War ended band's big chance
IF YOU were at Efford Secondary Modern School in the late fifties, the chances are that you will remember the fretted instrument band that one of the masters there, Mr GH Willcocks, put together.
At the time it was thought to be the only fretted instrument orchestra in the country and the original inspiration behind it all was 67-year-old Arthur Lee. Arthur had taught Mr Willcocks many years earlier and before the war Arthur had led the Elite BMG (Banjo Mandolin and Guitar) orchestra, a large and unlikely ensemble that had grown out of Arthur's BMG club.
HIGH NOTE: Efford Secondary Modern School Orchestra c1957
ENSEMBLE: Left, a programme cover from the Elite BMG Club Orchestra concert at Keyham Methodist Schoolroom 11 November 1936. Far left, members of Arthur Lee's Elite BMG Club, including: Lillian Harvey, Alice Crimp, Audrey Redding, Doreen Shapcott, Jack Ledger, W G Cardew, D Northcott, Marion Westcott, D Carder, Maurice Connett, Ken Vodden, Stuart Couch, Ken Young, Elsie Sweet, Freda Payne, Olive Reynolds and Bill Parry
In 1936 the line-up included eight banjos, eight mandolins, six plectrum guitars, plus three mandolas, a domra, balalaika, bass balalaika, bass banjo, ukulele as well as piano and timpani.
Arthur himself was leader of the orchestra, while his wife, Irene, played mandola and his daughters Mary (b.1925) and Margaret (b.1929 and still with us today) were later drafted in, Mary on glockenspiel (and then bass domra) and Margaret on vocals, singing hits of the day like 'The Teddy Bear's Picnic' and 'Get Me Guessing'.
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The Elite BMG made quite a name for themselves locally and before long came the attention of the nationally acclaimed star of concert hall and wireless, Pasquale Troise, who led his own band – they had started out in the 1920s as the Selecta Plectrum Mandoline Orchestra and became Troise and his Mandoliers/and or Banjoliers (and went on to hold the record for appearances on the BBC's popular Music While You Work series).
The story goes that in 1939 Troise was about to get Arthur and his band an audition, and an opening, for the BBC in London with a view to the Elite BMG getting on the air. However, the declaration of war at the end of the summer put paid to all that, and as the radio chances disappeared, so, too, did a lot of the band members.
Fast forward to the fifties again though, and at Efford we find Arthur and his erstwhile pupil Mr Willcocks firing up the pupils and the parents in the hunt for instruments, particularly of a bass nature, to offset the 'shrill and more numerous mandolins, banjos and guitars'.
The problem was that instruments like that are not all that commonplace; indeed Arthur believed that his octave mandola was the only one in the country at that time. And so it was that the school woodwork master was roped in to help the boy members of the band make their own instruments, based on the 'prototypes' owned by Arthur Lee.
A piece in the Herald (September 12 1957) quoted Arthur at the time as saying that there was no limit to the types of music he could adapt for the orchestra: 'Everything from rock'n'roll to Orpheus and the Underworld'.
Mr Lee was also recorded as saying that there was no shortage of keen players and that if it 'clicks' then the 'orchestra will not disband when the children reach school leaving age, but will continue to play as a "senior" orchestra, while those still at school will reinforce the senior one, year by year, to ensure its continued success.'
And so, what happened next? Were you part of that Efford ensemble, or do you know anyone who was?
Arthur Lee was, according to his son-in-law, Derek Mackness, who kindly supplied the pictures and the information, a strict disciplinarian of the old school – 'you don't play by ear, you read music'. Not a great fan of the electric guitar either, Arthur, who served in Palestine during the First World War, taught music from his studio in North Road until his eightieth year and died five years later, in November 1974. He had a couple of his pieces published – a march and a waltz – but over and above his composition skills, from our point of view, he was also a very keen amateur photographer.