One of the most fascinating of 'real-life' British musicals, JOHNNY THE PRIEST told the story of a young vicar's attempt to improve the lives of teenagers living in a run-down London dockland. Acknowledged as one of the most innovative and inventive scores of the period, this terrific score with its superb big band arrangements by Gordon Langford emerges refreshened in Alan Bunting's immaculate sound restoration. Antony Hopkins' remarkable score catapulted the British musical into new territory, offering not only the best songs ever about ping-pong and wallpaper, but moments of great beauty.
Antony Hopkins is unjustly an almost forgotten figure in British music. His classical work is seldom played in the concert hall, and he has shared the fate of too many other British composers with his absence from the schedules of Radio 3, although for many years he had his own much admired series on that station, Listening to Music. Quite by chance, just as our CD release of his only musical play Johnny the Priest was about to arrive from the manufacturer, I heard some French songs of his performed at the William Alwyn Festival in Southwold. Not for the first time, I wondered why such attractive and accessible pieces remain almost unheard. What chance, then, for Johnny the Priest, which seems not to appear in his list of works. But do not be deceived: whatever Mr Hopkins may think of it, this is an opus as much as any of his classical pieces.
Of course there will always be those who dismiss the many flops that litter the history of British musical theatre as worthless of further attention. No doubt they overlook the many now hugely popular works that were trashed at their first appearance. This is accentuated when we come to British musicals because of the general attitude that it is an art form (if we may be so generous) of little artistic worth. Harsh critical words and some booing were hurled at Johnny after its troubled first night at the Princes Theatre in 1960, but these were tempered by voices that appreciated what Hopkins, at least, had tried to achieve. Was this something between opera and musical comedy? It described itself as ‘a musical drama’. In fact, this is probably the closest the British musical ever got to a Kurt Weill piece, marrying as it does the light and darkness, as in Weill’s Street Scene. The distinctions between the two are a given in the source material, a gentle, inoffensive little play of R. C. Sherriff’s, The Telescope. The play was first performed by the Guildford Theatre Company in May 1957, produced by Bryan Bailey, with a cast headed by Edward Woodward as John Mayfield, Hilary Liddell as his wife Mary, and Melvyn Hayes as Joe Palmer, with two other notable players in supporting roles: Frank Finlay as the retiring vicar of Canbury, Mr Pinnock, and Patsy Byrne as Mrs Palmer.
Comparing this character list with that of Peter Powell’s adaptation of Sherriff’s play we can at once see several disparities. The vicar at the centre of the play is John Mayfield in the original but becomes Richard Highfield in the musical, and Joe becomes Johnny. In the opening scene of The Telescope the new young vicar meets the out-going incumbent Mr Pinnock, but in Johnny the Priest this meeting does not take place, and Mr Pinnock is discarded. The very location in London’s dockland is changed too, with Canbury becoming Maybury. Such a change seems incidental, and one wonders why it was made. The play is enacted solely in the study of St. Mark’s vicarage, but the musical fans out to various locations in the district. One of the advantages of this is to give the musical’s designer Reginald Woolley (one of the show’s producers) the opportunity to convey the atmosphere that is so essential to this piece. Woolley was the ideal man for the task. There is nothing in the least glamorous about his raw designs for Johnny the Priest. They speak of dowdy streets, dusty corners, old brickwork, battered housing, derelict lives. This project didn’t need an Oliver Messel.
There are marked differences involving two other crucial characters. In the play, Miss Fortescue, the elderly spinster of the Church Council who is displeased that the young vicar is so unlike dear staid old Mr Pinnock, appears only once, to proclaim her displeasure with the newcomer and his wife, but the musical skilfully develops Miss Fortescue’s character. Sherriff’s scene between these three is turned by Powell into a cleverly constructed trio over a stiffly uncomfortable ‘Vicarage Tea’. After her one scene in the play Miss Fortescue disappears, but Powell brings her back at the end of the musical at a particularly dramatic moment, when the Highfields are trying to whisk Johnny away to a new life on board a ship. It is, as this song has it, a ‘Stormy Night’, in many ways a ‘companion’ number to ‘Vicarage Tea’. The sort of tensions that were present in ‘Vicarage Tea’ resurface here, at a crucial moment. Highfield is clearly disconcerted that he has run into his difficult elderly parishioner at so inconvenient a time, as the wind flurries around them, but this chance meeting, not in the original play, has the benefit of showing a kinder side to frosty Miss Fortescue. Just when everything is about to go so wrong for Highfield and for Johnny, Miss Fortescue congratulates the vicar on the success he has had with the youth club. This scene not only opens up Sherriff’s play, but enriches it.
