.

The choir quickly became really popular, and George was overwhelmed with even more applications to join. He had to turn down most of these as sixteen was always George’s preferred number for his choir. Eight men, eight women, two in each voice range, which allowed him to write the four-part close harmony he loved and which gave the distinctive Mitchell sound that became his hallmark for years to come.

But he got no support from the Army. The Battalion already had a dance band, so officials saw no need for another musical diversion. The dance band had a grand piano and was allowed practice time during the day, but the Army made George and his singers rehearse in the basement and in coffee breaks and evenings, making do with an old upright piano, ill-tuned and lacking several notes. The grand piano used by the dance band was considered too good for the upstart choir to use. Despite this, requests for appearances by the choir flooded in, but the Army was determined not to make this easy either. Every appearance had to be approved by their commanding officer, Col Murrell, who grudgingly agreed only as long as he was credited. Often permission was just as swiftly withdrawn. George was told very firmly that ‘appearances by the Choir can only be made at Service functions and in the cause of charity, and applications must be forwarded in the usual way when it is desired to give a performance. It will be clearly understood that no appearances will be made at any time upon the commercial stage. Furthermore, no time during office hours may be granted for rehearsals, and if it is your wish to rehearse after office hours, personnel stationed at Marylebone must proceed in their own time.’ This infuriated George: ‘I remember my frantic, frequent and unsuccessful attempts to get some rehearsal time – and how ridiculously annoyed I was because the Battalion Orchestra got a double lunch break to rehearse and never lost any members on overseas draft. Looking back, I think that perhaps it was the result of the band’s system of never playing at a unit dance without payment, whereas we were pleased to give our services gratis.’

The difficulties just urged George and the singers on more: ‘I remember the tremendous incentive given to us by the sarcasm and criticism of a few members of the Battalion revue cast and orchestra at our early performances. Having nasty natures, a few of us vowed to make them eat their words.’ And eat them they did. As George later wrote, ‘Special comment must be made regarding the phenomenal number of rehearsals attended by choir members after their normal working hours, and the loyalty shown by those who always turned up for a show in spite of leave, sickness or any personal arrangements which may have been made; the detailed work of rehearsals, funds and the endless odd jobs which have been cheerfully undertaken by Stella Wood from the choir’s first appearance to date; the orchestrations on which Tom Gillison devoted his après time; the general help and advice given at all times by Neb Wolters.’

Soon they were appearing nightly at the Royal Artillery Theatre Woolwich with the Battalion Road Show, as well as performing in one-off concerts all over London where they frequently topped the bill. The Swing Choir, as it was now called, mainly sang music written by George which ensured their voices were shown to the best possible advantage but they also performed jazzed-up versions of pieces such as A Persian Market and In a Monastery Garden. The regular repertoire soon included songs such as All Just the Same, Scots Missed, Dimitrov, Sentimental Journey, Bye Bye, Riding on a Rainbow, Tzena, Tzena, Louisiana Hayride, El Campanchero, Sabre Dance, Wally Dunn, Sing, My Heart, In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree, There’s a New World, Jacob’s Ladder, Tipperary Samba, Old MacDonald, Bless This House and Glass Mountain.

George’s childhood realisation that music shouldn’t be compartmentalised came to the fore: ‘We’d sing anything from folk to pop, Wagner to Schumann. The Latin-American medley, later in the Black and White Minstrel Show, we did in those army days.’ In later years, once fame had hit, he went on record as saying, ‘I don’t go mad on most pop tunes. I don’t use more because they’re not very good. Far too many offer no more than the basic beat of jungle drums, which is all very well for dancing. Moreover, their musicians don’t know how to finish. I love moderns such as Stravinsky, Sibelius, Prokofiev and Shostakovich and can listen to Basie and Ellington until the cows come home. But I can’t stand “middle music”. I guess I must be too Scotch [sic] to spend money on records to hear a couple of times, then throw away. I prefer music that you can live with and explore. I don’t listen much to pop or musical comedy music. The evergreens are something quite different. Any of my colleagues will tell you how enthusiastic I get about the Minstrel songs. Any music that has lasted so long and still sounds so good MUST be good – and I go for music that’s good.’ George’s ideal was to see symphony concerts and operas drawing the same sort of crowds as the Beatles and similar pop groups: ‘This happens on the Continent. I try to get to the opera in Verona, to the festivals at Munich and Vienna – but sometimes I just cannot get near the box office, the concerts are so fully booked. Promenade concerts get similar support over here in Britain. The kids sit there packed almost to suffocation with hardly a cough all through the concert – it’s marvellous. But nobody cares, nobody publicises the fact. But when another crowd of youngsters scream at some new beat group, then it’s all over the front page.’

