Vintage

Comedy

British

union jack side union jack side roosters edit2

From 21st Jan 1918, they presented "Cinderella in Army Boots" in an old theatre, the Palestine Pavilion, Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem (see program, right) (a show that would be updated and re-enacted for a BBC radio broadcast in 1924). This show was still being played into February of 1918. Concerts were also given in Jordan Valley, Jericho, and Cairo. On the 8th of August 1918 the Roosters gave their 210th performance. In November 1918 the Division, including the concert party, were relocated to Alexandria to await demob, and the Roosters continued to put on shows to entertain the troops at Alexandria who were waiting to go home, including a concert on Saturday 19th January, 1919 and Tuesday 22nd, Wednesday 23rd and Friday 25th of the proceeding week (See programme, left). The concert party returned to England in March 1919 where the 60th Division was disbanded by May 1919.

It's War!

Largely forgotten now, The Roosters' Concert Party was the longest lasting and biggest impacting concert party formed during the Great War, a Party that ran for 30 continuous years, through to and beyond the Second World War from 1917 to 1947 made up of original members with a few additions.

 

Most Army Divisions had their own concert parties to entertain the troops, being made up of members of the rank and file of each Division. The 58th Division had 'The Goods', the 51st had 'The Balmorals', both the 19th and the 47th had separate concert party's called 'The Follies' and one of the most famous at the time was the 20th Divisions' 'The Very Lights'. The 60th Division actually had two official Divisional Concert Parties; ‘The Barnstormers’ and ‘The Roosters.’

 

There were in fact two concert parties by the name of The Roosters, one formed for the 4th Division and the other for the 60th Division. It is the 60th Division Roosters' Concert Party that survived the War and went on to broadcast regularly on the early separate BBC regional radio stations around the country, later the National and Regional Programmes and later still the BBC Home Service and Forces Programme, as well as touring theatres throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s.

 

This is the untold story of those pioneers of early BBC radio entertainment, so that their long service is not forgotten.

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The Officers' Mess

The Army Game

Most of the concert party were assembled from the 15th and 16th London Regiments. Amongst the initial 18 founding members from March 1917, those that would go on to spend some considerable time with the party were Privates P.H. Merriman (Percy Merriman) and W. McClellan (William Mack), both of the 15th London Regiment (Civil Service Rifles), and Sergeant A.E. Mackness (Arthur Mackness), of the 16th London Regiment (Queen’s Westminsters), who would all stay with the party till the end (although William Mack died in 1941).

 

Septimus Hunt joined in 1919 for the civilian incarnation of the concert party to play the Sergeant, he would also stay until the end in 1947. These four members being the longest served.

 

Privates W.H. Harrison (working as Charles Harrison), of the London Scottish Regiment, was also a founding member from March 1917, and Private Frederick Pain was a member from later on in 1917, both would leave in 1919 after demobilisation but return permanently (in 1930 & 1931 respectively) as replacements for George Western. These additional two make up the core 6 of the group as they were known best.

 

Rifleman George Western, having enlisted in 1915 and seen action in France, joined the Roosters in June 1917 when the concert party moved from Salonika to Egypt, and would stay on-and-off until 1929 by which time he well well established with his cousin Kenneth as The Western Brothers (with Kenneth also joining the concert party from time to time in the mid to late 1920s).

 

Other founding members from the Army troupe of 1917 were 2nd Lieutenant H.H. Warren (known as Bobby Warren), of the 17th London Regiment (Stepney “Ghurkas”),  who had formed the group and occasionally joined in the shows as a light comedian, and Rifleman Stanley T. Davis, of the London Irish Regiment. Another early member, from November 1918, was Private Gordon Marsh. All three would leave when they were demobbed in 1919 and only rejoin the troupe for one special celebration show 21 years later in 1938.

 

Those that were in the concert party in the early Army days who would not return at all during the long civilian run from 1919 include Signalman F.E. Weldon, Private W.F. Copping (who was a founding member, from the 15th London Regiment [Queen’s Westminsters]), Company Quarter Master Sergeant F.R.C. Barton (who was replaced on the piano by George Western in June 1917) from Transport, Lance Corporal Thomas Hill, Lance Corporal J. Keenan, and Rifleman Albert H. Titchmarsh (known as Titch). Private R.A. Lawrence worked the box office for the army shows.

 

During these army concerts each member performed as a regular "character" and were known by these on-stage names. Percy Merriman was 'Claude', William McClellan was 'Elsie' and Signalman Weldon was 'Stella' (the two in drag for any female roles required), William Harrison was 'Charlie' (and he kept the stage name Charles Harrison throughout the later civilian concert party days), Arthur Mackness was 'Cyril', Ernest George Western was 'George' (and again he kept that stage/middle name for his first name as a civilian performer), Gordon Marsh was 'Jack', and Stanley Davis was 'Freddy'.

