Friday, 7 March 2014

FIFTY YEARS ON: The Hang Down your Head and Die Reunion. by Adèle Geras

Back in September 2013, I promised that I'd write about the major theatrical event of my time at Oxford. I had a stroke of luck in my first week and it changed the whole of my time at University.

I went to audition for Braham Murray and David Wright in University College. They wanted to put on a Joan Littlewood type show (remember 'Oh What A Lovely War'?) about capital punishment which in 1963 was still a sentence available to judges. My own father was a judge in Tanganika, as it was then, and once the publicity machine started rolling, "Judge's Daughter in Anti-Hanging Play" was the kind of headline we were seeing.

The production hadn't been written yet. David Wright was the 'writer' which meant that his job was to collate, arrange, adjust all kinds of input from members of the cast. This was to be a collaborative show.

I was chosen. I was one of the lucky ones. I think it was my version of Joan Baez's 'El preso numero nueve' which swung it. I have a voice that doesn't need amplification and the huge room we were in had a marvellous acoustic. Braham and David were practically blasted out of their chairs.

That was in 1963. We had our run-ins with the Lord Chamberlain (who had to read all scripts and decide if they needed any censorship.) We had a simulated execution in the show which caused a bit of a problem, and it was touch and go at one point whether we'd be allowed the poster, which depicted a hanging, rather graphically. But in the end, the show when it opened in the Oxford Playhouse was a huge hit and moved to the Comedy Theatre in London in March 1964.

The first few nights coincided with some exams I inconveniently had to sit. Oh, the impossible things you can do when you're 20! As soon as I finished writing whatever exam it was, I ran out of the building, leapt into a waiting car driven by a lovely medical student called John Godber, and straight to the Comedy Theatre where I was into my costume before you could say "The Show Must Go On." At the end of the performance, John was again waiting and back we went to Oxford where I climbed in, and sank into bed, sometimes not even bothering to take my make up off properly. You had to wear sub-fusc (black skirt, white shirt etc) for exams and by the time my papers were over my shirt was terra cotta all round the neck. Who had time to do the laundry?

This year marks 50 years on....about 25 of us met in London in February for a really marvellous lunch and session of reminiscence. We sang all the songs again. We chatted about what an unusual coming together of talents it was at a particular time. Many who appeared in 'Hang' have gone on to make their mark in show business of one kind or another. Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Michael Elwyn, Richard Durden, David Wood, and of course Braham Murray (who is now a Grand Old Man of the Theatre) were all there. So was Paul Collins, who became a judge and never had to sentence anyone to death. And Viv Ault (now Wylie) Susan Solomon, Jasmina Hamzavi, and Greg Stephens, one of the musicians and still playing beautifully....they were all there. Also, Bob Scott (now Sir Bob!) who even when he was a very young man, had a paternal presence and a fabulous voice. We are older. Peter Wiles, the Stage Manager was there and still seeing, along with David Plowright, that everything ran like clockwork. Max McBurney who played banjo couldn't come but he did sent me a memory which may be of great interest to fans of guitar/banjo music. 
Several of our number are now dead: John Gould, master musician, Iwan Williams, who wrote the lovely 'Tripe Seller's Lament,' Tim Godden with whom I was in love at the time and who did the lighting. Hope McIntyre is gone but memories of her glamour live on. And David Wright, who was the most beautiful young man I'd ever seen. I asked for some memories of those days and the pieces that follow are what I've been sent.I'm starting with David Wood... his picture is below. He did more than anyone to set the tone of the show and has since then been the chief archivist and has kept brilliant records. Moreover, he's the one who organises reunions and we're all in his debt.

To get such a meaty role in such an experimental production in my very first term at Oxford was a dream come true. For us then to receive such plaudits at the Oxford Playhouse that we transferred – first to the famous Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon and then to London’s West End – was a huge cherry on the dream cake. I remember the audition – I had to improvise a commentary on a public hanging as though it were a sporting event. I remember the rehearsals, trying things out, with Braham, our director, cleverly assessing our individual skills and finding ways to utilise them. I remember commenting that to use THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS as our ironic closing number was a great idea, but why not have a new song rather than an existing one. ‘Go away and write one, then!’, barked Braham. I did, and sang it to him next day. THE SHOW’S THE THING was accepted, I was asked to write more, and suddenly I was a songwriter. Thanks to HDYH, fifty years on I’m still writing songs for my shows. HDYH introduced me to musical genius John Gould, with whom I performed, wrote and ran a theatre company for forty nine years until his early demise in 2012. I’ll never forget, in the Opening Parade of our circus-themed production, running across the stage and jumping joyfully into the arms of dear Bob (later Sir Bob) Scott. Da Da!!! We both played clowns. And before every performance my treat was to visit the girls’ dressing room, where the lovely (and much missed) Hope McIntyre would backcomb my extra-long locks into a wild afro. HDYH gave me my first tv appearance – we were featured in the BBC Arts programme MONITOR. And I was even nominated as Best Newcomer to the West End in the VARIETY Critics’ Poll. All at the age of 20. What more could I, theatre-mad from the age of six, ever wish for? Two years later, the incomparable songstress Adele Weston, Bob Scott, John Gould and I were reunited and back in the West End in FOUR DEGREES OVER, our post-degree gold-plated entree into the real world. HDYH opened up for me a magical world I am thrilled to be still part of..

