The Whitehall farces were a series of five long-running comic stage plays at the Whitehall Theatre in London, presented by the actor-manager Brian Rix, in the 1950s and 1960s. They were in the low comedy tradition of British farce, following the Aldwych farces, which played at the Aldwych Theatre between 1924 and 1933.
The farces; critical reception
The five farces were as follows:
Rix built a company of regular players who appeared in some or all of these shows. They included Leo Franklyn, Larry Noble, Dennis Ramsden and Derek Royle, and members of Rix's family: his wife, Elspet Gray, his sister, Sheila Mercier and his brother-in-law, Peter Mercier. Others who appeared in one or more of the Whitehall farces include Terry Scott and Andrew Sachs. Rix starred in all five plays, in a range of roles: a "gormless recruit" to the army in Reluctant Heroes; a timidly crooked bookie's runner in Dry Rot; a street musician recruited as a secret agent in Simple Spymen; four identical brothers in One For the Pot; and a harassed civil servant in Chase Me, Comrade. From Dry Rot onwards, Rix and his authors developed a double act for the Rix characters and those played by Leo Franklyn, in which the two performers played off one another rather as Ralph Lynn and Tom Walls had done in the Aldwych farces of the previous generation.
Although the five plays had long runs and packed houses, most London critics were snobbishly dismissive of them. Looking back in 1980, Michael Coveney wrote of the Whitehall farces, "A tradition of critical snobbery has grown up around these plays, partly because they were so blatantly popular but chiefly because of our conviction that farce, unless written by a Frenchman, is an inferior theatrical species. Once the National Theatre has done its duty by Priestley and Rattigan and others teetering on the brink of theatrical respectability I suggest they employ Mr. Rix … to investigate the ignored riches of English farce between Travers and Ayckbourn." The few London critics of the 1950s and 1960s who did not take a lofty view included Harold Hobson, Ronald Bryden, J. W. Lambert and Alan Dent.
Television broadcasts; later productions
In addition to the five long-running farces, Rix presented a series of more than eighty one-off televised comedies, some of them farces, for the BBC. The first was transmitted live from the Whitehall Theatre in January 1956. There were also film versions of Reluctant Heroes (1951), Dry Rot (1956), and Chase Me, Comrade, which was renamed Not Now, Comrade (1976).
In 1966, having been unable to secure the lease of the Whitehall Theatre, Rix took his company on tour in Chase Me, Comrade and Bang, Bang Beirut (later retitled Stand By Your Bedouin), by Cooney and Hilton. Later productions by the Rix company at the Garrick Theatre and elsewhere included Uproar in the House, by Anthony Marriott and Alistair Foot (1967); Let Sleeping Wives Lie by Harold Brooke and Kay Bannerman (1967); She's Done It Again, by Michael Pertwee (1969); Don't Just Lie There, Say Something (Pertwee, 1971); and A Bit Between the Teeth (Pertwee, 1974). According to Leslie Smith in a study of modern British farce, although some of the Rix productions after Chase Me, Comrade achieved substantial success, none of them had the conspicuously long runs of the five Whitehall farces. In 1976 Rix returned to the Whitehall with Fringe Benefits (Churchill and Cooney) which ran until 1977 when he retired from the stage.