I’m a Gnu was Tim’s inspiration

Multi-award-winning comedian Tim FitzHigham and BBC Radio 4 musical maestro Duncan Walsh Atkins starch their beards and trim their dinner jackets to bring the wit and wordplay of ingenious comedy songsmiths Michael Flanders and Donald Swann to Yokshire.

Thursday, 24th January 2019, 8:42 am
Updated Thursday, 24th January 2019, 8:43 am
Flanders and Swann tribute show comes to the Stephen Joseph Theatre next month

Lifelong fans and the uninitiated alike will delight to see the boys breathe new life into the much-loved words and music of Flanders and Swann, including all the classics: The Hippopotamus (Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud), The Gnu, The Gas Man Cometh and many more – plus a few hidden gems along the way.

Duncan Walsh Atkins is a stalwart of BBC Radio 4, runs a London music studio and has also toured widely.

As well as providing the music for BBC TV’s Fast And Loose he opened his first musical, The Tailor Made Man, at London’s Arts Theatre, and is the musical director for the Olivier Award-winning Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, which visits the Stephen Joseph Theatre in June.

Duncan plays Swann – who attended Dulwich College Preparatory School and Westminster School.

It was at the latter that he first met Michael Flanders, a fellow pupil.

In July and August 1940 they staged a revue called Go To It.

The pair then went their separate ways during World War Two, but were later to establish a musical partnership writing songs and light opera, Flanders providing the words and Swann composing the music.

Swann was married twice and had two children. He died in 1994.

Tim FitzHigham has been performing this award-winning homage to the extraordinary comedic talents of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann to packed houses for over a decade.

He’s rowed a copper bath across the Channel, sailed a paper boat the length of the Thames and Morris danced from London to Norwich.

In the course of completing wildly imaginative, and wildly perilous, charity challenges, dares and bets, he has sustained a broken rib attempting to outrun a race horse, frost-bitten toes racing barefoot in snow and skinned buttocks, and worse, in the bathtub boat.

He is a stand-up comedian, actor, thrill-seeker, fundraiser, daredevil, gambler, family man, author and like one of his heroes, Horatio Nelson, glories in being a Norfolk man.

He starred in his own CBBC show Superhuman Challenge and was the star of two seasons of BBC Radio 4’s The Gambler.

He plays lyricist and actor Michael Flanders who contracted polio in 1943 while serving in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and for the rest of his life was reliant on a wheelchair.

He died in 1975 leaving a widow and two young children.

Here Tim FitzHigham – who plays Flanders – talks about how and why he put the show together.

“The Gnu Song is one of my earliest childhood memories – that and swallowing paint – and I couldn’t make a stage career out of the latter,” said Tim, a regular at the Edinburgh Festival and who starred in his own CBBC show Superhuman Challenge.

“The Gnu song is why I love Flanders and Swann. In terms of musical comedy they are the most important in terms of the history of comedy.
“At the time I devised the show there was a danger that they would be forgotten. There was no CD recordings of their work or TV footage available and nothing in Youtube.

“Someone had to take this on and really go for it and remind people how brilliant they were.

“I thought if someone sorts it, there will then be CDs and TV footage,” he said and he was right. 
You can now watch The Gnu Song, the Hippomotamus Song and Song of Patriotic Prejudice (The English are Best) and more from their revues – At the Drop of a Hat and At the Drop of Another Hat – on Youtube any time you like.

“People come along to see the show, sing along and are made happy, not just by the songs but also the memories associated with them,” said Tim.

“Being in a show which makes people happy is the best job to have,” aside from being dad to his three childre – who, to his delight, sing along to Flanders and Swann’s songs.

“The show has been running 10 years which is proof to me how brilliant they were and proved that as many people miss them as I thought,” he said.

Tim and Duncan have performed for the families of Flanders and Swann and they unveiled a plaque in Kensington in honour of the duo and performed the songs at the ceremony.

“To us Flanders and Swann were the greatest musical comedu duo of all time – to the family there were dad, grandfather and husband.

“We take that seriously indeed,” said Tim.

Michael’ Flander’s sister also – inadvertently – gave the duo some of their first and most important directorial notes.

Tim, who devised and directed, the show received a letter from her saying how much she enjoyed the show and also including some of Michael’s favourite songs and ways of performing them.

Tim took the notes to heart and reworked the show accordingly.

“Michael’s sister went to nearly all his performances so what she had to say was important to me,” said Tim.

Away from the Flanders and Swann show both Tim and Duncan pursue solo careers.

Tim is also planning another adventure – but would not reveal too much about the summer escapade in fear of falling foul of bureaucrats and government rules.

Flanders and Swann is on at Masham Town Hall, Little Market Place, on Friday February 8 at 7.30pm.

Tickets: Masham Community Office on 01765-680200

The Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, on Saturday February 9 at 7.30pm.

Tickets can be booked on 01723 370541 or via the website: www.sjt.uk.com