The other day, I posted what I said was one of the longest videos I'd found of the great British songwriting and performing team of Michael Flanders & Donald Swann, about 10-minutes. And I mentioned to some people who said how much they loved it that I had a major treat in store. And here it is --
This is a 40-minute documentary on Flanders & Swann, from the BBC, hosted by one of their longtime personalities, John Amis!!
This, in two words, is an utter joy. And to add a few more words, a treasure trove.
On the one hand, it's not all that much a typical documentary with information and interviews about the pair. It's more a montage of clips of them performing their songs on stage. On the other hand...it's almost FORTY MINUTES of them performing their songs on stage. Given how little video material there is of Flanders & Swann (Amis notes that Flanders simply didn't like recorded TV performances), this much material is stunning.
Hearing Flanders & Swann on their several albums is glorious. But being able to see them on stage, and watch the nuance and inflections that would otherwise be missing adds a level that wouldn't seem likely, making something that classic even far better.
The clips seem to come from two sources. The first in black-and-white appears to be a live, recorded-performance of probably At the Drop of a Hat, their first show, done in England in the late-1950s. And the second is that CBS TV special I've mentioned that was performed around 1967, at the end of the Broadway run of their follow-up show, At the Drop of Another Hat. I'd written about how it's a shame that only a couple of clips of that broadcast have shown up online, so it's so wonderful that the entire production was found and so much of it was at least made available for this documentary. While I still hold out hopes for more to be released, or even the entire broadcast on DVD. This suffices just fine...
There are a lot of major treats in this. Just a few --
"Misaillance" is one of their most clever and wonderful songs for its oddity – a love song about plants. And it also shows Michael Flanders' impressive skill as a lyricist with a wide range of challenging rhymes, for words like "honeysuckle" and "bindweed".
I've mentioned how pianist and composer Donald Swann comes across like a meek and erudite scholar at the keyboard, just has a few moments of release when he comes across as gloriously insane. He actually was a scholar, not just of music, but also Russian and Greek, and in "Kokoraki," he gets to have one of his occasional solo numbers and show his utterly mad side. (And, too, as I wrote earlier, with all of this video material, you get an even better look at his incredibly impressive skill of looking innocent and joyful as if he is hearing Flanders' words for the very first time and laughing in surprised pleasure, despite the reality that he's likely heard them at least two thousand times.)
"Madeira, M’Dear" is probably one of their few songs that other people have performed, most notably Tony Randall. What's worth noting, as well, is that this is the song from the first show, At the Drop of a Hat, around which Flanders tells his "hat" story, so that's why you see him with a fedora.
And happily, you get to see both versions of their signature "Hippopotamus Song" with which they traditionally ended their shows. The original comes early, and they hold the sequel "about our old friend, the hippopotamus" under the very end of the documentary, going out with it. (Alas, the original song has a few versions, my favorite of which has Donald Swann singing a verse in Russian, and that's not the one used here, perhaps because they already had footage of him singing in Greek.) What's also noteworthy here is once again reveling in the cleverness of Michael Flanders who repeatedly through the two songs comes up with remarkable rhymes -- none of which are forced, but flow naturally from the lyrics -- for "hippopotamus." (My favorite of which comes in the sequel, "He murmurs God rot-em as / he watches them grow".) In fact, when he pluralizes them for the pack, we get a smooth and funny rhyme for "hippopotami."
But enough of all this. On to 40 minutes of Flanders & Swann.
O, just freaking joy.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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