Behind the Scenes

Privates on Parade

behind the scenes of the production

About the work


Welcome to the Michael Grandage Company’s production of Privates on Parade by Peter Nichols

Private Steven Flowers is posted to the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia (SADUSEA) where, under the leadership of the flamboyant Captain Terri Dennis, he learns it takes more than just a uniform to become a man. 

Peter Nichols’ semi-autobiographical account of the British Army in Singapore in 1948 is the starting point for one of the writer’s funniest and most theatrical works. Conceived in the form of a variety show, with music by Denis King, the staging of a concert party by SADUSEA is combined with the troupe’s tour through the Malayan countryside, pursued by Communist guerillas. 

Simon Russell Beale plays the cross-dressing Captain Dennis, whose performances of Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and Carmen Miranda form the centrepiece of this award-winning comedy, which charts the journey of young Private Flowers and his extraordinary rites of passage. 

What Peter Nichols did brilliantly is create a drama with a murderous backdrop about a particular war at a particular time – the Malayan Emergency – but he has done it by following an amateur entertainment troupe into the jungle. So he is able to juxtapose a highly comic scenario against a dark drama, and for a director like me you get the best of all worlds. You get a full-on camp comedy with people putting fruit on their heads and a wonderful document about an under-recorded period of history. From a director’s point of view and an audience’s point of view it’s exciting and interesting all at the same time.’

Michael Grandage, Artistic Director, MGC

SADUSEA – Ready for action

It’s 1948. Three years after the end of the Second World War, conscription is still in operation in Britain and all ‘healthy males’ aged 17 to 21 must serve two years National Service. Twenty-year-old Steven Flowers is posted to Singapore in South-East Asia, then part of British-ruled Malaya, where the Malayan Communist Party want independence from the UK. 

Malaya’s tin and rubber industries are vital to Britain’s post-war recovery and the British refer to the conflict as the ‘Malayan Emergency’ – insurers wouldn’t cover potential losses if it were termed a war. The armed forces of the Malayan Communist Party, however, are unequivocal, calling it the ‘Anti-British National Liberation War’.

Major Giles Flack recognises the seriousness of the situation, the threat to the declining British Empire and a Christian way of life, but his ability to act is limited while in command of a concert party to entertain the troops – the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia (SADUSEA). He doesn’t understand the theatre, and least of all the troupe’s leader and star, Captain Terri Dennis – with his cross-dressing and calling men by women’s names.

Private Flowers, recently promoted to sergeant, shows promise and is potential sergeant-major material – following the untimely death of the previous sarnt-major – but the young man claims to have fallen in love with the concert party’s only female performer, ‘Eurasian’ dancer Sylvia Morgan.

Major Flack isn’t going to let that stop his secret plans to lead the company up-country, though, using it as bait to flush out the Malayan Communist Party’s guerilla fighters – a real ‘Jungle Jamboree’. But first he’s got to turn a theatrical troupe into an armed unit… Armed and ready for action.

Production Team

DirectorMichael Grandage
Set & Costume DesignerChristopher Oram
Lighting DesignerPaule Constable
ChoreographerBen Wright
Musical DirectorJae Alexander
Sound DesignersNick Lidster & Terry Jardine for Autograph
Casting DirectorToby Whale
Wig & Hair DesignerRichard Mawbey
Production ManagerPaul Handley
Company Stage ManagerKaty Bryant
Deputy Stage ManagerRhiannon Harper
Assistant Stage ManagerDanyal Shafiq
Associate DirectorCathal Cleary
Associate Set & Costume DesignersLee Newby & David Woodhead
Associate Lighting DesignerBen Donoghue
Associate Sound DesignerYvonne Gilbert
Dialect CoachPenny Dyer
Props SupervisorCelia Strainge
Costume SupervisorNatasha Ward
Head of WardrobeTim Gradwell
Head of Wigs & Make‑UpGemma Flaherty
Deputy Head of WardrobeCharlotte Stidwell
Wardrobe AssistantRachael McIntyre
DresserEvita Aslanidou
Rehearsal PhotographersMarc Brenner & Hugo Glendinning
Production PhotographerJohan Persson


Musical Director/PianoJae Alexander
Associate Musical DirectorSteve Ridley
BassJoe Pettitt
PercussionJames Gambold
TrumpetAndy Gathercole
Clarinet/Flute/Alto SaxophoneSteve Moss

My University

Peter Nichols discusses his National Service in Asia, shortly after the Second World War, and the ‘education’ he received in the Combined Services Entertainment unit, which was the inspiration for Privates on Parade

‘This was a slumbering time [1946]. Pots were about to boil over. In eight months India would go it alone; in 18 China would go red; in a year or so serious trouble would start in Malaya. ‘An emergency they’re calling it,’ says Major Flack in Privates, ‘but that’s softly-softly officialese. Everyone knows it’s the start of the Third World War.’ There was a very good reason not to call it a war. Insurance policies were so framed that they wouldn’t cover the damage. To those being shot or having their hand cut off, it might have felt like a war but they were wrong. It was only an emergency.

From 1948 to 1960 over 100,000 British, Malays, Indians and Chinese were kept busy trying to defeat a guerrilla band of 5,000. Letters from home reminded me that things could have been worse. Friends who’d stayed described an England of cold, boredom and shortages, a London crippled by transport strikes. Yet we would all, without exception, have given the sun-soaked beach, the tropic village, the garden city, for all the miseries of Atlee’s England. 

I was bounced about the island [Singapore] like a bagatelle ball till I rolled into the hole I wanted. Nee Soon is a spacious sylvan military camp. Beyond a ravine, terraced on a slope of the far hill, the off-white block of Combined Services Entertainment now – in 1984 – stands empty. On the sloping lawn before our billet, where once was heard the patter of ping-pong and the squeaks and farts of amateur bands rehearsing show tunes, all is quiet but the wind up the ravine stirring leaves on the great overhanging tree that was in our day a sapling. Hardly comparable with rooms at King’s College or Trinity, but this was where my education began.’

This is an edited extract from Peter Nichols’ memoir Feeling You’re Behind (George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd., 1984)

actors on stage in a theatre production
Privates on Parade production. Photo: Johan Persson

Further Reading

  • Privates on Parade – A play with songs by Peter Nichols
    Music by Denis King (Samuel French, 1977/2001)
    The text of the play.
  • Feeling You’re Behind by Peter Nichols (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1984)
    Peter Nichols’ autobiography
  • Peter Nichols: Diaries 1969-1977 by Peter Nichols (Nick Hern Books, 2000)

Peter Nichols discusses Privates on Parade with Dominic Cavendish (13/10/2008) 
Listen now


Teaser Trailer (HD)

Theatrical Trailer (HD)

Pathe Newsreel (HD)


Production Photographs

Behind the Scenes

Set Design

Costume Design