The most erudite segment of the long-running 1950s two-man show "At the Drop of a Hat" was a fanciful monologue about the origin of the tune Greensleeves by Michael Flanders. This page is an annotated transcript.
Explaining jokes is the surest way of killing them, I hear you say. Well, certainly -- and I'm quite sure very few readers of this page need "tight as Andronicus" or "Angry Young Man" explained. But considering that this extremely witty monologue was intended to appeal to a culturally savvy audience of London theatregoers in the 1950s, it would hardly be surprising if a few of the puns and sly references were lost on an audience in the 21st century. Some of them are so clever that they deserve resurrection, or at least preservation in some sort of cultural formaldehyde.
Here, then, is the "Greensleeves" monlogue explained to death, in an amalgam of the version recorded for vinyl in 1957 and that recorded at the last performance at the Fortune Theatre, May 2, 1959. That recording became the 'CD version.'The Monologue
"Another splendid tune from England's great heritage of musical rhubarb. Greensleeves. A song we all know and love. Donald knows it and he hates it. It's really very interesting how that old tune -- Greensleeves -- came to be written. I'd like to tell you about it. Are you all sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.
1546 was a very bad year for the theatre. Gorbuduc  was doing poor business at the Globe. Gammer Gurton was still giving everyone the needle . Apart from "Noah's Flodde" -- on ice -- that's about all there was on. Shakespeare, of course, hadn't started yet . Not even Salad Days and The Mousetrap  were on. Dramatists just seemed to have stopped writing, and the Master of the King's Revels was getting terribly worried because he had to have a new revel on in time for Candlemas. The court had adopted a policy of presenting new plays.
So he sent for a playwright friend of his and he said to him "Look, kid.." (that was his name, Kyd). He said "How about your writing us another of your little Spanish Tragedies or something? I did so enjoy the last one." Kyd said "Well it's all very well for you, standing there, smoking that potato, telling people to write plays. It's not as easy as all that, all the best plots have been used already. Second volume of Holinshed 's not out yet. In any case, the public nowadays is only really interested in bear baiting and cock fighting. They don't give a fig for the live theatre." A very angry young man he was. Well the Master of the King's revels sort of calmed him down a bit. You know, as you do, stood him a butt of sack and so on. He said "We really must try to think of something. This is going to be rather a special occasion. We're nationalising the monasteries." He said "But if they offer you one, don't take it, because if Bloody Mary gets in they'll be de-nationalised." He said "As a matter of fact", he said, "I have an idea for you. I know I'm only a civil servant but you're most welcome to it... May I call you dost thou? Thankyou. Why dost not thou re-write Ralph Roister Doister. As a musical. Anything to stop it being done straight." Kyd thought this was an absolutely wonderful idea. He rolled about the floor like old Swann when he's seen a joke. But by this time, of course, after all this sack He was tight as Andronicus . He staggered home. He got to work on the book straight away. Got Skelton in to do the lyrics --John Skelton. Did a first-class job -- dozens of strong, point numbers. "Humpty Dumpty" -- that was one of his. Dozens more. Very funny, very strong,lovely stuff. But none of these songs seemed quite right to end the first half. Now if you're writing a musical, as I'm sure practically all of you are, that is the thing to watch out for, actually, what they call the 'first half closer'. They were going to do Ralph Roister Doister in two halves, Roister in the first half, Doister in the second half. Ralph in the interval[18a]. And as Skelton said, he was quite right, "For a first half closer, you must have a hit. a palpable hit". Well, they thought of having "Summer is a-cumin in" but this had got itself on the banned list. People had been singing cuccu rather too lewdly . So they thought "Well, what next? "There's always the Agincourt song", said Skelton, "but it's been done to death, hasnt it? All those ghastly old archers , I just can't face it. They're just not writing songs like those any more these days." Kyd said "We must be able to think of something. There must be someone, somewhere, in some squalid garrett. This chap Anon seems to be writing a lot, but nobody seems to know who his agent is. I know -- we'll have a festival. A festival of popular british plainsong."
So they announced the festival, put out a general call for new music. Dozens of songs arrived. They looked them through, played them over. There wasn't a thing. Nothing you could possibly close anything with. They sat around in the Old Bankside Theatre  getting more and more depressed and shorter and shorter of money. They pawned their doublets. Sitting around in their singlets. And those were Wolseys.
