"J.B. Priestley's "The Good Companions" is the perfect novel for the deck chair on the beach, the punt in the backwater, the railway train, the wherry on the Broads and the shade of the vicarage mulberry tree. 'Jolly' is the only epithet for a work that goes as gaily as Inigo's song 'Slippin' Round the Corner."
On 30 July 1929 the above review of Priestley's third novel appeared in The Times. Since then worldwide sales of the book have approached one million copies.
Two years later on 14 May 1931, J. B. Priestley's and Edward Knoblock's stage adaptation of the novel opened at what was then His Majesty's Theatre, London. It ran for nine months, with Edward Chapman, Edith Sharpe and John Gielgud in the cast.
Another two years passed and a successful film of the play had its Royal Premiere at the New Victoria before King George V and Queen Mary on 28 February 1933. A second film of "The Good Companions" was shown in 1957.
On Thursday 11 July 1974 Ronald Harwood's adaptation of "The Good Companions" with music by Andre Previn and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, was first performed at Her Majesty's Theatre, London.
The musical begins with what looks like the last performance, of a touring concert party named 'The Dinky Doos' who are stranded in Rawsley because their manager has absconded with the takings and the lady pianist. They are joined by a Mr Jess Oakroyd (John Mills) from Bruddersford, who has turned his back on a shrewish wife. This clothcapped aimiable working man is a salt-of-the-earth Yorkshireman who finds it all 'nowt but a queer do' yet he endears himself by giving snippets of homespun advice. He is enrolled as stage carpenter, props and baggage man and odd-job man.
Miss Elizabeth Trant (Judi Dench) from Hitherton-on-the-Wole is the real salvation of the concert party. She has come into a small fortune and wishes to escape from an uneventful rustic life in the Cotswolds with its middle-class restrictions. In FOOTLOOSE she happily celebrates her freedom.
Mr Inigo Jollifant (Christopher Gable) is the tousled twenty-six year old ex-schoolmaster from East Anglia. He has recently been sacked from Washbury Manor School. His hobby is playing catchy tunes at the piano especially late at night and this practice has led to the headmaster's wife calling for his instant dismissal. Inigo becomes the concert party's pianist and later will contribute songs which rejuvenate the group. On his travels he meets up with Morton Mitcham (Malcolm Rennie), an itinerant banjo player and conjurer, who 'looks like somebody very grand and important who's all gone to seed.' THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY is the happy song they sing together on their way to Rawsley.
Miss Trant's money solves the immediate difficulties of 'The Dinky Doos' and as she makes the transition from maidenly shyness to managerial authority she encourages the troupe to change its name to 'The Good Companions.' Other members of 'The Good Companions' are Jimmy Nunn (Roy Sampson), Mrs Joe Brundit (Hope Jackman), Mr Joe Brundit (Bernard Martin), Elsie Longstaff (Jeannie Harris), Jerry Jerningham (Ray C. Davis) and Susie Dean (Marti Webb).
Susie Dean is a young girl with a merry face, the comedienne and 'baby' of the show. She has 'Show-biz' in her blood as she explains in the rousing STAGE STRUCK.
In the haunting and unusual THE DANCE OF LIFE Miss Trant muses on the mysteriousness, excitement and unpredictability of life. Act I ends with Inigo and Mitcham leading the company in their theme song GOOD COMPANIONS.
SLIPPIN' AROUND THE CORNER is one of the songs which will eventually make Inigo Jollifant's fortune. Jerry Jerningham is the first to sing and dance to this 'impudent and delicious little tune.'
An hilarious scene follows when three concert troupes dressed alike, and singing the stirring A LITTLE TRAVELLING MUSIC, encounter each other while changing trains on Crewe Station.
The Good Companions go on tour and meet setbacks by the seaside but Miss Trant reminds herself that it's always DARKEST BEFORE THE DAWN. They survive to play the Sandybay Pavilion because thundery weather encourages the public to take shelter in the theatre. Inigo wonders if he and Susie will share their future together as they sing SUSIE FOR EVERYBODY. Susie remains coy. Inigo, unknown, to Susie, then visits the wonderland of a big music publisher, strikes a good deal for his songs and as part of the contract pursuades a big impresario to go and see The Good Companions and especially Susie in Sandybay.
