Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be (1959)
The Story (copied from liner notes of Soundtrack--see below)
It is Soho in the late 1950s and the characters we meet are small time crooks, whores with hearts of gold, straight and bent policemen, a bent (in a different sort of way) decorator, Teddy boys, Teddy girls and other Cockney lay-abouts--work is the only dirty four letter word in their vocabulary.
The story revolves around the happenings at a back alley club owned and run by Fred Cochran who was once in the big time but now is only a minor villain. Fred has had a stroke of luck on a horse--a very unusual occurrence for him--and wisely his winnings are being spent on updating his club (or, as put in the show, making it contemporary) with new furniture, decorations and fittings. On opening night he runs into trouble--but that was to be expected in a place where criminal status is important and it wasn't bad enough to stop the happy ending when he marries Lil with whom he has been living for 15 years. The wedding takes place in the street, with a stolen ring and in a ceremony conducted by a renegade priest.
Would you have it any other way in Soho?
--Rexton S. Brunnett
Fings Ain't Wot They Used To Be:
Bayview Records: www.eur.com/musicals/rec.cfm?RNumber+379
From Joan's Book, Chapter Forty-Six. (NOTE: James Booth is referred to as David throughout.)
There was a big sagging packet in my room. Penelope Gilliatt, the drama critic, had sent it to me. Another discovery? I kept moving it around because I couldn't face another rewrite job, so soon.
David Booth breezed in one afternoon wanting to know what we were doing next.
"Some beautifully written classic," I said.
"What's this, then?" He had spotted the sagging packet.
"It's from Frank Somebody-or-Other."
"Frank Norman. He wrote Bang to Rights," said David. "Great stuff." He was tearing open the envelope.
I had to go down to the stage for the nightly warm-up.
"Can I borrow this?"
"Sure. Don't lose it--could be his only copy."
Gerry was discussing a transfer with Donald Albery, the first West End manager ever to approach us. Apparently I'd been one of the snags--he'd heard that I was rough and rude. He told Gerry that he was surprised when he met me. Anyway, Honey moved to his theatre, Wyndham's on 20th January 1959.
Mr. Linklater of Arts Council Finance had his ear to the ground. He phoned Gerry. "I want to see all Honey contracts," he said. "And what's this about a Theatre Workshop percentage of the film rights?"
Gerry was still on the phone, assuring him that the Arts Council guarantee would be returned, when David walked in with Lionel Bart in tow...our beloved, impossible Lionel, who started life as a designer, a song writer for Unity Theatre and the life of The Two Eyes in Soho, meeting place for the young poets and composers of the time. Gerry had engaged him to write a song for each one of our productions--but, "Li's fallen for this Frank Norman piece," said David.
"First time I've heard cockney as she is spoke," said Lionel.
"What are we talking about?"
"Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be," said David.
"Is there enough to go on?"
"Only needs songs, instead of verbals," said Li.
"Well, who's the songwriter around here, Baronet?"
"I'll have to have a think-out with Frankie first."
"Can this cockney show be ready when Honey transfers?" asked Gerry. "Bearing in mind that Joan will have to tune it up for Wyndham's and find replacements for The Hostage."
I decided that Li and the company would have to start on the songs while I got on with the other jobs. Jean Newlove could sketch in the production. They would have a strong company: David Booth, Ted Caddick, Glynn Edwards. Howard Goorney, Mickser, Yootha Joyce, Brian Murphy, two young lovlies, Ann Beach and Carmel Cryan--and Eileen Kennally, to replace Avis, who was vital to the success of Honey. At the end of the first week, I couldn't wait to see how they were getting on. At ten o'clock on the Saturday I attended their first run-through.
They'd tackled a number of scenes. Many of the characters were beginning to live. David was playing Tosher, a ponce, filling out the part with ad libs when the script was too thin. Li had revived one of this best songs from Unity Theatre days, but there was something wrong.
On my way to the Angel cafe for lunch, I knew what it was. The scenes were written the wrong way round: things would happen, then they'd be discussed. As a result--the climax would be lost. In fact, it was the same old story. The structure had not been planned. Still, putting sections in the right order would not be as difficult as a complete rewrite, and Frank's language gave the writing an individual flavour.
Shaping plays was becoming my specialty. I spent the week-end shuffling the script around and arrived early on the Monday morning with a bundle of pages. We rolled them off and laid out a set of new scripts along the front row of the gallery.
From there on, I was hooked on Fings. Frank and Lionel were at all the rehearsals, and when more dialogue was needed, they'd be up there ad libbing with the rest of us. Li would take a brass, Frank the plain-clothes copper on the Soho beat, then they'd swap.
Mickser was playing the copper, Tosher's deadly enemy. Frank had written Tosher as an old geezer; David was creating a new character, young and lively, but when it came to a confrontation, there was no script;. We itemized two or three radically divergent opinions and they ad libbed the scene. It was electric. They were friendly enemies in real life.
The rewrites mounted up. Hard on the typist, but good for the show. The songs Lionel made up during rehearsals were the best. In the middle of a scene he'd shout, "Hold on! I've got an idea."
And the song would happen, then and there.
Before long, we were all talking Fings. "Fink I'll shoot round the manor and see what's buzzin'" meant "I'm taking a stroll down the lane."
We had a ball--Li's tunes
spilled out over Stratford. The number "Fings Ain't Wot They Used
T'Be" became our theme song. We sang it on our way to Bert and
May's at lunch-time and the locals took it up and added their own words.