The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

War’s a game not quickly understood

It must have been difficult for him to hear troops singing his song on the way to their deaths and, despite all his highest intentions, knowing that his family’s security rested on the income the song was bringing in.

Snoo Wilson pays a tribute to Aubrey Powell, the grandson of the composer Felix Powell, by placing him in the opening scene of Pack Up Your Troubles. Here the character tells how he discovered his grandfather’s chest with unpublished, hand-written manuscripts and the detritus of the composer’s life. The discovery was repeated when Aubrey brought the chest round to Snoo Wilson and asked him to write a musical that would be a tribute to a man who had been excised from the collective memory of the Powell family.

Snoo Wilson
The problem was to condense the story into a psychologically convincing set of characters and I decided the way to do that was to concentrate on the quartet of George, Felix, Leila and Mabel. These two couples were professionally linked, successful music hall stars on a par with Charlie Chaplin. In 1914 they were touring together, with Mabel running a tight ship and then Felix and George wrote Pack Up Your Troubles, the best-selling marching song of all time. From then on they were comfortably off but they never had another hit. George became a pacifist and Felix, at the age of 37, enlisted.

Felix Powell was a child prodigy, classically trained and, at the age of twelve, organist and musical director of St. Asaph Cathedral. Before he was twenty he gave up all of that and embarked on the gruelling life of touring the music halls.

Nicholas Bloomfield
The bulk of Felix’s music is Edwardian. This period was a huge cultural watershed and Felix was untouched by it. Music was changing all around him. Schoenberg and Stravinsky were contemporaries, black musicians were playing jazz at the Hammersmith Palais, there were big bands and swing but the unpublished pieces I found when we opened up Aubrey’s chest were sentimental, violets-in-springtime stuff. The music I’ve written has resonances of Felix Powell’s writing but it tends to go slightly against the grain of his writing in the sense that it deals with critical situations that would have had no place in his music, things like him going to war and the difficult relationship he has with his wife.

It is impossible to say how much Powell was affected by his early encounter with organised religion, nor do we know what led to his rejection of it. According to Snoo Wilson, Felix was a very complete musical perfectionist who was driven to repeat the success he had experienced with Pack Up Your Troubles. The difficulties he encountered in his personal life were probably compounded by his inability to stay the star he had once been.

Snoo Wilson
I think the relationship between Felix and Joan was a case of mutual exploitation. She wanted the name of Felix Powell and he wanted a fresh chance to write a proper score for a musical. In fact he ended up writing incidental music. By that time, if they weren’t lovers, they were as close as makes no difference. The psychological impact of this woman’s proximity to him was very considerable. He was probably monogamous by instinct but the situation between him and Mabel had become quite acid and so he looked somewhere else for comfort as people do. It’s not even a tragedy. It’s an everyday event. Unfortunately, suicide is a permanent solution to everyday problems.

Family records show that Felix’s death was, in a very real way, avoidable. If he had only had the courage to ask Mabel for the money he owed, the matter could have been settled.

Snoo Wilson
After he died, Mabel turned up with a bag of fivers and settled the debt. The money was there all the time. The problem was that if Felix had taken the money from their account Mabel would have noticed and she would have thought he was having an affair. It’s all very sad, an elementary misunderstanding.

Nicholas Bloomfield did not write a full score for Pack Up Your Troubles. This gives companies great freedom and scope to produce the musical that matches their resources.

Nicholas Bloomfield
People can take the music and, in a sense, do what they like with it. The songs are there. They could do it successfully with a piano. That would make it an intimate piece. You could easily do it as if it was all in Felix’s head, with him sitting at the piano. Or you could do it with massed bands and choirs.

Although Pack Up Your Troubles started off as Aubrey’s tribute to his grandfather, it is also about George Powell, the pacifist. It must have been difficult for him to hear troops singing his song on the way to their deaths and, despite all his highest intentions, knowing that his family’s security rested on the income the song was bringing in. Felix must also have been troubled by his song raising the troops’ spirits only for them to be killed or blinded. And he cannot have been unaware of his band The White Knights presiding over orgies.

Snoo Wilson
For some reason this aspect of the war has been whitewashed out. In any intense war situation sex becomes commercialised but the generals were so concerned about troops contracting sexually transmitted diseases they banned prostitutes from dances and the under-age soldiers gallantly stepped into the breach. Scoring a Blighty by having sex was a very peculiar aspect of this war.

Many people are only familiar with the chorus of Pack Up Your Troubles but this musical makes the most of the verses. They speak of Private Perks and his adventures. He goes to Flanders and he shoots the Bosches but the Germans in their turn write words of their own. Private Perks is Every Soldier, Everyman and everyone can relate to him. Hence in the finale the German Tenor exhorts us: ‘All together now, the family of man, in one doomed, delicious, delightful, dangerous planet.’ And the choirs all sing Pack Up Your Troubles in different languages.

War’s a game not easily understood.