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Michael Flanders (1922-1975) and Donald Swann (1923-1994) were two of the finest British comedians of their day. Their medium was cabaret; Swann was a gifted pianist, composer, and linguist and Flanders a talented raconteur and lyricist with a sharp eye for satire. Meeting at school, Flanders and Swann first performed a revue together in 1940, although this was not the beginnings of their partnership; Flanders aspired to be an actor. During the second World War, Swann served in the ambulance corps and Flanders in the British Navy. Not long after the war, Flanders contracted polio and was confined to a wheelchair. In the early '50s, Flanders and Swann began writing together again, but mostly for other performers. In 1956, they presented their first revue of their own songs, At the Drop of a Hat. The revue first played at the New Lindsey Theatre in London, but soon moved to a larger theater (the Fortune), where it played continuously for two years until 1959. They took the Hat revue on tour after this to the Edinburgh Festival, 13 cities across the United States, and Canada, then on to Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong. While the songs themselves remained by and large the same during the touring, Flanders would change his banter between songs to suit the location and to take into account any current events that could be addressed. A number of the Hat songs have become classics, but none more so than the immensely popular "Hippopotamus Song," whose chorus ("Mud, mud, glorious mud/Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood") is universally known, even if its origin isn't. In 1964, Flanders and Swann returned with a new revue, entitled At the Drop of Another Hat. As with the first Hat, the songs were tales of everyday English life, but included astute comments on current affairs of the day. As he had done in their first revue, Swann sang in languages other than English — in Another Hat it was Russian, to add to his French and Greek songs on the first Hat. In 1966 and 1967, Flanders and Swann returned to the United States and Canada for another tour, and in 1967 Swann broke up the partnership. One more recording was produced; The Bestiary of Flanders and Swann. This was not a live recording, unlike the previous two, and while these songs were written by Flanders & Swann, many had already been performed by other people. After the breakup of the partnership, Flanders made use of his directing skills in stage plays, while Swann continued to compose and perform with a variety of partners. The strength of Flanders and Swann's music lay in a number of areas: Flanders' word play in his lyrics and his sharp wit and clever banter kept audiences' attention for hours, while Swann's music could borrow from the classics, light opera, jazz, or popular styles of the day, changing from one to the other in the blink of an eye. While much of their material was simply observational of middle-class English life, they also wrote a significant number of protest songs, whether they be about the closure of train lines ("Slow Train") or anti-war songs ("20 Tons of TNT"). Their protests were certainly much gentler than the folksingers of the day, but in many ways that has seen their music simply age much more gracefully.
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