Meanwhile Jess Oakroyd sings the gentle TA,LUV to cheer up Susie, who misses Inigo, on her Birthday Benefit night. Inigo comes back with the good news that he has sold his songs and that the impresario is coming to see them. Susie, Jerry and Inigo then get together and elegantly dance the optimistic I'LL TELL THE WORLD as they suddenly realise themselves capable of making the 'big time.'
Despite 'toughs' in the audience spoiling the end of the show, it does not prevent the impresario from knowing talent when he sees it; he books Susie and Jerry for his new revue. Through his influence the remaining Good Companions secure Number One dates in high class towns like Bournemouth.
Finally, we see Miss Trant marrying her solicitor, Hugh McFarlane, Susie being wafted away to West End fame, Inigo going on to make a fortune from his music and Mr Jess Oakroyd, erect in his buttoned suit with his flat cap dead centre
and probably still convinced that it is all a'reet rum do' setting off to visit his beloved daughter in Pittford Falls, Ontario, Canada.
ANDRE PREVIN and JOHNNY MERCER
Johnny Mercer, who wrote the lyrics for the musical version of the "The Good Companions," has known J. B. Priestley's novel for more than forty years. He bought the book when it was first published and gave a copy to his girlfriend. Her uncle told her that it was safe to go out with a man who liked a book like that. "I owe a lot to Jack Priestley," says Johnny-the girlfriend is now his wife, Ginger. They have one daughter, one son and two grandchildren.
The composer of the music for "The Good Companions" is Andre Previn. He was a musical prodigy of 14 when he first met Johnny Mercer. It was to be many years before they decided to work together. Previn had wanted to do a musical version of "Little Women" until Mercer said, "There's this book I've loved all my life..." Eighteen months later the Previn-Mercer partnership had created over twenty numbers for "The Good Companions".
Johnny Mercer recalls how difficult it was for Andre Previn, who since 1968 has been the Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, to find time to compose the music. Eventually, Mercer got him to play the melodies on the piano and record them on cassettes. Then Previn sent them to the States where Johnny received them with enthusiasm. He -knew the book so well that as he puts it, "The lyrics kept bursting out of me."
Mercer's lyrics are probably known to more people than any light poet either past or present. He estimates that he has had about 900 songs published and has written about 1300. They include such all-time hits as 'Lazy Bones, "Blues In The Night,' 'Laura,' 'Goody-Goody,' 'That Old Black Magic,' 'One For My Baby,' and 'Jeepers Creepers'. For 'Moon River' and 'Days of Wine and Roses' he won Academy Awards. He has worked with famous composers like Jerome Kern, Henry Mancini, Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Warren and Harold Arlen. 'I'm An Old Cowhand,"Something's Gotta Give' and 'Dream' are examples of songs for which Mercer has written his own melodies.
Andre Previn, Johnny Mercer's latest collaborator, has enjoyed a fascinating and varied career. He is one of those rare musicians capable of working convincingly in widely differing spheres of music, whether as conductor, pianist composer or arranger. Born in Berlin, where he studied at the Conservatory, Previn moved with his family to the United States in 1939. At the age of 16 he joined the music department of MGM Studios. He was to write the scores for over 50 films and win the Academy Award four times. He was therefore in at the last gasp of the old lavish-spending Hollywood. At this time he also formed a jazz trio and soon began to make hit jazz records. In 1969 he wrote the additional songs for the film version of "Paint Your Wagon" and continued his partnership with Alan Jay Lerner in writing the Broadway musical "Coco".
For the past few years Andre Previn has made numerous concert tours as conductor and pianist. Many of his recordings include works by British composers such as Vaughan Williams, Walton and Britten. His home is in Surrey, where he lives with his wife, the actress Mia Farrow, and their twin sons Matthew and Sacha, their daughter Lark and their youngest son Fletcher.
He says, "I don't see myself moving from England. I've travelled everywhere but I am happy in England."
The appealing songs that Andre Previn and Johnny Mercer have written for "The Good Companions" prove that they are completely in sympathy with J. B. Priestley's very English characters. Their songs are sung by "sweet responsible people who are determined to make it through the bad times." As Johnny says, "You never know, there might be a message in it for today."
notes from CHAPPELL-Vocal Selections-The GOOD COMPANIONS- ,1974,London