News Column

At turn of the century, Biggin Hill was a very hip music hub

August 29, 2013


It was a great privilege to be invited to the Musical Salute To The Few at Biggin Hill Airfield on August 16 and, on stage, give a brief synopsis on the history of this renowned fighter station.

The concert that followed was a stirring event. The actor Martin Shaw in his own inimitable way described how, in the blue skies of a late English summer, history's first great air battle was fought. Images of The Few on a giant screen accompanied the music.

Throughout I was repeatedly asked if this was the first occasion a concert of this importance had taken place at Biggin Hill Airfield.

The answer was "no". The makeshift theatre at the station was in regular use during the war with such famous guests as the Andrews Sisters, Vera Lynn and the RAF Gang Show.

Tony Hancock made his theatrical debut in a show at Biggin Hill and a galaxy of screen stars such as Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Jack Warner were frequent visitors.

After the war there were regular "hangar dances" and it is not hard to imagine (almost hear) the music of Glen Miller, Irving Berlin, Myra Hess and Vera Lynn bouncing across the airfield on a winter's night, right up until the year the RAF left the site.

MANY years before the age of hangar dances and even wartime concerts, there appeared at Biggin Hill a talented opera singer called Madame Clara Novello Davies. She was the founder and conductor of the Royal Welsh Ladies Choir and had moved from Cardiff to Biggin Hill in order to establish an open-air singing colony.

She found that the altitude (700 feet above sea level), the peacefulness and the fresh air had "wonderful properties for improving voice production".

Her son, David Ivor Davies, accompanied his mother and the girls, and made a home for himself in a Romany caravan situated in the grounds of his mother's bungalow. While there in 1915, he composed a song that we all sing today - Keep The Home Fires Burning. He later changed his name to Ivor Novello and the song, as we know, brought him fame and fortune.

David, or Ivor, went on to work in collaboration with Jerome Kern and other well-known composers.

He wrote the music for Careless Rapture, King's Rhapsody, Glamorous Nights and We'll Gather Lilacs. He produced many musicals including The Dancing Years. By the time he died in March, 1951, aged just 58, he was considered Britain's greatest genius of the musical stage.

To my great surprise I received a letter this week from James Hay, a concert singer and actor, who will be taking a show about Ivor and the girls of the Biggin Hill singing colony on a short tour of England.

He is a devotee of his music and has been playing and singing it since childhood.

Mr Hay, who lives in south London, tells me that his grandmother was only 18 when she had lessons with Ivor's mother, Clara Novello Davies.

"Ivor was 16 at the time and accompanist for the choir that my grandmother joined later, just before her marriage," he wrote.

"Had she waited to marry, she would have gone with the ladies choir to Chicago.

"I was at the Ivor Novello prom last year and there is a new interest in his work for the theatre and music. The cast of my touring party consists of stars from Friday Night Is Music Night."

The show is called With A Song In My Heart. There will be a performance at the United Reform Church, Widmore Road, Bromley, on September 21 at 3pm, when Marilyn Hill-Smith will be singing songs by Ivor Novello.

There were more than 150 performers from the Central Band of the Royal Air Force at Biggin Hill on August 16 and it was billed as the first open-air concert at the famous airfield.

That may be true - but it is worth remembering that almost 100 years ago, and not far away, Madame Clara and the girls of the Royal Wesh Singing Colony were, as they describe in this leaflet (left), "putting the beaks of the Kentish nightingales sadly out of joint".

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