Suddenly there came the sound of a tucket without. Pausing only to pull down his singlet and tuck it within, Kyd rushed to the door, and a scroll arrived, by special Massinger . Kydd took the scroll, unrolled it -- it rolled up again, they always did. Unrolled it again -- at the bottom were several rows of very square highly illuminated notes, and at the top it said Greenfleeves. Kyd looked at it and thought "Well this is a pretty unlikely title for a fong". He handed it over to Skelton, and sat back to listen while Skelton tried it over on the virginals. After listening for a while Kyd said "All right, enough I thank you Master John. Verily, tis a passing melodious roundelay, but I doubt me an it be  commercial. Who wrote this Greenfleeves, anyway?" And a voice from the back of the auditorium shouted out "We did". So they looked out and could just make out a shadowy figure standing at the back, and they said "Well who are you?" and the figure answered -- I think this is the interesting part -- the figure answered "We are Henry VIII, we are". Well then of course they realised that Greensleeves was exactly what they wanted.
They put it in the show, and under the title of "Doxies without Smocksies ", it ran for years. As you'd expect, with royalty taking an interest. I mean, look what it did for "Cranks".In fact to this very day, in every period play you go to see, whether it be set in 1300 up to about 1715 I suppose, still for incidental music, "Greensleeves" is ALWAYS played. And the royalties go to royalty.Footnotes
1. ^ "Are you all sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin" was for more than 30 years the start of the much-loved BBC radio program Listen with Mother (1950-1982), a programme designed for under-5s.
2. ^ 1546 was a strangely inappropriate year to pick, since neither 'Gorbuduc' nor 'Gammer Gurton's Needle' had yet been written.
3. ^ Gorbuduc was a play by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton written in 1561 and considered to be the "first English Tragedy" – with a "political" statement to make (about leaving the order of succession of the throne unknown). Queen Elizabeth I attended.
4. ^ Gammer Gurton’s Needle was another Elizabethan play, written at Cambridge University, by Mr. "S." (some believe Thomas Sackville) between 1552 and 1563.Plot – two households disagree about the loss of a needle, which is then found in the seat of somebody's pants. Fuses subject matter and characters similar to medieval farce with the techniques of Roman comedy.
5. ^ "Noah's Flodde" (he pronounces it 'fluddy') A definite anachronism, this. The famous poem by Michael Drayton wasn't published until 1630.
6. ^ Shakespeare (1564-1616) didn't write the first of his plays (Henry VI Part 1) until probably 1590.
7. ^ Two famously long-running London shows. 'Salad Days', a musical written by Julian Slade, opened in London in 1954 and ran for 2283 peformances. 'The Mousetrap', Agatha Christie's most successful mystery, opened in 1952 and is still running after over 20,000 performances. By the time of the CD recording, their own show had been running so long that Flanders added, to the delight of the audience, "Not even us."
8. ^ In 1956 The Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square (known colloquially as "The Court") had become the home of the English Stage Company, dedicated to presenting new dramatists.
9. ^ Thomas Kyd (1558 - 1594) One of the most important figures in the development of Elizabethan drama.
10. ^ Kyd's most renowned work, full title "The Spanish Tragedie, Containing the lamentable end of Don Horatio, and Bel-imperia: with the pittifull death of olde Hieronimo."
11. ^ Facetious confusion between two imports from the New World that would have been considered trendy in Elizabethan times. Both popularly credited to Sir Walter Raleigh, although tobacco was more probably introduced by John Rolfe, famous for having married Pocahontas.
12. ^ Raphael Holinshed, the plots of whose Chronicles (1587) were cribbed by... ahem; "were a major inspiration for" Shakespeare when writing his histories.
13. ^ Certain radical dramatists of the 1950s, notably John Osborne, became known as Angry Young Men. The epithet was also applied to Osborne's most renowned fictional character, Jimmy Porter, protagonist of Look Back in Anger which opened at the Royal Court in May 1956 (and, arguably, transformed English theatre overnight).
