From the dawn of time, comedy has been crucial to the human psyche, unleashing in us the healthy ability to laugh at ourselves and at the societies in which we live. One form of comedy is revue, a theatrical entertainment consisting of sketches, songs and dances which often satirise topical issues and which became very popular in North America and Europe between the early 1900s and 1930s. Ask Bermudians about revues presented on the island and they most likely will mention The Um Um Show famous during the 1970s, followed by the Not the Um Um Show, which started in 1984. However, revue became popular in Bermuda decades before that, when the Harem Scarem was founded in Hamilton in 1921. In a 1988 interview for Bermuda Recollections, Billy Adderley, a pianist who regularly played at a silent movie theatre on Queen Street, explained how he and his Saltus school mates, Gilbert and Arthur Cooper, were asked by their headmaster to create a show to fund a new school shed for bicycles. When Arthur Purcell, the then editor of the Royal Gazette, saw it, he pronounced it too entertaining to be held at the Sunday school. Instead, it was held at the Colonial Opera House, a theatre that could hold over 800 people. “We were open the first night to a sixty percent house. But the next night it was standing room only.” And so the Harem Scarem (thus named because one of the scenes was set in a harem) was born and would continue to be a success until its closure in 1948. No doubt it owed its popularity to its satirical nature. As Adderly said, “We made fun of the Government, made fun of any change. We would change nightly almost. If somebody said something in Parliament, that would be incorporated into the show.”
During the interview he pointed to a photograph of a girl dressed appropriately for snow in New York, and explained she was coming down to Bermuda. In her honour he wrote this song, a reminder for us that refrigerators were then only just beginning to enter homes:
I’ll build a snowman
Because I’ve got no man
To share Bermuda with me
A man I need
To share this heat
I know the snow man
Will be – no man.
In the tropical sun much of the way
And I’ll beat the climate
I will keep my man
In a Frigidaire
Just for me
The show’s venue is significant since audiences at the Opera House were always racially integrated, long before the desegregation of other theatres in 1959. After 1948, some theatre lovers were appeased by the 1951 opening of the Bermudiana Theatre in Hamilton, although it did not immediately share the Opera House’s policy. Audiences at the Bermudiana were initially whites only.
However, the city was not the only venue for theatrical productions. Bermuda had also been literally developing its own “West End” theatre in Sandys at several venues, including Sandys Grammar School, the naval canteen on Ireland Island and several churches. In 1931 a young man called Donald Evans arrived on the island as a member of the British Army stationed at Royal Naval Dockyard on Ireland Island. It soon became obvious he was passionate about the theatre since between 1931 and 1939, he played in almost every play performed in Bermuda. He started by joining the Harem Scarem where he met the Cooper brothers. Through that connection, no doubt, he joined their family business after being discharged from the Army. After serving abroad with the Bermuda Rifles during the Second World War, he returned to Bermuda and played with the Bermudiana Theatre group. But he also became very involved with productions in the west end. He directed plays for church groups, as retired teacher Ann Maule well remembers, her church being the Methodist church then on Ireland Island when the British were still running Dockyard. He also became involved with theatricals offered by the Army in Dockyard. Ann remembers her mother, Adah Spurling, an excellent singer and frequent star in Gilbert and Sullivan Society productions, playing the lead in The Quiet Weekend produced by Evans and presented by the Somerset Players in 1949 at the Ireland Island naval canteen. That group may have comprised both members of the church and the British military. Ann herself was in the production, her first experience of acting in a “grown up” play. The audiences, Ann says, were racially mixed.
Then came Sandys’s first revue, Viewpoints, presented by the Sandys Little Theatre who held their productions at Sandys Grammar School (now Somerset Primary) on Long Bay Road. The headmaster’s wife, Maire Feenan (a writer for The Bermudian), wrote the scripts and produced the show, although the 1951 programme says “Produced by accident.” Evans did not produce but did take part in some of the shows. Some of its actors had also been founding members and regular actors in the Harem Scarem. Three were Sir Jeffrey (nicknamed Curly) Astwood, his wife, Hilda, née Onions, and her brother Wil Onions, the brilliant Bermudian architect who would design City Hall. They all lived in Somerset, as did the Spurling family. By this time Evans had become “Uncle Don” to the family as he had married Ann’s father’s sister Constance (Evie) Spurling. According to the Bermuda Sun: “Once, when he was appearing in a local performance, he was required to embrace a local girl. He hadn’t met the girl before and she was late. As she dashed into the theatre, the director called to her, ‘Okay Evie, here he is!’ The two strangers clasped each other in their arms, and not long after, Mr Evans and the actress, Miss Evie Spurling, were married A wit could say that Don Evans is ‘wedded to the stage,’ and he wouldn’t be far from wrong.”
It’s not surprising, then, that this group became known as “That Somerset Lot.” When Viewpoints faded out, the question was: “When is that Somerset lot going to do a show?” At the same time, the headmaster of Sandys Grammar needed somewhere to live. Sir Jeffrey was chair of the school’s Trust and he realised a show would help to finance a house bought for the school. And so throughout the 1950s and 60s every autumn “The Show” would be held at the school as a pre-Christmas treat. Every year Don Evans would direct it. Arthur Cooper was responsible for the set and the Astwoods were usually the stars, often playing the inimitable Bermudian characters, Lima and Perlita Bream. As Ruth Thomas, former cultural affairs officer, remembers, the couple, with their equally inimitable Bermudian accents, reduced the audience to helpless laughter. Their son, J.Christopher (Kit) Astwood, remembers them rehearsing on the veranda of Aberfeldy when he was a child. The Spurlings also continued to participate but over the years other contributors would include: John Orridge, James Burnett-Herkes, Michael and Ann Cherry, Bobbii Cartwright, Janice Moran, Peter Nash, Len MacFarlane, Alec Foster, Charles Pearman Wilson (writer), Polly Hornburg (costumes) and Eileen Wilkie.
