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Music / Flanders and Swann

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Michael Flanders (left) and Donald Swann (right).

The purpose of satire, it has been rightly said, is to strip away the blanket of comforting illusion and cozy half-truth with which we surround ourselves. And our job, as I see it, is to put it back again.
— Michael Flanders At The Drop Of Another Hat

Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, who co-wrote and performed comic songs in the 1950s and 1960s. Unusually for the time neither performer stood during their shows, Swann being seated at the piano and Flanders confined to a wheelchair by polio (contracted in service during World War 2).

The two began their musical careers together at school but were drawn apart on the outbreak of the war. A chance meeting in 1948 led them to begin writing comic songs for other performers to sing before they decided to start performing for themselves in a show titled At The Drop Of A Hat. After touring worldwide they returned to Britain to open their new show At The Drop Of Another Hat and recorded a number of songs not heard in either show.

In 1967 they ceased touring together but remained friends until Flanders' death in 1975.


Their works provide examples of:

  • Audience Participation: "The Hippopotamus"
    Flanders: And tonight, by way of encouragement attendants will be passing among you. With rawhide whips.
  • Baths Are Fun: "In the Bath"
    Then there comes that dreadful moment, when the water's running cold.
    When the soap is lost for ever, and you're feeling tired and old.
    It's time to pull the plug out, time to mop the bathroom floor.
    The towel is in the cupboard; and the cupboard is NEXT DOOR!
    It's started running hot, let's have another hour or more.
  • Bilingual Bonus: "Je suis le Tenebreux" sung by Swann, is a genuinely moving French poem set to music with none of the comedy that the performance implied from the reaction to the line "I think translation rather spoils it."
  • "Blind Idiot" Translation:
    • "La Belle Dame sans Merci" - The beautiful lady who never says thank you.
    • Just after Flanders has emphasised that the song "Vanessa" is in no way autobiographical:
      It says "mf" at the top of the music. This doesn't stand for Michael Flanders. It is a musical indication, and it means the song should be sung "mit feeling".
  • But Liquor Is Quicker: "Madeira M'Dear" is built around this trope.
    Unaware of the wiles of the snake in the grass,
    Of the fate of the maiden who topes,
    She lowered her standards by raising her glass,
    Her courage, her eyes, and his hopes.
  • The Casanova: The man in "Madeira M'Dear" is a Casanova Wannabe at minimum, is described as "no stranger to vice", and when he scents success, secretly carves "one more notch/On the butt of his gold-handled cane", so he presumably has a record of success. However, he apparently employs booze rather than charm or looks for this purpose.
  • Dreadful Musician: Spoofed in "A Song of Patriotic Prejudice", which contains the line "he sings far too loud, far too often, and flat", and the music suddenly changes to a flatter key.
  • Fear Song: "The Spider Song" is about an arachnophobic man who's afraid to shave because there's a spider in the bath.
  • Here We Go Again!: "The Gasman Cometh", "A Song of the Weather", and "There's a Hole in my Budget".
  • His Name Really Is "Barkeep": From "Greensleeves":
    He sent for a playwright friend of his and he said to him "Look, kid.." (audience laughs) That was his name: Kyd.
  • The Ingenue: The young lady in "Madeira M'Dear" is evidently an ingenue.
    She was young, she was pure
    She was new, she was nice
    She was fair, she was sweet seventeen...
  • Insane Troll Logic: Parodying Neo-Luddites and their attitudes, Flanders said "If God had intended us to fly, He would never have given us the railways."
  • Job Song: "The Gasman Cometh" is a song about a whole series of tradesmen visiting the house of the singer to repair the previous one's damage, inadvertently causing damage themselves.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: The title character of "The Ostrich".
  • Least Rhymable Word:
    We were never able to come up with a rhyme for "Khrushchev" until he'd gone: "Did he fall, or was he pusch off?"
  • Life of the Party: "Twice Shy"
    When it's Ladies' Night at the Carlton Club,
    And a young woman comes in.
    Smoking a six-inch Burma cheroot,
    And playing a violin.
  • Listing Cities: "Slow Train", which specifically lists British communities whose rail services and lines had been closed by the Beeching Axe starting in 1963, to cut the heavy financial losses incurred by the UK's railways.
  • Multipurpose Monocultured Crop: "The Wompom" is about the world's most miraculous, all-purpose plant: not exactly an animal, but certainly more than a mere vegetable.
  • Napoleon Delusion: one of several psychiatric conditions the title animal feigns in "The Elephant".
  • Ostrich Head Hiding: The chorus of "The Ostrich".
  • Overly Long Gag: "In the Desert" and "Kokoraki"
    Swann: I omitted eight verses!
  • Parking Problems: "Parking the Car" is about this. "You feel like Noah in the ark/Afloat o'er what is now Iraq/Trying to find/A place to park."
  • Patriotic Fervour: "A Song of Patriotic Prejudice" is a semi-Affectionate Parody of the mindset.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: The last line of "The Ostrich".
    Flanders: Here in this nuclear testing ground is no place. To. Bury. Your. Head.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: In At The Drop of a Hat, Flanders introduces the song "The Gnu" with one of these concerning a car with the registration number GNU 655. Apart from containing the word "Gnu", it has nothing to do with the song, as Flanders happily lampshades.
  • Spiders Are Scary: "The Spider" is from the perspective of a man who has defeated all manner of large predators, but is petrified by "the spider in the bath."
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: "Misalliance" (The tragic tale of the right-handed Honeysuckle and the left-handed Bindweed.)
  • Thrifty Scot: Possibly the least insulting stereotype used in "A Song of Patriotic Prejudice" (although the word they use is 'mean').
  • Translation: "Yes": "Songs For Our Time"
  • Trial by Ordeal: "Bring Back The Birch". The song was a satire on people who (when the song was written) wanted to bring back corporal punishment and hanging, and depicted people in previous historical eras wanting to bring back even older forms of punishment.
Bring back the knout,
bring back impaling,
jus primae noctis and trial by ordeal...
  • Unable to Support a Wife: The singer in "The Youth of the Heart" wouldn't marry his sweetheart until he'd earned enough to support her... by which time, she'd married someone else.
  • The Unintelligible: On waiting for a plane:
    Finally, you hear a voice through the loudspeaker saying (unintelligible gibberish); so you do that.
  • Vanity License Plate: In "Sounding Brass":
    My car registration number's 1111 VIP.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: "Greenſleeves".
    At the bottom were several rows of very square but highly illuminated notes, and at the top it said: "Greenſleeves". Kyd looked at it and thought: it's a pretty unlikely title, for a ſong.