Poignant opera about Ivor Novello controversially scrapped by his former prison, with four days notice

7 September 2023, 15:52

Ivor Novello was sentenced to 28 days in HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs after misusing petrol coupons in 1944
Ivor Novello was sentenced to 28 days in HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs after misusing petrol coupons in 1944. Picture: Alamy

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

The theatre company has accused the prison of pulling out of the production due to “homophobia”.

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An opera about Ivor Novello’s one-month incarceration at HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs was cancelled just four days before a special performance was due to be staged in the actual prison.

The theatre company Homo Promos had managed to secure the prison chapel as a space to perform the 50 minute-long opera about Novello’s four weeks behind bars, with the support of the institution’s staff.

Popular composer, Ivor Novello, spent four weeks in jail during the Second World War for misusing petrol coupons, a serious offence at the time due to fuel rationing.

After being released from Wormwood Scrubs, despite his incarceration, Novello chose to gift the prison a concert grand piano. The instrument remains there to this day, and a piano tuner had been booked by the theatre company so the keyboard could be used as part of the production.

However, the opera, titled 1944: Home Fires was cancelled with no warning just a few days before the cast and crew were meant to give the free performance.

Read more: 90-year-old composer Thea Musgrave honoured at The Ivor Novello Awards

Peter Scott-Presland, the group’s producer posted the news on Instagram with the following message: “We are devastated. This would be the high point of the tour and a homage to a great gay icon.

“To cancel at four days’ notice without any reason given is unbelievably unprofessional and a great step back in the progress the Prison Service has been making towards equality and diversity. We can only apologise to all those staff and inmates looking forward to this show, many of whom were LGBT+ and looked to this to give some affirmation.”

Novello, who has a prestigious award for excellence in British songwriting and composing named after him, was a gay man and his sexuality was an open secret in the world of theatre.

Prior to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, homosexual activity between men had been banned for centuries, so Novello’s success as a composer, whilst living somewhat openly as a gay man, was ground-breaking at the time.

The opera, composed by Robert Ely, tells the imagined story of Novello and the English gangster, ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser in prison. The opera openly addresses Novello’s sexuality, with the script including a conversation between the two characters where Fraser asks Novello if he’s queer, due to the fact he works in theatre. Novello responds, “Is everyone in the theatre queer?” while Frankie retorts, “You tell me.”

Read more: 15 LGBTQ+ composers in classical music history that you probably already know

Sad you missed ‘1944: Home Fires’? Join us next Friday 15 Sep for a FREE online screening, and exclusive chat with the...

Posted by HomoPromos on Thursday, September 7, 2023

Homo Promos was set up by Scott-Presland in 1988 as a response to Section 28, which forbade councils from ‘intentionally promoting homosexuality’.

Despite the end of Section 28 in 2003, the company continue to perform and has been referred to as the UK’s oldest LGBT+ theatre group.

The entire tour of 1944: Home Fires which included performances at other venues, was crowdfunded. But due to the last-minute cancellation of the show, the company is still required to pay their creatives for the performance and the production costs alone will mean they lose over £2,500.

Wormwood Scrubs is a men’s local prison near Hammersmith Hospital in London
Wormwood Scrubs is a men’s local prison near Hammersmith Hospital in London. Picture: Getty

“To cancel at four days’ notice is unbelievably unprofessional, and potentially financially crippling,” the theatre company wrote on their Facebook page following the news.

“We have an application in to the National Lottery Heritage Fund scheme for this specific performance which we will now have to scrap, leaving us to foot the bill.

“There is no other explanation for this than homophobia. It would never have happened to a company called, for example. ‘STRAIGHT ACTING’.”

A spokesperson for the prison responded to other media outlets with the following statement: “The Prison Service is proud to be an inclusive employer but facilitating this event would not, at the moment, have been the best use of officers’ time at Wormwood Scrubs.”