Gang Show History

Ralph Reader Photo

What is a Gang Show?

A Gang Show is a variety show staged by Scouts and Guides - generally to a high standard that Ralph Reader would recognise as carrying on the very best traditions of Gang Show and the theatrical arts. A Red Necker Gang Show (eg Reading, Oxford and our very own show) symbolise the highest standards of excellence. (A Red Necker is a prestigious award bestowed by the London Gang Show Fellowship.)

And this just doesn't involve the actors and dancers and others in the cast. The Gang Show is made up of over two hundred people - not just the hundred-odd cast on stage - and covers all areas of the modern theatre from lighting, scenery, costume, music and orchestra, audio, special effects, and energetic ticket sellers.

Gang Show had its beginning in England in 1932 when a young Rover Scout, Ralph Reader, was making a name for himself in theatrical circles. In fact, Ralph was already a famous and sought after choreographer on Broadway - but his life took a remarkable twist after he wrote and produced the first Gang Show to raise money for a local swimming pool. Recognising the worth of this form of training, Baden-Powell encouraged Reader to continue.

He did - and went on to establish the world famous London Gang Show tradition, as well as writing the words and music to hundreds of songs and sketches, including the world famous song "We're Riding Along on the Crest of a Wave" (1934).

From that small beginning, the Gang Show has become one of the traditions of Scouting and has given Royal Command performances - the only amateur act to ever receive this honour.

Sir Harry Secombe, Sir Richard Attenborough, Peter Sellers, Darryl Stewart, Max Bygraves, Spike Milligan, Norrie Paramour, Dick Emery, Tony Hancock and many other stage and film stars were involved in Gang Shows early in their careers and have contributed in building the Gang Show tradition.

Gang Shows then spread quickly to many other countries around the world. It is often said that a Gang Show is playing somewhere in the world every night of the year !

Ralph Reader Photograph

When Ralph Reader formulated what was to become a "Gang Show" in 1932 something he did not want it to be labeled was a "concert". In those days, the typical form of entertainment produced by amateurs was a "concert", i.e. a series of acts introduced by a compere who covered while the scenes were changed.

Ralph had just been to America where he was involved in producing fast moving revues and musicals. What a "Gang Show" has become first of all is a fast moving revue i.e. a series of big musical numbers interspersed by small musical numbers and sketches, the whole thing moving swiftly from scene to scene without a break. This is achieved by having mid-stage tabs brought across or cloths dropped in and out to allow items to take place "front of tabs" and therefore to allow the show to happen seamlessly.

The second thing which makes a "Gang Show" is of course the fact that it is performed by "Scouts" with the emphasis on showing off the talent of the younger members of The Movement. Many shows, of course, also involve members of the Guide Movement, but "Gang Show" is essentially a Scout entertainment.

As Districts, Areas / Counties and Groups became inspired around the country to follow the London Gang Show and perform their own shows, they were allowed in turn to use the term "Gang Show" because they were fulfilling these basic principles.

One other important factor which made a show a Gang Show in the early days was that all the material used in a Gang Show was written by Ralph himself. As time has gone on, shows have gradually dropped Ralph's material in favour of more modern material. Some of Ralph's material, if well presented and/or brought up to date (within the guidelines suggested by Ralph), can still come across well to a modern audience. However, it is now left up to each show to decide how much of Ralph's material they should include.

It is believed that Ralph, as a pioneer in musical theatre, would not have wanted Gang Shows to stand still and would have himself withdrawn a lot of his own material as being out of date. However to ensure that his name is kept alive, each Gang Show is requested to included in their programme "Based on idea by the late Ralph Reader C.B.E.".

These then are the basic elements which make a Gang Show and any show which follows these can use that title.

In order to increase the degree of professionalism in Gang Shows, Ralph introduced the award of the red scarf. Those shows which have met this standard of professionalism have been awarded their own red scarf. The requirements for this are laid out in the Scout Association's Fact sheet, Gang Show Standards.

Finally, the term "Gang Show", like the song "Crest Of A Wave", was not invented right away. It was while Ralph was rehearsing one of the early shows that he asked if everyone was present. A cheeky Scout replied, "Aye, Skip. The Gang's all here", and that's how the posters went up.