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Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Turn to page 32 of the 24 August 1951 bumper edition of the Radio Times to spot the 14th episode of the first series lurking at 8pm on 30 August.

On this day in 1969, the film Pickwick was released on UK television by the BBC. It starred our very own Harry Secombe as the titular character, and Jimmy Grafton has a writing credit for the TV adaptation, according to IMDB.

As I write this, I can hear the waves on the beach behind me. Worthing Beach on the south coast of Barbados, to be precise. I mention this partly to brag, but also because it was not all that far away from me that Harry Secombe first came up with the idea of Pickwick – while slurping rum punch at the Coral Reef Club (about halfway up the west coast of Barbados), in fact.

I lay back on the sun lounger and let my thoughts drift. I remembered fancying myself in the early nineteenth-century costume with the half-boots and John Bull-type hat… ‘Not a bad idea,’ I thought as I slurped down another rum punch… ‘What’s wrong with me doing Pickwick as a musical?’

(from Strawberries and Cheam, by Harry Secombe, published 1996)

Harry Secombe as Pickwick

Fellow holidaymaker Wolf Mankowitz was recruited over lunch (and presumably more rum punch) to write the show, and later Leslie Bricusse and Cyril Ornade were hired to write the lyrics and music respectively.

The stage show opened almost exactly 58 years ago, on 3 June 1963 at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, before transferring to the Saville Theatre in London in July 1963.

It was a very successful show – but it didn’t always go to plan. As Secombe recalls in Strawberries and Cheam, he was nervous about forgetting the opening lines to the big number, ‘If I Ruled The World’. To aid his memory, he scribbled the lines in biro on the inside of a beam on the balcony from which he performed the song.

One Monday night, I could smell fresh paint as I entered the theatre and was told that the scenery had been freshened up over the weekend. I thought no more about it until the moment came when I was thrust up on to the balcony for ‘If I Ruled The World’… I looked down, as was my habit, to check the words only to find they had been completely obliterated by the painting.

Secombe says he “gabbled away insanely over the music, speaking utter rubbish” until the main part of the song came in and the cast stopped laughing to join in.

He toured the US with the show in 1965, and had a short run on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre. He reprised the role on stage in 1993. There’s a copy of the cast list from the Chichester Festival Theatre available on the theatre’s website – look out for Harry’s daughter Katy as a bird seller.

Here he is in all his bald-wig glory performing the iconic ‘If I Ruled The World’ scene on American television in 1965, resisting the temptation to blow a raspberry at the presenter who says he is English.

Find Pickwick on the Internet Broadway Database here.

Photo sourced from Discogs.

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