Powell’s adaptation has two other aces up its sleeve. In The Telescope Joe is friendless, no other teenager in sight, and no hint of any romance. By the time of Johnny the Priest Johnny has acquired a girlfriend, Vi. This adds another dimension to the play, as well as bringing in two of the best songs in the show, ‘I’m Your Girl’ and the best song ever (perhaps the only one?) about wallpaper, ‘A Tanner’s Worth of Tune’. It’s noticeable that though Johnny the Priest may be about juvenile delinquency, there is nothing but sexual innocence about these numbers. The only passion that exists in Powell and Hopkins’ work is a passion for Christian belief, confined to the Maybury vicarage in what we might call the godly songs: ‘Be Not Afraid’, ‘Beyond These Narrow Streets’ and ‘A Boy Called Johnny’. Hopkins reserves a particular style for these moments, and they are scaled down in comparison to the rest of the often rowdy score. We must presume that Hopkins orchestrated the quieter, holy sections of the score and that the big-band arrangements, so well played by the Eugene Pini Orchestra, were the work of the brilliant Gordon Langford.
The other ace that Powell holds is the chorus. It may be that when he began to imagine Sherriff’s timid little play as a (quite substantial) musical, he hit on the obvious device of filling the stage with Johnny’s pals. Where else, after all, should the chorus come from? It is they, the girls and boys of Maybury’s streets, who provide the drive and rhythm and momentum of the piece, and they have the lion’s share of the score, from ‘Doin’ the Burp’ through ‘The Foggy Foggy Blues’ (the penetrating fog that wafts over Maybury is briefly mentioned in the first scene of Sherriff’s play) and ‘He’ll Let You Down’ to ‘Ping Pong’. It is this chorus of rough teenage Londoners (portrayed in the London production by some unconvincing young players – their voices are too ‘put on’) who bemoan their lot and poke fun at the vicar’s attempts to get them off the streets and cause a rumpus at the youth club, while Johnny never really vocalises any of these feelings. The boys and girls certainly have an ally in Johnny’s mother, Mrs Palmer, brilliantly sketched in the London cast recording by Hope Jackman. Gordon Langford, remembers that the music originally intended for the playout was replaced by an arrangement of Mrs Palmer’s Act Two number ‘Johnny Earn Peanuts’, because in production it was considered the hit of the evening.
Sadly, we will probably never get to hear those numbers listed in the theatre programme that do not appear on the cast recording. A great pity, as they may have been among the most interesting. These were:
THE MAYBURY STORY
Sung by Jeremy Brett, this presumably told the ‘back’ story of how the young vicar came to Maybury; this is really the core of the first scene of Sherriff’s play, told through his conversation with Mr Pinnock. The district of Maybury had in fact been built by Highfield’s Victorian forebears, and Highfield felt responsible for the poverty and deprivation which had come about, while he and his family lived in comfort. It is this feeling that compels him to return to Maybury and do what he can for the people.
Sung by Highfield and the Boys and Girls
JOHNNY THE PRIEST
Sung by the Boys and Girls
Sung by the Boys and Girls
Langford recalls that the day after Johnny the Priest closed Antony Hopkins telephoned him at home. Did he have the orchestral parts? No, Langford didn’t have them. He and Hopkins took a taxi to the Princes Theatre, but no trace of them could be found. After 14 performances, presumably given to ill-attended houses, Johnny was packed away and forgotten.