 

The Roosters turns were; Stanley Davis, London Irish and proud of it, a bright light comedian in the George Lashwood manner ; Arthur Mackness, tenor and also an excellent light comedian, who played the part of the officer in many sketches ; W.F. Copping, baritone, and who added to his gifts a happy turn for eccentric character comedy ; Charles Harrison, of the rubber face, tremendously popular with the lads and a first-class party comedian whose imitation of Charlie Chaplin frequently brought down the house ; Percy Merriman, wrote sketches and also did tense monologues and Dickens character sketches on topical squibs ; William Mack, who burlesqued the part of one of the ladies and had a capital soprano voice, also wrote sketches. There was also Fred E. Wheldon, pianist and composer, who also played ladies, which confused the Greeks who did not know where the ladies came from! H.H. Warren also joined in shows as a light comedian, ;  finally F.R.C. Barton, who held up the piano during the performances. A likely nine!

PERCY MERRIMAN

(Private) Percival Harry Merriman was Business Manager of the Concert Party when it turned civilian. In the concert party from the very start, he was also the writer of most of the comic sketches and acted as stage manager, as well as performing his own comedy routines and songs. His stage name in the shows was "Claude". He was also occasionally billed as Producer of the radio shows in the early 20s (in the 30s John Sharman would take on the Producer responsibilities). He was also Compere in many of the shows introducing each act.

 

Percy was born in 1882 in Kentish Town to parents Harry Merriman (born 1846) and Sarah E. Merriman (born 1852). There were 8 children, of which Percy was 4th; Herbert (born 1873), Edgar (born 1876), Lilian (born 1878), Percy (born 1882), Amy (born 1884),  Stanley (born 1886), Leslie (born 1890), and Dorothy (born 1893). Percy first enlisted in the Army in 1909 at the age of 26. By the time of the April 1911 Census he had left the army and married Amy, and had a 5 month old daughter named Peggy. They had set up home at 35 Twisden Road NW5, and Percy had taken a job as a Municipal Clerk for the London County Council.

 

When the First World War broke out the first called up were previously enlisted men, of age, and Percy had already done military service and was therefore on the reserves. He entered the war in 1914 in the 15th London Regiment (Regiment Number 530462), spending 9 months in Salonika, where the Roosters were formed, and then 18 months in Palestine and Eqypt before being demobbed in 1919.

 

As well as performing with, and managing, The Roosters, Percy would occasionally perform on stage and BBC radio with his wife, Amy, throughout the 20s and 30s, as Percy & Amy Merriman, Entertainers. By this time the couple were living at 43, St. Andrew's Road, Golders Green, London N.W.11. (their son Eric Merriman, born 6th December 1924, would go on to be a comedy scriptwriter himself, penning 60s radio comedy Beyond Our Ken as well as writing for Frankie Howerd, Terry Scott, Morecambe & Wise and many other comedy stars).

 

The couple moved from Golders Green to Hampstead in 1952 where they retired.

 

Merriman was the only member to stay with the Roosters throughout from 1917 to at least 1953, with all the other original members retiring 6 years earlier in 1947.

 

In August 1964 Percy Merriman appeared on BBC Radio's 'Desert Island Discs', in which he would choose a few of his old Concert Party's comedy records amongst other pieces and talk about the Concert days. Unfortunately only a 3 1/2-minute excerpt survives from this edition of Desert Island Discs. He died two years later in 1966 at the age of 84.

 

ARTHUR MACKNESS

Arthur Ewart Mackness was born on 6th December 1892. He was living at 104 Fawn Brake Avenue, Herne Hill when he signed up for the war on 4th December 1915, 2 days short of his 23 birthday, joining the 16th London Regiment (Regiment Number 552162) and quickly attained the rank of Acting Corporal. He joined the Roosters upon formation on 28th March 1917 and was the concert party's Tenor singer. His stagename in the shows was "Cyril". He left the army at the end of the Great War with the Victory medal and British medal, but not the Star medal as he only saw service from the end of 1915. Mackness would be one of the mainstays of the Concert Party throughout the BBC years and died aged 85 in Newton Abbott, Devon, in March 1978.

