Prior to writing The Sentimental Bloke, Albert Arlen had had a successful career in London as an actor, playwright and composer. He was born Albert Aaron to Jewish parents in Pyrmont, Sydney on 10 January 1905. His father came from Persia and his mother from India. Very early in his career he adopted the surname Arlen, and used it throughout the thirties and forties. He legally adopted it on 16 July 1948.1
Arlen studied at the Sydney Conservatorium and after graduating moved with his family to India. He travelled to London in November 1923 and found work as a professional pianist playing in the pit for silent movies, and in cinema orchestras and dance bands. He returned to Australia three years later and formed the ‘Trio de Paris’ with Wilfred Thomas (baritone) and Ernest Long (violin), playing popular French songs and violin solos on 2FC.
He studied piano in Paris in 1929, and from 1930 until 1939 played several small roles in London, in repertory, and in the provinces. In 1932–33 he toured in a production of Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet. His first musical commission came when he was touring as an actor in the farce High Temperature. The director thought the piece would make a good musical and asked Arlen to write a score for it. He obliged, and the production was later recast with musical theatre performers, and continued to tour.2 Arlen followed with the musicalisation of another farce, Ladies’ Night, which also toured. Both were successes.3
During this period Arlen also busied himself writing plays and musicals. In 1935 he wrote the musical Stardust which Hollywood studio MGM wanted to buy for Grace Moore. Arlen, aware of the many changes Hollywood usually made with scripts, declined the offer. Later, in late 1935, the show went into rehearsal as a London stage production with Marie Burke in the lead. Unfortunately King George V died in January 1936, and the backers withdrew their investment. The show never went ahead.4
Arlen had his first London success when the Arts Theatre produced his play Twilight in 1935. Two years later his controversial satirical comedy, The Son of the Grand Eunuch, based on the French novel by Charles Pettit, was presented at the same theatre on 14 January 1937. The Times called it a ‘subtle and amusing satire,’ but The Stage found it ‘dull and long-winded to the point of boredom’. The story, about a poetic lover who is chosen to succeed to the honorable office of Grand Eunuch and refuses to sacrifice the joys of love, was deemed to be too candid and embarrassing for the stage, so much so that the Lord Chamberlain stepped in and banned it after several performances.5
Arlen had more success with Counterfeit, a comedy thriller that he wrote in 1938 with Cyril Butcher. With a large cast of 20, it previewed at Richmond on 24 July 1939, getting good notices. The Times said it was ‘an amusing adventure’ and that ‘the authors have talent’, and The Stage thought it ‘fun’. The farcical plot had a Blackpool family man with a taste for criminology leave his backstreet sweetshop to track down a gang of criminals in London. Mark Stone as the Lancashire lad, Joss Entwhistle, and Laura Smithson as his wife, Maggie, were said to be ‘as jolly a couple as the North Country has put on the stage’.
The show transferred to the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End, opening on 2 September 1939, with two added scenes and two new characters, played by Stringer Davis and Charles Hawtrey, who later became famous for his roles in the Carry On films. This time The Times called it ‘unpretentious agreeable entertainment’. They liked Stone as Entwhistle and Hawtrey for his scene in drag at the opera. It played 22 performances until it closed due to the outbreak of World War 2.