14. ^ A slight stretch, here, as he's aiming for a reversal of "sackbut", an Elizabethan musical instrument, ancestor of the trombone. But it's legitimate -- sack being a dry spanish wine much beloved of Falstaff and his disreputable band. A butt is indeed a cask suitable for holding sack, technically 2 hogsheads, or 126 gallons. Small wonder that Kyd was "tight as Andronicus"!
15. ^ Nationalisation of key industries such as steel, shipbuilding, coal, rail, followed by de-nationalisation when the next government comes to power, is a perenniel theme of British politics that certainly has its comic side. The immediate reference is to nationalisation of power generation, that happened in 1957 accompanied by threats from the oppposition to de-nationalise. The invention "if Bloody Mary comes to power..." was prescient indeed -- when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister 20 years later she de-nationalised everything in sight, starting with the coal industry which had been a model of nationalisation for 30 years.
16. ^ Ralph Roister Doister – a play by Nicholas Udall, a headmaster at Eton Academy (1505-1556). The plot concerns a boastful coward -- Indebted to Plautus’s The Braggart Warrior – foolishness of boastful coward and his courtship of a widow. Often regarded as the first comedy in the English language, as Gorbuduc was the first tragedy. Salacious sub-note: Udall was dismissed from his post at Eton and served jail time for buggery. Surprising, perhaps, that Flanders didn't slip in a joke about that.
17. ^ Pun on Titus Andronicus, excessively gory Shakespearean tragedy, first published 1594.
18. ^ John Skelton (c. 1460 - June 21, 1529), English poet.
18a. ^ 'Ralph' is one of many slang words (euphemisms?) for vomit.
19. ^ Quote from Hamlet Act V Sc II. During the sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes, Osric says this line.
20. ^ "Sumer is icumen in, lhude sing cuccu" -- a famous example of a Rota, a very early (13th cent) round song. "lhude", meaning "loudly", is sometimes written "lewdly", leading to the double entendre.
21. ^ Battle of Agincourt, centrepiece of Shakespeare's Henry V.
22. ^ The Archers world's longest running radio soap opera, billed as "an everyday story of country folk".
23. ^ He probably has in mind the Globe Theatre, where most of Shakespeare's plays were performed, but the Bankside area also contained the Swan, the Rose and the Hope theatres. These days, it's the site of the Globe theatre replica and the Tate Modern museum & gallery.
24. ^ Wolsey was and still is a brand name of cheap men's underwear.
25. ^ Tucket, a Shakespearean stage direction. A flourish or fanfare on a trumpet. There are a few examples of the stage direction "tucket within" in King Lear. "Tucket without" would mean a flourish played outside (say) castle gates but heard inside, and thus also by the audience.
26. ^Philip Massinger (1583 - 1640), another english dramatist.
27. ^ In Elizabethan typography an abstracted long "s" (resembling an "f", with a bar on the left side of the ascender only, or no bar at all) was sometimes used in printing. Flanders is setting up the joke "unlikely title for a fong".
28. ^ Type of Harpsichord.
29. ^ "I doubt me an it be" is fake Shakespeare.
30. ^ One of the privileges of English royalty is that they're allowed to use the first person plural when referring to themselves.
31. ^ The widely believed legend is that Greensleeves was composed by English King Henry VIII (1491 - 1547) for his lover and future Queen, Anne Boleyn. The repetition of "we are" is an echo of the music hall song popularised by Harry Champion "I'm Enery the Eighth I am"
32. ^ One meaning of "Doxy" is a floozy, a loose woman. So "doxies without smocksies" would suggest a nude show. Of course it's a total invention. The "vinyl" version was "Don't Look, My Ladies" -- equally fictional.
33. ^ This is the "vinyl" text. "Cranks" was a revue written by John Cranko, with music by John Addison, starring Hugh Bryant, Anthony Newley, Annie Ross and Gilbert Vernon. Cranks opened in December, 1955 and did lacklustre business until Princess Margaret declared that it was her favourite show, after which it became a hit and ran a total of 223 performances.By the time of the CD recording in May 1959, Flanders evidently considered that this reference was too obscure, so he changed it to the much weaker "horseracing and so on".
34. ^ Not true, of course. Greensleeves has been out of copyright for centuries.