Pamela Davies wrote the first chapter, as follows:
My first clear memory of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth goes back to the wartime years, in particular to 1944, when as a teenage evacuee from the London bombings I went to live in the country with a music-loving couple who tuned in regularly to the series Songs from the Shows. The music, drawn from stage and film was performed by a number of artistes, including Anne and Webster. I do, in addition, have a hazy recollection of Anne singingThe Pipes of Pan the previous Christmas.
From the start I was fascinated by the tuneful music they sang and by the beautiful blend of their delightful voices: Anne’s bright, bell-like soprano, effortlessly lovely on pianissimo high notes, and the mellow sweetness of Webster’s tenor. They sang in English and their diction was meticulous so that the words were crystal clear. Although their music was largely operetta, musical comedy and Victorian drawing room ballads, it was obvious that they were trained singers and musicians, applying themselves seriously to material however light, or even, as some might maintain, trite it was.
It was a pleasant surprise to see their photograph for the first time in Radio Times. Although loving their singing, I had rather feared (with Dame Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso in mind) that Anne could be a large-boned portly soprano and Webster a short stocky tenor; but no: the photo showed Anne to be a dainty fair-haired lady with a pretty face, wide forehead and pointed chin, and Webster a dark, handsome gent, whose sizeable nose actually gave character to his face: certainly not an Errol Flynn type “pretty boy”.
In addition to Songs from the Shows they performed in programmes with, for example, the BBC Midland Light Orchestra, Albert Sandler and his Palm Court Orchestra in Grand Hotel, and in Music Hall, where they introduced their own songs and duets.
As I knew nothing of their previous stage careers, their pleasant well-modulated speaking voices came as another agreeable surprise: they had neither the upper class, so-called “Oxford” drawl, now almost extinct, (in which “tower” and “spire” are pronounced “taa” and “spa”), nor had they the marked regional accents promoted by the BBC today. Their speaking voices were a happy middle way, acceptable and comprehensible to everyone. Not all singers have acceptable speaking voices: one has only to consider that delightful soprano, Dora Labbette whom Anne had made her model, and who sounded like Grandma Buggins, and the great Australian soprano, Joan Sutherland who, normally placid, refused point blank to do the original version of Carmen with spoken dialogue at Covent Garden, because she was self-conscious about her “Aussie” accent.
Anne and Webster therefore would take part in broadcasts of various musical plays: some radio versions of film successes, such as the MacDonald-Eddy New Moon, others specially written for radio like The Laughing Lady, a soulful tale set in the days of the French revolution. The hero, a French aristocrat, played of course by Webster, spends his last night in the prison cell with his beloved, Anne, before going to the guillotine, while she, singing of course, returns to her elderly husband!
So from early on I was fascinated by them: they exercised a particular magic. But beyond this I had a special reason to be everlastingly grateful to them. During the last phase of the war and Hitler’s rocket bombs, V2s, I had gone home to London for Christmas. One evening I persuaded my mother, who had a wartime day job, to leave her work in the kitchen and to join us in the sitting room to listen to Music Hall featuring Richard Murdoch and Kenneth Horne, and Anne and Webster. Soon afterwards an enormous explosion half wrecked the house. Having dived automatically under the great iron table, known as a Morrison shelter, we were all safe. But the kitchen door was blown down the garden, and the cabinet where my mother had been standing a few minutes before, was pierced with great slivers of glass, like arrows. What would have happened to her without Anne and Webster, I shudder to think.
After this my heart warmed to them. They were more than mere celebrities, two of the many stars in the firmament, objects of passing curiosity. I wanted to know about the real flesh-and-blood people behind the glitz of show business. Chat programmes and newspaper and magazine articles provided some useful clues: Anne was the decision maker, insisting that they practise, while Webster attended to the business side. His accountancy training must have been useful. “She makes the bullets and I fire them,” he said. He liked cooking and she gardening; moreover she was a meticulous housewife, with a spick and span house, not permitting a speck of ash on the carpets. Both loved animals, especially dogs, and would have liked a farm with dozens of animals when they retired.
Around this time I wrote a letter of appreciation to them, and was gratified to receive a lovely studio portrait of them in the film Demobbed, and to learn that the postal order to cover costs had been added to their animal charity collecting box. A Desert Island Discs programme in which Webster declared he would never have the heart to trap small animals for food raised him still further in my estimation.
