I recently saw a recording of Kenneth Williams’ one-man-show, in which he retold an episode which occurred when he was working for ENSA (Every Night Something Awful) in Malaya.
He and the chorus boys were rehearsing “We’re The Boys Of The Service” – when the Colonel stopped them and began ranting about how the whole thing was TOO CAMP.
He demanded they change the lyric to MEN of the service.
So of course, they then all sang, “We’re the MEN of the service…” – THREE TIMES more camply than before!
The punch-line of Ken’s story was that when the number finished, the Colonel harrumphed and said, “That was better.”
This reminded me of a similar incident, involving ANOTHER Ken – Kenneth G Armstrong, our manic depressive headmaster, at Copleston High. A boys school, boasting some 550 pupils.
Back in those days (the Sixties) most schools had a thing called “Morning Assembly” which consisted of a twenty minute “service” during which we would have to recite a couple of prayers, sing a hymn and endure a sermon – which in our case, was usually delivered by the afore-mentioned bi-polar headmaster.
After this routine, Ken would do “the notes” – which was a list of the “growing practises” in the school and a description of what would happen to any boy caught indulging in them.
Anyhoo, on this particular occasion, the hymn – it being close to Christmas – was “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”. Wilfred, the arts master, lifted the lid of the piano, played the introduction and we began to sing.
However, we had only reached the end of the first line when Ken shouted, “STOP!”
Wilfred paused, his hands in mid-air – and we slithered to a discordant halt.
“I heard that!” said Ken. “Some boys were singing ‘While shepherds WASHED their SOCKS!’ – You will start again and this time, if I hear ONE BOY singing ‘washed their socks’ I will CANE the ENTIRE SCHOOL!”
He then nodded at Wilfred, who replayed the intro and 550 boys – in unison – sang “While shepherds washed their socks by night…”
I watched Ken’s face go through several shades of purple and steam begin to emanate from his ears. But he remained quiet until the hymn finished.
Then, as we stood expectantly, he harrumphed and said, “That was better.”
But being in the Third Year, I was positioned right in the middle of the boys and the first time we had sung the piece, I had not heard ANY boy singing “washed their socks” – in fact, I had never HEARD of this particular “twisted lyric” – however, I certainly heard 550 boys sing it the SECOND time!
So Ken undoubtedly heard it too – but, like the Colonel, he had painted himself into a CORNER and had no option but to LAMELY pretend to MISHEAR it.
And like us, he knew he could NEVER have caned the entire school. The logistics alone, of whacking 550 boys, would have been beyond him. But that would have been NOTHING compared to what the newspapers would have done to him, had he carried out his threat.
“HEADMASTER CANES 550 BOYS FOR SINGING: WHILE SHEPHERDS WASHED THEIR SOCKS!” They would have had a field day – and he would have been looking for a new job the day after!
Footnote: my friend, Little Alfie, was in my class and generally remembers these things differently from I – so if you check the “comments” to this piece, you may find an ALTERNATIVE version of these events!