Not only Somerset but the whole of Bermuda, including governors, would look forward to the antics and repartee of That Somerset Lot. Bermudian actor Gavin Wilson, responsible for bringing Mark Twain back to life on regular occasions, remembers being in the audience, rolling around with laughter, desperately wanting to be part of the production.
What was the secret to their success? Though no recordings of the shows exist, we can have some idea of The Show’s content and appeal, thanks to Michael Cherry who donated his cuttings and scripts to the Archives. “If the ability to laugh at yourself is the basically healthy thing that it is asserted to be, then Bermuda must be in the pink of condition, the dead cedars, the Hamilton Hotel and other evils notwithstanding,” writes Frank Haworth in a Royal Gazette review of 1954. In the tradition set by the Harem Scarem, always included in their scripts were references to topical issues of the day. A good example can be seen in the 1954 show’s script, when replanting trees after the cedar blight was a pressing project.
Perlita refers to a “gentleman who lives down the ‘Angry Culture Grounds’” and bewails the “Colony’s Agricultural Dim Future.” Not to worry—we are told by her friend Bella—“Somerset can raise anything,” including the best oleanders and a racket at Cup Match.
Many songs reveal that some issues aren’t so different today. Take, for example, the following verses extracted from a song expounding a litany of complaints sung to the tune, “Oh dear, what can the matter be?”
Dear, dear what can the matter be?
High cost of living has passed all reality
“Live on your income!” An impossibility
But we all have to live just the same
Dear, dear what can the matter be?
Front Street’s so different. No shop’s where it used to be
Skyscrapers soaring and windows New Yorky…
But the trash stays till noon… just the same
The new traffic rules are so complex and crafty
You can only go downwards and not up. On Burnaby
Reid Street and Queen are one way…and they should be…
But there’s no place to park just the same.
Or enjoy the following subject that in recent years has often been a topic in the Royal Gazette’s letters to the editor:
All we’re getting is reports
Reports of sorts
From Politics to sports
It’s the latest fashion
It’s the latest trend
Now everyone’s an expert—
And we’re going round the bend…
It ends with the sardonic:
And when we haven’t got an expert
To tell us what to do
We’ll ask the man on the street
‘cause he’s an expert too!
As in any good revue, The Show had a number of settings, including the KE Hospital. In an early production, a character, Pat, is in hospital having an operation for an ingrowing toenail and angrily wonders why she wakes to find her throat is bandaged. She is told the surgeon’s operation on her toe so impressed the medical students watching, he took out her tonsils as an encore. Perlita also turns up in the emergency ward, a bowling ball stuck to her hand, during a 1964 show. When asked if she’s insured, she says, “I’m got everything fully covered, INCLUDING Acts of God.” And while Dr. Kildare is mentioned, it’s Dr. Gash who’s on call, saying, “We’ve got to save the patient as well as the ball.”
Another character, Mrs. Box, arrives pregnant with her thirteenth child. One piece of dialogue is strangely apposite, given our own new hospital wing does not include the maternity ward:
Nurse: And how do you like your first look at our new hospital?
Mrs Box (listlessly): Well, I suppose it will be a change from my normal routine.
Nurse: Of course Ward 5, the Maternity Ward, is still in the old wing.
Mrs Box: What! I thought I was going to lay off with my swivelling picture window and watch Mr. Groves propagating in his mechanical garden.
Ann remembers playing the part of the pregnant lady with a pillow stuck under her dress. “It turned out,” she says, “I was pregnant with my eldest son Ian at the time!”
As usual, our law courts and lawyers do not escape satire. A young lady named Miss La Rue is had up for dangerous driving after allegedly causing 13 previous accidents. When asked if she understands the serious consequences of telling lies under oath she says that her lawyer has explained them to her.
Judge: What did he say would happen to you if you tell lies in court?
Miss La Rue: I’ll win my case!
Some situations are more improbable but very Bermudian. In one, Lima is prospecting for oil on Cambridge Beaches using his special “contraption”:
“The intersection of the emitting particles from the shark oil,” explains Lima, “are detected by the meter—as any ignorant fool knows.” “That’s right,” says Firebird, another character, “Oil calls to oil.”
The many reviews of The Show reveal how consistently professional the performances were, with Marian Robb, art critic for the Mid Ocean News and known for her forthright acuity, writing in 1955: “The show moves on roller bearings.” Don and Elspeth Gibson wrote a personal note thanking the cast for a “wonderful evening.” But it is a special letter written to the Breams by Louis Mowbray, curator of the Bermuda Aquarium Museum and Zoo, in 1962, that shows the wide appeal of the productions. In it he thanks them for the “two fine white grunts” they donated before their “trip to the moon.” Unfortunately, according to the curator, the gifts caused such social problems among the fish he needed the services of a psychiatrist. Would the Somerset lot care to “undertake the treatment? Or would they be nervous about being pushed into the tank?” No reply is recorded.
Thanks to the Bermuda Arts Council, That Somerset Lot has achieved a measure of immortality since it received a Founder’s Award in 2017 and its name is engraved on the plaque in City Hall.