Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K.Jerome, adapted by Hubert Gregg

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BBC Radio 7, 31 August 2008

This production was a real curiosity from the BBC archives. Originally broadcast at Christmas 1962, it was a musical version of Jerome’s famous tale, involving personalities who contributed for many years to the Light Programme (later Radio 2) schedules. Hubert Gregg (music and lyrics) presented the nostalgia programme Thanks for the Memory, while the Cliff Adams Singers (vocals) invited listeners to Sing Something Simple every Sunday from 1962 until Adams’ death forty-one years later. The three principal roles were played by Gregg himself, Kenneth Horne and Leslie Phillips, supported by Percy Edwards as Montmorency the dog.


The story is familiar enough; three bachelors escape the London rat-race and experience a series of misadventures on the River Thames, until one day they tire of the experience and decide to return to enjoy a decent dinner followed by an evening of variety at the Alhambra Theatre. It is a late-Victorian reflection on Englishness – a world of perpetual happiness whose people are open and friendly, where problems such as poverty, class-consciousness and social unrest simply don’t exist.  Three Men in a Boat was filmed in the mid-1950s with David Tomlinson and Jimmy Edwards, and remade for television two decades later with Michael Palin and Stephen Moore. Both productions celebrated the joy of ‘messing about in boats.’


In Mark White’s radio production Kenneth Horne made no attempt to go beyond his Beyond Our Ken persona as Harris; he was just the same affable, avuncular personality. Leslie Phillips’ George was a failed rake – someone trying to seem sophisticated but always ending up in one scrape or another. Hubert Gregg’s J was cheerful, but wisely took a back seat in scenes involving his fellow stars. Neither Phillips nor Horne could sing; they even found it difficult to develop the kind of sprechstimme associated with non-singing musical performers such as Rex Harrison. They resembled end-of-the-pier performers cheerfully murdering their songs in the name of entertainment. But in an adaptation like this, their vocal shortcomings did not matter; on the contrary, they confirmed the fact that the two characters were nothing else but enthusiastic amateurs.


Yet perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this production was its modernity. In many ways its subject-matter resembled that of an absurd drama: the three characters embark on a voyage but fail to reach their intended destination, while encountering a series of random obstacles on the way which they fail to deal with. They include rain and wind, getting lost in the Hampton Court maze, trying and failing to open a tin of pineapple chunks without an opener, and eating an ‘Irish stew’ which may or may not contain a rat. Such moments are undoubtedly funny, but at the same time they remind us just how powerless human beings can be in a basically unfriendly world. One song in this production had J. lamenting for a time when the world could be young again, and rediscovering that “its simple secret was love.” This contained a distinct tinge of melancholy, as if J. realized that such certainties were no longer achievable. All he and his friends could do was to live their lives as best they could, while understanding they had no control over them. The ending was extremely poignant; while relishing the prospect of a chop and a show, the three men realized that it offered no solution to the complexities of their existence. They would always be at the mercy of a world in which “rain stopped play.”