After the huge success of his first theatrical sketch Bairnsfatherland or the Johnson 'Ole (written in collaboration with Basil Macdonald Hastings) in the London Hippodrome revue Flying Colours in September 1916 , and with a second sketch due to open in See-Saw at the Comedy Theatre in Spring of 1917, the suggestion was made that Bruce Bairnsfather should write a full length play based around his popular character Old Bill,
The idea was taken up by Bairnsfather and, in collaboration with Capt. Arthur Eliot, he wrote a comedy-drama titled The Better 'Ole. It was made up of two acts and eight scenes (described in the programme as "Two explosions, Seven Splinters and a Short Gas Attack"): at a "Gaff" behind the lines, outside the Cafe des Oiseaux near the front, in billets behind the line, on the way back "in," in the trenches, at Headquarters, on the Leave Train and back at Old Bill's home in England.
First produced by Charles B Cochran at the Oxford Theatre, London on 4 August 1917, The Better 'Ole was an instant hit. Within a few months Cochran had sent out several touring companies, which took the play to all corners of the UK over the next 2 years. It was also produced around the world - from New York to Sydney, and Bombay to Tokyo - by several theatrical companies, and met with huge success wherever it was played.
THE BETTER 'OLE - PLOT
Splinter 1 - "The Gaff" Near the Base, somewhere in France
Old Bill and his pals Bert and Alf are enjoying a brief respite away from the trenches, at "The Gaff," with music, singing and dancing. Their merry-making is interrupted by their Colonel, who tells them they have been ordered up to the front, and move off the following evening.
They make the most of the rest of their evening, with an old English dance - the Sir Roger de Coverley. Noticing that Dubois, a Frenchman, is not dancing, Old Bill tries to get him to take part, but Dubois is too involved in reading a mysterious note, written on blue paper. Old Bill tries to get to see the note, of which Dubois is very protective, and a struggle ensues. Old Bill succeeds in getting the note from Dubois, who offers him 2,000 Frances - £80 - if he will return it. Old Bill agrees, but manages to swap the note for another similar piece of paper, before handing it over to the Frenchman, who quickly runs off with what he believes to be his paper.
Splinter 2 - Outside the Cafe des Oiseaux, nearer the Front
At the cafe, Bert - who always has an eye for the girls - is sweet-talking Suzette, the proprietor's daughter. Alf and Old Bill arrive, and start discussing Bert's many girlfriends, and Old Bill's plans to open a pub, the Walrus Arms, after the war. They discuss the note Bill got from Dubois, and although not written in English, it is evident there is some kind of map, and Old Bill senses that something is not quite right about it.
Splinter 3 - "Billets" Just behind the Front
Bert is trying his charms on another French girl, Victoire. Bill is inside, having a wash. After a musical interlude with the Women War Workers, Old Bill, Bert and Alf discuss the message on the mysterious blue paper he is still carrying around, and ask Victoire if she can translate it for them.
Victoire realises the message is written in German, and is a plot - instructions for a spy. The message says that on the following night at 11pm, the French intend to attack the German line at the north of the old brickyard at the bend in the river. In order to make their attack, the French must cross a bridge near the village of Cassy, but to prevent the attack the bridge has been mined and will be blown up after the French have crossed it. This will cut off their only means of retreat and they will be trapped.
Realising the implications of the information in the note, Old Bill resolves to somehow prevent the attack.
After a mail delivery from home (with no letters for either Bill, Bert or Alf) the soldiers are ordered to fall in and march off.
Splinter 4 - "The Way In"
The soldiers are marching up to the front, in darkness other than the light of the moon. Old Bill is carrying sheets of corrugated iron, Bert a large biscuit box and Alf two planks. The three sing a song, "We wish we were in Blighty" and Bill tells his pals he h met a Frenchman earlier who told him the bridge the French are due to cross that evening is not far from their trenches.
The trio sit down for a moments rest and Old Bill starts writing a letter home to his wife, Maggie. As shells explode above them and machine gun fire rattles in the distance, they set off again, signing a chorus of "Plum and Apple."
Splinter 5 - "In"
Old Bill, Bert and Alf have arrived in the trenches. It is a foggy night, which pleases Bill. ("I likes that fog, me lad" he says to Bert).
The Sergeant Major reminds the men that there is a wiring party out that night, and no-one is to leave the trench until their work is done.
Alf is darning a sock, and Bill comments "That ain't no 'ole, that's an aperture" to which Alf retorts "Well, if you know of a better 'ole..."
