Julian Slade and Peter Greenwell

The obituaries for Julian Slade, who died in the London Clinic in the early hours of 17 June 2006, said all the things that one would have expected, principally that he wrote nothing of real note beyond Salad Days. The understanding of British musical theatre in its home country is limited, and most of the writing lamentable. Slade was a much better writer than we have been told, and was especially proud of his many Shakespeare songs, almost unknown to the British public. Slade always felt the critics made out he was an unsophisticated ninny. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He was a scholar, and a composer who struck a chord with mid-1950s hopes that made Salad Days the extraordinary experience it was.

The deep melancholia that underpins his music has remained unappreciated, yet this show alone has three darkly poignant songs ‘We said we wouldn’t look back’, ‘I sit in the sun’ and, one of the most exquisite he ever wrote, ‘The time of my life’. I knew Slade well for thirty years, first visiting him at his family’s home in Priory Walk, London, and later at Beaufort Street, both of which establishments he kept in a state of permanent disarray. Even when subsequent success proved hard to come by, he never descended into bitterness, and always (how different from some other British musical composers one could mention) took a real interest in new work and young composers.

Free as Air
has always seemed to me to be his best score, containing such gems as ‘Nothing but sea and sky’ and ‘Terhou’, but other neglected scores (notably Wildest Dreams) await rediscovery. A couple of years ago I asked Slade to write a new work  – a musical lasting about an hour that I could take into the recording studio, a ‘made-for-CD’ work. He was thrilled to be asked, and I waved various ideas at him. What about an adaptation of ‘The Auction Sale’, an autumnal story of English life by C H B Kitchin?; what about a musical of ‘All Night at Mr Stanyhursts’, a mysteriously beautiful novella by Hugh Edwards?; what about, even, a sequel to Salad Days, catching up with Timothy and Jane after fifty years?. Alas, it eventually became clear that he simply didn’t have the will to write anything new.

At the end of a life in which he had fought to establish and keep his reputation, one can understand his reluctance to make yet another stand. In 1954 Leonard Bernstein invited him to write the lyrics for a musical he was preparing for Broadway: the show was Candide. Slade explained that he couldn’t do it as he had a show in London and couldn’t leave because he was playing the piano for it. It turned out that Bernstein had thought Slade was a lyricist. He was, but Slade would have been too modest to describe himself so grandly. He relished the absurd. After a matinee of Salad Days at the Vaudeville, he was talking to Jack Getty, the owner of the theatre who said ‘You know, Julian, I think that opening song, ‘The things that are done by a don’, is a masterpiece’. ‘Really Jack?’ ‘Yes, I think it’s a work of genius.’ ‘Why?’ ‘It’s such a brilliant way to start a show. Audiences hear it and think, Well it can only get better than this.’ I once asked him who the most important person in his life had been. He replied ‘Dorothy Reynolds’ – with whom he had written those early musicals. It had been she, after all, who had been there throughout his own salad days, days for which he will be forever remembered.

To date I have seen only one obituary of Peter Greenwell, who died at his home in Spain on 4 June 2006. That piece was misleading and inaccurate, and missed the target by highlighting his career as a cabaret performer above his work as a composer. Greenwell was a true musician in a way that Slade would never have claimed to be. I first met him in the 1970s, when – a callow student – I wrote what was probably a pretty gushing fan letter, and he invited me to his house. That meeting went so well that it was over thirty years before I met him again, but during that time I never lost my admiration for his work, not least his music for the 1959 musical play The Crooked Mile. This had been a collaboration with Peter Wildeblood, based on Wildeblood’s novel ‘West End People’, and together they went on to write two more musicals, House of Cards and The People’s Jack, after which Wildeblood said that he simply couldn’t go on writing musicals because they took so long to work on and then only ran for a short time, and – hey! – he had to earn a living.

So, the British critic and the British public between them had lost one of the most intelligent and promising partnerships of the time: the Two Peters. The Crooked Mile will stand as a monument to both Peters’ talent, for it is one of the bravest, most splendid, inspiring scores one could hope for. Greenwell was delighted when the original cast recording was brought back on CD. It led to a renaissance of interest in the show, and in him: a full-length programme on Radio 3 and glowing reviews of a show that had been all but forgotten. In fact, one of the scores he wrote for an earlier musical, The Three Caskets, seems to me to be his real masterpiece, written for the Players Theatre where for many years he was an outstanding musical director, and for whom he wrote other such musicals as Antarctica and Twenty Minutes South.

It has to be said that the management of the Players’ held faithful to his promise and his work, a support that had its finest moment in The Crooked Mile. The sad fact is that for over forty years Greenwell, in a different world, might have produced more scores just as distinctive and appealing as those he wrote in the 1950s. Eventually Greenwell left England, delighting in writing letters or making telephone calls in which he excitedly let you know what it was like to be sitting on a balcony staring at the sea. ‘You have made me feel young again,’ he wrote when I reissued the original cast recording of Twenty Minutes South a few months ago. Like Slade, he never lost his interest in the arts, and was passionate about what he believed in, even though as the years went by he (like Slade) had to cope with seeing the work of lesser writers find public favour. Both Slade’s and Greenwell’s work cries out for re-evaluation if there is to be any real understanding of twentieth century British musical theatre.

Adrian Wright

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