From RAF intelligence officer to Gang Show maestro, Ralph Reader led a varied life

The Scouting Movement cast of a Gang Show. Inset is the cover of the music and words for the song 'On The Crest of a Wave', theme song for the productions. The melody was the work of Gang Show founder Ralph Reader who is pictured on the cover. As a youngster Reader lived in Denton, East Sussex. SUS-191202-170758001
The Scouting Movement cast of a Gang Show. Inset is the cover of the music and words for the song 'On The Crest of a Wave', theme song for the productions. The melody was the work of Gang Show founder Ralph Reader who is pictured on the cover. As a youngster Reader lived in Denton, East Sussex. SUS-191202-170758001

Whenever I think of my days as a Boy Scout, one memory always looms large. It was the summer of 1966 and my Lewes troop and I went camping for a week near Pulborough.

We had a fun-filled time made even more enjoyable because we knew that on the Saturday of our return home we’d experience a momentous event. England had made it to the World Cup final!

Before the Second World War, the militaristic Hitler Youth were the German equivalent of the British Scouting Movement. Nazi Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop (inset) unsuccessfully sought to set up friendly links between the two organisations. SUS-191202-170747001

Before the Second World War, the militaristic Hitler Youth were the German equivalent of the British Scouting Movement. Nazi Ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop (inset) unsuccessfully sought to set up friendly links between the two organisations. SUS-191202-170747001

When Saturday duly arrived us boys were all eager to board our transport and head for Lewes and our black and white televisions. The hours went by and to our dismay it slowly dawned on us that our scoutmaster had set a departure time that would make it impossible to be home in time for the kick-off.

Our protests were in vain. Going at the time he had set meant that traffic “would be minimal”. To complete the torment I actually entered my house just minutes after England had completed their historic 4-2 extra time victory over West Germany! Well, England may have won but the scouts lost me forever.

I was reminded of the above sorry tale when I received February’s “Newhaven Times”, the journal of the Newhaven Historical Society. It contains a feature on Ralph Reader, a doyen of the Scouting Movement best known for inventing the Gang Show.

Somerset-born William Henry Ralph Reader CBE was the son of a Salvation Army bandmaster. Orphaned at nine, at the beginning of the Great War he came to live with an uncle at 10 Heighton Road, Denton, near Newhaven.

He joined the local scout troop and by the time he was 14 was running it because all the scoutmasters had been called up. He also became a telegram boy with the post office, a job that entailed delivering heartbreaking news of casualties to the families of servicemen.

Aged 17, Ralph displayed a flair for organising charity concerts and shows inspired by numerous visits to the Brighton Hippodrome. He also found a job as a clerk at Heighton cement works. In 1922 the factory manager was transferred to Northern Ireland and Ralph went with him.

When an aunt in America invited him to join her there he jumped at the opportunity: Broadway beckoned! By the time he was 22 Ralph was a respected choreographer having worked on 22 US musicals. After his very first show on the “Great White Way” the “New York Times” noted, “Watch Ralph Reader”.

Upon returning to England he quickly found theatre work in the West End with the likes of Noel Coward and Ivor Novello. Ralph had maintained his links to the Scouting Movement and in 1932 staged his first variety show at London’s Scala Theatre. “The Gang’s All Here” featured 150 Boy Scouts from the East End performing songs, dances and comedy sketches. Ralph’s winning entertainment formula soon became known as “The Gang Show”. In 1937 a party of Ralph’s Boy Scouts became the first amateurs to appear at a Royal Variety Performance alongside Gracie Fields, George Formby and Max Miller. That same year Reader featured in a Gang Show film screened nationwide.

Reader was a prodigious songwriter and was responsible for many of the melodies in his own productions that included a musical pageant staged at the Albert Hall with a cast of 1,500 Scouts.

Nazi Ambassador, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was a guest at the 1938 London Gang Show. Afterwards he invited Reader to visit Germany and observe the activities of the Hitler Youth organization. Reader held the rank of Flight Lieutenant in the RAF Volunteer Reserve. As an Intelligence Officer a trip to Germany would have been a useful source of information but the political climate rapidly deteriorated before Reader could take up von Ribbentrop’s offer.

The German also met with Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouting Movement, to encourage friendly ties with the Hitler Youth. Baden-Powell never met Hitler but as late as 1939 he penned a diary entry that revealed a certain admiration for the Fuhrer: “Read Mein Kampf. A wonderful book, with good ideas on education, health and propaganda, etc.”

When war came Reader was sent to France ostensibly to run concert parties but in fact he was actually on an undercover mission of an unknown nature for RAF Intelligence. Back in England, Reader staged a whole programme of Gang Shows for military audiences. Behind the scenes Reader was covertly monitoring the effectiveness of enemy propaganda on the morale of servicemen. Reader eventually had a complement of 400 serving personnel to call on and his Gang Shows toured as far afield as Burma.

Future stars such as Peter Sellers and Tony Hancock cut their comedy teeth under Reader’s direction.

Post-war Reader successfully revived many of his pre-war shows. He produced the annual Gang Show until his retirement in 1974. He died in 1982. His former home in Denton has a blue plaque in his memory and his name is on a bus that plies the coast from Brighton to Eastbourne passing Denton Corner en route.

By the way, Ralph Reader was also celebrated for his enthusiasm in leading the community singing at FA Cup Finals. It would be irony, indeed, if he’d also led the singing at Wembley for that 1966 World Cup clash!

For more information on NHS visit: www.newhavenhistoricalsociety.org.uk