On the subject of fan mail, I once wrote to them and with the confidence of a teenager included lists of musical plays I thought they should undertake and songs they should sing! They did eventually sing one of these – Forever, a waltz from Oscar Straus’s Three Waltzes – but whether it was in response to my suggestion I shall never know.
My interest in Anne and Webster was fuelled by the uncanny number of people I met who either knew or had met them. To mention only a few: my musical friends who had introduced me to Songs from the Shows happened to encounter them coming out of an antique shop by Exeter Cathedral, and showed us with pride a sheet of paper bearing Webster’s beautiful rounded hand and Anne’s bold erratic one. She was naturally left-handed but as a child she was made to write with her right hand. One day, travelling on the London Underground, I got into conversation with an elderly woman who had been Anne’s dresser in a London show. My singing teacher’s daughter was Anne’s understudy and played the part of her maid in And So to Bed – more of this anon. A colleague of mine was a near neighbour of theirs in North Finchley and would enliven us with tales of their activities.
They lived in Torrington Park, an affluent, leafy road of large houses. As we, too, lived in north London, not far away, I took a couple of walks past Crowhurst, their house, regarding it with awe-struck eyes as a kind of enchanted castle, and hoping to spot the magic prince and princess. In fact it was a fascinatingly picturesque house with various unexpected little eaves and windows, its huge garden protected by a dense rather prickly hedge, through which a wrought iron gate and several steps led down to the front door – but of course I ventured no further than the road outside. On the second occasion I was rewarded by the sight of the magic prince, watched by a small black dog and …cleaning his car!
Soon afterwards the large house and garden proved too much for them, and they moved to old Hampstead, to Frognal Cottage, which Anne described as a “sweet doll’s house” – maybe it was in comparison. Anyway it was certainly far more manageable. From the road one saw a smart and pretty three-storey house with bay windows and two front doors, the one on the right marked “Tradesmen”. Railings separated the small front garden from the street. On the ground floor were the kitchen and dining room leading to a small paved rear garden; on the second floor the sitting room and one bedroom; on the floor two further bedrooms and a bathroom. It was essentially a Georgian style town house.
Incidentally, in a nearby block of flats lived the great contralto, Kathleen Ferrier, who was to die so tragically young.
I wrote the following chapter about the Booth’s time in South Africa:
Early days in Johannesburg
Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth settled in South Africa in the middle of 1956. In November 1955 they had toured the Cape with the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra, and then returned to the UK to fulfil engagements over Christmas. Towards the end of January 1956 they were back in South Africa to appear in the major cities in the Transvaal, Kimberley, Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth, East London, Durban and Pietermaritzburg, before doing a tour of the country districts of the Transvaal. They also went to various countries north of South Africa. In this second tour they were accompanied by Arthur Tatler on the piano.
A great fuss was made of them when they came to Johannesburg in 1956. There was even a notice in The Rand Daily Mail advising people of the time of their plane’s arrival at 5.50 pm on Saturday afternoon 28 January. They were entertained by the Mayor, Leslie Hurd, in the mayoral parlour. The Mayor spoke to the assembled gathering of local celebrities about the fact that he shared a Christian name with Webster as Webster’s first name was also Leslie.
The critics were rather severe in their judgement of their Johannesburg recital, viewing them as ballad singers rather than operatic singers, although both Dora Sowden from The Rand Daily Mail and Oliver Walker from The Staragreed that Anne and Webster knew how to charm their audiences. The writers of the “women’s pages” were much more enthusiastic. Amelia from the Women’s Journal in The Star gave a fulsome report of one of their concerts on 20 February 1956:
“When the two appeared in the City Hall on Thursday night the crowd was screaming to stamping stage with enthusiasm even though the artistes had been most generous in their encores.
Miss Ziegler wore one of the lovely crinolines which she always chooses for stage appearances. This one had a black velvet bodice and a skirt of gold and black tissue brocade. With her diamond jewellery she was a scintillating figure under the lights.”
They had made up their minds to settle in the country and returned to the UK merely to sort out their affairs and make arrangements to have their belongings shipped to South Africa.
