David Heneker – The Man Whose Show Is Half A Sixpence

Of the post Second World War home grown shows one of the more successful was David Heneker’s Half a Sixpence and the Chichester revival and its West End transfer has proved successful.  David Heneker died in 2001 at the age of 94 (he was born on 31 March 1906 in Southsea, Hampshire). 

A true English gentleman, he had risen to the rank of Brigadier in a long career in the Army both in active service and in the War Office.  A career soldier, as his father had been, he studied at Sandhurst where his love of films began.  But he also had a love of music and played the piano.  His playing and song writing ran alongside his army career but really blossomed after he left the army in 1948.  Prior to that he had a song in the 1934 Merle Oberon film The Broken Melody and war-time hits: ‘The thing-ummy bob’ sung by Gracie Fields and ‘There’s a new world over the skyline’ for Vera Lynn sung in the film One Exciting Night.

David was a talented pianist and singer and he used these attributes at London’s famed Embassy Club where he became a well-known figure in the West End.  It appeared that he had found his slot in life but that changed in 1958 when playwright Wolf Mankowitz recognised his song writing talent and asked him to work on a show he was working on.  That show was Expresso Bongo for which he worked side by side Monty Norman.  It was a satire on the pop business of the day set in the seedy Soho of yesteryear.  Starring Paul Schofield and a young Millicent Martin in was a success and was made into a watered down film that introduced Cliff Richard to the screen.  

In Expresso Bongo he had written both lyrics and music but for his next venture, the Anglicisation of Marguerite Monnot’s musical Irma la Douce, he just worked on the lyrics.  A hit in London and on Broadway it put him at the top of his trade. 

His English roots led him once more to a musical with a strong London theme called Make Me an Offer which, again, was written by Wolf Mankowitz and again he joined forces with Monty Norman to write both music and lyrics.  It opened in 1959 and ran for over 200 performances, but did not travel.  Also with Norman he wrote The Art of Living, a 1960 revue.   

David caught the eye of Harold Fielding, one of the great British producers and a man with a vision of making the pop star Tommy Steele into an all-round star.  Fielding had starred Steele in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and it had been a huge success in a limited Christmas season.  The astute Fielding had watched the success of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! in 1960 and had the idea of bringing H G Well’s novel of Kipps to the stage as a star vehicle for Tommy Steele.  David worked on it as sole song writer with Beverly Cross writing the book.  Half A Sixpence opened in 1963 and was a hit both in London and on Broadway, Steele became an international star and David had written a glorious score, perhaps his best.

David Heneker’s success with Fielding continued with Charlie Girl in 1965.  A simple play on the Cinderella story it brought together a mix that the time.  A pop star (this time Joe Brown), a much loved older star (Anna Neagle) and a strong comedy lead (Derek Nimmo).  This David wrote jointly with John Taylor.  It ran for over 2,000 performances and was later revived but to a far less friendly welcome.

1966 brought Jorrocks which was only mildly successful (view the full article on this show via the ‘search’ button).  By now the shows were starting to slow.  In 1969 came Phil the Fluter, another Harold Fielding show built up on aging star (Evelyn Laye), pop star (Mark Wynter) and comedian (Stanley Baxter).  It told the story of the successful song writer Percy French, using some of his songs but mainly new ones by David Heneker – it failed. 

In 1972 came Popkiss, an adaption of Ben Travers’ famed farce Rookery Nook.  It also failed and yet, the play on which it was based was to go on and have two more successful revivals.  It looked as though he was prepared to sit back on his laurels and retire.  But he was encouraged to come back to the stage in 1980 by Harold Fielding for a new show about the Hollywood and its change from the silent to sound movie.  The show, The Biograph Girl, had a book by Warner Brown who also worked on the lyrics with David.  It is a delightful show with a charming score but it could not find its audience.  There was an Off-Broadway production some years later under its original title of Flickers. 

There was one more, and sadly it was not a hit.  This was in 1984 and the show was Peg, an adaption of the ancient play Peg O’ My Heart.  It had book problems and while billed as ‘a romantic musical’ it lacked that spark to make it a hit.  It was recorded, as was The Biograph Girl, and these recordings are well worth revisiting. 

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archives