Fred Stone – The man who influenced Tony Hancock & “The Boy Friend”

A young Fred Stone from Sydney doing the splits in London in 1929 – an impressive skill only sometimes achieved by male dancers even today. Photo courtesy Richard Bradshaw.

At the age of 21, Fred Stone left Depression era Sydney on the P&O ship Benalla, arriving in London in May 1929. He never returned to Australia. In the United Kingdom he became a well known favourite on stage, sometimes also appearing in supporting roles in films and TV. Fred’s attitude to his country of birth was at best, ambivalent. While he stayed in regular contact with his Australian family until his mother died in 1956, he seems, by accident or design, to have often added to the confusion about who he was, and where he was from. This is probably reflected in the wildly inaccurate Internet Movie Database entry that currently states he was born in Derby, England!

He was born Frederick George Stone in a terrace house in Liverpool Street, Paddington, an inner suburb of Sydney, on 9 July 1908. His parents were Frederick Stone and Margaret Calder nee Nixon, both of whom had been stewards on ships. Fred and his older sister “Lalla” (Agnes), spent their childhood in a large airy home their father had built at 19 Balfour Rd, Kensington, perhaps as a consequence of his success as a punter. Both children attended the nearby Kensington Public School. At some point in his childhood, Fred discovered the pleasure of performing on stage, an interest his mother had encouraged. In his mid teens he worked for two years at Farmer’s Department Store, Sydney, but left to pursue his passion. In 1925, while attending the Harry Thomas School of Elocution, he came in for praise in the part of Paris, in Romeo and Juliet. Fred’s first professional roles were in the choruses of musicals.  On 1 March 1927, Fred appeared in the chorus of “Sunny,” a new musical by Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II and Otto Harbach at Sydney’s Empire Theatre. He also appeared (as Freddie Stone) in the chorus of Good News, a musical about US college life that opened at St James Theatre on 10 November 1928. A slightly sniffy reviewer for “The Sydney Morning Herald” described it as something that would be popular with those, who like  “American jazz comedy“.


 

Above: Good News program courtesy Richard Bradshaw. Click to enlarge.

 

Left: Fred and his sister Lalla (and two of her children) shortly before Fred departed for England in 1929.
Right: Fred Stone in Wellington, New Zealand, in the late 1920s while he was in the chorus of the new musical “Sunny”.  Photos courtesy Richard Bradshaw.

Fred was a good looking and talented young actor, so it is not surprising he found regular stage work soon after arriving in England. In late 1929 he had landed a role in Mr Cinders at the Prince’s Theatre, Bristol, the play being a clever inversion of the Cinderella story. He went on to appear in a number of musicals and comedies in the 1930s, including The White Horse Inn, The Flying Trapeze and Tulip Time. He now called himself Frederic Stone, probably to avoid confusion with the US cinema star of the same name.

 

Above Left: Richard Hearne, Robert Gordon and Fred Stone making up for The Flying Trapeze at the Alhambra Theatre in 1935. Courtesy Richard Bradshaw. This was a musical set in a circus, starring Jack Buchanan. Fred’s supporting role was the Ballet Master.
Above Right: A screen grab of Fred in Be Careful Mr Smith, released in 1935.

In 1935, he appeared in the film Be Careful Mr Smith as a performer who sings the old music hall favourite, “The Man who broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.” He is on screen with leading actor Bobbie Comber for a full five minutes, which makes the lack of credit for the role he played surprising, even for a “quota quickie,” as these types of movies were characterised.

The un-credited Fred Stone sings the first verse and chorus until interrupted by Mr Smith (Bobbie Comber) who insists it be sung slowly in the traditional musical hall manner. Clip from Be Careful Mr Smith courtesy Peter Charlton.

His successful stage career in the 1930s saw him perform throughout the UK and beyond – in 1937 he joined the George Clark company tour of South Africa, performing a review called Let’s Join George. On the outbreak of World War II he was appearing in a bedroom farce called Room for Two, and not long after that, another one, called High Temperature, advertised as “a play for the broad-minded.”

By early 1940, Fred, like numerous other actors, had joined the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). By a sequence of events no longer known, in early 1942 he had ended up in the RAF and was performing in one of Ralph Reader‘s Gang Shows. With more than ten years stage experience, Sergeant Fred Stone #1223414 was leader for one Gang Show group entertaining troops in Europe. Joining him, from about 1944, was a very young Tony Hancock, who can clearly be seen in the following photos. There were at least fifteen gang show groups performing for British and Allied forces.


