These days the term Whitehall farce suggests headlines of bungling bureaucracy or some government cock-up. It's largely forgotten that the term nods to the theatre at the other end of the famous thoroughfare. From 1950, the Whitehall Theatre housed five long-running comic plays and in so doing made its name synonymous with the sub-genre.
A farce usually starts with the slightest of problems: there's a small lie and a need to keep up appearances. This then triggers an uproarious confluence of mishaps, misunderstandings and mistaken identities. And the original problem then escalates until it's an intractable, trouser-dropping frenzy. There is often no real exit despite the number of doors that swing open and shut as characters burst on and off the stage.
Farces were a particularly integral part of London's theatre scene between the wars. During that period, the Aldwych Theatre leant its name to a series of Ben Travers' plays including Thark, A Cuckoo In The Nest and Rookery Nook (which inspired Nothing On, the farce-within-the-farce in Noises Off by Michael Frayn). Playing for over 10-and-a-half years these Aldwych Farces set a new standard and the company’s ambitions became a model for others to emulate.
Fast forward a few years and the Whitehall Theatre was struggling to find a programme that could capture the public’s attention. It had been home to Phyllis Dixey, London's first ever theatre stripper but Phyllis and her Whitehall Follies left in 1947. The cancellation of a failed play a little while later then created an opening for young actor Brian Rix to step in, leasing the venue for his new production company. Seeking a lively play that captured a ready audience, Rix found Reluctant Heroes. It was a new farce by Colin Morris about an army drill sergeant struggling to control his troops. It proved a canny choice and, like Dad's Army on TV later on, the play’s sense of shared wartime experience suggested it could speak to millions. The play ran at the Whitehall for more than 1,600 performances until 1954.
Rix then had a brainwave and welcomed TV cameras into Whitehall. It was seen as a risky strategy and against the wisdom of the time, but far from driving audiences away from the theatre, the broadcast gave Reluctant Heroes a major box office boost some three years into its run. Over the next 17 years, the BBC's Brian Rix Presents… broadcast 80 specials and one-off productions. Often shown on public holidays, the laughter from the Whitehall Theatre began to spread into the nation's living rooms.
Despite their popularity, Whitehall's farces had to shrug-off regular drubbings from the critics. Take the second of the theatre’s long running hits — John Chapman's Dry Rot (1954-58). This story of dodgy bookies switching racehorses was dismissed as "fit for donkeys" at the time. And it’s a view still echoed today. After a rare revival two years ago in Keswick, The Guardian wrote: "If this play were a horse they'd shoot it."
But the public did not share the critics' ideas and turned up by the coach-load. During the run of the third Whitehall Farce, Simple Spymen (1958-61) the team broke the record for being the longest-running farcers in the West End, beating the actors at the Aldwych. On the night in 1961 when they broke the record, Rix offered a glass of champagne to everyone in the audience.
In the latter five years of Whitehall’s heyday the writer Ray Cooney appeared. A prolific farce writer, Cooney is known in France as the English Feydeau (whose farces are considered the prototype for the modern form). It's a peculiar twist of fate that critics quick to celebrate his French counterpart, overlook Cooney. One For The Pot is about an inheritance attracting many "sole-surviving relatives" and ran from 1961-64, while the final Whitehall Farce, Chase Me, Comrade offers a riot of comedy as a Russian ballet dancer defects to Britain. This ran until 1966, bringing the Rix team's time at the theatre to an impressive total of 16 years.
Following that, Rix was unable to secure the lease at the Whitehall and was forced to move his productions to the Garrick and Cambridge Theatres. He had some success with other farce writers and later joined Cooney's production company. But Rix, who turned 90 this year, is still on Whitehall today. Only now he’s not at the Trafalgar Studios — the name the Whitehall now goes by — but rather at that other ‘theatre’ near Parliament Square. He’s now known as Baron Rix of Whitehall (where else?) and sits in the House of Lords. And his achievements as president of Mencap eclipse even those he made with the Whitehall farces. But that is another story.
By Ben Venables
Current farces now on in the West End include The Play That Goes Wrong at the Duchess Theatre and Great Britain at Theatre Royal, Haymarket. For further reading try May The Farce Be With You by Roger Foss, and Modern British Farce by Leslie Smith.