Ditsy daisy refrains

This kitsch "Ladybird book" musical couldn't be more fun.

The Salad Days lovers sing "we said we wouldn't look back!" as they graduate from Oxford in 1954: already elegiac in tone as they prepare for the real world in which the men are defined by work and the women defined by the men they marry. There's a bevy of patriarchal uncles ready to tip the wink to various institutions on Timothy's behalf, and a bevy of patriarchal bachelors ready to sign up Jane to the institution of marriage.

The very title is elegiac: a paean to lost youth, a wistful vision of endless sunny days that would have been fantastical escapism even in 1954, when the musical was first performed; doubly so now in this respectful revival by Bill Bankes-Jones of Tête-à-Tête opera, who remembers crooning along to an old vinyl cast recording in his own childhood.

I hesitate to mention plot, since there isn't one to speak of. A magic piano that "makes everyone gay" features large. And there's a flying saucer. But really it's a series of numbers that are strung like pearls along a pretextual thread of amusement. This is a Mary Poppins caper, a holiday from real life: some have pointed out the parallels with our own times - the Cold War references prefiguring our own paranoiac times, for example, but I think it possible to overstate the case; the pursuit of such analogues tends to say more about the spectator than the spectacle. It's hard to make any great political capital out of a magic piano that makes everyone dance, and a libretto like this one:

"Look at me - oh!
Look at me - oh!
Look at me, I'm dancing!"

It's a completely dotty story. Race, gender and class are skipped through with all the insouciance of a Ladybird reading book - Egyptians wear fezzes; Russians sport turbans and do a bit of Cossack kicking. Dear Jane is perfectly blonde; the women wear the flippy "ultrafeminine" skirts of the New Look; the emotional palette is pastel. There is even a mute clown who expresses himself through the medium of mime, who is called, as if to forestall our objections, Troppo (too much).

Salad Days could (perhaps should) have been awful. Its saving grace is the unwavering cast who perform this flimsy daisy chain of a show with nothing less than complete conviction. This self-belief is as catchy as the show-tunes. The tone is kept straight, or as straight as is possible given that this is a period piece, and as such subject to the distortions of time. The ensemble remains po-faced as they tackle the antique semantics - the instrument that makes everyone gay - and they take the fifties diction equally seriously: hat becomes het, piano becomes pi-ah-no and so on.

The show's great coup is the evocation of intimacy: the audience are welcomed in by the performers; some are later asked to dance, and we are all invited to sing. Bankes-Jones has kept the singers unamplified. I hadn't realised how much I had missed the sheer connective power of the human voice, unmediated by microphones. And they are physically close to us, and exposed to us, on their cheery quadrangle of astroturf that greens up the traverse stage. Two pianos, a drum and double bass enthusiastically rip through the intricate score, and support the already buoyant voices.

There are, en passant, some fabulously awful rhymes too. In the nightclub Egypt, they sing of Cleopatra (and it was Shakespeare's Cleopatra who coined the term "salad days") who wouldn't "p-tolerate a Ptolemy to collar me," and "sugar daddy Caesar" is paired with "squeeze her".

Evangels of musical theatre, Tête-à-Tête have a seriousness of purpose which, combined with a comic-strip energy, make for a considerable charm offensive. They have certainly managed to rejuvenate this ditsy daisy chain, which should by rights have wilted over the years - I take my het off to them.

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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