 

FREDERICK PAIN

(Private) Frederick C. Pain first saw service in France, where he arrived on 17th March 1915. He was in the 15th London Regiment (Regiment Number 530882), and joined the Roosters in late 1917, around the same time as George Western, in time for the Cinderella panto in Palestine. He played the pianoforte for the concerts. He was demobilised on 18th February 1919, about a month before most of the rest of the concert party who arrived back in England in March, and some were still in until May 1919. Like George Western he left with the three service medals; Victory medal, British medal, and 1915 Star medal (commonly referred to as Pip, Squeak, and Wilfrid). That was it as a Rooster until around 1930 when George Western left the gang to work on his act with Kenneth, and the Roosters looked around for old party members to fill the gap. He performed with the Roosters from at least 2nd August 1930 and stayed with them through the Second World War. I’ve yet to track down details of his birth and death.

 

H. H. WARREN

Halcombe Hatfield Warren was born on 4th November 1894 in Hackney. He went to Wilton Road School, Hackney and on leaving school was a ledger clerk at 16 before deciding to become a career soldier, and was 2nd Lieutenant in the 2nd/17th London Regiment and was instrumental in forming the Roosters Concert Party at the instruction of Camp Commandant of Somerhill Captain Roose. H.H. Warren, known to the lads as Robert Warren, also took part in the shows for a while, his stage name being 'Algy'. On the day war ended, 11th November 1918, he was seconded to the newly reorganised Royal Air Force (which had been formed in April that year out of the merger of the old Royal Flying Corp and the Royal Naval Air Service), where he stayed until 1923. He married a woman named Norah and by 1932 was living at 40 Hervey Close, Finchley. In 1938, as part of 'The Roosters Come of Age' BBC celebration broadcast he appeared with the Roosters for the first time since the war, reminiscing about the party's formation. He died in Stevenage in March 1977 at the age of 82 and is buried in Durrington Cemetry, Findon Road, Worthing.

 

GORDON MARSH

(Sergeant) Gordon Marsh had been in the Redhill Concert Party prior to the First World War until 1914 when he enlisted in the Queen's Westminster Rifles when the War broke out. He soon rose to Sergeant-instructor in rifle shooting before being drafted to Palestine with the 60th Division, in time for the Battle of Jerusalem (at which the then Concert Party members were present and fought), being present when T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) broke through the Arab lines. It was whilst in hospital in Alexandria in November 1918 with a wounded foot that Gordon Marsh met up with the Roosters Concert Party and became a member, doing a double-act with George Western. After the War and demobilisation, Marsh went off to start his own concert party called the London Concert Party then later in the 1930s 'the Marshmellows' concert party. He was not a part of the BBC Roosters except returning along with George Western (with Kenneth), H.H. Warren and Stanley Davis, for a 1938 broadcast, 21 years after the party's formation. At the outbreak of the Second World War Marsh took his Marshmellows Concert Party on tour in France with ENSA to entertain the troops, being fortunate enough to escape just before Dunkirk. After the War he turned to supplying cabaret acts for private parties, he died on 3rd August 1982.

 

Septimus Hunt was the baritone singer, and (Private) William McClellan, adopting the stage name William Mack, was the humorist. Tracing the exact births and deaths of both has so far been fruitless, although Mack died aged 47 in June 1941.

 

GEORGE WESTERN

(Rifleman) George Western, of the 16th London Regiment, was also a member of the party from the War (from at least the Christmas panto at Jerusalem), replacing CQMS F.R.C. Barton at the piano in June 1917. When Gordon Marsh joined the concert party during November 1918 in Alexandria, Egypt, the pair worked a double-act in the shows and did duets, with George at the piano. After demobilisation in 1919 George was one of the members to stay with the Roosters, although from January 1925 George would often work away from the Roosters with his cousin Kenneth whilst still regularly taking part in Roosters' concerts as well, until he stopped performing with the Roosters altogether in 1930 to concentrate on the double-act with Kenneth which developed into The Western Brothers. The cousins would perform together as 'the Perfectly Polite Pair' or more often than not simply 'Kenneth and George Western' in the 1920s. Kenneth himself, although not a Rooster, would also perform in at least three Roosters BBC broadcasts, possibly in a bid boost public awareness of their combined act, on 28th August 1928, 08th February 1929, and 09th March 1929, the latter date being the last mention of George Western in a Roosters broadcast so possibly his last appearance with the party.

 

(For more information on George Western see 'The Western Brothers' pages of this website).

Meet the Gang...

The shows were simple, no frills, but plenty of fun. Mosquito netting would be dyed and made into passable frocks, scraps of hair from the tails of mules would turned into wigs. Part 1 of the show would be a typical pierrot entertainment and in part 2 they would break away from pierrot into burlesque.

