Sunday, August 27, 2006

Keeping the world on its toes.

A photograph of Walter Laird and Andé Lyons demonstrating for the Victor Silvester Orchestra

With the recent enquiries to the BBC “People’s War” Site helpers and contributors about dancing throughout the Twentieth Century, and in particular during the Second World War, I looked through some of the photographs, dance records, books and other information to find something of interest, and thought this photograph might fit the bill.

Although this photograph actually dates from about 1955, and hence a few years after the war, it is one that illustrates so much. The original photograph is in the personal collection of Mrs Andé Tyrer. Andé used to be a professional Ballroom dancer when she was known as Andé Lyons. Andé has kindly allowed me to copy a number of her photographs and has given me her permission to write about them. It was very interesting to look through Andé’s collection of photographs, to learn of her dancing experiences and to hear about some of the wonderful people from the dancing world she has known. .

For the BBC “People’s War” project, I wrote about some of the things that Andé told me about the years she was a professional Ballroom Dancer during and after the Second World War. Consequently, I posted three stories to the “People’s War” website about dancing during WW2 (References A4165166, A8035382, A8054002). Andé began dancing professionally with Walter Laird during the Second World War. They used to give dance demonstrations and worked with many of the top dance bands of the era, including the Victor Silvester Dance Orchestra.

[For further information see ‘Comments’ below]


Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

'Additional Comments'

Some of the musicians who played with the Victor Silvester Orchestra

This particular photograph is from Andé’s collection. It shows Walter and Andé demonstrating the then relatively modern technique of Rock ’n Roll for a BBC ‘Television Dancing Club’ broadcast. Strictly speaking the photograph is a little bit after the war years that this forum is mainly concerned with. However, this is a good photograph of Walter and Andé on the dance floor. It was taken at the Carlton Rooms, Maida Vale dance studio (off the Edgware Road), a former cinema that had been converted specifically for television broadcasts in 1953. On the stage behind Walter and Andé is Victor Silvester, who is fronting his Ballroom Dance Orchestra. Several of the musicians had a long association playing for the Victor Silvester Orchestra, some of them going back to when the Orchestra was first formed in the mid 1930s.

Throughout his professional career Victor Silvester, as a dancer, a dance teacher and as the leader of a Ballroom Dance Orchestra always developed and help define new dances in addition to promoting what became the ‘traditional’ Ballroom and Latin Dances. Arguably, this photograph illustrates that the dancing world was moving with the times. A few years earlier, during the Second World War, the Jitterbug arrived in Britain with the North American Forces in the early 1940s. The Jitterbug was then refined by dance professionals and the Jive was born. The Jive went on to become one of the standard Latin American dances of both social and competition dancers.

Rock ’n Roll is related to Jive, having the same basic rhythm but a simpler style. The Rock ’n Roll dance style took off mainly after Bill Haley and his Comets played ‘Rock Around The Clock’. This was approximately the time Walter and Andé were demonstrating the Rock ’n Roll dance style for Victor Silvester on BBC TV. Other dance styles that were to come along in the years that followed included ‘The Twist’, the ‘Cha-Cha-Cha’ and ‘Disco dancing’.

The BBC ‘Television Dancing Club’ was a format that originated on BBC Radio in the spring of 1941. It transferred to television broadcasting in 1948. Part of the format involved Victor Silvester giving a short dancing lesson, competition dancing for couples, and demonstrations by star couples and formation teams. Walter and Andé, as well as their good friends and dancing rivals Frank and Peggy Spencer, were among the star couples that gave demonstrations for the ‘BBC Dancing Club’ programmes.

Inevitably, over the years different musicians played in the Victor Silvester Dance Orchestra. Good musicians are a key requirement of a successful Dance Band. Victor Silvester pays tribute to the musicians with whom he had worked in his autobiography ‘Dancing is my Life’ first published n 1958. During the war, there were several changes in personnel because some of the musicians were called up to the Forces. This is what happened to Victor Silvester’s original violinist Oscar Grasso shortly after the BBC ‘Dancing Club’ broadcasts began on the radio in 1941.

Oscar Grasso’s main replacement as violinist during the war years was Alfredo Campoli. As Alfredo Campoli was an Italian national, as soon as Italy entered the war against Britain and its Allies it meant he was banned from broadcasting, even though he had lived in Britain all his life. In the end, Victor Silvester arranged a compromise with the BBC Variety Department. Alfredo Campoli was allowed to play for three out of the four weekly broadcasts that the Victor Silvester Dance Orchestra was contracted to do for the BBC during the war. On the occasions when Victor Silvester mentioned the names of the musicians to the listening public he changed Alfredo Campoli’s name to that of Alfred Campbell!

Another of Victor Silvester’s musicians, the saxophonist and clarinettist Charlie Spinelli, died of leukaemia. This happened in May 1941, not long after the BBC ‘Dancing Club’ broadcasts began. Charlie Spinelli was only 33 years old when he died. His replacement was Edward ‘Poggie’ Pogson.

From the pre-war days of the Dance Band, Victor Silvester’s arranger and number-one piano player was Ernest ‘Slim’ Wilson, who was called up to serve in the RAF during the war. Victor Silvester then obtained Charlie Pude as number-one piano player. Victor Parker, the Dance Orchestra’s accordionist was a member of the Salvage Corps during the war. He was able to continue playing on the proviso that his duty to the Salvage Corps would take precedence in the event of an Air Raid.

