Young England – the worst play ever?

Found - a 1935 theatre programme for Young England, a play by Walter Reynolds often cited as the worst play ever. Nevertheless it was a great success and some people saw it 20 times. We covered it pretty thoroughly at a posting at bibliophile site Bookride. We had found a copy of the book and catalogued it thus:

Young England is a now uncommon book  and of interest to theatre collectors and connoisseurs of the odd and the zany. Reynolds appears to have been a sort of Amanda Ros of the theatre--so very bad that he is good. Young England (Walter Reynolds) Gollancz, London 1935.  8vo. pp 288. Frontis portrait, 5 plates. A play in two periods. This play had an unlikely success in the 1930s rather similar to the fictitious 'Springtime for Hitler.' It was so appallingly bad that audiences came along in their droves for over 300 nights to shout amusing remarks and generally revel in its ghastliness. The frontis portrait of the Reverend Walter Reynolds shows a stern Scottish type who apparently would walk up and down the aisles of the theatre during performances telling people to be quiet. Quite scarce.'

What emerges from contemporary reviews is that the actors in this terrible play co-operated with the audience and adapted lines and action according to shouts from the audience, some of whom were fuelled by cocktails which were so popular in the 1930s…In one performance the villain, when led away by the police, pauses to say "Foiled!" He was almost licked one night when the crowd shouted not only "Foiled!" but "Baffled!" "Beaten!" "Frustrated!" "Outwitted!" "Trapped!" "Flummoxed!" He waited until the wits were through, then hissed: "Stymied!"

The programme includes "…a short letter from the author of Young England to his old friends, the theatre-going public."

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

There is a drama somewhere in every edition of our newspapers, and I at once confess that I have unblushingly cut out from them practically all  the bits and pieces that were suitable for my story to Illustrate the ups and downs of the life that you and I and all of us lead every day.

Having assembled these many snippets and scraps of material, I dovetailed them all together, and the result of my stage carpentering is what I am now venturing to present to you in this latest of my plays called…
'Young England'.

In 'Young England' I have aimed at providing a solid three hours of clean and wholesome entertainment to put before you a theatrical bill of fare made up of the joys, the sorrows, the tears, the laughter, the sift romances and the hard realities of our work-a-day existence - idealised, of course, because that is what we all like - bit, I hope, made interesting.

No need to tell my old friends that there is nothing news under the sun, and most certainly I don't claim that there is anything new in my play. No, all that I summit is, that in my treatment and development of the Young England idea I have tried to re-introduce to the living stage some of its long-last virility and its old-time attraction to provide three full hours of movement and action with clearly-to-be- heard words in place of the inaudibilities of our latter-day theatres. Again, hat has impelled me to write 'Young England' is the fact that nearly every week the Movie houses provide heir millions of patrons with old-fashioned and often very crude melodramas, proving beyond any doubt that dram, even when it may be poor stuff is the sort of fare that theatregoers are always looking for.

In addition I have most respectfully woven into my play, as an extra pleasurable feature, some threads of the material of one of the most beneficent movements that have ever been instituted in the history of mankind, viz., the creation of the picturesque and practical Boy Scouts and Girl Guides movement by the indomitable defender of Mafeking. Projected by him in 1907 with a tiny troop of only 21 members it has now grown into the marvellous number of two million. Since its initiation into the life of young England the Boy Scouts' and Girl Guides' Organisation has former a veritable army of youth that has disseminated not war, but peace and brotherhood to the uttermost ends of the earth.

I beg to take this opportunity of expressing my gratitude to all those officers of the Boy scouts and Girl Guides who have so kindly lent me their assistance.

The programme provides this information about the great Reynolds:

Since the production of 'Young England' nearly eight months ago, much curiosity has been aroused regarding the who's who of its author, Mr. Walter Reynolds.

This remarkable young gentleman (83, not out, on the 17th January, 1935) cannot be said to be a prentice hand at the writing of plays, for, away back in the late 70's of the last century, at the Queen's Theatre, Sydney, N.S.W., the writer of 'Young England' himself acted in one of his own drama's, which he called by the wistfully poetic name of Ireland, 'Sweet Innisfail'.

A few years later 'Sweet Innisfail' and its still more money-making successor, 'The Shamrock and the Rose', were toured by their author year after year throughout Great Britain and Ireland and were regularly staged at the many suburban theatres which were so popular in London before the advent of the pictures.

With the profits Walter Reynolds made from playing himself in 'Sweet Innisfail' and the 'The Shamrock and the Rose', this actor-author was able to but the Theatre Royal, Leeds, The Prince's Theatre Bradford, and the People's Palace, Bradford, and Walter Reynolds is still the owner of these three theatres to day.

Before the end of the last century Walter Reynolds had written dozen plays in as many years. Particularly successful among them were 'A Woman's Truth', 'Church and Stage', 'A Mother's Sin', 'Wanda' , and 'Mr. Smith', this alter being a panegyric of a common man. Several of the plays have been done in Australia and the United States, ''The Shamrock and the Rose', making for its day, a record run at Her Majesty's, Sydney.

All his life Mr. Walter Reynolds, who is a Londoner born, has been a world traveller and he has recored some impressions of his many wanderings in his travelogues, "Recollections of Japan', 'Snapshots of Africa', 'Impressions of Iceland and Spitzbergen,' 'Li'l'ole Noo York', 'A Life on the Ocean Wave,' 'A Glimpse of Jamaica', 'and 'Right under the Sun', a tale of the Amazon.

