Wednesday, 26 February 2014

A Most London Musical: And A Most London Musician

The Daily Constitutional's Editor Adam takes a personal look at an almost-forgotten London musical, a sadly neglected London Theatre, and a legendary London musical theatre man…

When Lock Up Your Daughters was revived at Chichester Festival Theatre back in 1996, reviewers expressed their discomfort at the subject matter: the musical is based on Henry Fielding’s 1730 play Rape Upon Rape.

Fielding’s play is a satire on licentiousness in general, and was written in the shadow of the infamous case of Francis Charteris, an aristocrat sentenced to death for raping a servant. His popular nickname was The Rapemaster General of Great Britain. Charteris plays a cameo role in Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress.

He also raises his ugly head along the route of my own Seven Deadly Dials walk, on which we pick our way through the recently-respectable (ish) theatres in search of a wicked London mercifully banished to the pages of history. But that’s just one of the reasons that this near-forgotten musical fascinates me.

While it is difficult to imagine a 21st Century revival of a musical based on such subject matter, the piece remains ripe for study as both a timepiece from the 1950s, and as a landmark London work – for its London location, for its London theatrical home and its creative team of Londoners. Not least its famous East End lyricist…

Lock Up Your Daughters opened in 1959, and was the production that hanselled The Mermaid Theatre, the first new playhouse built within the City of London for almost 300 years.

Here’s how the event was reported on the sleeve note of the original cast album…

And indeed bells are the first sound we hear at the top of the score – a smart motif from composer Laurie Johnson: bells are very much a London thing, a fact that the creative team behind the Olympic opening ceremony grasped in their vast and vivid production in 2012.

Laurie Johnson – born in Hampstead in 1927 – is a name well-known to movie and TV buffs. He composed the soundtrack to Doctor Strangelove and the famous theme to that quintessential Swinging London TV romp The Avengers.…

Johnson won an Ivor Novello Award – Britain’s most prestigious award for composition – for the melodious score of Lock Up Your Daughters. And there's still some innocent fun to be had in the juxtaposition of cha-cha beats with 18th century costumes.

In conjunction with his lyricist – much more of him anon – he gives us such gems as It Must Be True, a satire on press morals peopled with boldly drawn Scotsmen and Turks. It’s pure Hogarth-meets-musical hall. At times it’s rumbustuous stuff:

Whether your daughter is pretty or plain/Once she has done it she’ll do it again/
Fathers! Lock Up Your daughters now!

Again, its scope to cause offense today is wide indeed, right down to a closing musical monologue peppered with coy gags about “saucy” assault. Defensible? The best this writer can do is to suggest that its approach is thoroughly that of the seaside postcard. An approach no less worthy of reproach, perhaps, but very much part of the problem when unearthing timepieces. Mores change.

The Mermaid in 1959

The short history of the theatre in which the piece was staged has a drama all its own.

The Mermaid Theatre was the first new theatre within the City of London since the 17th Century – and its subsequent closure as a theatre has incited great passion among the theatrical community.

It was founded by Bernard Miles, who also adapted Fielding’s original play into the musical at hand. The design of the playing space eschewed the common proscenium arch and balcony set-up, creating both a versatile playing space and a single bank of seating in the auditorium. The musical review Cowardy Custard was staged here in 1972, a piece widely regarded as having reignited interest in the songs of Noel Coward (more on that another day).

Miles’ first Mermaid Theatre had been housed in a barn at his St John’s Wood home. He was later ennobled as Baron Miles of Blackfrairs – only the second actor ever to be granted the peerage (Olivier was first).

The Mermaid’s short history has been a chequered one, and its fate remains a matter of concern for theatre lovers, as this article in The Stage newspaper shows

These days it exists blandly as a conference centre, having lost its theatre status in 2008.

That first production of Lock Up Your Daughters was directed by Peter Coe. And it established his reputation as a director of note. By 1961 he had three shows running simultaneously in the West End. One of them, Oliver!, he took to Broadway where he was nominated for a Tony Award in 1963. Coe was also a Londoner.

No tale of London theatre is complete without an Irishman. Enter Sean Kenny, the legendary set designer who went on to win a Tony for his work on Oliver!. Kenny is the subject of three portraits in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery – they can be viewed HERE

Which brings us back to the lyricist of Lock Up Your Daughters: Lionel Bart. Creator of Oliver!, son of Jewish immigrants, bona fide Cockney, self-taught popular music genius and personal hero of this correspondent. We’ll look at his achievements tomorrow…

In the meantime, you can listen to Lock Up Your Daughters on Deezer


A London Walk costs £10 – £8 concession. To join a London Walk, simply meet your guide at the designated tube station at the appointed time. Details of all London Walks can be found at

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