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Shirley Abicair

All the way from 'down under', she told stories on children's television programmes about Tumburumba, and friends Tea Cup and Cothespeg (aboriginal children) and also played Australian ditties on her zither, such as "Little boy fishing off a wooden pier" and "Willie Can You Cook".

Shirley Abicair with her zither   Shirley Abicair

(All information on this page courtesy of Tom Jolliffe)

TWENTY-FOUR is a grand age for a girl to find her engagement book crammed full, to have a fashionable flat in Mayfair, an expensive car, and as many clothes as she wants. These are the marks of good fortune which have come to Shirley Abicair.

This Australian girl was a university student in Sydney when she started singing at private parties to earn a bit of money towards her educational fees. Accompanying herself on a zither, unearthed in the Abicairs' musical home, she entered a radio talent contest and won a radio series as a result.

Shirley often talked of her ambition to come to London to storm the BBC. In the end she took the chance, and flew to Britain - stopping twice en route to sing in cabarets in order to earn her fare. Because she looked attractive, a photographer snapped her leaving the plane at London Air-port. A BBC sound-radio producer saw the picture in an evening news-paper. He wanted another act for a radio show by Commonwealth artists, and asked Shirley to bring her zither along. Geraldo heard the broadcast, and fixed her a concert date at Bournemouth. He also got her an audition for a new London show.

In the theatre as she took her audition was TV producer Kenneth Carter. Impressed, he gave her the Centre Show date which so memorably made her an instant TV success. Those were the strokes of good fortune which not only enabled Shirley Abicair to streak to the top, but also challenged her to polish her talent and so maintain her position.

So much work has gone into that, as well as into collecting folk songs for her act, that she says she has had no domestic life at all in England yet. In 1954 she sent for her air-hostess cousin, Maureen, to come from Australia and act as her manager. This Maureen did, and the Abicair business, founded on good luck and nerve, looks surely to the future.

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An excerpt from a TV Annual of 1957


Viewers have seen a change come over Shirley Abicair in her TV song programme during the past year. Miss Abicair explains...

"How do you feel? Happy?"

"Smooth as a bowl of cream!"

"To quote a vaudeville act I know: ‘When you’re overworked and underweight and it doesn’t hurt—you’re doin’ fine!’"

A taxi skittered towards us through the rain, but we walked up Jermyn Street: I wanted to walk. We had been to the premiere of Smiley. At the celebration afterwards, everybody felt too good for post-mortems or "nice" compliments. But for a long time I had a mental picture of Smiley’s author, Moore Raymond, red-faced and perspiring, concealing his embarrassment by taking photographs of everybody, and an excited Anthony Kimmins distributing warm handshakes at the door.

Smiley was the first premiere I ever went to. I didn’t even go to the premiere of my own film, because I hadn’t really felt a part of it; I felt I’d done nothing in it that was worth hiring a car, getting into evening dress and smiling toothily in a West-End foyer for photographers. But Smiley was different. It was a beautiful film and although I had only sung the theme song under the opening titles and under the credits at the end, I felt I was part of it. I felt I had contributed everything I could to it.

Smiley was beautiful, and I believed in it; and when I sang "Smiley" under the titles, I gave it all the beauty I could.

When I say that I wasn’t part of my other film I wasn’t really part of show business then. I had never felt that I belonged to the business. It was only this year that I realized that I do belong, when I started using material I really believed in; material that was original and, above all, entertaining - material on the very highest level of quality. I felt I had something to say that was worth while, and I had a great urge to say it - or in my case, sing it. Performing became a wonderful, gratifying experience.

". . . . . . . but it wasn’t always that way, Arch"

(Mehitabel. Book I. Ch. 3)

Eight or nine months before that Smiley premiere, if you’d taken a quick dekko into Associated. Rediffusion any day of the week, you’d have got a good sixpennorth of me, stuck up a shaky ladder mewing "Blue Skies."

That show did me a favour. I know now that the script was about as monotonous as if it had been tape-recorded by a parrot. The dialogue was written first and then the songs were selected to fit a bunch of non-existent situations. I know now that, though everybody else was terribly enthusiastic, that was why I had a long face from start to finish. I couldn’t find a line worth saying. When it was finally suggested that I sing "Yip-I-Addy-I-Ay" . . . that did it! I jumped off the merry-go-round there and then.

In order to be a good performer, you must have good material to perform. You have to believe in it - just as Rosalyn Tureck believes when she plays Bach’s 48 preludes, or as Mr. Pastry believes when he clutches his black velvet pants and clowns Shakespeare.

". . . 0! The Queens I have been and the swell feeds I have ate."

(Mehitabel. Book II. Ch. 2)

Then came my first solo series for Associated-Rediffusion. I knew it would be the most important series I had done. And I wouldn’t have climbed that stepladder again to yowl "Blue Skies" for a diamond collar with a silver bell.

On that solo series, it would have been easy to stick to my convictions only some of the time, because nobody there believed in what I believed in . . . except one person who knew what I was trying to say through my songs: a writer, Bill Lovelock. He saw what I had to say before I did. Between us, we had collected some of the most beautiful folksongs in the world. Every song I sang became worth singing, and everything I said became worth saying. Songs like "Green Willow," "10,000 Miles," "Turtle Dove." I knew all that I wanted to say . . . and, by jumping jehosophats, I was going to say it, and go on saying it. Why, I was prepared to go over to the Left Bank in Paris and sing in a little bistro for nothing, so long as I could sing what I wanted.