 

Anything touching army routine would be readily welcomed by the soldier audiences, but they always maintained the proprieties, never once did the authorities tell them that the sketches were subversive of discipline, and they appealed to all ranks, which is how they managed to survive so long.

 

Shows were performed anywhere there was an audience; in camps and hospitals, a Sultan’s palace, a Turkish café in Jerusalem, a scooped-out hole in the sand beyond Jordan, and one of the happiest memories for Merriman was a show aboard the H.M.S. St. George, lying in Salonika harbour. This was arranged by H.H. Warren, hundreds of sailors were seated all around the ship and the concert party could see cigarettes burning high up in the rigging. There was a tremendous reception for the troupe and they were royally entertained in true sailor fashion. The Roosters then stayed the night on the ship before heading back to camp.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A more enthusiastic audience could hardly be found than that which listened to the Roosters in Macedonia, and, as Percy Merriman said in an interview, “everywhere the show was most tremendously welcomed. “ Above can be seen one of their typical Salonika audiences, comprising officers and men of every rank, together with a good sprinkling of nurses. This natural amphi-theatre formed a good auditorium for the show,

Grateful Audiences

Quick March!

Rehearsals at Summerhill camp were frequently disrupted by German bombers. Then came the big move, the base was to be moved from Summerhill Camp in Salonika, over the water to Egypt, exchanging fighting the Bulgars for fighting Turks, embarking in June 1917. The Roosters gave a final performance in Salonika at Dudular to the various units before leaving. By the time they left Salonika, The Roosters had given 70 performances in the four months between March and June.

 

Once in Egypt they toured the desert, giving 21 shows in 28 days. The soldiers in the concert party continued seeing military action in between the shows, including action in Palestine, during the Battle of Jerusalem in December 1917.

No-Mans-Land

After being demobilised in 1919 Stanley Davis, Gordon Marsh and many of the other early members went their own way, deciding to go home to family and jobs. For a decade so did Charles Harrison and Frederick Pain. But Percy Merriman, Arthur Mackness, William Mack and George Western decided to carry on as a civilian concert party (or 'pierrots' as seaside concert parties were known, even when not wearing pierrot costumes). Between being demobbed in March 1919 and becoming BBC broadcasters in 1923 they played at carnivals and parades each year around Armistice time, when they would join in parades and carnival marches through towns. There were at least two public performances that I have been able to trace, at the Lapford Carnival on Monday 29th November 1919 and also the Morchard Bishop Carnival on 17th November 1920. There were likely other such get-togethers from 1921-1923 also.

Storming the BBC

The civilian Roosters Concert Party made their debut broadcast on BBC radio (at that time the British Broadcasting Company) on 20th October 1923, a second broadcast followed on 15th December 1923 and the third on 3rd January 1924. At this time the Roosters were Percy Merriman, Arthur Mackness, William Mack, George Western and Septimus Hunt. From 1924 on, they became a irregular fixture on BBC radio, even being billed at public and private performances as the 'BBC Concert Party' or the '2LO Concert Party'. There was no regular 'series' in those days, the BBC would broadcast programmes as and when, the idea of regular slots for continuing series wouldn't be taken up until much later. The Roosters would broadcast on the BBC and perform live at functions every year from 1923 until 1947 uninterrupted.

 

In the early days small radio stations were dotted around the country broadcasting to a limited local area rather than to the country as a whole from Daventry as per later years, (radio then was broadcast on one-and-a-half kilowatts which gave a range of 15-20 miles from the transmitter). The stations on which the Roosters broadcast in the early days were London (Call Sign 2LO), Newcastle (5NO), Birmingham (5IT), Cardiff (5WA), Glasgow (2SC), Aberdeen (2BD), Daventry (5GB) and later Daventry 5XX.

 

The concert party would have to tour the length and breadth of the country putting on the shows for each region. For example in mid-May 1924 they broadcast an half-hour live show from the Aberdeen studio on Monday 12th, then travelled to Glasgow to broadcast an hour show the next day, Tuesday 13th, then down to Newcastle to broadcast an hour-and-a-half show there on the Wednesday, down to Manchester for a show on Thursday, on the Friday an hour-and-a-half show from Birmingham,the Saturday saw them perform from Bournemouth, and by the following Tuesday they're back up in London for a half-hour broadcast on 2LO! The weekend probably saw them do non-broadcast

About Turn!

When George left the Roosters to pursue his separate career with his cousin Kenneth, he was replaced at the pianoforte by Frederick Pain, who had been a founding member in 1917 but left when the Army Division was disbanded. Pain’s return to the concert party on radio was in August 1930, whilst from March 1931 another founder member, Charles Harrison, returned to the Roosters to fill the comedy gap left by George. The Roosters' Concert Party would then remain Arthur Mackness, Percy Merriman, William Mack, Septimus Hunt, Frederick Pain and Charles Harrison until William Mack died in June 1941. He was replaced by Louise Dare, and this configuration carried on until 1947.

