Why Tip the Hat to Flanders and Swann? Interview with John Bett

Haddo Arts News

The last event in this year’s Festival is the premiere of the two act version of “Tipping the Hat to Flanders and Swann”, after its outing in Play Pie and a Pint format in Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Haddo Arts’ Lucy Gordon recently caught up with actor John Bett,(The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil, the Inchcolm Macbeth, The Silver Darlings, Para Handy) the new show’s writer and director, to find out more.

LG: Flanders and Swann – a satirical stage duo from the 1960s – what motivated you to revive their style of entertainment?

JB: John Cairns is the producer of the show. He produced my version of the tales of Para Handy which opened at Eden Court and travelled to His Majesty’s Aberdeen, The Theatre Royal Glasgow, and The Festival Theatre, Edinburgh. Two years ago Pitlochry Theatre did another production of it. (So that’s by way of background to our professional relationship.)

After the success of Para Handy, we were looking to do another show together. And to find something suitable for Haddo House. As you will probably know, Haddo has a long and distinguished reputation as a music producing venue, so we were searching for something music-based which might have a lightness of touch, some humour. It was John, I think, who came up with the idea of a salute to Flanders and Swann. I immediately jumped at it. When I was in the 5th form at school, our music teacher, weary of trying to get adolescent boys to take an interest in Schubert lieder or Wagnerian opera, hit on the notion of playing records of Tom Lehrer and Flanders and Swann to the class. We all perked up immediately and enjoyed the fun, the cleverness, the wit. The two Flanders and Swann LPs were called At the Drop of a Hat and At the Drop of Another Hat. That was my introduction to them, and I must say I enjoyed their stuff immediately. So, when it came, all these years later, to constructing a show about them, a celebration of their work, I decided to call it Tipping the Hat, in admiration of their talents. Incidentally, quite a lot of hats make an appearance in the show as the duo inhabit the personae of the people they are singing about. Therefore, the title has a double meaning.

LG: Have you brought in some modern day references? How do you make it contemporary and relevant? 

JB: The immediate answer is YES. We decided almost immediately that we would not be attempting to “be” Flanders and Swann, impersonating them in some kind of “tribute act.”

Our tribute would be to sing their songs, present them to a modern audience, place them in a historical context, and speak about the men themselves and what they were trying to achieve

Any attempt at impersonation would be tasteless in our view since Flanders, a polio victim whilst in the navy in the 2nd World war, spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair and indeed performed on specially built-up stages in theatres where fellow wheelchair users were unable to gain entrance to see him This anomaly occupied a great deal of his life off-stage where he was a tireless campaigner for the rights of disabled people, a fight which his wife Claudia continued after his death, and for which activity she was awarded an OBE. Swann came from a family of Quakers and both he and Flanders were concerned about society and the direction in which it was going  Their songs, performed to a mainly white middle-class audience, seek to highlight injustice, prejudice, and racism. Under a coating of humour, their sentiments are  socialist and left-wing. In Tipping The Hat connections are made between the politics of the 60’s and what is happening now.  Put it this way, in a language that even someone like Trump might understand, there are so many bad guys around these days, it’s refreshing to let the good guys have a hearing.

I have a great cast – very musically strong. They both have great voices, so it should be a treat to listen to them. On piano – Gordon Cree. And not on piano – John Jack.

John was in my Jazz Opera, Night Hawks, which was also presented in Oran Mor.

I have been helped in my research by the official archivist for Flanders and Swann, Leon Berger, who has been very supportive. He has read the script and has given it the thumbs up.

This has been really important to me, as I wish to do justice to the two men whose talents I first appreciated so many years ago.

LG: At Haddo, you’ll be introducing the two act version of the production for the first time. Why have you chosen to do that – and will it bring something extra that people didn’t see at Edinburgh?

JB:Oran Mor hosts lunchtime theatre –1pm Monday to Saturday. They have a wide and mixed clientele – artists, theatricals, students, Mr and Mrs Kelvinside, West End trendies. Among the audience are shop and office workers who only have an hour’s lunch break. In their interest, the plays at Oran Mor have a running time of 50/52 minutes. Haddo House has no such restrictions. The audience there will get a 2 act version – longer, bigger, better. A bumper edition. More songs. More patter. We’re looking forward to it. I’ve never been [to Haddo] before, so I’m very excited.

Fauré programme enchants at Haddo

Save the Date!

Oxford Professor of Poetry to visit Haddo