 

(Click to enlarge)
Above Left: Fred in drag (second from the left) for a undated Gang Show sketch. Hancock is second from the right.
Above Right: A Gang Show sketch with John Beaver as the sleepwalker at right. Hancock is fourth from the left, while Fred is fifth from the left with buck teeth. The astute reader will note that Fred marked himself in photos with a small cross, for the benefit of his mother. Courtesy Richard Bradshaw.
FS9
Above: Another Gang show with Hancock second from the left and Fred third from the left. John Fisher’s biography of Hancock may describe this sketch: “In one sketch entitled ‘Rumours’ Tony found himself in a skirt alongside John Beaver and Fred Stone…as three charladies caught up in an air-raid …until the arrival of a Duchess played by Robert Moreton”. Photos courtesy Richard Bradshaw.

The Gang Shows are famous for giving a number of British actors valuable stage experience – amongst them comedians Peter Sellers and Dick Emery. Interviewed about his Gang Show experiences in 1963, Tony Hancock had this to say;

“My first overseas posting was with Ralph Reader’s Gang Show to Africa –  not that I really knew where I was going at the time; the R.A.F didn’t really keep me very well informed… From North Africa we moved to the front line in Italy.  Well not actually to it.  We got about three miles behind it once, but that was the closest we ever did.

When our show came back to England it was great to see that it was still tightly disciplined.  And that was entirely due to Fred Stone who later appeared in ‘The Boy Friend.’ He was a very strong personality who managed to keep 11 men who were living as closely as we were in reasonable shape.  And I realise now that this was because he would have nothing wrong with the show.

No matter what he felt personally about anything, it couldn’t interfere with a performance.  I was only 20 or so at the time and it was a great example to me.”
(Tony Hancock in the TV.Times [U.K.], 11 January 1963)

In 1949-50 he reprised his 1932-33 role as Leopold the waiter in  The White Horse Inn on tour in the U.K. for theatre impresario Prince Littler.

Fred had first performed at the Players’ Theatre Club in 1939, and after World War II he returned  – appearing there (between other commitments) in their nightly show, until the 1980s, often acting as Chairman (the traditional music hall term for Master of Ceremonies) who ad-libbed with the audience and introduced sketches.  Many other well known British actors appeared at Players’ Theatre, some that today’s readers may recognise include Hattie Jacques, Peter Ustinov, Clive Dunn, Ian Carmichael and Joan Sterndale-Bennett.

In her entertaining but not always accurate autobiography, British Actress Ada Reeve recounted being taken to the Player’s Theatre for her 80th birthday in the early 1950s; “here, on the very stage where I had made my first West End appearance as a girl of fourteen, I once more had the thrill of being announced by a chairman – handsome Fred Stone, in appropriately Victorian garb.” 

In 1953, Players’ commissioned Sandy Wilson to write a 45 minute piece to end the evening show – which became the genesis of The Boy Friend. It was so well received, that after four weeks, he was asked to expand it, and this became the musical so well known today.

Fred’s contribution is noted in Sandy Wilson’s own autobiography:

“Freddy’s presence in the show turned out to be another invaluable asset, since his experience went back to the Twenties themselves and he had actually been in the chorus of the kind of show we were trying to recreate. “

Wilson also acknowledged that he based ‘The Riviera’ dance’ in The Boy Friend on the ‘Varsity Drag’ from the musical Good News. Wilson recalled “Fred Stone’s advice was again invaluable because he had been in the chorus of that show.” Producer Vida Hope also incorporated many of Fred’s experiences – he reportedly said; “She made no bones about using everything I suggested…But, being an actor, I did far too much… So Vida would cut it down. She would let me do it for about twenty-four hours, and then she said, ‘Now, darling, we’ll tidy this up.'”

Fred in The Boyfriend

Fred as Percy Browne, the millionaire father of the heroine, in The Boy Friend, with Joan Sterndale Bennett as Madame Dubonnet, sometime in 1954. Photo courtesy Richard Bradshaw. Hugh Paddick also played this role. 

 

The hugely popular musical The Boy Friend opened at the Wyndham Theatre in January 1954. This is the modest program from around that time. Author’s collection. 

Fred’s other well known role was playing various pantomime dames, in fact a contract to perform as one took him away from The Boy Friend for a short period. Fred’s 1995 obituary in “The Daily Telegraph” includes a mid 1960s photo of Fred en point in ballet shoes, with tutu and makeup, as “Madame Stonaskaya” and clearly enjoying the outrageous role.

