A simple little tale about a male equivalent of Pygmalion's Eliza Doolittle, Me and My Girl became one of Britain's most successful musicals in its original run, and surpassed its success when it was revived and rewritten 50 years later. A favourite on the amateur dramatics and operatics scene, it is rarely off the stage, and several of its songs are, for good or ill, part of Britain's national psyche.
Act One - 1937
Advertised as a sequel to the popular show Twenty to One, which starred Lupino Lane as cheeky cockney Bill Snibson, Me and My Girl was destined to be a success. As it turned out, the only connection between the shows was the central character, with no actual plot threads continuing through into L Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber's script for the new show. The show was launched in Glasgow and went on tour around the United Kingdom before arriving at the Victoria Palace theatre in London on 16 December, 1937. The critics recognised that this was a simple, unsophisticated show, but that it was nonetheless enjoyable, and it settled in for a popular run, playing twice nightly due to its relatively short running time.
Although the plot was fun, the songs by popular writer Noel Gay1 were enjoyable and the stars sufficiently bright, it was one specific moment in the show which proved to be the most popular. The cockney characters teach their upper-class acquaintances a dance, called 'The Lambeth Walk'. This easy strut was soon taken up across the country and the dance became an eagerly-anticipated part of an evening out, possibly due to its simplicity compared to other dances of the time.
Everything free and easy
Do as you darn well pleasy
Why don't you make your way there?
Go there, stay there
Once you get down Lambeth way
...You'll find yourself doing the Lambeth walk!
- 'The Lambeth Walk', lyrics by Douglas Furber
The producers of most shows in London at the time were happy if they ran for a single season, but Me and My Girl was given a great boost because of a radio broadcast on 13 January, 1938, which happened purely by accident when a BBC radio unit was unable to cover another story and was left at a loose end. The popularity of the show soared, and it eventually became the only musical running in London during the early days of World War Two. The original production eventually clocked up 1,646 performances, and was frequently revived in the decades that followed, often with Lupino Lane returning to the role of Bill Snibson.
NB: This synopsis spoils the ending of the show, but it is very predictable, so it isn't spoiling much!
Lord Hareford has passed away and his will reveals the shocking news that he sired an illegitimate heir during a youthful dalliance with a working class woman. The heir is tracked down and brought to Hareford Hall for the family's inspection and they discover, to their horror, that he is Bill Snibson, a costermonger2 from the London parish of Lambeth. Most of them want nothing to do with him, but the Duchess of Dene is determined to make a gentleman of the young man and to separate him from his sweetheart Sally. Lady Jacqueline Carstone is equally determined to part the young lovers and ditches her fiancé Gerald Bolingbroke to move in on the new Lord and snag a share of his millions. The various parties pull Bill in many different directions, creating various comic situations, until finally the Duchess persuades Sally to leave Bill and allow him to become a gentleman unimpeded by her love. However, kindly Uncle John pursues Sally and persuades her to take some elocution lessons from a friend of his on Wimpole Street3 and she returns to Hareford Hall as a lady, every bit Bill's equal. All can live happily ever after, with all their various romantic confusions settled nicely.
The plot for Me and My Girl is more than a little predictable, even for a musical of the 1930s, but the strength of the characters made up for this deficiency.
Bill Snibson - the cheerful cockney costermonger who inherits the land and titles of Lord Hareford, is a straightforward chap who is utterly devoted to his sweetheart Sally. He's reluctant to learn gentlemanly ways, but finds it surprisingly easy to adapt to life as a Lord, although he finds it difficult to stand up to the Duchess.
Sally Smith - Bill's sweetheart, a simple young girl who wants the best for Bill and is prepared to give him up to allow him to achieve his destiny.
Sir John Tremayne - a kindly older gentleman, rather fond of his drink, who is sympathetic to Sally and Bill. He has been in love with the Duchess for many years, but has never mentioned his feelings.
