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Last Updated: Friday, 29 June 2007, 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK
Re-discovering my father
With partner
Flanders, left, with partner Donald Swann at the piano
When Newsnight's economic editor Stephanie Flanders set out to discover more about her late father Michael Flanders, she knew much about his role as one half of a celebrated comic act, but not that he'd been an embryonic voice in Britain's disability rights campaign.

My father died when I was just six years old - so there was a huge amount I didn't know about him. While making a radio documentary, I've been on a voyage of discovery, and along the way I've uncovered some amazing and entertaining archive recordings which have been lost for decades.

What I did know was that in the late 1950s and early 1960s he was world-famous. In partnership with pianist Donald Swann he performed witty and elegant comic monologues and songs, which were wildly popular. Half a century on, some of them are indelibly engraved on the nation's collective memory, especially the chorus of The Hippopotamus Song: Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud.

I discovered that my father developed his flair for performance early. As a student at Westminster School, he organised a show in a West End theatre during the early days of World War II. Tony Benn, then a young squit, told me how he was roped in as a stagehand.

"All the other theatres had been closed at that particular time so that made it a very attractive opportunity and people came in large numbers" he recalled.

Stephanie Flanders
While making the programme, I learned that later in his life he campaigned on behalf of the rights of the disabled
Stephanie Flanders
My dad did a comic turn as the Great Marvello - a joke strongman. As an imposing athletic figure, it was a role he could pull off. He continued to perform at Oxford University and was looking forward to a promising career as an actor when he was called up to the Navy.

His ship, the HMS Marne was later torpedoed, but his greatest challenge came later in the war. Here's how he told the story on a newly re-discovered Desert Island Discs, which had been lost by the BBC.

"I was lying off Yarmouth, listening for e-boats - fortunately I never heard one - when I started to feel something that was like a very bad dose of flu, which was eventually diagnosed as polio."

His commanding officer refused to let him take immediate rest and as a result the polio became far more damaging. He spent several months being treated in an iron lung - which had to be specially constructed to fit his 6ft 4ins frame.

Eventually he was discharged - but his polio meant that he could only walk with great difficulty. For the rest of his life he used a wheelchair.

Wheelchair

"It was a pleasure to get into the wheelchair after about a year I had in an iron lung and in bed," he told Roy Plomley. "But of course you only see the people that have got the wheelchairs licked, those who didn't get the wheelchair licked are mouldering away somewhere."

School boy
Flanders as a schoolboy in 1937
He hoped to resume his degree at Oxford, but he was disappointed. Family history has it that the college told him "This isn't a home for cripples" - although we've never been able to find the original letter.

Then my father had a rough few years. He directed amateur dramatics and auditioned as a radio actor for the BBC. He was considered for the part of the dashing crimefighter Dick Barton - but the Beeb said he "didn't sound like the voice of an active man".

In the end he got work as a presenter with BBC Schools Radio - and from then on was hardly ever out of a radio studio. As he started to make an independent living, he hooked up with an old schoolfriend, Donald Swann. They found work writing songs for London revues, Swann writing the tunes and my father the lyrics.

Over time, the duo started performing their songs themselves at parties and cabarets. It went down so well that they decided to take the plunge, hiring a small theatre in West London for a three-week run. They opened on New Year's Eve, 1956, with a show called At the Drop of a Hat.

The duo received rave reviews and they soon transferred to the West End for a run that lasted 2 and a half years. Their shows produced two best-selling albums - produced by George Martin of Beatles fame - and then toured around Britain, the US and Canada for 11 years.

Pioneer

"I think the fact you've got Michael Flanders in a wheelchair sitting up on stage is pretty pioneering," his biographer and archivist, Leon Berger told me. "I can't think of a single example, certainly not in the UK, of a public figure who's been disabled."

Tony Benn
A young Tony Benn, who at school had been a stagehand for Flanders
During his years touring with Donald Swann, my father was keen to be judged on his own merits - as a performer who happened to be disabled, rather than as a disabled performer.

Yet while making the programme, I learned that later in his life he campaigned on behalf of the rights of the disabled. Lord Morris of Manchester, a family friend, was a Labour MP when he got to know my father. In 1969 he introduced a private member's bill to counter discrimination against the disabled.

"I remember very vividly now returning from the House of Commons after speaking on my Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill," Alf Morris told me.

"I turned on the as it would be now Radio 4 and heard your father explaining to people what the bill was all about and I thought he did it so expertly and so well and so persuasively he ought to have taken part in the debate earlier that day. And I could take things a little easier."

Lord Morris said this campaigning - along with efforts by mother - were instrumental in getting the bill passed, despite a lack of government support. The act, which forced local authorities to help disabled people, was the first piece of legislation in the area since the war.

Fois gras

After ending his double act with Donald Swann, my father continued to broadcast - narrating the first documentary series to show the royal family at close quarters - and to write. He scored another hit late in life with the cantata Captain Noah and His Floating Zoo, which remains one of the most popular pieces for amateur choirs.

And for those who thought his wit was always gentle, there was the savage song Foie Gras, a biting attack on the cruelty and greed involved in producing the delicacy. We have recorded a special version of the song which is available on the Radio 4 website.

My father died suddenly, of a brain aneurysm, in 1975. But whenever anyone thinks of mud - or gnus - I think he will be remembered.

Flanders on Flanders is broadcast at 2000 BST on Saturday 30 June on BBC Radio 4, after which it can be heard on Radio 4's listen again page, under the Archive Hour.



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