Dominic Frisby: my mission to revive my father’s long-lost WW2 musical masterpiece
I have an odd professional life. I double as a financial writer and a comedian. It seems to work. I specialise in unacceptable songs; you’re bound to have stumbled across one of them at some point. Apparently, I’m Nigel Farage’s favourite comic.
I’ve just made what many would consider a comical investment, putting more money than I care to think about into a theatrical venture on which I am almost certainly going to lose my shirt. It’s got a cast of over 50, a 15-piece orchestra and more. But I don’t care, because this is more important than money.
My father, Terence Frisby, had a full and successful life. His play There’s A Girl In My Soup was, for a time, the longest-running comedy in the history of the West End and a worldwide hit with runs on Broadway and across Europe (in Paris with Gérard Depardieu, in Rome with Domenico Modugno). It was made into a film with Peter Sellers and Goldie Hawn, and my father won the Writer’s Guild Award for the screenplay.
His sitcom Lucky Feller, starring David Jason as one of two working-class brothers living in a council flat in south-east London (sound familiar?) was one of ITV’s most successful series of the 1970s, and another, That’s Love, would become one of their most successful of the 1980s. He made fortunes, lost fortunes, won awards, had a string of high-profile court cases and beautiful girlfriends, a glamorous wife (my mum) – for a bit – and plenty of fresh air.
But there was one thing that nagged away at him constantly, like squirrels in the attic of his mind. It was that he never saw the best thing he ever wrote on the West End stage or on screen. That thing is Kisses on a Postcard.
In 1940, when my father was seven and his brother, my uncle Jack, was 11, they were evacuated from their family in south-east London to escape the Blitz. Millions of children across the country met with the same fate. Neither they nor the parents knew where they were going, who they would be staying with or for how long.
“Whatever happens, you stay together,” insisted their mum, my grandmother. “You got that? You stay together!”
Then, to turn it into an adventure for the two boys, she invented a secret code for them.
“When you get there,” she said, handing them a stamped and addressed postcard, “you find out your new address, you write it on this card and you post it to me. Got it? Now, here’s the code. You know how to write a kiss – with a cross? Well, put one kiss if it’s horrible and I’ll come straight there and bring you back home. You put two kisses if it’s all right. And three kisses if it’s nice. Then I’ll know.”
The two boys were put on a train along with the rest of their school, each with a gas mask, some sandwiches and a label round their neck with their name on. They ended up in a tiny village in Cornwall, where they were herded into the school hall and picked at random by whichever local would take them.
Jack and Terry were chosen by a Welsh ex-coal miner and his wife, Auntie Rose and Uncle Jack, who lived in a tiny cottage by the railway with their soldier son, Gwyn.
Inside, they found a room packed with things: a cat curled beside the stove: a canary in a cage; oil lamps – there was no electricity here; and two First World War shells in their cases, over six inches tall, standing on either side of the clock on the mantelpiece. Outside in the yard, there was a pig and chickens; beyond that a valley with endless woods, a rushing river, fish to catch, streams to dam, paths, tracks, a quarry to climb. And, best of all, at the bottom of the yard lay the main line from London to Penzance. Trains!
That night, on a borrowed mattress on the floor, staring at the postcard, they considered their code. They covered the card with kisses and posted it the next morning.
My father would spend the next four years in that Cornish village. He called it his second childhood.
Kisses on a Postcard tells the story of those two boys and the tiny Cornish village during the war, with its conflicts, kindness, pettiness, generosity and gossip, turned on its head first by the arrival of so many children, then by the arrival of American soldiers, prior to D-Day – a whole regiment of black GIs. No one in the village had ever seen a black man.
Having had the theatre thrust upon me since an early age, I’m not as crazy about it as some. My view is that theatre disappeared up its own backside in somewhere around 1974, never to return – certainly the subsidised stuff, anyway. Kisses was only ever staged many years ago as a tiny community theatre project in North Devon, with mostly amateur performers, but it was like nothing I ever saw. Suddenly, I understood why Dad loved the theatre so much and what a brilliant medium it can be. It became one of my lifetime missions to get Kisses on.
My father died in April 2020: probably not a bad time to shuffle off this mortal coil, given what was going on at the time. As I was going through his things, I came across the script of Kisses. I took it home and stuck it on the shelf, to be dealt with at some later stage. But then, every day, as I looked up from my desk, it would catch my eye and look at me longingly, like a dog wanting a walk.
After several months, I couldn’t take it any more. “I can’t let this die. It’s too good to be just a script gathering dust on a shelf. If I don’t do something about it, no one will.”
To turn Kisses into a film or a West End show would require millions and, more crucially, powerful allies, neither of which I have. But, having spent a large chunk of my adult life in a sound studio – I do a lot of voiceovers as well as the financial writing and the comedy – I did have the means to make some kind of audio-drama-podcast thing out of it. Like a 1970s concept album, re-formatted for the internet.
It needed a lot of re-writing; I could do that. But the music still wasn’t right – Gordon Clyde, the original composer, had died in 2008, and Dad had turned to various others to fill the gaps. Each did their bit beautifully, but the overall result was a bit disjointed, and needed unifying. I turned to one of my occasional collaborators, Martin Wheatley, a genius who has somehow managed to remain undiscovered his whole life. By coincidence, or as I call it, fate, Martin’s father had also been evacuated to Cornwall.
We set to work, composed about ten new songs as well as unearthing and re-versioning a load of Cornish folk gems that only Martin and about three other people have ever heard of. We have been dogged with good luck ever since.
John Owen Jones, voted the best-ever Valjean in Les Mis, and the longest-running phantom in you can guess what – would play the lead role of Uncle Jack, the man who became stand-in father to my dad and uncle. Uncle Jack was a Welsh former coal-miner, now a platelayer on the Great Western Railway; fierce, humorous, passionately anti-war and anti-establishment.
When I first spoke to John – I’m still not sure who was auditioning who – he said, “Les Mis, Jesus Christ Superstar - they all started as concept albums. If you were doing it any other way, I’d tell you to do it as a concept album first. It’s how great things start.”
We were all set to record with an orchestra at a London studio, but that started to break my balls over Covid regulations. I phoned round the other studios at the last minute, and Abbey Road had just had a cancellation. We recorded it at Abbey Road Studios! Another stroke of fortune.
The result is this concept album/musical about an extraordinary time in British history. Those who were evacuated in 1940 will be in their late 80s and 90s now, if they are still with us at all. In many ways, Kisses is a farewell to that generation. But I played it to some friends in the car last month, and during the evacuation scenes they all said: “That’s exactly what’s happening now in Ukraine.” The story remains so pertinent. Dad said he used to get letters from people in Germany who had been evacuated to escape Allied bombs.
If you are anything like me, this story will disarm you in the most unexpected ways. I hope you will find yourself laughing and weeping, as I did, at just what wonderful things the kindest of human beings can be.
Part One of Kisses on a Postcard is available for free as a podcast. The full version is available via Bandcamp for £16, with the two-hour abridged version for £12