The Duchess of Dene - a fearsome aristocrat who is fiercely proud of the heritage of the Hareford family and is determined to mould Bill into the perfect gentleman whether he wants it or not. She displays the odd moment of compassion now and again, but is generally a 'battle-axe'.
Gerald Bolingbroke - described as 'a good-looking young man', he is perpetually cheerful even when faced with the loss of his income. He is desperately in love with Jackie and pursues her regardless of the way she has treated him.
Lady Jacqueline (Jackie) Carstone - a calculating young blonde who breaks off her engagement to Gerald in order to pursue Bill. She is capable of being extremely cold and cruel and seems to care for little more than money.
Herbert Parchester - the family solicitor, who doesn't take the Duchess and her clan at all seriously. He tries to stir Bill up into rebellion against Her Grace and believes that as long as you can sing and dance, eat and drink, then there's really nothing to worry about.
Lord Jasper Tring - a nonagenarian with a severe hearing difficulty, Lord Jasper is nonetheless the most accomplished dancer when the family learns the Lambeth Walk.
Charles - a manservant who serves the family faithfully and rarely bats an eyelid at their oddities.
Lord and Lady Battersby, Lady Brighton, The Honourable Margaret Aikington, Charles Boulting-Smythe - other members of the family who are mostly interchangeable.
Mrs Brown - Sally's landlady.
Bob Barking - a friend of Bill and Sally from Lambeth.
A chorus of guests, servants and cockneys.
The original London production of Me and My Girl featured only eight numbers, with music by Noel Gay and lyrics by Douglas Furber:
'A Weekend at Hareford' - members of the aristocracy sing of the many delights that a stay at Hareford Hall offer and when Gerald stuns them with the revelation that an heir for the late Lord Hareford has been located, they bombard him with questions about the man. The song has the feel of a Gilbert and Sullivan chorus, with its repetition and bouncy rhythms.
'Thinking of No-One But Me' - Jackie displays her lack of feelings for Gerald and sings about the most important thing in romance - money. Gerald, meanwhile, points out that she has little chance of snaring a rich man and sings of his continued love for her.
'Me and My Girl' - Bill and Sally sing about their devotion to one another, which cannot possibly be thwarted. They've been in love for a long time and they know that they were 'meant for each other'. The song developed into a dance which depicted the aristocrats trying to separate Bill and Sally - and failing miserably. This song is fairly well-known outside of its theatrical context.
'The Family Solicitor' - Parchester gives ludicrous advice to the family, telling them to sing, dance, eat, drink, play and so on. They all join in with him, laughing away and agreeing with the useless advice. Like the opening number, this song has echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan, sounding rather like one of their patter numbers.
'A Domestic Discussion'/'An English Gentleman' - an ensemble number for the servants of Hareford Hall as they discuss their new Lord's many short-comings. Another Gilbert and Sullivan-style number.
'I Would if I Could' - Jackie and Bill's duet as she attempts to seduce him and he attempts to fend her off. She turns on all her feminine wiles (and the orchestra seems to be on her side, sounding decidedly sultry), but to no avail.
'The Lambeth Walk' - the big hit dance number, in which Bill, Sally and the cockneys (including the Pearly King and Queen) demonstrate it to the aristocrats, who are initially appalled, but eventually find it irresistible. By the end of the song, everyone, even the Duchess, is singing and dancing the Lambeth walk - oi!
'Take it On the Chin' - Sally knows she must give Bill up at all costs and sings of her determination not to let this get to her. When she was small, her family told her she must take things 'on the chin, cultivate a little grin and smile'. We may think she's crying, but she's really laughing - honest.
A brief original cast recording was released on an HMV label LP during the original run, featuring 'The Family Solicitor', 'Me and My Girl', 'Take it On the Chin' and 'The Lambeth Walk'.
Other songs written for the original production but cut before it reached London included 'Laugh and the World Laughs with You' (which was replaced by 'Take It On the Chin') and two numbers for Bill - 'Raspberries' and 'That's That'.
