English national treasure Alan Bennett produced his first play in 1968: Forty Years On, in which the retiring headmaster (John Gielgud) of an English public school is presented with and performs in an end-of-term play put on by the students: a sendup of all the myths of English cultural identity between the turn of the 20th century and the end of World War II. (The play is very much the godson of the old Beyond the Fringe sketch “Aftermyth of War”.) Besides Gielgud and the show’s musical director, Carl Davis, the cast included a number of precocious talents just out of public school, including budding lyricist George Howe. In the show’s downtime, Howe and Davis worked up an entire song cycle inspired by the themes of Bennett’s play. Somehow it became a Project, and the Project landed at MCA and became this concept album, We Were Happy There, produced and arranged by A-lister Mike Leander (hitmaker for the Rolling Stones, Lulu and Cliff Richard). Gielgud reads selected poems and prose from English writers to set the scene between each song.
1968-1969 was a hell of a good period for anti-war movies in England – The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Bed Sitting Room to name only two – but We Were Happy There is neither that savage nor that surreal; the tone is nostalgic and infused with the more naïve sense of historical irony of a young man just leaving the nest. There’s feints of cynicism, but the mod-a-go-go pop arrangements and the sentiment win out. Bennett of course has since enjoyed a long, distinguished career as a playwright and novelist, and when a Granada TV executive approached Ray Davies of the Kinks about writing a musical drama for television in early 1969, Bennett was actually Davies’ first choice for a writing partner. They didn’t end up working together, and the Granada TV project fell through, but it led to the creation of the Kinks’ album Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire), which frankly is a piece of greatness that’s more worth your time. We Were Happy There is an almost-forgotten progenitor of the Big Nostalgia Kick that turned so toxic in the 1970s, and you can probably draw a line from it straight through to All This And World War II.
Pax Britannica / The Empire Builder
Nanny Hawkins / Boy
Extracts of letters from Julian Grenfell / The Lost Generation / High Wood
The Girls of Nineteen-Twenty-Six / Girls
Extract from “The Civil War in Spain” / Spain
Vergissmeinicht / Goodnight Sugar
Extract from “English History, 1914-1945” / Well Done / I Am a Paper Bag
Recessional / We Were Happy There
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