George himself often accompanied the choir on the piano, though gradually he confined his role to conducting, sometimes from the front or often from the wings. The music was infectious, and George soon found he needed to choreograph routines to enhance the visual interest of the choir: ‘There was no standing still with that choir. I moved the singers around, then we tried a few dance routines.’ He discovered a real talent for this and would know exactly what he wanted and how to get it but was always willing to listen to others’ ideas. George next introduced comedians and impressionists, so they could now offer a ready-made self-contained entertainment package to camps and garrisons throughout London: ‘We became an act. The boys and girls loved it, it was all a lark. They kept moving all the time they were singing, just like today. We figured it would be harder for the audience to hit us if they started to throw things. But we had a captive audience, and we were a great success.’ Future stars Jon Pertwee and David Jacobs compèred the show. Still forced to wear uniform all the time, the choir needed to be resourceful, and many a stitching session resulted in added bows and buttons, frills and flowers, with everyone pitching in to make the whole show a joint venture, mirrored later by the family feel to George’s shows.


The show at the Garrison Theatre, Woolwich in November 1944, where they shared the bill with professional cellist Val Kennedy, seemed like any other. The audience couldn’t get enough of George and the choir, but they gave Val a hard time. Stung by the unfairness and unable to restrain himself, the kindly George strode onto the stage and appealed to the audience to give him a chance. An impressed Val didn’t forget this small act of kindness and praised the choir far and wide. When he met George Melachrino, the hugely talented musician, now conducting the British Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, the choir was all Val talked about. Melachrino told BBC producer Ronnie Waldman, who had produced the Kentucky Minstrels with Harry S Pepper before the war. News of the choir’s popularity had already reached Ronnie and, always on the lookout for new talent to keep both home and service listeners entertained, he quickly agreed to audition them. George asked permission to attend this audition from his commanding officer, Col Murrell, who said casually, ‘I don’t see why not, Mitchell, as long as it’s done in off-duty hours,’ and with that comment, began one of the greatest stories of post-war entertainment history.

Nerves were high on January 24, 1945, audition day. Why George chose the Hawaiian War Chant with its twisting words is anyone’s guess, though it was a choir favourite, but the risk worked. Ronnie immediately offered George a spot on Variety Bandbox, the BBC’s top weekend radio show, broadcast live to a regular listening audience of fourteen million from the Queensberry All-Services Club where thousands of forces personnel tasted bright lights and fun.


Sunday, February 11 was extremely nerve-racking for everyone and none more so than George. His scrapbook recalled, ‘I remember my knees knocking furiously. I thought they would never stop, but when I worked it out afterwards, the nervousness had lasted for only fourteen bars of music.’ He played the piano, with Tom Gillison on accordion and George Causby on drums. Later, he recalled he ‘assumed the role of the great conductor, much to the amusement of the choir’. The crowd gave them a thunderous ovation. Press reviews the next day loved them, and by Tuesday, fan mail was flooding into the BBC. A typical letter came from HMS Myng’s crew, saying, ‘The female soloist was terrific, and many of us listened anxiously for her name to be announced. We wondered if we could get in touch with, write to, obtain a photograph of, or anything to do with this grand ATS girl with the wonderful voice. Any time it would be possible to hear this choir and soloist, many eager ears would be listening in.’

The BBC listened. Stage Door Canteen, another elite wartime radio show, quickly snapped them up. The members of the Stage Door Canteen entertainments committee read like a Who’s Who of entertainment – Arthur Askey, Jack Buchanan, Cicely Courtneidge, Noel Coward, Bebe Daniels, John Gielgud, Robert Helpmann, Jack Hulbert, Vivien Leigh, Beatrice Lillie, Vic Oliver – all names George was destined to work with in the years ahead. Already he and the choir were mixing in top-flight circles. Soon they were appearing regularly on Stage Door Canteen and Variety Bandbox. A telegram would arrive, such as the one ‘asking if the Swing Choir could broadcast Variety Bandbox on 27 May, rehearsal 2.30, record 6-7pm’. George kept the contract for this show which reads, ‘Fee 1 = 15 guineas (£630), repeat overseas = £3.18.9 (£161), Home Service = 5 guineas (£215), other repeats = 10 guineas (£430). Signed by Captain Hutchings for the services of Sgt George Mitchell and his Swing Choir.’ The Army was still controlling the choir’s movements, and all such fees quickly disappeared into Army coffers.

Stage shows continued all over London and the S East of England. Often below them on the bill were stars such as Cyril Fletcher and Violet Carson, who later found fame as Ena Sharples in Coronation Street but who was a notable pianist in the 1940s. Soon, they were topping the bill above names such as Wilson, Keppel and Betty, and Florence Desmond, both very high-flying famous variety acts, as well as Max Bygraves, Peter Cavanagh, Don Arden, Alfred Marks and Vic Oliver.

