In the gang: the history of the famous Harpenden Gang Show
- Credit: Richard Washbrooke
The world’s longest-running Gang Show takes place this month in Harpenden. Heather Harris meets some of those involved in creating the sell-out spectacle
‘Aye, Aye Skip! The gang’s all here!’ – That was the enthusiastic shout from a youngster in 1932 (these days he would have used Snapchat), which more than 80 years later has put the west Herts town of Harpenden into the record books.
As local resident and producer Ewan Murray explains, ‘We are in our 67th year - making us the longest continuously running Gang Show in the world’.
For those who have never worn a woggle or sang Ging Gang Gooley round a camp fire lit using a flint or magnifying glass, a Gang Show is a variety show put on by the Scouting movement.
‘Most people associate Scouts with camping, climbing and the outdoors rather than being on stage,’ says Murray in a rare spare moment away from preparing for this year’s show at the Harpenden Public Halls from January 5-9.
‘But our show has never been more popular and we have a waiting list of young people wanting to tread the boards.’
And, interestingly, auditions are not held –anyone from the local scouting groups can come along and take part, whatever the ability level.
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This year’s show features a cast of 152 girls and boys aged from 10-18 and from 10 Scout groups and five Explorer Scout Units across Harpenden, Wheathampstead and Kimpton.
Murray adds, ‘We even have some of the children and grandchildren of the original cast members from our first shows. Our set designer, David Keen, was in the show in the 1960s, his daughter was in several shows in the 1990s and his grandson is on stage for the second time this year.’
In this technology-driven age, I express surprise at the level of interest in scouting, but the Harpenden area boasts some of the most active groups in the country with 3.5 per cent of the population taking part in scouting in the district. This compares to a UK figure of just over half of one per cent.
There are 1,236 young people regularly attending one of the weekly scouting meetings and there is a waiting list of 200 – predominantly because of a lack of volunteer leaders.
‘The Gang Show has become the highlight of their year despite the commitment it demands,’ Murray says, a statement echoed by the young people themselves. Maddie Harkness, 17, is in her third show. She puts it simply, ‘Gang Show is the best week of my year!’ Charlie Taylor, also 17, whose mum and dad met while doing a Gang Show in the 1980s, says ‘It’s one of the highlights of my year – every year!’ And 15-year-old George Elledge, whose father, uncle and four siblings have all been in the show, says, ‘It’s a wonderful thing to be part of and I enjoy every second.’
The whole process begins in April with a meeting of the production team, who put forward ideas for the following year’s show and also ask for feedback from the youngsters. Historically, the format remains much the same, starting with a big opening number, the a further five musical spots plus comedy sketches and dance items and the whole lot topped off with the finale, including the traditional Gang Show anthem, On the Crest of a Wave.
Unlike some of today’s pantomimes, there is no risqué material, but that’s not to say it’s old-fashioned. ‘We have to appeal to a family audience, so we include a broad swathe of popular songs from today as well as material from back in the 40s and 50s,’ says Murray, who by day is PR manager for the Wine Society and has been producing The Gang Show since 1994.
Once the content has been decided, the cast are chosen at Easter and the first full meeting is in July. The event is run solely by volunteers ranging in age from 19-75 who are involved in everything from stitching costumes and selling tickets to creating scenery and choreography. The rehearsals last for 17 weeks from mid-September and are held weekly on Tuesday nights for the younger gang members and specialist performers as well as on Sunday afternoons for the older cast.
The result is a highly-professional show with many of the audience coming back year after year – and not just because their sons or daughters are on stage. The 2,244 tickets available for this year’s six performances were sold out in just over a week, making Harpenden and Wheathampstead District Gang Show the envy of many of the other 100 or so similar events held around the country.
Murray stresses how lucky the Harpenden show is to have so many boys in the cast, as many other shows are very female-heavy. This is ironic, as when Rover Scout Ralph Reader put on the first London scout show, The Gang’s All Here, in 1932 to raise money for a new swimming pool at a scout camp, the cast, indeed all Scouts, were boys. It was one of these boys who made that initial cry of readiness which gave the Gang Show its enduring title.
During the Second World War, household names such as Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock and Dick Emery cut their theatrical teeth in the forces’ Gang Shows. And the show has even spread abroad, with similar productions in Australia and New Zealand.
Being world record holders is something which Murray and his team are rightly proud of and they see no reason why the show shouldn’t go on for another half century and beyond – an ambition that many would say definitely deserves an enthusiastic salute.
All proceeds from the show (tickets are £12 each) are put back into local scouting groups, with a proportion this year going to the MacIntyre charity in Milton Keynes which supports children and adults with learning difficulties.
For more on the show and scouting in the area, see hwgsshop.org.uk or call 07855 732432.