The other regular member of the concert party was one of the few not in it from the early days, Albert Henry Howe, a well-known Opera singer, who became a Rooster in 1928. Prior to joining the Roosters he was half a double--act with banjo player and entertainer A.E. Nickolds as Nickolds & Howe. He was a baritone singer, pianist and entertainer, joining in the sketches. Albert Howe was born on 11th May 1888. His last performance with the Roosters was on 10th January 1931 at a live show at the Kingsway Hall which was also broadcast on the BBC National Programme. The following day, Sunday 11th, he died when he slipped off a tram on Archway Road, London and fractured his skull. He was 42 years old. That day the Roosters were doing another live show at the Lewisham Hippodrome for the National Sunday League Concert. Percy Merriman found out about the accident before the show but decided not to tell the others until after the show so as to not spoil the evenings entertainment for the public, explaining Howe's absence to the other members by saying he was ill. He told them the truth after the show.

Death of a Rooster

New Recruits

Wilfred Liddiatt was an occasional member of the Roosters, usually when other long-term members were unable to be present. He appeared occasionally in the concerts between at least 1929 and 1933. Liddiatt was a comedian and would fill in during absences of Charles Harrison and other entertainers of the party.

 

Allan Brown was an organist who played the organ at a few Roosters Concerts but also performed often away from them on other BBC broadcasts so it' appears he was just someone who occasionally joined them when an organ was needed rather than being a regular member. He appears in the occasional concert show between 1929 and 1931.

 

Louis Dare was a tenor who appeared with the Roosters infrequently from at least 1932 as a stand-in for Arthur Mackness when Arthur was unavailable, he becomes more regular later in the Thirties and a permanent regular from around 1938 when Mackness disappears from the Rooster shows. Dare was still a regular in 1942 and possibly until the original gang retied in 1947

 

Herbert Aldridge was a replacement for William Mack when Mack died in 1941. Unknown how long he stayed, possibly with them until the original gang retired in 1947.

Accident Report

On Wednesday 20th April 1932 four members of the Roosters were injured in a early morning car accident. Percy Merriman, Septimus Hunt, Charles Harrison and Frederick Pain were travelling in the car along St. James's Road, Croydon when a front tyre burst causing them to collide with a street refuge and overturn. They were taken to Croydon General Hospital and after treatment Merriman and Pain were allowed to go home, Septimus Hunt (of Agincourt Road, Hampstead) and Charles Harrison were kept in hospital due to cuts and shock. Eight days later, on Thursday 28th April, the Roosters appeared at the Albert Hall, Nottingham (playing to a large audience of 2,200 people) as arranged but Septimus Hunt and Charles Harrison had to miss the concert due to the injuries sustained in the accident of the previous week, they were still in hospital then, as announced to the audience. Robert Carr did the baritone songs that would have been performed by Septimus Hunt whilst Wilfred Liddiatt did Charles Harrison's comedy duties. Louis Dare was also present to do tenor solos that were usually the domain of Arthur Mackness who was not present at this concert for some unknown reason.

The Roosters Come Of Age

On 28th March 1938, 21 years to the day after the concert party formed, the Roosters celebrated the anniversary with a special show broadcast on the BBC National Programme. The special broadcast was titled 'The Roosters Come of Age' (21 being the age of majority in the UK).

 

The broadcast included 'the Roosters of To-day'; Arthur Mackness, Septimus Hunt, William Mack, Frederick Pain, Charles Harrison and Percy Merriman, along with 'Bygone Roosters' from the early years; Gordon Marsh, Stanley Davis, and Kenneth & George Western (even though Kenneth was only a member briefly towards the end of Georges' membership). Special 'Guests' appearing in the show included General Sir John Shea; Captain G.U.B. Roose who had provided funds and given his name; and 2nd Lieutenant H.H. Warren, who had formed the party. The show was Narrated by Captain T.C.L. Farrar and produced by John Sharman. The BBC Variety Orchestra, conducted by Charles Shadwell, provided the music, along with Reginald Foort at the B.B.C. Theatre Organ.

 

Along with performances of songs and sketches old and new, were interspersed reminiscences of the War and their active service as per regular shows.

It's War... Again!

