Heckling a serious play = comic success

The tower of Westminster Cathedral in Victoria, London

Last Friday, with my eternally-un-named friend, I stumbled on the funeral service of a 101-year-old Monsignor in Westminster Cathedral, London’s Catholic Cathedral (not to be confused with the Protestant Westminster Abbey).

I was brought up a Presbyterian – very low church – just occasional hymns, an organ and a bloke standing talking in a pulpit amid undecorated walls.

So the full-whack OTT pomp and theatricality of a Catholic funeral of a Monsignor in Westminster Cathedral was like watching some Las Vegas floorshow. High church Christianity is a bizarre old religion with undertones of gay cannibalism – all that dressing up in colourful camp costumes and eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ while waving smoke about from an amateur smoke machine.

Nearby, the Victoria Palace Theatre was finishing its multi-million pound refurbishment. It will have trouble out-camping the Cathedral.

Anyway, I am currently ill in bed (possibly minor ‘man flu’) and, in between sleeps, randomly surf.

I stumbled on this Wikipedia entry for the Victoria Palace Theatre:


Victoria Palace Theatre, London, today

In 1934, the theatre presented Young England, a patriotic play written by the Rev. Walter Reynolds, then 83. It received such amusingly bad reviews that it became a cult hit and played to full houses for 278 performances before transferring to two other West End theatres. 

Intended by its author as a serious work celebrating the triumph of good over evil and the virtues of the Boy Scout Movement, it was received as an uproarious comedy. Before long, audiences had learned the key lines and were joining in at all the choicest moments. The scoutmistress rarely said the line “I must go and attend to my girls’ water” without at least fifty voices in good-humoured support.


This whetted my appetite and I found that, at some early performances, the Rev. Walter Reynolds would reportedly walk up and down the aisles of the theatre during performances telling people to be quiet. He soon changed his tune.

The actors (who otherwise played their roles straight) eventually made a game of ad-libbing if the crowd beat them to their lines. On one occasion the villain, when led away by the police, paused before saying “Foiled!” and the crowd shouted not only “Foiled!” but “Baffled!” “Beaten!” “Frustrated!” “Outwitted!” “Trapped!” “Flummoxed!” He waited until they were through, then hissed: “Stymied!”

Over a quarter of a million people saw the play.

Elaine Haddelsey of the Jot 101 website has done sterling research on the play and even found one of the theatre’s printed programmes, which has an introduction written by the esteemed Rev.Reynolds himself. I have shortened it:


The original theatre programme

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

There is a drama somewhere in every edition of our newspapers, and I at once confess that I have unblushingly cut out from them practically all the bits and pieces that were suitable for my story to illustrate the ups and downs of the life that you and I and all of us lead every day.

Having assembled these many snippets and scraps of material, I dovetailed them all together, and the result of my stage carpentering is what I am now venturing to present to you.

In Young England I have aimed at providing a solid three hours of clean and wholesome entertainment to put before you a theatrical bill of fare made up of the joys, the sorrows, the tears, the laughter, the sift romances and the hard realities of our work-a-day existence – idealised, of course, because that is what we all like – but, I hope, made interesting.

I have tried to re-introduce to the living stage some of its long-lost virility and its old-time attraction to provide three full hours of movement and action with clearly-to-be-heard words in place of the inaudibilities of our latter-day theatres. Again, what has impelled me to write Young England is the fact that nearly every week the Movie houses provide their millions of patrons with old-fashioned and often very crude melodramas, proving beyond any doubt that drama, even when it may be poor stuff is the sort of fare that theatregoers are always looking for.

In addition I have most respectfully woven into my play, as an extra pleasurable feature, some threads of the material of one of the most beneficent movements that have ever been instituted in the history of mankind, viz., the creation of the picturesque and practical Boy Scouts and Girl Guides movement by the indomitable defender of Mafeking.


In a Spectator piece on 21st December 1934, after its transfer to the Kingsway Theatre, Rupert Hart-Davis wrote:


The Rev Walter Reynolds, serious author

Mn. Reynolds wrote Young England as a deeply serious play, a play with a purpose.

Between the conception and the creation, as Mr. T. S. Eliot has said, falls the shadow. 

In this case the shadow has turned his messages of good will into protestations as richly and unconsciously comical as Bottom’s wooing. Let us not mince matters: Young England is the funniest entertainment now showing in London.