Arlen’s first association with the BBC came in 1936 with the radio series, Songs You Might Never Have Heard, a program that featured twin pianos (Arlen was on one and Peggy Cochrane on the other), which played for sixteen episodes during 1936–7. He co-authored the theme song with Bruce Sievier. Three years later he was back at the BBC writing the music for four radio musical plays, Dolores, Words and Music, The Land of Song (4 January 1939) and The Legend of San Michele (5 October 1939). All were scripted by Bruce Sievier. During this period Arlen appeared in two films, The Life of St Paul (1938) and Let’s Be Famous (1939).6
Conductor Hugo Rignold, pianist Phil Finch and composer Albert Arlen before the first performance of ‘The El Alamein Concerto’, Cairo, 1944
National Library of Australia, Canberra
Arlen enlisted in the RAF on 8 September 1943. He saw active service as a Flight Lieutenant, and at one time was based in Egypt. It was in Cairo that his most famous classical work for piano and orchestra, ‘El Alamein Concerto’, premiered in 1944. He had written it after the Allied victory over General Rommel in North Africa. Two years later, whilst still stationed in Cairo, he wrote, with Terrance Paul Stanford, the radio special, ‘The Song of England’, a dramatic narrative ballad, which told the story of Britain’s struggles and triumphs from Magna Carta to Dunkirk. Produced by Anthony Escritt, the work’s soloists were John Perrow and Kay Langford, with choir directed by Flight Lieutenant Roberts, orchestrations by Frank Cordell, and a prologue spoken by John Gielgud. It contained some words by Winston Churchill and was dedicated to him, a dedication he accepted. The work was later produced by the ABC in Sydney.7
Arlen was transferred to the Combined Services Entertainment Unit in Singapore in 1946. During his time there he devised and produced four revues. The first, High and Low, opened at the Victoria Theatre, Singapore, on 27 January 1946. Featured in the cast was a young Kenneth Williams, who would later find fame as one of England’s funniest stage, radio and film comedians. The second show was Stardust (possibly the same show that MGM wanted to buy), which opened at the same theatre on 30 September 1946, and the third was Over to You (9 January 1947), also at the Victoria, which was produced by Arlen but devised by Barri Chatt. All three shows toured to service personnel in Ceylon, Hong Kong and Malaya. A fourth show, At Your Service, is listed in Arlen’s papers in the National Library, but dates and theatre are unknown. He was discharged from the RAF in India on 14 April 1947.8
Arlen returned to Australia in 1948 and became program manager for radio station 2UW, Sydney. Programs he arranged or presented during his time there were Welcome Visitor (famous celebrities interviewed live), Australian Composers (featuring interviews and compositions), Radio Voyager (a musical travelogue), A Ballad for You, Musicale and Pianogramme, amongst others.9
In 1949, at the age of 44, Arlen married Australian born Nancy Brown in Canberra.
Brown had returned to Australia to appear for the Tivoli in Here from There (1949)10 after having had a major career in musical comedy in England and America. In 1929 she played the chief bridesmaid, Gloria, and understudied Evelyn Laye in the US production of Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet (5 November 1929). She took over when Laye left six months into the run and later led the US tour. She played Teresa in Elstree’s movie version of The Maid of the Mountains, the first big musical film made in Britain, and starred in the West End opposite Viennese tenor Richard Tauber in Old Chelsea (17 February 1943).11
Arlen’s first contact with Canberra Repertory came in 1958 when the group held a reading of his play Welcome Mate. Two years later the group premiered The Girl from the Snowy (17 March 1960), an operetta set around the Snowy Mountains scheme, and the clash between the interests of the ‘scheme’ and local landholders, and old and new Australians. The central love story involved an Australian singer returning from Europe to pick up with her old beau, only to meet a new one, a Norwegian, working on the scheme. Arlen was responsible for book, music and lyrics. The Canberra Times (18 March 1960) said, ‘The Girl from the Snowy is top entertainment’, and ‘an evening of real theatrical excitement’. In the title role Nancy Brown was praised for her ‘wonderful warmth of personality’, and Arlen’s songs were called ‘attractive’. The book and dialogue, however, were called weak, and ‘cliché-ridden’.
Chappell & Co. intended to publish two songs from the score—the title song and ‘In My Country’, both arranged by Hal Evans—but instead published a Piano Selection with lyrics. Printed in England in 1960, it contained the songs ‘In My Country’, ‘Sydney On A Saturday Night’, ‘Laughter And Love’, ‘In Bella Napoli’, ‘The Tumbarumba’, ‘Won’t You Take My Hand?’, ‘Can This Be Love?’ and ‘She’s My Girl From The Snowy River’.