The Roosters continued broadcasting, albeit infrequently, and doing live shows at concert halls and private functions throughout the Second World War although they were broadcasting much less regularly than in the 1920s as the BBC had formed it's own new regular concert party radio show in the early 30s called 'Radio Radiance' which introduced listeners to Tommy Handley, a rising star soon to burst to National fame with his ITMA series.

 

The concert party took part in a First World War reminiscences show on Armistice Day 1939, even though the Second World War was now under way. The show, called 'Looking Back - a collection of recollections, 1914-1918', featured stars of the First World War such as The Roosters, with the current stars of the Second World War including Jack Warner, popular at that time through his Garrison Theatre broadcasts, recalling his service in the Great War.

 

The Roosters also broadcast on the Forces Programme to entertain the serving troops at least twice in 1941 and on the General Forces Network in 1942 and 1943 (when the Americans joined the War the Forces Programme was updated to the General Forces Network to create newer programmes suitable for the American as well as the British troops).

 

The last BBC radio broadcast of The Roosters appears to be that of 28th September 1946 when they broadcast on the BBC Light Programme, the station that had been the Forces programme during the War, continued for entertainment as a civilian network afterwards. The broadcast was called ‘The Stuff They Gave the Troops’ where the Roosters performed some of the material with which they had entertained the troops through two World Wars.

 

Although the radio broadcasts became rarer after the 1938 celebration show the Roosters did continue to entertain troops and civilians in live shows that weren't broadcast, throughout the Second World War. Such performances include a gala held for blinded ex-Serviceman of Bristol, Bath and district, near Bath in 1939; a week at the Pavillion Theatre, Torquay in 1940; an open-air theatre in West Ham in 1941; and three days at the Pavillion Theatre, Torquay again, in 1944.

 

The last noted performances in the papers of the Roosters were a performance at the Church Hall, Sherborne, for ex-Servicemen of the Second World War in May 1947 and finally a show at the Princes Ballroom, Yeovil on Friday 10th November 1947, the day before Armistice Day. For details of all these broadcasts and live shows see the relevant pages accessible from the links at the top of the page.

Old Soldiers Never Die...

Despite this extremely long service record of 30 solid years The Roosters largely disappear from the news records after November 1947 with no mention of them disbanding or retiring, and no Death records in The Times except for Albert Howe in 1931, Percy Merriman in 1966, and Gordon Marsh in 1982, and George Western is covered in 'The Western Brothers' pages. I can find no record of the ultimate fate of Septimus Hunt, Frederick Pain or Charles Harrison. William Mack died in June 1941, W.F. Copping, who had been in the early War years, died in July 1938.

 

The group appears to have just retired in the late 40s, with 1947 being the last notable year of appearances. The break-up doesn’t appear to have been acrimonious, as Merriman mentions that he still meets up with some of the old gang when interviewed for the Desert Island Discs broadcast, they just seem to have decided to start enjoying retirement with the Second World War over.

 

Percy Merriman though decided to troop on with a new troupe of Roosters, with no other original members in the line-up.

 

In November 1950 the new line-up of the Roosters appeared at the Plaza Cinema in Gloucester for a Variety Bandbox-style live variety entertainment show with their “brilliant modern 1950 programme” (although the modernity of it is questionable as Merriman is still doing his Dickens sketches from the First War and the main set-piece is “The Sick Parade,” first performed on the BBC in the 1920s)!

 

Other than Merriman, the new Roosters were Will Ambro (comedian), Jack Barker (comedy and song), Will Russell (magical comedy), Edwin Spencer (baritone), and Sidney Clark at the piano.

 

The only other performance I can find for the new Roosters is three years later at the end of June 1953, when they gave a 90-minute show after a pensioners’ talent competition at the Hammersmith Town Hall. Merriman then started advertising a show called “The Roosters At Your Service” but by this time the shows were well and truly worn through long service and with new types of entertainment popular, the Roosters’ time had gone and even Merriman now appears to have accepted that it was time to surrender. There was no big farewell, and the words of the old song rang true; "Old soldiers never die, they only fade away..."

The Act

So what was the act and why did it have such a long-lasting appeal? Typical BBC Rooster shows would run something like this (depending on length of show required);

 

1. Whole company together for sketch

2. Arthur Mackness would sing his tenor song

3. Whole company in a comedy sketch

4. William Mack with a comedy song

5. George Western/Frderick Pain with humourous song at the piano

6. Percy Merriman with a comedy sketch or character studies such as Dickens which was his forte

7. Septimus Hunt in a baritone solo, or occasionally a duet with Arthur Mackness

8. Whole company in finale sketch and song and army reminiscences.

 

The whole show would have an army theme, even 20/30 years after the war, they never did standard pierrot shows. Songs were standards of the Great War, comedy sketches were about shouting sergeants, useless officers and skiving Other Ranks, the typical army humour that still rings true today.

