The origins of this play lie in the 1960’s when Miles Jenner discovered a medley of Merson’s best known songs on an LP of Music Hall Greats. Most of the other tracks were by artists whose names had remained synonymous with that era. Somehow Merson was less well known but his songs were infectious, fresh, funny and original. They were hardly mainstream listening for an adolescent whose ear was more attuned to Merseyside than music hall, but they struck a chord that remained with him.
Little was written about Merson but, a few years ago, Miles discovered a copy of ‘Fixing the Stoof Oop’ on the shelves of David Drummond’s theatrical emporium in Cecil Court, London.
It was an autobiography, written by Billy Merson in 1925 – at the height of his career. It contained much information about his early life but left even bigger questions about what had ensued thereafter. The next twenty-two years became the subject of painstaking research which revealed a story of turbulence and survival – as well as much that had been left unsaid in the somewhat sanitised account of his rise to fame. A strong story line had evolved and Miles put pen to paper in March 2017.
To understand the Merson story, it was necessary to take audiences on a journey through the changing nature of popular entertainment during his lifetime – from music hall to spectacular revue, musical comedies and variety – all set against the backdrop of an emerging cinema industry and two world wars. Strangely, whenever a major incident occurred in Merson’s life, one of his songs provided an apt set of lyrics to describe his predicament. They also demonstrated his ability to bounce back in the face of adversity. The first draft of the play was completed in July, by October a final version had been distributed. It was apt timing – the final day of 2017 marked the passage of seventy years since Billy Merson’s death. His music, accordingly, passed into the public domain.
The play was conceived with touring in mind. The simple, evocative setting and costumes allow the action to flow seamlessly, incorporating extracts from sixteen of Merson’s comic songs. It recalls the turbulent life of a man who constantly found himself on the ropes but always bounced back. A born entertainer, he was the inspiration for future generations of comedians and his legacy lives on.