On their return by the Union Castle ship, The Pretoria Castle, they stayed for several months at Dawson’s Hotel in Johannesburg while they looked for a suitable place to live. They eventually found a pleasant flat at Waverley, just off Louis Botha Avenue in Highlands North, where they lived until they bought their first house in Craighall Park. They were lucky to obtain the services of Hilda, who hailed from the island of St Helena, to be their housekeeper. Hilda remained with them during their eleven years in Johannesburg.
A Night in Venice (1956)
They had an engagement to star in A Night in Venice with the Johannesburg Operatic Society in November, and Webster was asked to sing the tenor solo in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at a Symphony concert. The work was presented as part of the Johannesburg Festival to celebrate Johannesburg’s seventieth birthday. Sir Malcolm Sargent, who had conducted Webster at several London concerts the previous year, was the conductor at the Johannesburg concert, while other soloists were Webster’s old friend, Betsy de la Porte (contralto), whom he remembered from his early days at Masonic dinners, Frederick Dalberg (bass) and the young coloratura soprano, Mimi Coertse, who was beginning to make her name in Vienna.
Rather incongruously Webster took the Tommy Handley part in a series of ITMA scripts acquired by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (the SABC). This thirteen-week series was entitled Light up and Laugh, sponsored by Gold Flake Cigarettes, and produced by the Herrick-Merrill production house.
Although Anne had driven a car in her youth she had allowed her British driving licence to lapse after she married Webster. They realised that it would be necessary for them to run two cars in South Africa, so Anne had to do a South African driving test. The Booths had brought two cars from the UK: a sea-green Zephyr Zodiac and a pale blue Hillman convertible.
She was taught to drive by an Afrikaans ex-traffic policeman. At her first lesson he made her drive along Louis Botha Avenue, in those days the main road from Pretoria through the suburbs into Johannesburg. There was a bus boycott on at the time. Thousands of people were walking along Louis Botha Avenue from the townships of Alexandra and Sophiatown to their work places in the city centre. Anne was very nervous, fearing that she might knock somebody down. Despite the adverse circumstances of her first driving lessons she soon passed her test and proved to be an excellent driver. She went on driving until shortly before her death in 2003.
In the first year or two after their arrival in South Africa they were fêted by everyone, invited to all the society parties, and offered all kinds of engagements. Anne took her first non-singing part in Angels in Love, the story of Little Lord Fauntleroy and his mother, Dearest, the role played by Anne. They appeared in Spring Quartet in Cape Town under the direction of Leonard Schach, and replayed their parts in A Night in Venice to Durban audiences. They even went to East London in the Border coastal region to sing at the city’s Hobby Exhibition, and they were heard often on the radio. Not only did they do frequent broadcasts but their records were played constantly by other presenters, who marvelled that such a famous couple had chosen to settle in South Africa.
In 1957 they opened their school of Singing and Stagecraft at their studio on the eighth floor of Polliack’s Building at the corner of Eloff and Pritchard Streets in the city centre. They held a party to celebrate the opening of the studio and invited musical and society glitterati, who eagerly crammed into the studio for the occasion and were suitably impressed by the array of pictures of Anne and Webster, taken with internationally famous friends and colleagues, adorning one of the studio walls.
The original plan was that Webster would teach singing, while Anne would teach stagecraft, but in the end they both taught singing, and Anne acted as accompanist to the students. At first they did not attract many students as their fees were much higher than those of local singing teachers. Eventually they reduced the fees and managed to attract more students.
In 1963 Anne said that all the local Johannesburg celebrities and socialites who had tried to cultivate them when they first arrived in South Africa, soon left them alone once they realised that they were not as wealthy as imagined, that they actually had to work for a living and were not free to attend the races and other such activities.
Later years in Johannesburg
Anne and Webster had never taught singing before. They had been far too busy performing in the UK to have had the time or the inclination to teach, although in 1955 Webster had placed an ad in The Musical Times in the UK, which intimated that he would consider taking a few singing pupils. Neither had formal music teaching qualifications but Anne was a competent pianist, and they adopted common sense methods of teaching singing, which had stood them in good stead during their own careers.
Anne always said that singing was merely an advanced form of speech. They concentrated on good breathing habits and on using correct vowel sounds. The basis of “straight” singing was that one sang through the vowels and attached consonants at the beginning and end of the vowels to create good diction. There were five vowels: ah, êh, ee, oo and oh, and from these vowels all words could be sung. Diphthongs in words such as “I”, were created by a combination of two basic vowels – in this case – ah and ee.