David Wood OBE


I remember a lot, like all of us trooping off to No11 Downing Street before a performance to have drinks with Reginald Maudling (his son was a friend of someone)and most of us arriving on stage drunk to the disgust of Braham. I think he was specially cross because he had not been at the party. I also remember Princess Margaret coming to the show one night and sitting Front Row Stage Left – literally below my feet when I sang Sam Hall. All went well for a verse or two until I got to the word “Parson” and my emphasis was on the “s” and suddenly a terrible glob of spit landed fair and square on the Royal lap. At which point she raised her programme either to protect herself or to find out the perpetrator`s name so that he could be taken to the Tower. I remember Michael Emrys-Jones (now Michael Elwyn) making me corpse dreadfully once. I remember a whole group of us waiting for the Reviews after the First Night Party and opening the Mail to read Bernard Levin and being rocked back by the one word headline – BRILLIANT. It all seemed so easy and normal somehow. What a crazy thing for us all.


One memory of Hang in the West End which stays with me is the night when the communal flat was full and the only place I could find to sleep was the top floor bathroom with some mangy blankets. Not many people can say that they've caught crabs in Reginald Maudling's bath!

(note for the young. Reginald Maudling was Chanceller of the Exchequer at the time. Hence the party at Number 11 Downing Street ...AG)

MICHAEL ELWYN writes a characteristically witty piece which is pretending to be part of a historical novel!

An extract from THE SHADOW OF THE NOOSE by Michaela Jones

Oxford in the winter of fifty years ago was a cold, bleak city. The rain knifed down the alley way outside the Gloucester Arms as a black leather clad figure emerged from the warm fug of the inn and made a run for the stage door opposite, a Gauloises clenched in his nervous fingers. The Lord Murray, Master of the Experimental Revels, was about to confront his destiny; and so were the merry band of youthful rogues and vagabonds who awaited him inside the Playhouse…

‘History was indeed made that February night. The dreaming spires awoke from sleep to watch a tale of supreme dramatic horror, laced with biting wit and soaring songs. The audience applause rolled on and on, out of Beaumont Street, into the surrounding colleges - where the quadrangles resounded to one of the greatest theatrical triumphs Oxford had ever seen, And outside the Playhouse, The Lord Murray, somewhat drunk with success, was suddenly approached by an elegantly dressed stranger.

My name is Michael, Duke of Codron. You may know that I am Master of the West End Revels. Hang Down Your Head And Die is extraordinary. It must have another life - on a larger stage. I propose we open next month at the Comedy Theatre, London.’ For once, the Lord Murray was almost lost for words. ‘Yes’ he gasped. They shook hands. And the stranger vanished into the night.


I was in my first year when I was lucky enough to get swept into the HDYH whirlpool of excitement. Val Myers who was stage managing was my mentor. She, along with the wonderful staff at the Oxford Playhouse, including the lovely Ken Bonfield, taught me a huge amount. I remember the professionalism of the show. To end us as a youngster 'on the book' in the West End was amazing. I think capital punishment was abolished in 1965. I suppose one can't estimate Hang's influence in helping to end the barbaric practice?

PAUL COLLINS (later a Judge in the real world) writes:

I was parachuted in for the week in Stratford - a great thrill. I had been playing Toby Belch (in a production of Twelfth Night which was directed by Michael Rudman and starred Michael York) and unlike Emrys, couldn't do both at the same time! Unbelievably I had the no 1 dressing room with a balcony overlooking the Avon, with a hip bath. Similar luxury never repeated.

MAX MCBURNEY, banjo player extraordinary writes:

At the time when "Hang" was running in the UK, from February to April 1964, there was a whole new generation of British guitarists coming along on the folk/acoustic/roots scene, with a new way of playing.

Foremost among these were Bert Jansch and Davy Graham and I first bought their LPs in the year after "Hang". I hadn't heard of them at the time of the show.

The claw-hammer style they introduced is actually derived from five-string banjo playing, where the first finger picks up, the nails of the right hand drive down and the thumb follows through on the fifth string, a drone. By hammering on or pulling off notes, this creates a very satisfactory rhythm: bum-diddy, bum-a-diddy.

On the guitar, the thumb plays two beats in the bar on the bass strings, while the fingers play the melody line on the top strings. The little finger is normally anchored in front of the bridge. You can watch Mark Knopfler doing it at:

One of our fastest songs was "900 miles", with the tempo depending on what Greg and I decided at that evening's strategic planning session in the Hand and Racquet. Dickon Reed would come out stage right and we would belt into the song, in E minor and G.

I used bluegrass picking for this song, a combination of first and second fingers with thumb that makes for a faster performance. It was the style that Earl Scruggs made famous.

After one performance, I think one of the hated matinees, two guys came rushing into the band's changing room at the Comedy, one asking "Who was the guy doing the fantastic banjo?" He sounded American. We exchanged a few pleasantries, no contact developed and I never saw him again.

However, many years later I picked up a CD with early pieces by Bert Jansch and was surprised to hear him doing the same song with classic banjo accompaniment on his second LP, It Don't Bother Me, in December 1965.

You can hear it at: at:

It seems he had a tendency to adopt an American accent. Could it have been?


Penny Dolan said...

Adele, this is just wonderful! And what an introduction to student theatre for you! Yes, a joy to be young and all that - especially the constant energy and awkward self-belief. Going back to read the post all over again!

Sue Purkiss said...


Theresa Breslin said...

This is a fascinating post. Thanks for sharing a most exciting part of your life. I'm sure the play was a huge influence re the abolition of capital punishment.

adele said...

Thanks for all comments. I realise that it's a lot to read and get through!

firstnightdesign said...

What wonderful memories. What names to conjure with. Sweet John Gould - I worked with him at the Attic Theatre in Wimbledon and it was Richard Syms who told me he had died. So sad.

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