The names of the musicians who are playing on the stage in the photograph where Andé and Walter are demonstrating Rock 'n Roll are unfortunately not written down on the back. Additionally, two of the musicians are missing off the left of the photograph (as you look at it). These are one of the piano players and one of the saxophonists . However, having looked at others of Andé's photographs and some of my own reference books and records I believe I can correctly name most of the musicians who were on the stage with Victor Silvester when this photograph was taken. These are the names of who I think they are:

Either Ernest 'Slim' Wilson or Jack Phillips (one of the piano players), Charlie Pude ( the other piano player), Oscar Grasso (violin – partially hidden behind Walter), Edward ‘Poggie’ Pogson and Phil Kirkby (alto saxophones), Tony Mozr and Percy Waterhouse (tenor saxophones), Victor Parker (accordion), Sammy Bass (bass) and Ben Edwards (drums).

That would seem to be the usual complement of musicians who usually appeared on the stage for the TV shows. The saxophonists also doubled up by playing the clarinet if required for a particular rhythm. Interestingly, there is another musician (on the extreme right as you look at the photograph), who is dressed slightly differently to the other musicians. Andé has shown me other photographs where this same gentleman is standing on the dance floor just in front of the stage playing the Maracas, while Walter and Andé are demonstrating the Samba. This musician seems to have been brought in when a more Latin American rhythm was required, but I don't know his name.

I have seen some still photographs of dancing during the 1940s and 1950s and they are very interesting. In addition, I have seen occasional short clips of wartime newsreel footage of ballroom dancers performing the Waltz, Quickstep, 'Lambeth Walk' and similar dances. It would be interesting to know if there are any audio or film recordings of Victor Silvester's radio or TV programmes in an archive somewhere. Possibly the proposed 'Britain on the Move' series might turn up some lost gems of moving film of Walter Laird and Andé Lyons in their demonstration and competition days.

In his autobiography, Victor Silvester mentions how he was able to help out the American leader Glenn Miller in the autumn of 1944 by providing a spare radiogram, one of those things that were difficult to come across in London during the war. The two of them, Victor Silvester and Glenn Miller, became good friends. Had things turned out differently, they may have collaborated on a tour of dance halls all over America with their respective Orchestras.

On 14 December 1944 Victor Silvester had lunch with Glenn Miller and Colonel Miller's ADC, Warrant Officer Paul Dudley, when they discussed this idea of a North American tour. Unfortunately it was a project that never came to fruition. As history now tells us, on 15 December 1944 Glenn Miller boarded an aircraft to fly over to Paris for a Christmas broadcast. Fate took a hand and the plane and its passengers disappeared. It still remains one of the most enigmatic mysteries of the Second World War.

Music, singing and dancing were an important part of the war effort during the Second World War. It was largely through dancing that the world was kept on its toes. People were able to enjoy themselves, have some enjoyable recreation and meet lots of other people in a friendly setting during what were often dark and difficult times. Troopers in Armoured Tanks, RAF ground crew, factory workers and even young lads who acted as chaperon to an older sister might have found the dance hall as a happy place to be, even if only for a short time!

In many respects the 1940s and 1950s were a kind of Golden Age' for dancing. Arguably, dancing was one of the mass social activities that were just right for those times. I hope others reading this article may have found something of interest to them. For those who remember those days it might bring back some happy memories. My own dancing days were long after the war, although I can remember hearing a lot about dancers, dancing, music and singing almost as far back as I can remember. Andé Lyons was one of the top dancers of the ‘Golden Age’ of dancing, counted many of the dancing legends among her personal friends and remains a star to this day.

Thanks once again, Andé!

Sunday, 27 August, 2006  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

In some ways it is strange that Victor Silvester came to be regarded as a little old fashioned. Going through all the records, books, photographs and articles I've kept on dancing these past few weeks has refreshed my memory on this. As the photograph I've selected of Andé and Walter illustrates, Victor Silvester was always in the vanguard of the latest dancing style, using many of the up-to-date tunes of that time.

In fact, it is the Glenn Miller music that is rather fixed in time. Because of his unfortunate early demise, the 'Glenn Miller sound' dates between 1938 and 1944. The Victor Silvester Dance Orchestra started about the same time and continued over a much longer period. Looking through the dance records I still have there are some by 'Sydney Thompson and his Old Tyme Dance Orchestra' who even I'd forgotten about. I used to dance to his records during training for the Old Time style. He was also a dancer who formed his own dance Orchestra. During WW2 and afterwards it seems Sydney Thompson and his wife Mary promoted Old Time dancing in the London area and on radio.

Incidentally, Frank, note that Victor Silvester's surname has 'i' as the second letter, not a 'y'. A lot of people spell his family name 'Sylvester'. I even bought a music CD last year which uses the incorrect spelling.

As I learnt to dance to all the records of these different Orchestras, I quite like a lot of them. It was a pity that Glenn Miller and Victor Silvester never got the chance to collaborate as they seem to have planned. What a combination that would been!

Tuesday, 29 August, 2006  

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