Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Jack Strachey: Top of the Bill

It is fair to say that Jack Strachey’s (1894-1972) best known songs are the ubiquitous These Foolish Things and A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. These are tunes that have been heard in many incarnations – from Frank Sinatra through to Reginald Dixon on the Tower Ballroom at Blackpool. Yet his most popular piece of light music is undoubtedly the catchy In Party Mood which was to be the signature tune for the BBC Radio Programme Housewife’s Choice and is a tune one still hears people whistle in the street.
Strachey has written a number of pieces associated with the theatre – Theatre Land, Up with the Curtain and Top of the Bill. All these evoke a time when the theatre had much more variety than is common nowadays. Naturally one tends to think of London in this context, yet this piece evokes memories of provincial theatres as well as the West End.
Top of the Bill is a fine march which nods towards a dancing quickstep. From opening bars it is a work that could easily have come from the pen of Eric Coates. Strachey is able to create an atmosphere that is redolent of the smoke-filled theatres of a previous generation. It is easy to imagine the audience arriving outside the theatre on a dark winter’s night and settling down in the auditorium to a night of variety at the Palladium or the Carlton Theatre where some big-named star would follow a feast of dancing, songs, acrobatics and comedy. There is a feeling of excitement and expectation from the first bar to the last.
The piece opens with a short fanfare-like introduction that leads by way of a bridge passage to the main theme. This is really a march tune that is jaunty and has an open-air feel to it. The music swings along with one or two oblique modulations which add variety. There is a short link to the second theme which is really a quick-step. This music is repeated a number of times before the march return, this time a little less exuberant. Yet this mood is to held long, the March tune reappears with bouncy and exuberance before the work concludes all too soon with a little coda. As the piece heads towards its short coda a number of counter melodies can be heard.
The piece was probably composed in the late nineteen-forties, although the present recording was made in 1950.
Jack Strachey’s Top of the Bill can be heard on Dutton Vocalion The Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra Volume 2 CDEA 6061

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