Half a Sixpence was one of Britain’s big home-grown musicals of the 1960s. It ran for two years, went to Broadway and introduced theatregoers to the phrase Flash Bang Wallop. After that, the show virtually disappeared. Now the lauded theatre producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh has commissioned a new version from the writing team Stiles and Drewe. Can they perform the same magic they did with their stage adaptation of Mary Poppins?
George Stiles (the music man) and Anthony Drewe (words) first met Sir Cameron in 1985. They were winners of the now defunct Vivian Ellis Prize, which for 15 years tried to discover new writers of stage-musicals in Britain.
Stiles recalls it as a crucial day in their career. “Not just because it introduced us to Cameron, with whom we’ve worked intermittently ever since. But we also met the songwriter David Heneker, who was already in his mid-80s and was one of the judges,” Stiles says.
“David isn’t much remembered now, but in 1963 he’d had a massive hit in London with Half a Sixpence. It was a vehicle for Tommy Steele at his peak as a star.”
The show’s big comedy number Flash Bang Wallop became a chart hit.
Drewe recalls a sort of pen-pal correspondence developing.
“We communicated pretty regularly with David in Ireland, and he was wonderful and inspiring about writing musicals. He kept working at an age when most people have retired, but Half a Sixpence was always his biggest show. And now we’re reinventing it for a new audience.”
In 2004, Stiles and Drewe teamed up with Sir Cameron when he commissioned them to rewrite Disney’s Mary Poppins for the stage, adding new numbers and adapting the original score. It’s been a hit around the world.
Stiles says the idea of taking the same approach with Half a Sixpence came soon afterwards. “But it’s taken a long time to get it together,” he says.
“Every now and then we’ve been working with Cameron, and he’ll say, ‘What we need, dear, is a song like Flash Bang Wallop’. So clearly it’s been in the back of his mind.’
The show was based on HG Wells’s 1905 novel Kipps. Set in Kent, it combines a love story with social comment as Arthur Kipps’s life changes dramatically when he inherits money.
As with Mary Poppins, the new script is the work of Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey.
Stiles says the story’s message is that happiness is a matter of the choices you make in life. “Ultimately Arthur Kipps has to make a choice between two women – and Julian has moved that crucial decision to near the end of the show.
“The characters and setting are basically the same as they were, but Julian has been smart in updating it for a modern audience.”
Stiles thinks that audience is quicker than it was. “People are happier now with timelines being compressed, and they can follow more than one narrative line simultaneously. So as writers we can demand more of people watching.”
Drewe says the new Half a Sixpence is less of a star vehicle than it was. “But that’s inevitable: Tommy Steele was a massive star in the 60s, and one reason the show has seldom been revived is that there aren’t stars like that anymore.
“Of the 17 original songs, I think Tommy Steele sang 15. In Chichester [where the show is running], we’ve got a great Kipps in Charlie Stemp, but we’re making it more an ensemble piece.”
Yet Stiles is keen to say how much he admires the David Heneker original. “As you get older and more experienced, you become aware of the great tradition you’re drawing on and what you hope to pass on yourself.
“David stood in a line descending from Gilbert and Sullivan and through songwriters like Flanders and Swann. I’d like to think Stiles and Drewe are contributing to that idiosyncratic and very British way of writing.”
Stiles and Drewe are having a busy year. They’ve already had a version at Chichester of the Graham Greene novel Travels with My Aunt. And in October, the Theatre Royal Plymouth premieres their version of Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 classic The Wind in the Willows.
Drewe says, despite the shared Edwardian origins, that show and Half a Sixpence are very different. “At university, George studied church music and that classical side has come out strongly in parts of the Wind in the Willows score.
“There are sections which are almost like Elgar, but we’re making the Wild Wooders, who are a bit rough, more like modern rockers.
“If Sixpence is about choices, Wind in the Willows is basically about friendship. Bits are very moving.” Beyond that, the duo are working on a version of the 1991 movie Soap Dish.
Three decades on from winning the inaugural Vivian Ellis Prize, Stiles and Drewe have become dominant figures in musical theatre in Britain. But are they, like so many collaborators, now happy to work together on Skype and email?
Stiles laughs. “We only really work well in the same room. Our office is a very dreary room indeed – although I have to admit it’s in a beautiful house in the south-west of France, which Anthony was clever enough to buy 12 years ago. Since then, we’ve done 80% of our work there.”
Drewe says what underlies all the work is their long-standing friendship. “It works well to go away and have intensive stints of work. George will strim the grass, and we take it in turn to cook.
“But otherwise in France we’re very strict with ourselves and spend all day writing until 17:00, when we relax a bit.
“Later on, I tend to go to bed earlier, so often George will work on alone into the late evening.
“Normally, I’ve given him the lyric first.
“So when he thinks I’m asleep, I hear him working away on the rhythm and the tune.
“Then the next morning I’ll come down and say, ‘Oh that was a fantastic thing you were playing about midnight.’
“And he’ll look at me, and normally neither of us can remember what it was.”
Half a Sixpence is playing at the Chichester Festival Theatre from 14 July.