Bill starts to think of Maggie, and is pleased that she "won't 'ear of this little bit of devilment of mine till it's over." As it gets to 10.30pm Bert tells him "It's about time you was thinking of hailing your taxi" and Bill takes a swig of rum before he starts off on his mission. He tells his pals that according to the plan on the paper, "I'll find a bloke down there by that sunken barge in the river, waiting to fire the mine. I 'ope 'e's there. We can 'ave quite a nice little chat."
Before slipping away over the parapet and through the barbed wire, Bill gives a small package to Bert, and asks him to take it home to Maggie, if he doesn't return that night.
No sooner has Bill gone than the Sergeant come along and tells the men to stand by, as the wiring party has returned, and the French are about to "put up a show."
With that, there is distant rifle fire from the German trenches, and a deep, loud 'Boom' and red flash of light, from the direction in which Bill had disappeared.
"'E's done it! The bridge 'as gone up! exclaim Bert and Alf.
Out of the dark night, a figure now makes his way through the barbed wire and drops down into the trench. It is Old Bill, who has been running, and has a torn greatcoat.
The Sergeant quizzes Bill about what he has been up to, noticing he is holding his right arm. As he removes Bill's greatcoat, a package containing the 2,00 francs and the blue note detailing the German plan, drop out. The Sergeant is agog, and Bill is immediately placed under close arrest and led away from the trench.
Splinter 6 - "HQ"
At HQ, Bert trying to charm yet another French girl, Berthe. Alf arrives to tell him that Old Bill is "for it" today.
Enter the Colonel and an Adjutant, who discuss various military matters before coming to Old Bill's court martial.
Bill is escorted in under guard, his right arm in a sling. The Colonel reads out the charges, which include being absent from the trenches without leave, and being found in possession of incriminating documents and a certain amount of money - "a most serious charge."
The Sergeant Major gives his evidence, explaining how he saw Bill come back over the parapet from the direction of the German lines, and found him in possession of the map written in German and 2,000 francs. The Colonel tells Bill that there can be no doubt he has been implicated "in one of the most criminal of enterprises" and has "sacrificed your honour, that of your regiment and your country."
He is about to continue when there is a disturbance outside. A French officer is demanding to see the Colonel urgently, and is admitted. Bill is led away.
The French officer tells the Colonel that he has been sent by his General, on "business of great importance." He says "it has become known to us that our gallant troops on the sector next to yours have been saved from a grave disaster - an disaster planned by the Bosches - a disaster which has been averted, thanks to one man - and he a British soldier."
He has a witness - a French girl (Victoire) who can identify this man, and has been escorted at the request of the General, so that she can do so.
Victoire is brought in, and on giving her description it is clear that the man she is referring to is Old Bill.
Bill is brought back in, and the French officer immediately goes over to him and pins a medal - the Legion of Honour - on his chest, in gratitude for his gallant deed.
The Colonel - who had been about to sentence Old Bill - now congratulates him and asks if there is anything he can do for him.
Bill asks if he can arrange for he and his pals - Bert and Alf - to be given leave, "startin' tomorrow." The Colonel agrees, and says he will also recommend Bill fore the DCM.
Splinter 7 - "The Leave Train
Old Bill, Bert and Alf are seen at a railway siding, waiting for the Leave train to take them to Boulogne. There follows their efforts to work out where they are, and when (if) the train will ever leave. In between all this Bert is descended upon by a succession of French girls for whom he evidently has a great affection.
"The Better 'Ole" (A Gas Attack)
Outside the pub (the sign to which is covered in a Union Jack flag) in Old Bill's home village, his wife Maggie awaits his return. He appears, in full kit, surrounded by a crowd of locals who met him at the station.
The vicar gives a speech welcoming Bill home, and the crowd give three cheers for their returning local hero.
As the crowd disperse, Maggie tells Bill that "old Jenkins" has sold the pub. "What's the new boss like," Bill asks. "Oh, he ain't a bad old sort" Maggie tells him.
At this, Bert and Alf appear, and Bill is delighted to see his pals. "Shall we go and see what the new landlord is like," says Bill, his arm around Maggie. "Wait a moment!" Maggie replies, and pulls the cord of the Union Jack, revealing the new sign:
THE BETTER 'OLE
Unbeknown to Bill, Maggie has bought the pub for him. "Maggie, you've done it" exclaims Bill, as he turns to Bert and Alf and says "The Better 'Ole! Boys, we've found it!" and all shake hands as the curtain falls.
Click on any of the links below to read more about the numerous stage productions of The Better 'Ole worldwide.
The Better 'Ole UK touring companies 1917-20
The Better 'Ole in Vaudeville 1927
The Better 'Ole - Anne Bronagh Players 1927
The Better 'Ole - George Ricketts tour 1930
The Better 'Ole in Detroit 1931
The Better 'Ole - Meeching Amateur Dramatics 2014