The first act takes place in Wartime, “east of Aldgate pump”. Here there is such a riot of local colour that one has some difficulty in picking out the true blue of the distressed maiden and the white feather of Jabez Hawk, the villain. Jabez deserts the girl, who dies in a convenient Salvation Army shelter, giving birth to a son. A young War-widow takes pity on the infant, adopts him and gives him the simple but telling name of Hope Ravenscroft.

Hope’s betrothal to Lady Mary is a moving scene. “I must be the happiest Scout in England,” he cries; “And I,” echoes his beloved, “must be the happiest Guide.”

The curtain falls on the baronial hall, whose back wall has miraculously changed into Loch Lomond in springtime. Britannia, flanked by Brownies, Wolf Cubs, Scouts, Guides, and the complete company, stands superb against an erratically lowered Union Jack.

All of which may sound entertaining enough on its own account. But what raises it above any other such piece which we have seen recently is the attitude and the co-operation of the audience.

Led by a number of fanatics who have visited the play some twenty or thirty times, the whole body of the house joins continually in the play’s dialogue with quips, running commentary, advice to the characters.

Some of the vocal annotations have become traditional and are repeated at every performance. There is nothing of rowdiness or hooliganism in their attitude. All seem to realize that this unofficial accompaniment is the making of the entertainment. The actors themselves accept it, and it disturbs them not at all.

If this behaviour appears to the reader to be both bewildering and in bad taste, one can only urge an immediate visit to the theatre. The great cyclone of laughter should captivate anybody. As a remedy for the author’s chagrin, one may suggest that to make a theatreful of people lose themselves in laughter during more than a hundred performances may be even more beneficent than the same amount of Boy Scout propaganda.


News of the play’s transfer to the West End and success at the Kingsway Theatre spread to Australia.

On 2nd February 1935, the Melbourne Argus reported:


The proud author and some of the unfortunate cast of Young England

In no theatre or cinema or music hall can such uproarious laughter be found.

Mr Reynolds himself generally occupies a box, and he may well suffer agonies over the misrepresentation of his play. But, like the actors and actresses, he accepts the situation, in view of the lucrative consequences. 

Those who have seen Young England come a second time in order to bait the players or to add their own lines. When the errant Scoutmaster is observed to be cracking the Scout’s safe the audience urges him “not to forget to wipe the handle.” When this advice from the stalls is accepted by the villain and he carefully wipes his finger-tips the cheers are terrific.

At another juncture the villain mentions that when he was elected to Parliament the shares in certain companies in which he was interested went up.

“And up, and up, and up, and up,” roars the audience.

Not to be denied a retort, the villain generally interjects, “Well, that’s pretty unanimous,” directing his remark at the shouting stalls.

At another juncture the stage directions indicate that a duchess is calling up someone on the telephone. “Don’t keep the duchess waiting,” shouts the audience. The actor is purposely slow. He reaches the ‘phone amid cries of “Duchess! Duchess! Don’t you know the duchess is on the line?”


Five years later, in the US in December 1939, Time magazine reported:


The opening scenes of the full Young England experience

Shortly after World War II began, it was decided to revive the play. There were some fears that it might have ad-libbed its usefulness, that jesting at patriotism might not go down in wartime. The fears were groundless. With tension in the air, people have been gladder than ever to relax, and with soldiers in the audience, the wisecracks are even rawer than they used to be.

– One set shows a Salvation Army ‘citadel’ with doors marked MEN and WOMEN. Every time an actor starts for one, the crowd shouts: “Wrong door, wrong door.”

– When Boy Scouts or Girl Guides are assigned to “water detail”, voices pipe up: “Stay out of those bushes”; “Be careful of the side of the barn.”

– One night, when the hero was proved not to be illegitimate, someone yelled: “Consider yourself unbastardized.”

Walter Reynolds, Young England‘s 88-year-old author, still takes his dead-serious play seriously. He went to the opening of the revival, a sad, reedy figure in a great black cape, doddered up the stairs to his box holding on to both handrails, sat tense through the uproar, at the end bowed to the audience, thanked them. 

Asked in a BBC interview whether he wasn’t angry at the way audiences treated Young England, he answered:

“No. They’re a little noisy… but they pay as much as 10 pounds and 6 shillings for seats, so they must like it.”

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Filed under Comedy, Theatre

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