‘Can I do you now, Sir?’ This expression has gone into many books of modern quotations? And alongside it will be 'After you, Claude - no, After you Cecil'’ and ‘Going down now, Sir.’
Tommy Handley last presented ITMA (It’s That Man Again) on 6 January 1949; three days later he was dead. The radio show had survived the war years with its fast, zany and extremely funny sense of humour that had appealed to everyone but particularly to servicemen and women. I can remember my father, a former Sapper, eulogising about it. In fact, I lent him a BBC cassette tape of four episodes - and it disappeared from sight until I sorted out his effects shortly after his death.
But what has all this got to do with Geoffrey Bush? Well it has all to do with that other sometime comedian, actor and scriptwriter Bill Shakespeare. Remember the words from Hamlet, ‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.’ Yorick, whose skull Hamlet is holding, was his father's jester.
Bush had been commissioned to write a piece for the National Association of Boys Clubs in memory of their late patron who happened to be Tommy Handley. And he was struggling to make a connection when he thought of these words. The parallel of Tommy Handley and the dead jester was apposite, especially when Hamlet’s thoughts about Yorick’s ‘flashes of merriment that was wont to set the table on a roar.’
The Overture, Yorick is a well-balanced and nuanced piece. It is roughly divided into three parts, the outer sections ‘with the customary statement, development and recapitulation of two themes’ paints a portrait of the hilarious side of Tommy Handley’s nature. However, the lovely wistful middle section is a funeral elegy for the departed comic. Bush nods to Prokofiev in this work – including an allusion to Peter and the Wolf.
The first performance was at the Albert Hall where it should have been a huge success. But the ‘student orchestra’, the ‘New Philharmonic’, was hardly up to scratch. A contemporary reviewer noted that ‘…the players were insufficiently sure of themselves to give Geoffrey Bush’s … overture the sparkle it needed.’ However he recognised the potential of this work and concluded that Yorick is ‘a deft and ingenious little piece which young people of all ages could enjoy without any kind of effort.’ TTFN!
Geoffrey Bush’s Overture: Yorick is available on Lyrita SRCD.252. It can also be heard on YouTube. The New Philharmonia Orchestra is conducted by Vernon Handley.