We stood alone for three of those solo ITV shows before the letters began to pour in. Hundreds of letters, from children, from adults, all kinds of people. Then Bernard Levin in an article in the Manchester Guardian marched us to glory with all flags flying. And at last, the doubters fell into line with the viewers.

I was happy, because for the first time since I had been in show business I felt as if I’d reached a level of honesty and entertainment that was worth the years of groping. What I had to do now was to hold on to it, develop it, and say it in everything I did.

". . . . . . . . . . .Out in the jungle where cats are cats

Arch, a lady’s got to stick to her guns."

(Mehitabel. Book II. Ch. 9)

So we went to work on my next record, searching until we found a popular song which belonged with our folk-songs like "Gypsy Davey" and "Sugar-babe." We settled on "Willie Can" and recorded it with George Martin at Parlophone. George Martin, too, had got the message, and his warm, silent understanding and musicianship was right with us when I recorded "Smiley" and "Little Boy Fishin’" which followed in the summer.

We gave all these songs the same treatment and thought as we’d given our folksongs. I was putting that message of truth and quality into everything I did in show business; when you do that, you love what you’re doing and you polish it and shine it up and gloat over it. Performing becomes a wonderful fulfilment in itself, especially when you feel your audience smiling and understanding and wanting it.

That’s why I was so pleased for Moore Raymond, after the Smiley premiere, and for Anthony Kimmins and Muir Mathieson. Smiley marked the beginning of a new summer, with a holiday in sight, and behind us, my new BBC TV series that followed my solo ITV show. With that BBC series, which was a Friday night show, I won thousands of supporters who wrote every week, all showing that they knew and understood and loved the beautiful folksongs I was singing and the stories I was telling. But the big struggle was no longer necessary, for the BBC were right behind us in our ideas, and so was our producer, Graeme Muir.

And at my first premiere, the premiere of Smiley, I was having a little private celebration, because what we had brought off on television and on records could come over and hold its own on a huge stereoscopic coloured screen before a cinema audience, as well as from a tiny studio in Lime Grove.


A Shirley Abicair LP Record (NOT for sale here!)

Record sleeve

Accompanied by KEN JONES and his Orchestra

Shirley Abicair comes from Adelaide, South Australia, a district of sunshine beauty where 'apricots and nectarines grow as big as footballs and fall into your hand'. Such a background, where life was varied and uncontrived, is exactly what one might imagine her to have had. For, the moment she speaks or sings she puts a spell on you, reaching you with a directness that is a radiation, like sunlight itself

It is this quality of communication that grips her audiences. A vitality infinitely poised - and intriguing, because you can feel the mystery of the true artist.

Imagination is one of the keys to her personality. As a small child Shirley, exploring an attic, found a zither in a cupboard. Delighted, she treated it as a world to be conquered for what it might yield, and mastered it without the help of a teacher.

Singing had always come naturally to her. When she went to Sydney University, immersed in Philosophy, Languages, the Arts, she took her zither with her and entertained her fellow-students. These performances were now taken for granted, thought of as a means of expression rather than profession. Then she realised that she might captivate a far wider audience, and with the encouragement of friends made a trial in cabaret with a reception so enthusiastic that there was no turning back.

Her extraordinary successes on British television (not to mention those in her continuous cabaret and night club appearances) have included, over the past three years, a series of delightful Children's Hour stories. This shows how wide are her gifts.

In this charming and accomplished girl, a singer of songs and a teller of tales, the minstrel of long ago has come back to life.

In listing the songs we must say a word about the accompaniments, for they play a very important part. The fact that the arrangements and scoring are so interesting is due to Ken Jones's immense skill. They have entailed a great deal of creative work.

As to origin, four songs (Go Galloway, Serenade of the Courting Cat, Luluai and That's Singin') are entirely the work of Bill Lovelock who has written a great deal of Miss Abicair's specialised material.

Giuvanne - A comic Neapolitan street song. The girl wants her lover never to leave her.

Eddystone Light - Traditional English.

Turtle Dove - American version of a traditional English song. The Turtle Dove was a symbol of love in Elizabethan England.

Little Lost Dog - A Parisian song that is half a parable. We are all strays without a true companion.

Skip-to-my-Lou - Handclap, play-party song. Used in Tennessee as an alibi for dancing, when dancing itself was forbidden as sinful.

Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier - Traditional Irish.

Go Galloway - A song of the turf. (Stable jargon.)

Serenade of the Courting Cat - The Song of Raoul, the fabulous. (Born a Royal Persian?)

Terang Boelan - Malay folksong, originally French, which became the national anthem by accident. There being no anthem, the band lined up to receive a visiting Malayan potentate played this at his own suggestion.

Smilin' Day - A winsome song. Bill Lovelock and Ken Jones collaborated on the music.

Luluai - In Polynesian style. Means 'Head man' - my boss.

Green Willow - Traditional English. About the Irish who were transported to Australia.

That's Singin' - Cheerful song, for an audience to join in.

The Little Tonkinese - Traditional song of French Tonking. The singer becomes the girl who is the apple in the eye of many admirers, but only truly loved by one.

Back of record sleeve

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