h1963CambridgeCircusby Mark McKay

Named after a West End traffic intersection, the revue Cambridge Circus opened at the New Arts Theatre in London on 10th July 1963. It later transferred to the Lyric, clocking up over a hundred performances, toured New Zealand and even enjoyed a short run on Broadway. Deriving from the 1963 Cambridge University Footlights revue, A Clump Of Plinths, it spawned an LP record and a half-hour BBC radio show of highlights. Subsequently the performers went on to even greater triumphs, with the much-loved radio series I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again and hit TV shows such as The Goodies and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The original cast consisted of Jo Kendall, Tim Brooke-Taylor, John Cleese, Anthony Buffery, David Hatch, Chris Stuart-Clark and Bill Oddie. However by the time of the New Zealand tour, Buffery had been replaced by Graham Chapman and Stuart-Clark by future Yes Minister scriptwriter and Hollywood director, Jonathan Lynn. In his autobiography, Chapman recalls being in two minds whether to take the trip down under or pursue his medical studies, and deciding on the former after a recommendation from the Queen Mother.

On 29th July 1964, the cast plus producer Humphrey Barclay, chanteuse Jean Hart and David Hatch’s new wife Anne, arrived in Christchurch. The country was still recovering from the Beatles’ visit the previous month, and the lack of proper heating, archaic licensing laws and inefficient service made a bad impression on some of the performers. John Cleese remembers being offered “Porridge or Creamota” for breakfast, asking “what’s Creamota?”, and being told “Porridge.”1 On another occasion, Graham Chapman ordered a three-egg omelette from the menu and eventually received an omelette with three fried eggs perched on top.

The show was a success all over the South and North Islands, gathering favourable reviews and enthusiastic audiences. During the tour, a performance was even televised2. Viewing a preview tape, John Cleese was shocked to see himself on TV for the first time, looking like “a giraffe on a hovercraft” and appearing to speak like a bad ventriloquist. This one-hour Cambridge Circus special was screened later that year3, after the cast had left the country. Soundtrack for half of the programme survives in the NZ Sound Archives4.

During the tour, the team also recorded four audience-free radio shows for the NZBC, also broadcast after their departure5. Most of the sketches included had already been broadcast in Britain, either in the December 1963 Cambridge Circus programme or the first three episodes of their own series I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, first heard in April 1964. However some of these were now given a local flavour with references to New Zealand cities and music.

Other items were heard for the first time performed by their authors. Cleese and Chapman’s Sheepdog Trials sketch later became one of the highlights of TV’s seminal At Last The 1948 Show. Some John Cleese skits had been written for Dick Emery’s radio series, Emery At Large. One of these, concerning a Gestapo-style Grublian National Tourist Bureau official, later turned up on the Two Ronnies’ first album.

Each episode was given a different title, named in honour of a favourite character, either real or fictional. The first programme broadcast was christened The Mrs Muir Show, after a little old lady from their Wellington boarding house, who was convinced they were Zulus who had arrived to promote the epic Michael Caine film.

1 Manufactured by the NZ Flemings company, Creamota was a finely ground rolled oats product which produced a creamier variety of porridge.

2 at Timaru according to Chapman’s autobiography.

3 on Monday 23rd November 1964 in Christchurch from 8.41-9.42pm, and on Monday 21st December 1964 in Auckland from 8.32-9.33pm

4 sketches on this recording are:
Cloak And Dagger (aka Secret Service)
London Bus
Regella (aka Startistics)
Sing Sing
Music Hall 1600: Swap A Jest

5 all shows approx. 30 mins and broadcast at 9.30pm on Tuesdays on the National Link (incl. 3YA Christchurch, 1YA Auckland, 2YA Wellington, 4YA Dunedin)

The Cambridge Circus Revue Company presents The Mrs Muir Show (24th November 1964)
The Grand International Race Commentary
Music Hall 1600: Swap A Jest
Bringing A Mammoth Through Customs
Pride And Joy
Sports Review: Wine Tasting
Jean Hart Sings For Every Man There’s A Woman
Sing Sing
Scrapheap For Nineteen Thirty-Foot

The Cambridge Circus Revue Company presents The I. T. Briddock Show (1st December 1964)
On The Beat?
News:     Channel Tunnel/Duke Of Edinburgh’s Visit/Great Train Robbery/Munich Report/Weather
I Whistle A Happy Tune
Fantastic Birds
Air Sea Rescue
Jean Hart Sings That’s My Style
Putting Husband To Sleep
Travellin’ Man
Top Of The Form

The Cambridge Circus Revue Company presents The Cardinal Richelieu Show (8th December 1964)
The Doctor: Turning Into A Bird
Those Were The Days
Cricket Commentators
Boring Straight Song
John & Mary In Malaya (aka Bigger Than Both Of Us aka It Can’t End Like This)
Regella (aka Startistics)
Jean Hart Sings My Ship
Focus: Pop Music incl. That’s How I Feel About You
Great Moments In British Theatre: How Green Was My Buttonhole?

The Cambridge Circus Revue Company presents The Peter Titheradge Show (15th December 1964)
English For Beginners: Grammatical Syntax
Traffic Island
Cloak And Dagger (aka Secret Service)
Jazz Song By MillicentKendall
Sheepdog Trials
Jean Hart Sings Dat Dere
League Table Results
Judge Not

… meanwhile, the cast was half a world away, while the above recordings were being aired in New Zealand …

Billed as a ‘farcical revue’, Cambridge Circus opened at the Plymouth Theatre in New York later that year on 6th October. Understandably, this was a significantly harder sell than they’d experienced playing to Anglophile Kiwis. Items considered too parochial for an American audience (notably the Oscar Wilde take-off, How Green Was My Buttonhole?) were dropped and new Oxbridge sketches such as Eric Idle’s choirboy Beatles number and Michael Palin and Terry Jones’ slapstick and custard pie lecture were brought in.

The production received favourable reviews, however some felt it was let down by poor advertising and audiences dwindled. There was suspicion that producer Sol Hurok was intentionally staging the show as a tax loss. Their Great White Way run only lasted three weeks.

The show transferred to a cabaret club in Greenwich Village, where they performed for dining customers until early 1965. Meanwhile the cast appeared on chat shows and filmed a couple of sketches for the famous Ed Sullivan show6. Once again, a performance was filmed for television — the hour long Metropolitan Broadcasting Television production for WNEW-TV (Channel 5) was aired in New York at 10pm on 27th February 1965. A soundtrack of this recording survives7.

6 The Rolling Stones also performed on this show which aired on 25th October 1964.

7 sketches are:
London Bus
Cloak And Dagger (aka Secret Service)
Patients For The Use Of
An Appeal: Selling The Queen
Traffic Island
Boring Straight Song
John & Mary In Malaya (aka Bigger Than Both Of Us aka It Can’t End Like This)
Jazz Song By Millicent Kendall
Playtime’s Over
Judge Not

My thanks to Karen Neill and Nick Guy at Radio New Zealand Sound Archives/Nga Taonga Korero for providing the recordings itemised here.



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