Flanders and Swann - Musicians
Created | Updated Jun 10, 2003
Mud, mud, glorious mud
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood
So follow me, follow
Down to the hollow
And there let us wallow
In glorious Mud!
In the world of comic songs a few names stand head and shoulders above the rest. Noel Coward, Tom Lehrer - and Flanders and Swann.
The unlikely pairing of the bearded, wheelchair-bound Flanders and the aesthete Swann produced one of those happy partnerships of opposites. Swann wrote the music, Flanders the words and both 'for want of a better word' sang.
In The Beginning...
Michael Flanders was born in London in 1922. Donald Ibrahim Swann was born on 30 September, 1923, in Llanelli of Russian parents - although his great-grandfather was originally British and had emigrated in turn to Russia. The family moved to London when Donald's father Herbert, a doctor, acquired a practice in Walworth Road.
The two met at Westminster school in 1936. By 1939 they were collaborating on a revue called 'Go For It,' with Flanders performing and Swann providing piano accompaniment - but the fledgling partnership appeared to falter. When both went up to Christ Church, Oxford they had little to do with each other and then the war intervened. Swann was a conscientious objector, but served in the Friends' Ambulance Corps in both Greece and Palestine. Flanders was called up to the RNVR where he served on a destroyer. When his ship was torpedoed in 1943 he contracted poliomyelitis from the water, which resulted in his being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
This put an end to his ambitions to become an actor and after the war he got together again with Swann and they contributed to Laurier Lister's 1948 revue Oranges and Lemons, notably with the song 'In The D'Oyly Carte'1, a send-up of Gilbert and Sullivan. The show ran for a couple of years and was followed by Penny Plain, Airs on a Shoestring and Pay the Piper, starring performers such as Joyce Grenfell and Ian Wallace. Decor was by Ronald Searle, co-creator of the Molesworth books.
Of Hats And Hippopotami
In 1950 they started performing on their own account, premiering at the Whistler Ballroom. By 1956 they were sufficiently established to be invited to give a lecture on writing revue songs at the Dartington School of Music, and it was here that Michael started his practice of introducing each song with a short narrative. This seemed to be as popular with the audience as the songs themselves and it became a regular part of the act.
Some early songs were very satirical (such as 'The War of 14-18'), but later they settled down to a more good-natured humour - although still occasionally poking fun at the ridiculous, as in 'The Song Of Patriotic Prejudice'.
In 1959 they performed their first real two-man show, At the Drop of a Hat, at the New Lindsay theatre in Notting Hill Gate. It was a remarkable performance. A bare stage, Flanders at one side, Swann seated at the piano at the other - and the only prop a standard lamp; yet they brought the house down night after night. After three weeks, the show was moved to the Fortune theatre in the West End, where it ran for over 750 performances and was recorded by George Martin. This busy year also saw the first US tour (and one to Switzerland) and the recording of their first studio album The Bestiary of Flanders and Swann, a collection of their popular animal songs including 'The Gnu' and the ever popular 'The Hippopotamus', which has been translated into 18 languages and whose chorus Swann was wont to sing in Russian.
There followed a period of touring and in 1963 their second revue At The Drop Of Another Hat opened at the Haymarket theatre. It ran for a year, also touring in Australia, and was recorded for posterity ('hello, posterity!').
The pair were beginning to tire of revues and branched out into other areas. Michael Flanders narrated radio shows, stories and documentaries, and presented radio quiz shows. Donald wrote more music, including some for the Hoffnung concerts. After one final (and highly successful) tour they decided, as Flanders put it, 'to quit while we were ahead'.
After The Show
The music of Flanders and Swann remained popular with the young and old throughout and after their lives, attracting Royalty to the revues and often compelling them to join in with the singing! It is clear that their own brand of inoffensive, gentle but witty and sometimes satirical humour retains a special place in many people's hearts. Their records are still available.
Michael Flanders wrote the libretti of two operas; translated (with Kitty Black) Stravinskv's The Soldier's Tale - and in 1962 appeared as The Storyteller in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Aldwych, London. In 1964 he received the OBE. He died in 1975 aged 53 leaving a wife and two daughters.
Donald Swann was a very self-effacing man, and it is startling to realise that he was actually very brilliant. Fluent in numerous languages, notably Russian and French, he was a gifted pianist, a guitarist and a fine singer and composer. He became increasingly involved in Church matters, often being very outspoken, and was president of the Fellowship Party, a pacifist political organisation, and belonged to a number of other humanitarian and pacifist societies. He wrote an opera, Perelandra (after CS Lewis's allegorical story Festival Matins) and three books of new carols. But Swann's serious work was criticised for lacking 'musical personality' and 'initiative'. In later life he joined the Society of Friends (Quakers).
Under the pseudonym Hilda Tablet, Swann wrote satirical music for the poet Henry Reed for BBC Radio. His other work included a number of songs and operas written in collaboration with Arthur Scholey and his concert entertainments after 1967 included An Evening in Crete, Between The Bars, A Late Night, Swann With Topping and Swann Con Moto.
He married Jane Oxborrow in 1955 and they had two daughters, though the marriage was dissolved in 1983. In 1992, already ill with cancer (though the disease was still undiagnosed), he revisited Russia. Early in 1993 he went to the Greek island of Kasos. Confined in a wheelchair at the airport, he remembered his old friend Flanders. 'From this position,' Swann reflected, 'he wrote all the lyrics which enabled me to pay for this holiday. It heartened me,' he concluded, 'to think that again he had touched my life. Once more, Flanders, I tip my cap to you.' His autobiography, Swann's Way, was published in 1991. Donald Swann died in 1994 aged 70.