The score was expanded in 1952 when the show was released for amateur performances with an additional seven numbers, all with lyrics by the composer, Noel Gay. Three of them - 'Once You Lose Your Heart', 'The Song of Hareford' and 'If Only You Had Cared for Me' - found their way into the revised version of the show during the 1980s, but the other four were dropped and can now only be found in the original issue of the vocal score. 'Keep Away From the Town' saw the aristocrats of the chorus sing of the many pleasures that country life affords them, while 'This is the Night of the Year' has them eagerly anticipating the new Lord Hareford's coming-out party. 'A Bright Little Girl Like Me' took the place of 'I Would if I Could' and performed a similar function, and 'Don't Be Silly, Sally' did the same for 'Take It On the Chin', adding a chorus of girls to help cheer Sally up.
Interval - The Lambeth Walk
Me and My Girl was revived in London several times during the 1940s and 1950s and was also seen in professional touring productions as well as on the amateur circuit. The title song and 'The Lambeth Walk' maintained their popularity, and an abbreviated version of the show was filmed in 1940 as The Lambeth Walk, retaining only the two most popular numbers and once again featuring Lupino Lane as the loveable Bill4. However, after a few decades, the show's popularity began to wane and like most British musicals of its period, it was regarded as dated.
Act Two - 1985
Noel Gay's son, Richard Armitage, decided that the show could do with being modernised, as he thought it had the potential to be a great success once more. As head of Noel Gay Limited, he had the necessary clout and was able to bring together a revised version which opened in London at the Adelphi Theatre on 4, February, 1985, after a try-out at the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester.
The book (or script, or libretto) was revised by actor and writer Stephen Fry5, with additional help from Mike Ockrent, who directed the production. The original score was supplemented with some of the songs written in 1952 for the amateur version alongside some of Noel Gay's best-known 1930s numbers. The revisions proved to be a great success - the London run (initially starring Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson) out-ran the Lupino Lane version and a Broadway transfer also proved surprisingly popular - running for 1,420 performances. The revised version was then adopted as the official text and is now the only version available for performance.
The plot remains essentially the same as the 1937 version, as most of the alterations are concerned with refining the characters or the comedy.
The list of principal characters is somewhat different, in order to given each of them a more clearly-defined persona. Bill, Sally, The Duchess, Sir John, Gerald, Jackie, Parchester, Charles, Mrs Brown and Bob Barking remain essentially the same (though their relative importance to the action is often different), and Lord Jasper changes title to a Sir. Charles is now definitely the butler and reveals a dry wit, Jackie is even more calculating than she was before and Gerald now has many of the show's funniest lines. The other characters are:
Lord Freddie and Lady Clara Battersby - the only additional family members in the revised version. They are an amusing couple, with Lord Battersby completely under his wife's thumb at every moment. Lady Battersby is also one of Bill's most outspoken critics, although she and her husband appear less frequently than the rest of the family (the Duchess, Sir John, Jackie, Gerald and Sir Jasper).
Lady Brighton is now one of the family's guests and is given a certain amount of dialogue, as is Sophia Stainsley-Asherton, a woman with a worryingly big hat.
Many of the songs from the previous versions are included in the revised songlist, which changed slightly between the show's London and Broadway openings. The show now follows the Broadway score.
'A Weekend at Hareford' has been altered slightly to give Jackie some lines to sing, introducing her interest in the new heir.
'Thinking of No-One But Me' is now more of a solo for Jackie, with Gerald's contributions to the song greatly reduced.
'The Family Solicitor' is now briefly reprised every time anyone asks Parchester for his opinion about anything.
'Me and My Girl' is still Bill and Sally's main love theme, but now lacks the stylised dance of the original production, leaving it as a number for the two lovers.
'An English Gentleman' and 'You Would if You Could' are from the original production and are essentially unchanged.
'Hold My Hand' is another duet for Bill and Sally, again ending with a dance. It is an interpolation from a 1931 show of the same name and re-iterates Bill and Sally's unchangeable devotion to one another. This song was added to the show between the London and Broadway openings. Lyrics were written by Harry Graham and Norman Blair.
