Obituary: Julian Slade

Prolific composer whose very English hit, Salad Days, failed to break the American grip on the musical
The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Saturday June 24 2006
In the following obituary we said that Julian Slade composed the music for Winnie the Pooh in collaboration with Aubrey Woods and George Rowell. That was not correct. Aubrey Woods points out that it was on Trelawny in 1972 that he and George Rowell collaborated with Slade.

Lightweight, charming and teetering teasingly for some people on the edge of the almost unbearably whimsical, Julian Slade, who has died aged 76 of cancer, was an essentially English popular composer who wrote the record-breaking Salad Days in six weeks in the mid-1950s, and never achieved anything else that ran for remotely like 2,288 performances.

Salad Days was the story of how a couple of undergraduates on the point of leaving university have their lives invigorated by a magic piano that makes everyone, including pompous university bigwigs, start to dance furiously, making them all feel a lot better. It rivalled, and finally overtook, Sandy Wilson's whimsical musical comedy, The Boy Friend, made a fortune for Slade and the actor Dorothy Reynolds, who co-wrote the lyrics, and easily beat the record of the previously longest running musical, Chu Chin Chow, at 2,238 performances.

The show, as with the rest of Slade's output, was chirpily innocent rather than precious, but several critics failed to see that only the pompous would hate it. Slade was certainly an individual voice, and his and Wilson's hope of establishing a British musical to challenge the bulldozer American product fell by the wayside, but the genuineness - as distinct from the universality - of his talent was not contested.

The Slade phenomenon was born in the regions, where most of his shows were liked, rather than in London, where he was born, one of the three sons of a barrister, GP Slade. He learned the piano at preparatory school in Oxford, but was discouraged at Eton until, in his last year, an understanding master suggested he try again. He came into his own at Trinity College, Cambridge, where contemporaries included three others destined to influence British theatre, John Barton, Peter Wood and Toby Robertson. Barton commissioned Slade to write an undergraduate musical, Lady May, for May Week. Later he wrote a show whose title indicated more clearly what was to become his candy-floss style - Bang Goes the Meringue. At Cambridge Slade was once, in an all-male company, an unlikely Lady Macbeth to John Barton's Macbeth, but acting was not his forte, although on leaving university in 1951 he went on to the drama school of the Bristol Old Vic. He played small parts for a few months, and wrote the incidental music for several productions, including Two Gentlemen of Verona, which transferred to the Old Vic in 1952. Then Denis Carey, who was running the Old Vic company, asked for volunteers to write a Christmas musical; the three who offered were the leading lady, Dorothy Reynolds, James Cairncross and Slade.

Their Christmas in King Street was well received and, in 1952, Slade was appointed music director at the Bristol Old Vic. Soon he was writing new music for Sheridan's The Duenna, The Merry Gentlemen (1953) and a musical version of The Comedy of Errors, which appeared on television in 1954 and at the Arts theatre, London, in 1956. Reynolds wrote the lyrics. Again sharing the lyric writing with Reynolds - and with no idea that they were working on a groundbreaker - Slade then put together what was envisaged as a light-hearted show to end the season, with parts for all the company.

It took six weeks to write, and was expected to run for three. Its title, Salad Days, was suggested by the theatre barmaid, who had heard a line from the previous production, Antony and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra talks sadly of her "salad days, when I was green in judgment". The play was a great success, but London managements insisted that metropolitan names would have to be in the cast before they would be interested. Slade honourably took the view that any member of the Bristol cast who wanted to play in London should do so.

It was only when two managements got together to share the risks in presenting the show at the Vaudeville theatre, in the Strand, that the London critics were able to say, in effect, that the play was rather beneath their sophistication. It ran for the next five and a half years, with Slade himself playing the piano in the pit for the first 18 months and one woman reportedly going to see it 115 times.