 

The success and longevity of the act was in the desire in former soldiers, even long after the war, with many bad memories, and the loss of many friends and family, to remember the good aspects of the experience, it was usually their first and only time away from home, certainly abroad, the camaraderie and new friendships forged that would stay with the men that served for the rest of their lives. The experiences of the Great War dominated peoples opinions and daily lives forever and service numbers would remain popular for a long time. These Roosters shows would bring that all back for them. They were not sophisticated, clever, or likely particularly funny by today’s standards, but the concerts meant enough to the British public to keep a band of former soldiers performing together for three decades after the Great War.

Whither Roosters?

The Roosters' Concert Party released a series of records between 1928 and 1935 (at least 10) on the Regal and Columbia labels which were re-enactments of some of their radio and concert sketches, including some that had been performed since their formation in 1917 (although updated). Some of these rare 78s do crop up on eBay and other auctions from time to time and represent the bulk of what survives along with a few radio shows. Most of the records are typical marching and canteen songs made purely for the nostalgia of those who wanted to recapture something of the spirit of camaraderie rather than the actual comedy sketches. At least one though, Sick Parade, backed with Company Orders (Columbia DB544), gives an idea of the sort of humorous routines the concert party would perform, including their popular stage routines such as 'The Recruiting Office', albeit in highly edited shortened form to fit 78s.

 

For a list of these 78s and to hear them click on the 'Roosters on Record' page at the top of this page.

 

They also appeared in a comedy film, French Leave, in 1937, in a minor supporting role (details available on the Roosters on Film link above). This has never been released on VHS or DVD though, nor repeated on television in recent years so is not easy to track down.

 

None of the early 1920s radio performances were recorded, they went out live from various studios and concert halls so do not survive today. Some of the later shows from the Thirties and Forties may have been recorded but it is not currently known whether any survived the passage of time in the BBC archives. I am currently trying to confirm any survivals of Roosters shows from BBC archives.

 

Even photographs of the Concert Party were hard to find.

The stage play 'Oh What a Lovely War!' from Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in 1963 (based on the radio play The Long Long Trail in 1961, which was itself based on the book The Donkey's by Alan Clark) was a musical pastiche of the Great War, performed in pierrot costumes, and features many music-hall songs of the War period. The play (and the 1969 film based on it, directed by Richard Attenborough) includes a concert party called The Merry Roosters Concert Party, which would appear to be based on, and taking it's name from, the original Roosters Concert Party of 60th Division and BBC fame.

Oh What A Lovely War!

The Roosters Concert Party

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The Roosters' Concert Party first performed for an audience in Greece on 28th March 1917. Eighteen artists were selected from the troops of London Territorial Regiment, 60th Division, based at Summerhill Camp in Salonika (also written as Salonica, now Thessaloniki) at the foot of Mount Olympus, having arrived there in December 1916. Amongst the draft of 200 men who left England on the ship Viper after Christmas 1916 were Percy Merriman, William Mack and W.F. (Billy) Copping. Those three helped put on a concert in France, at Marseille, where the draft rested for the night prior to embarkation across the Mediterranean to their new base. The three men had also been in a concert party together months earlier during training at Winchester and these three formed the core of the Roosters when first formed. From Marseilles they took to sea again through the submarine-infested waters of the Mediterranean, past the Aegean islands to Salonika.

 

It was whilst the 60th Division were lying under the Thracian hills preparing to attack the Bulgars on the Vardar front that the Roosters came into being. There had been refresher courses of training and the boys were beginning to wilt, when a young officer, Lt. H.H. Warren, of the 17th London Regiment, had the idea to put on a concert in the local Church Army hut at Summerhill Camp, 4 or 5 miles outside Salonika. Warren, with the support of Captain G.U.B. Roose, a well-known Surrey wicket-keeper, inaugurated the party fund with a gift of a 100-drachma note (£5). The officers then sought out the trio (Mack, Merriman & Copping) that had put on the show at Marseille, added to their number, and after a few alarms and excursions, mad dashes to Salonika for odds and ends, and more or less feverish rehearsals around a piano and hurried penmanship from the more artistic members of the concern, a “scratch”show was announced in the Y.M.C.A. marquee for 28th March 1917. After the show Captain Roose came dashing round and said excitedly “You fellows must never separate, a marvellous show.”

 

At first they called themselves The Rooseters after the Captain, but getting fed up of being told they couldn't spell they soon dropped the first 'e'.