'Once You Lose Your Heart' is one of the numbers written by Noel Gay for the amateur version of the show. It's a very pretty ballad for Sally, who sings it to express just how deep her feelings for Bill really run. It is reprised in Act Two once Sally has made up her mind to leave Bill and return to London.
'Preparation Fugue' is actually a lot of dialogue, but it is closely set to the underscored music and works very much like a song. It follows the various characters as they prepare for the party that will present Bill to society and allows most of the principal characters to express their different concerns.
'The Lambeth Walk' is even more of a production number than it originally was, spilling out into the auditorium and making its way through eight key changes to end the first act with a bang.
'The Sun Has Got His Hat On', a Noel Gay song from 1932 with lyrics by Ralph Butler, opens the second act. For no particular reason (other than to give the actor a solo, no doubt), Gerald leads the guests in a silly little song about the weather. This then leads into a long tap dance, again for no particular reason.
'Take It On the Chin' is now sung by Sally to Sir Jasper who is very sympathetic - or would be, if he could hear what she's singing.
'The Song of Hareford' is another song from the show's amateur release, where it was an aria for the Duchess, explaining the history of the Hareford family and the concept of noblesse oblige. For the revised version, the Duchess is backed up by Bill's ancestors who spring to life from the portraits in the library and display a surprising level of skill at tap dancing.
'Love Makes the World Go Round' dates from 1938 and, like the songs from the amateur version, has both words and music by Noel Gay. It is a drunken duet for Bill and Sir John, who sing the praises of love, accompanied by the ancestors.
'Leaning On a Lamppost' is one of the show's most famous songs, despite being another interpolation. Some have suggested that this 1938 hit for George Formby was originally intended for the show, but as the lyrics are by Noel Gay rather than Douglas Furber, this seems unlikely. It is sung by Bill as he waits outside Sally's house in the hope of seeing her. The dance break shows him repeatedly spotting girls that look just like Sally and having his hopes dashed as each one turns out to be someone entirely different.
'If Only You Had Cared for Me' is a comic duet for the Duchess and Sir John, written for the 1950s amateur version. The two of them come to acknowledge their feelings for one another and express their regret at all the wasted years. This song was cut between the London and Broadway openings, leaving the romance between the two older characters as an unsung sub-plot.
The Finale and curtain call involve reprises of 'Love Makes the World Go Round', 'Me and My Girl', 'Leaning On a Lamppost' and (of course) another two sing-throughs of 'The Lambeth Walk'. The reprise of 'Me and My Girl' is used to suggest a triple wedding for the three couples: Bill/Sally, Gerald/Jackie and The Duchess/Sir John. It is designed to send the audience out on a high note.
There's a predictable plot, fairly stereotypical characters, simple songs and it's a terribly old-fashioned and very British show - so what is it about Me and My Girl that has made it so popular and successful? It is probably its very simplicity, as it sets out to be nothing more than an entertaining show, poking a bit of fun at the British class system as it goes. The 1985 London revival was described as 'the happiest show in town' by the Sunday Express newspaper and the audience members certainly leave with smiles on their faces (and 'The Lambeth Walk' stuck in their heads). For all the innovations in the musical form since the show's original production, there is something about its innocent charm which attracts audiences.
There is also the unusual nature of the central romances. While the plot may be predictable, it is unusual for a musical in that love at first sight isn't a part of the plot. Bill and Sally have been together for some time (they sing that they 'knew the ending a long time ago'), Gerald's attachment to Jackie is nothing new and the Duchess and Sir John have been pining for one another for decades. Perhaps the audience enjoys rooting for long-established relationships rather than a whirlwind romance based on seeing a stranger across a crowded room. Or maybe it's just the appeal of a good old-fashioned Cinderella story. Whatever the reason, the show and its numbers appear to be here to stay.
And we'll have love, laughter,
Be happy ever after,
Me and my girl!
- 'Me and My Girl', lyrics by Douglas Furber