In 1976, it was revived in the West End to commemorate the 20th anniversary of its first appearance there, and in 1996 there was a 40th anniversary revival. After Salad Days, other musical plays by Slade and Reynolds, and by Slade on his own, were not so successful, almost as if the very youthful zing that accompanied the magic piano could not be reproduced by maturing people (Reynolds was 17 years older than Slade).

Free As Air (1957), at the Savoy theatre, opposite the Vaudeville, could have established Slade and Reynolds as omnipresent figures - similar to the later Andrew Lloyd-Webber or Cameron Mackintosh - but it was not to be. One critic said that it was tidier and altogether more professional than Salad Days; the music was stronger and better sung; a 14-piece orchestra was better than two tinkling pianos; the comedy was weaker and the lyrics neither better nor worse. In other words, the magic of Salad Days was not quite there.

It was much the same story with other shows, including Hooray for Daisy (Bristol, 1959, London, 1961), Follow That Girl (London, 1960, revived 2000), Wildest Dreams (Cheltenham, 1960, London, 1961), Vanity Fair (with Alan Pryce-Jones and Robin Miller, London, 1962), Nutmeg and Ginger (Cheltenham, 1963, revived at the Orange Tree theatre, Richmond, in 1991), Sixty Thousand Nights (with George Rowell, Bristol, 1966) and The Pursuit of Love (from the Nancy Mitford novel, Bristol, 1967).

In later years, Slade's work included composing the music for A Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado About Nothing at the Regent's Park theatre; adapting Winnie the Pooh at the Phoenix in 1970 and 1975, with music in collaboration with Aubrey Woods and George Rowell; composing Now We Are Sixty (1986), based on the works of AA Milne; and adapting Nancy Mitford's novel Love in a Cold Climate (1997).

Though he remained keen to work, Salad Days always overshadowed everything Slade did. But he stayed both unmarried and unbitter. He always claimed with resolute chirpiness that it was better to have had an early success than none at all. He is survived by his sister Pauline, and brothers Adrian and Christopher.

· Julian Penkivil Slade, composer, born May 28 1930; died June 17 2006


Dennis Barker

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Freddie Slade obituary

Other lives: Expert film dubbing mixer who worked on ITV's This Week and the 1973 series The World at War

Alan Afriat

23, Aug, 2010 @5:15 PM

Article image
Jack Slade obituary
Other lives: Head of commercial and then graphic design at higher education institutions in Newcastle for more than 27 years

Janet Slade

08, May, 2016 @5:25 PM

Obituary: Julian Deaner
Obituary: My husband, the solicitor Julian Deaner, who has died aged 69, came from a long line of leftwing activists.

Olga Deaner

13, Dec, 2006 @12:10 AM

Obituary: Julian Rathbone

Obituary: Witty and imaginative novelist who was twice Booker-nominated and never confined by genre

Nick Coleman

04, Mar, 2008 @10:31 AM

Obituary: Julian Budden
Obituary: Masterful guide to opera's magic.

John Amis

07, Mar, 2007 @12:09 AM

Obituary: Sir Julian Bullard
Obituary: Diplomat who was the guiding hand behind the expulsion of 105 KGB agents.

Brian Fall

02, Jun, 2006 @10:48 PM

Article image
Julian Turner
Other lives: Veteran environmentalist and pacifist, he served with the Royal Artillery before working in the tax office

Pauline Salemi

28, Jul, 2010 @5:39 PM

Article image
Julian Edmonds obituary
Other lives: Community activist who chaired Central Ealing Residents’ Association for 16 years

Kay Garmeson

18, Nov, 2016 @5:12 PM

Article image
Julian Maslinski obituary

Other lives: Hotelier and chairman of the Westminster Tree Trust

Alex Segal

28, Aug, 2012 @1:47 PM

Article image
Julian Hope obituary
Opera director and grandson of Somerset Maugham who brought about a revival of the writer's works

Charles Sturridge

04, Nov, 2009 @6:59 PM