Memories from the Vivian Ellis section of our British collection

Today we tend to think that Noel Coward and Ivor Novello hugged the limelight and were the major composers of the period between the two World Wars.  But there were others who were just as successful.  Vivian Ellis was one who was riding high and his career continued after the Second World War.  He was born in 1903 destined for a career as a concert pianist.  But his talent as a composer and some-time lyricist was recognised at an early age and at 22 he had songs in the revues By the Way and Still Dancing as well as an interpolation in the American import Mercenary Mary.

It was success at an early age but it followed an apprenticeship in Tip Pan Alley where he rose from a song demonstrator to that of house composer.  This had happened after a planned career in the City was abandoned by mutual family agreement.  He knew instinctively the types of songs the public wanted and his ability to write a memorable melody line held him in good stead.  His first major success for which he wrote the entire score was Mr Cinders in 1929. 

When we interviewed him back in 1979 (when he was 75) he had strong feelings about the musical.  When asked about a future golden age he replied” The last ‘golden age’ disappeared with the departure of the great theatrical Impresario.  They had a policy of continuity.  Some may remember George Edwards’ string of musical Comedies at Daly’s and the Gaiety Theatres, and the Cochran revues at the London Pavilion.  Composers like Lionel Monkton and Paul Rubens were in constant demand.  Others will recall the Cochran-Coward partnership, the Herbert-Ellis collaborations and the Ruritania of Ivor Novello.  Today (and this comment was made almost forty years ago) with colossal costs, the expenses of a provincial try-out and every home with its own television stage – things a far more difficult.”

On public taste he commented: “Public taste is always changing. First the George Edwards’ English Musical Comedies. Which he replaced with Viennese Operetta such as The Merry Widow and The Dollar Princess, in turn ousted by the arrival of No, No, Nanette in the Twenties and the flow of American Musicals that followed ever since.  For the manager of today it is simpler, as well as safer, to reproduce a tried and tested Broadway hit.  Believe me, they too have their flops and very expensive ones too.  Yet the majority of American Musicals are ahead of ours in many ways.  Being slicker, they give the audience and critics less time to dwell on any weaknesses, yet they are old fashioned in at least one respect – most American musicals have melody.

The successes in the twenties and thirties brought a few international hit songs but his shows tended to remain home based.  During that period he more often than not had three shows, for which he wrote the score or contributed to, on at any one time.  He became closely associated with Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert and their string of hits.

He actively served in the Second World War and so his theatre career was put aside and it was not until 1946 that he joined A P Herbert to write a number of musicals (sometimes called light opera) that included the hits Bless the Bride and The Water Gipsies.  He also wrote his own lyrics several times including the hit And So to Bed and one of his favourites, Listen to the Wind.

By the time the fifties had arrived and teenagers were changing popular music he changed careers and started to write books, often with a comic slant.  He became the president of the Performing Rights Society and initiated the Vivian Ellis Award for aspiring musical theatre composers and lyricists.  It was that award given the Charles Hart that led to Hart being asked by Andrew Lloyd Webber to help write the lyrics of The Phantom of the Opera.

In the eighties Dan Crawford at the King’s Head Theatre revived Mr Cinders to great acclaim and successfully transferred it to the West End.  A song from that show, ‘Spread a little happiness’ was recorded by Sting and became a hit once again.  The King’s Head also presented a revue of his songs using that song’s title and that too  transferred to the West End with, unfortunately, not a great deal of success.

Vivian Ellis was a multi-talented man taking up gardening and painting in his retirement at his Somerset home where he lived with his sister, Hermione.  He knew everyone in musical theatre, many like Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein from his visits to the States in the thirties.  He quoted Rodgers as saying “One can but try to write a good theatre score.  If one gets a song hit, that is something extra”.   Hammerstein had introduced him to the young Stephen Sondheim, who he admired.  Though he commented: Some find Sondheim’s work ‘uncommercial’.  They said the same about mine and I recall Jerome kern’s advice to me – ‘go on being uncommercial.  There’s a lot of money in it!’”

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrated from the Overtures Archive