Matters developed so fast that George spent much of the early part of 1945 living on his nerves. His I Remember list for 1945 included, ‘I remember the words of All Just the Same shaking like a leaf in Irene Coe’s hand as she deputised for Dot Mackenzie at a few minutes’ notice and sang a very difficult solo part.’ But worse was to come: ‘On March 16, we made the greatest faux pas of 1945. The choir came in on the wrong beat of our signature tune and “the band played on”. Both sides stuck it out to the bitter end – and it certainly was bitter – leaving me at the piano in a state of collapse. The audience actually APPLAUDED, and from then on I knew that to have even a small reputation was worth much gold and I was convinced the limitations of discordant swing music on the ear of the general public had not been reached so far.’ His greatest worry that year, he recalled, was that ‘the first performance of Manuelo had to be a broadcast – it was written in a hurry and was under-rehearsed – some of the gang were actually reading the words from scraps of paper. Our lucky star must have been doing its stuff because the tremendous enthusiasm of the Queensberry audience at the end of the number produced the largest lump I have ever had in my throat.’

George’s nerves kicked in again when the choir appeared at the vast Earl’s Court arena later in 1945: ‘I was to conduct Geraldo’s orchestra. It seemed an awful cheek for a sergeant to wave the baton for Geraldo’s orchestra.’ Although his parents planned to attend, they hesitated when it started to rain. Once they decided to go, they had no time to change, so they drove to Earls Court in their gardening clothes, intending to slip into the back, but the hall was packed. They were thinking of driving home again when George appeared and they found themselves ushered to front row VIP seats. The proudest pair in the hall were Robert and Barbara, seated between a general and a naval captain – and Robert still in his gardening clothes!

Nerves or not, George was making an impression. The BBC was planning a new programme, featuring young people. George wrote, ‘I was asked to attend a script conference. After carefully making sure they really meant me, I joined forces with Cecil Madden, Stephen Williams, Cedric Stokes, Peter Cavanagh, Sandy Sandford, Jack and Eddy Eden, Robin Richmond, Diana Decker and Dick Dudley. A new show, to run for several weeks, was discussed. (I was allowed to speak frequently). Eventually, it was decided that the choir would open and close the programme each week and also sing any number of my own choice during each programme.’ Keen to placate the Army, producer Cecil Madden wrote to George’s commanding officer, saying they would record the programme on Sundays to reduce the time the choir would be needed during working hours. Early test recordings were remade over and over until the BBC was happy with the show, called Knocking at Your Door, but George panicked even more when he was offered a second spot: ‘Little did they know the difficulties we were having in producing enough new material without adding to the burden.’ But typically George said ‘Yes’ and worried later.

By the year’s end, recordings of the choir’s broadcasts had been heard as far away as Hollywood, Hawaii, North Russia, Darwin, Sweden, Iceland and British Guiana as well as by ships at sea. His I Remember list gives small snapshots of that magical year 1945:

•The glorious effect in our signature tune when the AEF orchestra improved on the trumpet breaks and their terrific brass section let rip.

•How worried we were when Miki (Barbara Boyle) collapsed after a broadcast.

•The number of times I sat until the early hours writing out parts, wondering if it was worth all the bother. The next morning I always decided it was.

•How sweet the twins (Olive and Jose Prime) looked in their tango scene.

•Joan’s great solo on her first broadcast, as cool as ice – followed by Emyr, clowning at the mike, getting laughs from his audience and coming away after a short solo with sweat pouring down his face.

•How queer I felt when two Marines headed a queue for the first autographs I’d ever given.

•Dot [Mackenzie] singing Besame Mucho better than I had ever heard anyone singing it.

•Tom, sitting in the freezing cold basement at Classic House, scribbling out band parts in his usual race against time.

•Vi didn’t look very well during one of the broadcasts – I found out later that she had fractured her elbow earlier that day.

•When little Arthur, announced as a soloist for a joke, had to sing one word in the middle of a number. He missed it, and I nearly fell off the piano stool laughing at his expression as he ripped up his ‘notes’ and marched off stage in a temper.

•The classic phrase uttered by Fred Holmes when I got a little hot under the collar at a rehearsal – ‘Don’t worry about him, he only plays the piano.’

•Miki and Frank clowning the solo parts of All Just the Same for the first time.

To George and the choir members, life seemed good.

CHAPTER 3

By mid-1945, peace had arrived, and gradually choir members were demobbed, returning to their pre-war jobs. But new members swelled the ranks such as a young returned Prisoner of War named Alan Cooper who was posted to the RAPC at Finsbury Circus. As he recalls, ‘I was introduced into the Singers, and we used to rehearse in Classic House in Old Street. I had been a singer before my call-up, am/dram, Gilbert and Sullivan, my office concert party, and was thrilled with the music and singing.’ Alan was to remain with George until the 1970s, becoming a stalwart not only as a singer but as George’s right-hand man in the growing George Mitchell enterprise.

The Swing Choir’s final appearance in uniform was Stars in Battledress Cavalcade at the Albert Hall on June 2, 1946. This hugely promoted show, the peak of wartime entertainment, saw them sharing the bill with Janet Brown, Peter Cavanagh, Nat Gonella, Arthur Haynes, Ken Morris, Charlie Chester, Freddie Frinton, Walter Midgley and Terry Thomas, all top show business names.


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