Although the show was successful in Canberra, Arlen was unable to secure a professional theatre production, but on Australia Day the following year the ABC broadcast a one-hour radio version. The male lead was sung by Clive Hearne and acted by Bob Peach, and the female lead was sung by Madge Stevens and acted by Marie Redshaw. Others in the cast included Douglas Kelly, Mary Hardy, Richard Davies, John Norman and Sydney Conabere. Frank Thorne conducted the augmented ABC Orchestra and Singers. The only other production of the show appears to have been by Shopwindow Theatre at St James Playhouse, Phillip Street, Sydney, on 19 November 1969. Shopwindow was an amateur group formed by Brown, with Arlen as musical advisor, in October 1968. It was renamed the Theatre Society in January 1970.12
After the great success of The Sentimental Bloke, not one management was interested in seeing what else the Arlens had to offer,13 so it was back to Canberra again for a six-night try-out of their next show, Marriages are Made in Heaven. Arlen, collaborating once more with his wife and Lloyd Thompson, came up with an original plot set in Victorian times. Two young couples in love, devise a plan to dispose of their parents in re-marriage, in order to remove any obstacle or opposition to their own marriages. Hope Hewitt in The Canberra Times (12 October 1968), called it ‘highly diverting,’ and said that the music was catchy with some ‘touching duets and trios’. The show, which was produced by Albert Arlen Australian Productions, The Theatre Players, and ANU Theatre Group, with direction by Joyce Goodes, opened at the Childers Street Hall, and played Friday and Saturday nights 11–26 October 1968.
Thirty-eight years after he first wrote it, Arlen’s Stars in Your Eyes, had a premiere by the Strathfield Light Opera Company at the Latvian Theatre, Parnell Street, Strathfield, Sydney, 14–17 October 1970. Set in London and Monte Carlo in 1935, the show was about a budding songwriter (Richard), who writes an operetta, A Royal Affair, his girlfriend (Mary) who becomes an overnight star in it, and a theatrical producer (Bernstein) who produces it. The original script contained references to Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence and the Cole Porter musical Nymph Errant.14 Arlen rewrote it in 1958 with Bruce Sievier as co-author, but the Strathfield production credited only Arlen. Hilton Bonner played Richard, and remembers the show as ‘old-fashioned.’
The last work of Arlen’s to be produced was Oh! Gosh, a musical fantasy suggested by C.J. Dennis’s book of prose, The Glugs of Gosh. The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust produced a studio performance of it on 19 September 1979, with members of the Australian Opera. Composed by Arlen, the work was devised, written, and had additional lyrics by Brown. The performance featured Robert Gard, Cynthia Johnston, Neil Warren-Smith, Lesley Stender, Gordon Wilcock, Anthony Lawler and John Germain, with narration by Ken Fraser, Errol Buddle on pan flute, and Arlen on piano.15
Apart from El Alamein Concerto, Arlen’s works for orchestra include Pagoda of Jade Suite and Kings Cross Suite (1948). The latter is in four movements: ‘At The Crossroads’ (Allegro), ‘Coffee Lounge’ (Waltz), ‘Idle Woman’ (Blues) and ‘Shore Leave’ (March). Its first full performance was by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Patrick Thomas with Michael Dudman (organ), in November 1982. In the Sydney Morning Herald (28 November 1982), Fred Blanks said, ‘Local colour was introduced in the concert by Albert Arlen’s suite, King’s Cross, obviously laundered and prettied up in this musical picture á la Eric Coates, material for a symphonic salon.’
There are three recordings of El Alamein Concerto: Peggy Cochrane (piano), with Jack Payne and his Orchestra. c.1945. Original UK issue HMV 12” 78 C-3428; Australian issue HMV 12” 78 EB-262. Monia Liter (piano) with Mantovani and his Concert Orchestra, 1945. Original UK issue Decca 10” 78 F-8533 (2 sides). Reissued on Decca EP DR9339-1, and on Vocalion CD CDEA6019 (in an album called Mantovani – The Early Years, Volume 1, released in 1999. Guy Saint-Claire (piano) with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alan Abbott (WEA 254292-1), released in 1984. Two excerpts from Pagoda of Jade Suite, were recorded as part of Chappell’s background music series, and two excerpts from King’s Cross Suite were recorded for their transcription series.
