Flanagan & Allen Biography

Bud Flanagan (Reuben Weintrop [Robert Winthrop], 14 October 1896, Whitechapel, London, England, d. 20 October 1968, Kingston, Surrey, England) and Chesney Allen (b. William Ernest Allen, 5 April 1896, London, England, d. 13 November 1982, Midhurst, Sussex, England). One of Britain’s best-loved comedy-singing duos during their heyday in the 30s and 40s. Allen was the straight man, with a neat, well tailored image complete with trilby, while comedian Flanagan wore a voluminous mangy fur coat and a battered straw hat. The son of Jewish refugees from Poland, Flanagan took a job as a call boy at the Cambridge Music Hall when he was 10, and made his first stage appearance at the London Music Hall - as conjuror Fargo, the Boy Wizard - in 1908. After winning singing competitions sponsored by the popular musical hall artist Dora Lyric, Flanagan made up his young mind to run away to America, and, at the age of 14, found himself washing dishes in the galley of the S.S. Majestic bound for New York. Once there, he worked as a Western Union messenger, newspaper vendor, and prizefighter (billed as ‘Luke McGlook from England’), before forming a vaudeville double act with Dale Burgess. They toured the USA, and appeared in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, before Flanagan returned to England just after the outbreak of World War I, and enlisted in the Royal Artillery. Posted to Northern France, where he first met Chesney Allen briefly, he took his future stage name from a particularly obnoxious, anti-Semitic Sergeant-Major Flanagan. After his release in 1919, he worked with various stage partners and was a taxi driver for a spell in the early 20s, before taking over from Stan Stanford as Chesney Allen’s partner in Florrie Forde’s revue and pantomime company in 1924.

Allen, whose father was a master builder, had been articled to a solicitor before opting for a stage career. As well as performing in Forde’s shows, he was also her manager. When Forde decided to retire, Flanagan and Allen’s first inclination was to follow their main interest and start up as bookmakers, but they accepted D.J. Clarke’s offer of a week in variety at the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead, in January 1931. Their performances were so well received, especially their rendering of Flanagan’s composition, ‘Underneath The Arches’, that they were swiftly booked for the Holborn Empire and the London Palladium. Flanagan and Allen also appeared at the Palladium in their first Royal Variety Performance in 1932. Flanagan’s impulsive appeal for ‘three cheers’ for their majesties King George V and Queen Mary at the end of the show, marked the beginning of his long reign as an affectionately regarded ‘court jester’. Also on the bill that year were the comic duo, Nervo And Knox, and that pair’s subsequent appearances with Flanagan And Allen, Eddie Gray, Caryll And Mundy, and Naughton And Gold in the Palladium’s Crazy Month revues, saw the birth of the legendary Crazy Gang. The team was reduced to seven after Billy Caryll lost a leg and died. In the 30s, as well as touring in variety and appearing together in their own shows such as Give Me A Ring, Happy Returns, Life Begins At Oxford Circus, and Swing Is In The Air, Flanagan And Allen were part of the Crazy Gang (although in most cases the artists were each billed separately) in popular revues such as Round About Regent Street, O-Kay For Sound, London Rhapsody, These Foolish Things, and The Little Dog Laughed (1939). During World War II Flanagan And Allen entertained the troops with ENSA, and were seen in the revues Top Of The World, Black Vanities and Hi-Di-Hi. They also starred in a series of comedy films - sprinkled occasionally with songs - which had begun in the 30s with A Fire Has Been Arranged, Underneath The Arches, Okay For Sound, Alf’s Button Afloat, and The Frozen Limit, and continued in the early 40s with Gasbags, We’ll Smile Again, Theatre Royal, Here Comes The Sun, and Dreaming (1944).

Chesney Allen’s ill health brought the illustrious partnership to an end in 1946, and in the same year Flanagan appeared in Robert Nesbitt’s revue, The Night And The Laughter, before rejoining the re-formed Crazy Gang in 1947 for Together Again at the Victoria Palace. It ran for more than two years, and similar productions such as Knights Of Madness, Ring Out The Bells, Jokers Wild, These Foolish Kings, and Clown Jewels (1959), also enjoyed extended stays, keeping the same theatre fully occupied during the 50s. In the latter show, Flanagan introduced Ralph Reader’s ‘Strollin’’, a perfect addition to the catalogue of songs indelibly identified with Flanagan And Allen, which included ‘The Umbrella Man’, ‘Run, Rabbit, Run’, ‘Home Town’, ‘Hey, Neighbour’, ‘We’re Gonna Hang Out The Washing On The Siegfried Line’, ‘Dreaming’, ‘Forget-Me-Not Lane’, ‘Music, Maestro, Please’, ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones’ ‘On The Outside Looking In’, ‘The Oi Song’, and, of course, ‘Underneath The Arches’.

Flanagan received the OBE in 1959, and after the Crazy Gang’s farewell show, Young In Heart, closed in 1962, he concentrated mainly on his bookmaking and other business interests. However, in 1968 he was persuaded to sing Jimmy Perry and Derek Taverner’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr. Hitler’ to be used over the opening titles of the brand new television comedy series, Dad’s Army. Although he died just a few weeks after the first show was transmitted, his voice is still heard in re-runs. Following his early retirement from the stage, Chesney Allen became the managing director of a theatrical and variety agency, and was the Crazy Gang’s manager for a time. He joined Flanagan for two more films, Life Is A Circus and Dunkirk, in 1958, and made a nostalgic appearance at the 1980 Royal Variety Performance. He also took part in the cast recording of Underneath The Arches, a celebration of Flanagan And Allen, starring Roy Hudd (as Flanagan) and Christopher Timothy (as Allen), which played at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre in 1982.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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