They were very particular about dropping the jaw on higher notes. One of their exercises to master this technique was based on the sounds “rah, fah, lah, fah”. It was also essential to keep the tongue flat in the floor of the mouth just behind the teeth, and an exercise on a repeated “cah” sound was good for training the tongue to remain flat and not rise in the mouth to bottle up the sound. The “mee” sound was produced as one would sing “moo”, so that the vowel was covered and focused, rather than spread. The jaw had to be dropped on all the vowels in the upper register, including the “ee” and “oo” vowels, which one is inclined to sing with a closed mouth. They also emphasized that words like “near” and “dear” should be sung on a pure “ee” vowel, rather than rounding off the word so that it sounded like “nee-ahr” or “dee-ahr”.
The voice should be placed in a forward position, “in the mask” as Anne always said, so that it resonated in the sinus cavities. They did not dwell on the different vocal registers unless they detected a distinctive “change of gear” from one register to the other.
Webster continued his oratorio singing in South Africa. Drummond Bell, who had conducted the JODS’ production of A Night in Venice the year before, was the organist and choir master at St George’s Presbyterian Church in Noord Street. He asked Webster to sing in The Crucifixion at Easter 1957. He also sang the part of the Soul in The Dream of Gerontius in Cape Town later that year. The conductor was the young organist Keith Jewell (then aged 27). It was the first time that the work was performed in South Africa. Webster always held Keith Jewell in very high regard, and he appeared as guest artiste in Anne and Webster’s “farewell” concert in 1975.
He and Anne also sang in performances of Messiah at several Presbyterian churches towards the end of 1957, and Webster adjudicated at the Scottish eisteddfod in November. Astutely he awarded the young soprano, Anne Hamblin 95 per cent for her singing. She was to do well in her singing career in Johannesburg and is still remembered for her part in Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris in the nineteen-seventies. Webster sang regularly in various oratorios at the annual Port Elizabeth Oratorio Festival, conducted by Robert Selley, and, in Pietermaritzburg did and Elijah for Barry Smith (1963) and The Creation (1964) at Pietermaritzburg for Ronald Charles, successive directors of music for Michaelhouse School in the early sixties.
Anne and Webster appeared frequently in various advertisements on screen and in the press. Early in Anne’s career she had modelled for an advertisement for Craven A cigarettes. She had learnt a valuable lesson at this assignment when the photographer told her that the photograph would mean nothing unless she smiled at the camera with complete sincerity, despite the fact that she had never smoked a cigarette in her life. They had also endorsed Ronson cigarette lighters in the late nineteen-forties and made an advert to promote Parker pens.
Merrie England 1958
Advert for Lourenco Marques Radio (1960)
Advert for Skol Beer (1961)
In late 1957 they were featured in an advert for Lloyd’s Adrenaline cream. According to the advertisement, this cream had given Webster relief from the excruciating sciatic pain he had suffered on their fleeting visit to Calgary to appear in Merrie England. Apparently Anne used the cream whenever she had an attack of fibrositis. Anne also endorsed Stork margarine (although the last thing she enjoyed was cooking and baking), a hair preparation and a polish. Webster appeared on film as a French boulevard roué in an ad for a product I have now forgotten, and they were featured in an advertisement listening avidly to Lourenco Marques radio, and celebrating a special occasion with a glass of Skol beer. For this last ad Webster was obliged to grow a beard!
1957 and 1958 were very busy years for the Booths in South Africa. In 1958, for example, they went from one production to another in as many months: Waltz Time in Springs; Merrie England in East London; Vagabond King in Durban; and Merrie Englandagain in Johannesburg. Anne was also principal boy in pantomime in East London at the end of that year.
Waltz Time East London (1959)
But 1959 was not quite as busy. They were asked to appear in East London again, this time in Waltz Time, and Anne was the Fairy Godmother in The Glass Slipper for Children’s Theatre in Johannesburg towards the end of the year.
From then on they built up their teaching practice and began directing musicals for amateur societies in various parts of the country. In 1959 they did an interesting Sunday afternoon programme on Springbok Radio entitled Do You Remember? in which they told the story of their lives, based on their autobiography, Duet. They also recorded their popular duets in Afrikaans that year.