In 1904 Walter Reynolds played 'Virgil' to Sir Henry Irving's 'DANTE' at Durry Lane and afterwards toured the English province and the United States with the great man.

Walter Reynolds is a Justice of the Peace and from 1907 he represented Hampstead on the London County Council for nearly a quarter of a century.

'Me and My Party' in 'Young England' is, of course, a good humoured little joke on municipal life, but the incident of the winning by Hope Ravenscroft of the much coveted L.C.C. prize is , as everybody knows, founded on the fact that the magnificent new County Hall, Westminster Bridge.

Audiences laugh, too, at the villainies of the two Jabez Hawks; nevertheless the original Jabez Hawks pete was well know to the Author before Hawk bolted from his lawyer's practice in the northern town where by his psalm smiting he gained the confidence of his congregation, and duped them so completely that they trusted him with their money to invest in mortgages on house that were never built in streets that had never been laid out. Fiction is not always falsehood.

If idle, Walter Reynolds becomes miserable and so he is again articulating the skeleton of another play.

Also found in an online Australian newspaper archive this contemporary review below. There is another review over at Bookride

LONDON-Two months ago
a melodrama, "Young England," was
unobtrusively produced at the Kingsway
Theatre. It was written by Mr. Walter
Reynolds, an author who has been virtually
forgotten since the 'nineties of the
last century. Mr. Reynolds is a believer
in full-blooded melodrama, played
with spirit. "Young England" is an
avowed effort to revive the Victorian
interest in drama which had a coura-
geous hero, a chaste heroine, and an
utterly worthless villain. The only
modern touch was the association of
the Boy Scout movement with the plot.
The heroes and heroines of "Young Eng-
land" are Boy Scouts and Girl Guides;
the villain is a scoundrelly Scout-
The first-night audience found "Young
England" entertaining. The laughter was
more frequent and convulsive than Mr.
Reynolds approved. He did not guess
the success which was to come to his
play. In a few days "Young England"
was running to crowded houses. Some
people have seen it 15 and 20 times.
In no theatre or cinema or music hall
can such uproarious laughter be found.
Mr. Reynolds himself generally occupies
a box, and he may well suffer agonies
over the misrepresentation of his play.
But, like the actors and actresses, he ac-
cepts the situation, in view of the lucra-
tive consequences. The highly sophisti-
cated audiences not only roar over the
supposed absurdities of the plot and
characters, but create new ones. When
a Girl Guide appears, obviously of unim-
peachable innocence, a cry goes, up from
the stalls or dress circle, "Come up and
see me some time," as if the girl were
another Mae West. These interjections,
indeed, constitute the main attraction of
the play, and furnish the explanation
of the repeated visits of Mr. Reynolds's
patrons. Those who have seen "Young
England" come a second time in order to
bait the players or to add their own
lines. When the errant Scoutmaster is
observed to be "cracking" the Scout's
safe the audience urges him "not to for-
set to wipe the handle." When this
advice from the stalls is accepted by the
villain and he carefully wipes his
finger-tips the cheers are terrific.
At another juncture the villain men-
tions' that when he was elected to Par-
lament the shares in certain companies
in which he was interested went "up."
'And up, and up, and up, and up," roars
the audience. Not to be denied a re-
tort, the villain generally interjects,
"Well, that's pretty unanimous," direct-
ing his remark at the shouting stalls.
At another juncture the stage directions
indicate that a duchess is calling up
someone on the telephone. "Don't keep
the duchess waiting," shouts the audi-
ence. The actor in purposely slow. He
reaches the 'phone amid cries of "Duch-
ess! Duchess! Don't you know the
duchess is on the line?"
This is not the first time in theatrical
history that an old-fashioned melo-
drama has been revived and has proved
highly entertaining from the stand-
point of burlesque. Some years ago
"The Worst Woman in London" had a
triumphant run upon the same basis.

The Argus (Melbourne, Victoria) 2 February 1935

14 thoughts on “Young England – the worst play ever?

  1. Elaine Haddelsey

    I wondered if there were more pages to the program, one of my relatives Zita Ponder played Mrs STANLEY.
    and I am trying really hard to find a picture of her.

    your sincerely Elaine.

      1. Elaine Haddelsey

        Thank you for your reply, a part from a couple of novels that she wrote , and her time on stage,
        I cannot really find any ” meat on the bone ” i.e a picture xx

  2. Pingback: Heckling + serious play = comic success | SO IT GOES - John Fleming's blog

  3. Cas Cunningham

    I have been researching Walter Reynilds for sometime. It has been useful to have this link. Thank you Jot101.

      1. Jeanie

        Just to add some context, I’ve just started researching Walter Reynolds and came across a Mrs Walter Reynolds (Ellen Lancaster Wallis) which led me to the bear alley blog on Flo Lancaster you helped ‘tip’ some years ago. Nice to see your name again under this blog!

    1. Charles Bell

      Hi Cas, please contact me at I am Walter’s great-great grandson. You mention a marriage to Ellen Wallis? – Walter’s first wife Sarah was an actress her stage name was Grace Hathaway. Walter’s son (also called Walter) married a singer/dancer by the stage name Clara Davine.

    1. Jeanie

      Hi Cas, thank you for replying, sorry it took me a while to get back to you. I am a Law student at King’s College London and currently writing a dissertation on the Cinematograph Act 1909. I understand that Walter Reynolds was the ‘founding father’ of this piece of health and safety legislation and would like to understand more about his personal life and theatre career which may have informed his passion and commitment for this important law reform. Please contact me at if you would like to discuss this. Thanks!


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