Ever versatile, in 1959 Fred Stone finally took on the role of a villain, Captain Herbert Skinner, in a new version of a once popular Victorian melodrama The Silver King performed by The Players’.

Fred in 1959

Fred playing the villain Captain Skinner, with Madeleine Dring and 27 year old Prunella Scales, in The Silver King. The Stage, 1 January 1959 via the British Library Newspaper Archive.

Between November 1961 and June 1962, a troupe of the Players’ club regulars travelled to New York to appear at the Strollers Theatre Club, where Fred performed as Chairman. A New York “Daily News” reviewer described that “delightful Englishman Fred Stone” as “a cross between (designer/photographer) Cecil Beaton and (actor) Cyril Ritchard. The journalist was unaware apparently, that like Fred, Cyril Ritchard was Sydney born.

 

(Click to enlarge) A troupe from the Players’ club arrives in New York, as shown in two publicity photos taken for Pan Am’s in-flight magazine “Clipper,”c 1961.

In the group photos with bicycles are, left to right: Fred, Jean Rayner, Anthony Bateman, Margaret Burton, Archie Harradine, Joan Sterndale Bennett, Sheila Bernette, and Geoffrey Webb. The review was called Time, Gentlemen Please.

Fred continued to be active to the end of his life. British director Lindsay Anderson recalled meeting Fred while making a Ronson shaver commercial in May 1965. His published diary records that at the time, Fred had just finished performing in Divorce Me Darling, the sequel to The Boy Friend.  It also confirms Fred’s reputation as the consummate professional;

“Called wearily to St John’s Wood Studio at 8:30 for Ronson Shavers commercial …
Fred Stone turns out [to be] excellent casting: the (only slightly) camp father from ‘The Boy Friend’ – has just closed in Sandy’s ‘Divorce Me Darling’. A trouper, and good. On hearing me sing ‘Spread a Little Happiness*’ remarks ––”I was in that show ––Mr Anderson’!”

(*This was a song in “Mr Cinders”)

Fred’s last theatre appearance may have been with the Players’ Theatre in 1990, when a dozen of the original performers in The Boy Friend reprised their roles. A reviewer for “The Stage” reported “At the end, a roaring surge of affection rewarded this great and gallant troupe of performers for providing an occasion at once historic, enthralling and deeply touching.” Fred Stone was 81 at the time, and he had been performing for over sixty years.

Late in life, Fred lectured and provided witty after dinner speeches about the great days of music hall entertainment. He also toured community centres in London, in entertainments organised by Peter Charlton.  Always keen on physical fitness, he recovered quickly from a stroke which hit him during a performance later in life. He lived much of his life in a flat at 116 Great Titchfield Street in London, not far from the theatres of the West End. He died at Denville Hall, a retirement home for actors in Northwood, London, on 8 July, 1995. He had no partner and no strong ties to Australia. The obituaries were effusive – one spoke of a “marvellous man, full of vitality and a fabulous character…when he was up there on stage, there was nobody to touch him.”

For some years after his death, Fred was still introduced at the start of the second half at the Players’ Theatre with words to the effect “It gives me particular pleasure tonight, ladies and gentlemen, because the next artiste is none other than your own, your very own, Fred Stone!” There would then be an apology to explain he was not available tonight. Fred would have enjoyed the joke.

Special Thanks
The Australian puppeteer Richard Bradshaw (OAM), former Artistic Director of the Marionette Theatre of Australia, is a nephew of Fred Stone. The author thanks him for generously providing so much information about Fred’s life and sharing so many of the photos Fred posted home to his mother.

 

Nick Murphy
August 2019

 

Further Reading

  • John Fisher (2008) Tony Hancock: The Definitive Biography. Harper
  • Jean Anderson, Leonard Sachs (Eds) Archie Harradine (1943) Late Joys at the Players’ Theatre. Staples Press.
  • Reeve, Ada (1954). Take It for a Fact: A Record of My Seventy-Five Years on the Stage. Heinemann.
  • Paul Sheridan (1952) Late and Early Joys at the Players’ Theatre. T. V. Boardman and Co
  • Paul Sutton (2005) The Diaries – Lindsay Anderson, Methuen.
  • Sandy Wilson (1975) I could be Happy: An Autobiography. Joseph.
  • The Daily Telegraph (UK) Fred Stone Obituary. 25 July 1995

National Library of Australia – Trove
British Library – British newspaper Archive

  • The Stage (UK) The Boy Friend in Concert. 8 February 1990
  • The Stage (UK) Fred Stone Obituary 10 August 1995

Websites

 

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