Fringe Online 2021
Arranged and performed by Stefan Bednarczyk. Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. Till June 20th.
Footprints Festival celebrates many of the great performances at Jermyn Street over its 27-year history. Early on in July 1997, Stefan Bednarczyk arrived with An Evening With Flanders and Swann, commissioned by the widows of both musicians. Both Flanders and Swann, singing and accompanying himself with his sweet-toned Kawai piano.
Bednarczyk’s voice is his own – he’s famed for many shows – but he recreates the flavour, the timbre and wit of the duo like no-one else I’ve heard. He manages this by being simply himself, someone whose own aesthetic and athletic wit – the linking commentaries show that – prove an affinity within which Bednarczyk inhabits his voice close to Flanders’ own. It’s not as deep naturally though even perhaps clearer. You hear every word.
Though Flanders and Swann knew each other from 1938 at Westminster School, and wrote music for other acts including Joyce Grenfell, and shows like Airs on a Shoestring, it was on New Year’s Eve 1956 they finally tried out a show of their own at Lindsey Theatre Notting Hill. And the rest – Bednarczyk’s excellent at interspersing a few details, though not too many.
Seemingly comfortable entertainers, poking gentle British fun at themselves and Britain, the pair were in fact deeply subversive of the status quo. Anti-apartheid songs loom twice here, and one on nuclear holocaust. Only one famous song ‘Have Some Madeira M’dear’ quite edgy but really dissonant to us now, has been banished by Bednarczyk – and 20 years before #Me Too. But he includes several lesser-known in favour of the obvious like ‘The Rhinoceros Song’ with its ‘Mud, mud glorious mud’ since there’s bestiary enough here.
Flanders is very tongue-in-cheek in his first LP intro: ‘The purpose of satire, it has been rightly said, is to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion and cosy half-truth — and our job, as I see it, is to put it back again.’ Don’t believe it.
We start with a paean to the omnibus, in A Transport of Delight with its delicious cascading scale denoting falling down the stairs. It’s all very late 1950s as is the refrain from ‘The Gas-man Cometh’ with its series of mishaps ‘it’s all work for the British workman’ and then we’re in darker territory.
‘Peek-a-Boo’ is the refrain in ‘The Ostrich Song’ which isn’t as you think it, since it ends with a bang. Swann was a conscientious objector and served in the Ambulance Corps, and Flanders was felled with Myelitis and had to use a wheelchair from 1943 at 21. Their song can hardly have comforted the Home Counties and the Moral Majority.
Nor for many of them, could ‘Misalliance’ with its miscegnation of honeysuckle/Bindweed and its rhythmical zoom and leaps emulating the plants. Though for once Bednarczyk didn’t comment on multiple meanings – or he’d be there more than 80 minutes – they’re manifest to many. On one level it’s an attack on class, still virulent with the Debutante season only ending in 1958, but it’s quite clearly something more, an attack on Apartheid, made manifest with their friend Sidney Carter, of whom more later. Even more it’s taken as an implicit gay solidarity anthem, which the last words also support: ‘They died in the struggle for which we must fight/To twist to the left or twist to the right.’ Though delivered lightly the emphasis is thumping and deadly serious.
‘Guide to Britten’ as Bednarczyk puts it, a survey of the composer’s music to 1953 (the wrongly-maligned Gloriana) isn’t the brilliant send-up of Dudley Moore’s 1961 ‘Little Miss Britten’ which so infuriated Britten (he never spoke to Moore again). It’s light, but more serious, a sort of Bluffer’s Guide with quotes sewn into a Flanders and Swann musical treatment. ‘Rain on the Plage’ seems pretty er spot-on on a drizzly day and that great standby of debunking nationalism ‘A Song of Patriotic Prejudice’ with tis refrain ‘The English, the English, the English are best/I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest’ is, as Bednarczyk underlines, contemptuous of nationalism. The and of the song mentions many foreign names of English people, not least Polish. ‘Bedstead Men’ is a truly surreal fantasia on how so many of these objects end up in lakes.
‘The Gnu Song’ is more superbly whimsical with its ‘How d’you do/I’m a Gnu’ all derived from reading a GNU serial number. Bednarczyk has the measure of the bounce and attack of these songs and the tone without imitating Flanders’ voice momentarily obliterates the originator’s. ‘The Armadillo’ is all about a rare animal making love to an abandoned tank, and the danger of warning someone off the object of their love. ‘A Happy Song’ I think is a Swann song as it were, lyrically compelling, a singular, strophic piece without any of the pointed wit of its neighbours.
We start coming in to our arrival with that elegy for the Beeching Cuts in the simple piano rhythm and the melodic mournfulness overhead. ‘Slow Train’ is one of the most evocative, non-insistent but compelling pieces, made from the simplest material, a litany of loss. ‘I Loved You Once’ is another elegy, and leads us to another composer.
Bednarczyk introduces a friend whose music was played at every concert. Sidney Carter was fiercely Anti-Apartheid. Bednarczyk adds with his own deadly benediction: ‘Famed for The Lord of the Dance like other organist I find it hard to forgive him but am working through it…’ In ‘Say Who You Are’ we get a flavour of the composer who wrote his own memorable material.
And we’re into that final Flanders set-piece, ‘Ill Wind’ with the music of Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4 in E flat K495 (actually we now find out the abruptly-Susmayered first is the real unfinished fourth). So that blasted rondo finale will never leave your head, even when neighbours steal the luckless enthusiast’s horn. Bednarczyk gets all the sly jokes in and seething revenge ‘I’ll take up the bassoon…’
Finally Bednarczyk signs off with a memorable piece of his own, dedicated to the inventor of the Internet. It’s right that such a fine composer himself should sign off with his own lightly-worn identity as he pays homage, and it’s certainly what the inclusive duo would have told him to do.
A sovereign tribute. If you know Flanders and Swann, you’ll know Bednarczyk.