By the nineteen-sixties they were no longer appearing regularly in musicals although Anne took the unsuitable part of Mrs Squeezum in Lock Up Your Daughters, a restoration musical by Lionel Bart at the end of 1960. Her big song in the show was entitled When Does the Ravishing Begin? A very far cry from We’ll Gather Lilacs! In 1963, aged 61, Webster took over the role of Colonel Fairfax – the juvenile lead – in The Yeomen of the Guard for the Johannesburg Operatic Society. He had not been JODS’ original choice, but was asked to take over the part at very short notice. In 1964 Webster and Anne appeared in a Cape Performing Art’s Board (CAPAB) production of Noel Coward’s Family Album, a one act play in Tonight at 8.30. It could hardly be called a musical although there was some singing in it.
They appeared in a number of straight plays in the nineteen-sixties. Webster was the Prawn in The Amorous Prawn and took the small part of the Doctor in a very long and serious play called The Andersonville Trial. They played Mr and Mrs Fordyce in the comedy, Goodnight Mrs Puffin at the beginning of 1963 and, just before they left Johannesburg for Knysna, Webster was the non-singing Circus Barker in the Performing Art’s Company of the Transvaal’s (PACT’s) production of The Bartered Bride, while Anne played the wife of a circus performer in The Love Potion for the same company at the same time.
They remained in Johannesburg until the middle of 1967. Anne was suffering from hay fever, which was becoming worse the longer she remained in Johannesburg. There were times, especially at night, when she could hardly breathe. Anne had a number of allergy tests done, but these did not pinpoint the exact cause of her hay fever. They decided to move to the coast in the hope that Anne’s hay fever would ease, and in the hope of a more peaceful life as they grew older.
At the beginning of 1967 they went on a coastal holiday. They thought Port St Johns in the (then) Transkei was very attractive but slightly too remote for them. The village of Knysna on the Garden Route was more to their taste. They bought a house in Paradise, Knysna and returned to Johannesburg to put their affairs in order and plan their move to the coast.
Knysna and Somerset West
It must have given them a sense of déjá vu to receive such a warm great welcome in Knysna. Anne’s hay fever vanished within a few weeks and she concluded that dust from the mine dumps in Johannesburg had been the cause of the hay fever.
They were soon as busy as ever, with concerts, ranging from oratorio with the Knysna and District Choral Society, to variety concerts with local artistes, and pantomimes, in which Anne not only played principal boy once again, but wrote the scripts into the bargain. They started teaching and trained several talented singers, in particular soprano, Ena van der Vyver, who sang in many performances with them.
Ena van der Vyver and Anne Ziegler in Knysna pantomime (late 1960s)
Webster Booth – directing “Mikado” in Guild Theatre, East London (1973)
Anne was also asked to produce several shows for the Port Elizabeth Musical and Dramatic Society, and Webster produced The Mikado in East London in 1973.
Anne’s friend Babs Wilson-Hill (Marie Thompson) visited them in Knysna from the UK, and, in 1973, Anne went to Portugal and the UK to spend a holiday with her and to appear in a British TV show at the same time. Anne and Webster were getting older and Anne longed to return home to the UK.
Babs Wilson-Hill (Marie Thompson) in her lovely garden in Old Colwyn, North Wales (aged 94)
Babs realised that although Anne and Webster were keen to return to the UK, they could not afford to buy or rent accommodation there. She kindly offered to buy a property for them where they would be able to live rent-free for the rest of their lives. The offer was too good to refuse. At the beginning of 1978 they left South Africa to return to the UK. Having given their farewell concert a few years earlier they did not expect to perform again, but they were soon in demand by fans who had not forgotten them from over twenty years earlier. Thus they embarked, on what Anne termed, their “third” career.
Jean Collen © 22 July 2011
This book tells Pamela Davies’ story of her keen admiration of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth in the forties and early fifties. Shortly after Anne and Webster returned to the UK from South Africa in 1978, Pamela began corresponding with Anne and became good friends with her. The book includes THE BODY OF WORK OF ANNE ZIEGLER AND WEBSTER BOOTH, compiled and edited by Jean Collen. Jean has listed many of their engagements on stage, screen, radio and television from 1924 to 1994. She has also written the section about the Booth’s time in South Africa.