In the papers of Albert Arlen and Nancy Brown (MS6311) held in the National Library, Canberra, The Magic Mirror, a one-act play, is listed as having been performed, but no dates are available. There are several unproduced musicals and plays, and unpublished works. The musicals include four written with Brown and Thompson: The Violins of St Jacques, a two-act musical based on the novel by Patrick Leigh Fermor, Omar, based on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which used some adapted quatrains from the book for the lyrics, Lead a Gay Life, a comedy with music in two acts, and Queen Of Song, a two act comedy musical. Music of the Years, a play with music, was written with Thompson, and Never Know Your Luck, and an untitled work which could be King Henry, were solo efforts. There is also a one-act opera called Pedro, the Goldsmith with a libretto by Thornton Wilder.
Arlen’s unproduced plays include What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (2 Acts), Pussycat (1 Act), Two Grains of Rice (5 Scenes), Cynthia of the Minute (3 Acts, written with Sybil Weir), The End of the Section (1 Act), The Devil to Pay (3 Acts), A Tragedy in Black and White, Chicanery, Our Husband, The Broom Tree, Portrait of a Woman, The Othello Strain and a new adaptation of Camille, based on La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas, written in 1953/54.
The unpublished short stories include Career Woman, The Old Soldier, Characters in a Mirage, The Nile is Red, and a 148-page novel, Tomorrow When Apricots Grow.
Apart from The Sentimental Bloke and The Girl from the Snowy, Arlen’s published compositions include El Alamein Concerto, Clancy of the Overflow, Pekin Love Tale (from The Pagoda of Jade Suite), The Song of England, several non-show related songs, and a setting of C.J. Dennis’s Austra-laise (Fellers of Australia).16
Arlen received the Order of Australia in 1990. Both he and Brown died at Maroochydore, Queensland, Arlen on 24 March 1993, and Brown on 9 March 2004. Prior to her death Brown bequeathed the professional performing rights of The Sentimental Bloke to the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. A tribute show, Nancy, written by John Burls, was performed at the Independent Theatre, Eumundi, Queensland, on 5 October 2001.17
El Alamein Concerto was the critically acclaimed work that put Albert Arlen’s name on the music map, but of all his considerable achievements, nothing tops the sheer popular success of The Sentimental Bloke. It was his biggest hit. Audiences responded favorably in 1961, and 57 years later they are still applauding the story of the lovesick hero, his girl, and his mates. Arlen’s score is old-fashioned, but it is right for the period. It has charm, and the tunes are melodic and easy to remember. Any audience familiar with the Dennis verse has an expectation of what they want to see. Arlen’s version delivers. It has enough of Dennis to satisfy the purists, and the newly created material is in keeping with the spirit of the original. It is an intelligent stage adaptation that brings this set of well-loved characters to theatrical life. C.J. Dennis gave birth to the Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, but Albert Arlen made them sing!
Special thanks in the preparation of this article to Fred Blanks, Claire Cruickshank (Music & Dance, National Library of Australia), Hilton Bonner, Alton Harvey, Mark Hastings (ABC), Robyn Holmes (Curator of Music, National Library of Australia), Manuscripts Collection, National Library of Australia, Patrick Thomas, Frank Van Straten, Carole Walker.
1. Arlen Papers, NLA
2. NLA News, November 2004, p.20
4. Arlen Papers, November 2004, p.20
10. Tivoli, p.184
11. A Magic Life!
12. Arlen Papers, NLA
13. A Magic Life!
14. Arlen Papers, NLA
16. Australian Popular Music, pp.4–5
17. A Magic Life!
Nancy Brown, A Magic Life—The Black Sheep of the Brown Family, Pix Stories Unlimited, 2001
C.J. Dennis, Selected Verse of C.J. Dennis, Angus & Robertson, 1950
Richard Lane, The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama, NFSA/Melbourne University Press, 1994
Phillip Parsons, Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency, 1995
Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977, Oxford University Press, 1981
Peter Pinne, Australian Performers, Australian Performances, Performing Arts Museum, Victorian Arts Centre, 1987
Eric Reade, History and Heartburn, Harper & Row, 1979
Kenneth R. Snell, Australian Popular Music, Quick Trick Press, 1991
John Thomson, National Library of Australia News, November 2004
Frank Van Straten, Tivoli, Lothian, 2003
John Whiteoak & Aline Scott-Maxwell, Companion to Music and Dance in Australia, Currency, 2003
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