 

The party was then put on more or less perfunctory duties in and around the camp, which left them free to get the show ship-shape. Success continued and requests came in from local hospitals and various units, and the Roosters were soon on the road, touring local camps in an army lorry. The show was always welcomed as there was no other entertainment in the area.

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Rare photos of the original gang as formed, below; Standing at the back left is Lance Corporal Thomas Hill, the stage manager, whilst standing to the back right is Lance Corporal J. Keenan, the property master. Seated, from left to right, are; Stanley Davis, W.F. Copping, William Mack, H.H. Warren, F.E. Wheldon, Percy Merriman, F.R.C. Barton, Arthur Mackness and Charles Harrison. William Mack and F.E. Wheldon are the two “ladies” of the troupe, who are also photographed together in the separate picture, left.

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shows for a live audience somewhere on the way South. But touring was very much a part of concert party life, even when the BBC were able to start broadcasting to the whole country from Daventry in the late 20s the Roosters were broadcast live from various revues around the UK at Birmingham, Newcastle, Bristol etc, which then went out to a National audience. They were particularly regular on Armistice Day broadcasts, 11th November, throughout the 20s and 30s on BBC radio, when Wartime reminiscences and songs were popular.

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Roosters on TV

MAIN RUN OF ROOSTERS PERSONNEL:

(Private) Percival Harry Merriman (known as Percy Merriman) 28/03/1917 - 1953

Sketch writer, enttertainer and at various times Producer, Stage & Business Manager.

 

(Sergeant) Arthur Ewart Mackness (known as Arthur Mackness) 28/03/1917 - 1938

Tenor and entertainer

 

(Private) William McClellan (known as William Mack) 28/03/1917 - June 1941 (his death)

Humorist

 

(Civilian years only) Septimus Hunt 1919 - 1947

Baritone and entertainer

 

(Rifleman) Ernest George Western (known as George Western) June 1917 to 1930 (plus one-off on 28/03/1938)

Pianoforte and entertainer

 

(Private) Frederick C. Pain 1917 - Feb 1919, Then returned from at least 02/08/1930 - 1947 to replace George Western)

Pianoforte and entertainer

 

(Private) W.H. Harrison (known as Charlie Harrison) 28/03/1917 - 1919, Then at least 21/03/1931 - 1947

Comedian

 

EARLY PERSONNEL DURING ARMY ONLY:

(Rifleman) Stanley T. Davis 28/03/1917 - 1919 (plus one-off on 28/03/1938)

(Sergeant) Gordon Marsh Nov 1918 - 1919 (plus one-off on 28/03/1938)

(Sergeant) F.E. Weldon 1917 - 1919

(2nd Lieutenant) Halcombe Hatfield Warren (known as Robert Warren) 1917 - 1918 (plus one-off on 28/03/1938)

(Private) William F. Copping (known as Billy Copping) 1917 - 1919

(Company Quarter Master Sergeant) F.R.C. Barton 28/03/1917 – June 1917 (George Western replaced him)

(Rifleman) Albert H. Titchmarash (known as Titch) 1918 - 1919

 

LATER PERSONNEL DURING CIVILIAN YEARS ONLY:

Albert Henry Howe 1928 - 10/01/1931 (his death)

Baritone, pianist, entertainer

Died aged 42 on 11/01/1931, fractured skull from falling off tram on the Sunday on Archway Road, Highgate. Died on way to hospital).

 

Kenneth Western - at least 1928 - 1930 (plus one-off on 28/03/1938)

Entertainer

Never a full member of the Roosters, he joined his cousin George for a few Roosters concerts at end of the Twenties whilst the two also worked together as the Perfectly Polite Pair, whilst working on their own act that would go on to be the successful Western Brothers act. Neither George nor Kenneth appeared with the Roosters after 1930 except the 21st anniversary special show in 1938.

 

Allan Brown at least 1929 to at least 1931 09/03/1929, 10/01/1931 (not regular, just joins occasionally)

Organist.

Not a regular, just occasional shows when an organist was required for certain routines.

 

Wilfred Liddiatt - at least 1929 to at least 1935

Comedian.

 

Louis Dare - 1933 to at least 1942, likely on till 1947)

Tenor

Appears occasionally from around 1932 as a stand-in for Arthur Mackness when Arthur was unavailable from tenor, becomes more regular later in Thirties and permanent replacement for Mackness from around 1938.

 

Herbert Aldridge - 1941 till unknown (possibly the retirement of old gang in 1947)

Replacement for Williams Mack after Mack’s death.

Roosters Personnel

Roosters pic 1937 no text Albert Howe initial death notice roosters bbc postcard copyright

Karl Williams

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Albert H. Howe