Webster was in increasing demand as tenor soloist in oratorios. In those days the Promenade Concerts were held at the Queen’s Hall, a concert hall, with sympathetic acoustics for singers, and always his favourite concert hall.
He became a Mason, and was a proud member of the Savage Club, where he often sang at their legendary Saturday night entertainments. These entertainments were arranged by Joe Batten, the eminent sound recordist and producer at Columbia Records. When Webster had something important to do he always wore his distinctive striped Savage Club tie to bring him luck. While still in his early thirties, Webster was made a Life Governor of the
in Hampstead. Royal Free Hospital
Shortly after he met Anne Ziegler he took the lead in an ill-fated production of Kurt Weill’s A Kingdom for a Cow at the Savoy Theatre. His leading lady was the well-known French singer Jacqueline Françel. In Anne and Webster’s joint autobiography, Duet, he said that the play was probably ahead of its time in its handling of complex social issues, which made it too heavy for audiences of the day, who expected lighter fare in musicals. Apart from the unusual subject matter, rehearsals were stormy and the direction contradictory, so despite Weill’s pleasing music and a strong cast, the play closed after just three weeks. The London Dramatic Critic from The Scotsman gave the piece a good review, and mentioned that “Mr Webster Booth as the hero also deserves praise for his fine singing”.
In the four years before Anne and Webster were free to marry, Anne’s career rapidly took shape. In 1935 she sang in a Concert Party called Summer Smiles during the summer season at Ryde and acquired her first devoted fan, a girl aged about fifteen, who kept in touch with her for the rest of her life.
She played principal boy in her first pantomime, Mother Goose, at the Empire Theatre,
Liverpool, which starred George Formby. In this pantomime she met Babs Wilson-Hill, the principal dancer in the show, who was to remain her closest friend for most of her life. During the 1936 pantomime season she and Babs appeared in another highly successful pantomime, Cinderella, in , this time with the Scottish comedian Will Fyffe as the star attraction. Edinburgh
Anne and Webster were both extremely popular and prolific broadcasters on the BBC, as well as the various European commercial broadcasting stations geared to the British market, such as Radio Lyons, Radio
, Radio Luxembourg and Radio Eireann. Glancing through copies of The Radio Pictorial, commercial radio’s equivalent of The Radio Times, one sees frequent articles about them. Radio stars in the thirties obviously held the equivalent status of pop stars today. Normandy
Anne was an overnight success on radio in The Chocolate Soldier, and was one of the first singers to appear on the British television service when it was launched in 1936.
In 1937 she was invited to star in the musical
at the Center Theatre in Virginia . Anne’s stage surname “Ziegler” was perceived to have Germanic overtones, and in light of the storm clouds gathering over New York Europe, she decided to appear in under the name of Anne Booth, in anticipation of her forthcoming marriage. New York
Webster accompanied Anne onboard the
Scythia to , hoping to find some stage work in New York , and not wanting to let her out of his sight for too long. In America he was an established and well-known artiste on film, radio, theatre and the concert platform. It was therefore extremely disheartening for him to attend various England auditions as an unknown, and without any success. New York
Despite his beautiful voice and good looks, he made no impact on the cut-throat powers-that-be of the American musical world. He saw Anne make a success of her part in
, but although he made several appearances on radio, and in cabaret at the Rainbow Room in Virginia , he was running out of money. To compound his woes he was taken ill with an old kidney complaint. He could do nothing else but return to New York alone, knowing that he could resume his engagements there. He was in pain, crestfallen at his lack of success in England , and he was worried about leaving Anne on her own in America . New York
Anne was hailed as a Broadway star, and offered a lucrative film contract in
, with the notion that she would make a worthy successor to Jeanette MacDonald. The offer was very tempting for a talented and beautiful girl aged twenty-seven, but she did not have to think about it for very long before she turned it down. Anne had been named as the co-respondent in the divorce of Paddy Prior and Webster but it would not be long before he would be divorced from Paddy and free to marry her. If Webster could not make a success in Hollywood , she preferred to return to America and to Webster. England
For most of her life Anne maintained that marriage to Webster meant more to her than any
Hollywood contract, although in later years she sometimes reflected on what her life would have been like had she accepted the contract and become a Hollywood star.
Webster endured further humiliation in 1938. While he was still with the D’Oyly Carte Company Dr Malcolm Sargent was engaged as musical director at the Princes Theatre for the 1926 season. He advised Webster that opera singing was poorly paid and if he did not have a supplementary private income he should concentrate on trying to obtain more lucrative singing engagements. Webster’s sister Nellie always hoped that he would make his name in opera, and he still hoped that he could sing in opera despite Dr Sargent’s advice to the contrary.
Covent Garden he auditioned like an unknown for a part in the forthcoming International Opera Season before Sir Thomas Beecham. Sir Thomas was joined by his companion, Lady Cunard, at this audition and the pair sat in the middle of the empty auditorium, chatting to one another while Webster sang his audition arias.
Despite their apparent inattention to his vocal efforts, he was offered minor roles in The Magic Flute and Der Rosenkavalier. The pay was miserly in comparison to his usual earnings; the rehearsals were unpaid. A
of the exercise was when the distinguished conductor Erich Kleiber singled Webster out after he had sung his aria during a rehearsal of Der Rosenkavalier and praised his singing before the whole company. high point
Although Webster continued to make many operatic recordings, this was his last venture into Grand Opera at
Covent Garden or any other opera house, apart from doing several performances for Lilian Baylis at Sadler’s Wells. He did star in several Grand Operas on radio, notably The Magic Flute and Lakmé. After this experience both Anne and Webster finally realised that although it is the dream of every good singer to be hailed as an operatic star, singers without a private income had to diversify their talents if they wished to make a decent living.
After Webster’s divorce from Paddy was eventually finalised amidst much adverse publicity in the gossip columns, in an age when divorce was neither as common nor acceptable as it is today, Anne and Webster were finally married on Bonfire Night in 1938, at the Harrow Road Register Office.
This ceremony was followed by a form of the Marriage Service, adapted for divorced persons, at in St Ethelburga’s Church in Bishopsgate, the same church that was to be badly damaged by an IRA bomb in 1993. The Church has been restored and is now known as St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace.
There was no time for a honeymoon. Webster had an engagement to sing duets with Olive Groves at a Sunday Night Concert in South Wales the following evening, so Anne and Webster drove as far as Cheltenham where they spent their wedding night, and continued their journey to the concert venue the following day. Webster always laughed at the charade of having to sing very romantic duets with Olive Groves, the wife of his friend and mentor, George Baker, the day after his marriage to Anne.
Both Anne and Webster had many solo engagements to fulfil, but now that they were married they hoped to sing together as often as possible.
Webster was contracted to HMV for over twenty years and recorded more than a thousand solos, duets, trios and quartets. His lighter recordings include selections from Ivor Novello musicals with Helen Hill, Olive Gilbert and Stuart Robertson; Theatreland at Coronation Time with South African soprano Garda Hall, and Sam Costa; excerpts from Snow White with Nora Savage, conducted by George Scott-Wood, the composer of Shy Serenade. He made many anonymous recordings as a member of the HMV Light Opera Company. He was the “with vocal refrain” on a series of records made with Carlos Santana and his Accordion Band on the Brunswick label, and on a record of Chappell Ballads with Jack Hylton’s band. Carlos Santana was one of the many aliases used by Harry Bidgood. His better known alias was Primo Scala, the leader of another accordion band, but he did many other things like conducting film music and arranging music and while he was still at school he had written the music for his school song.
His recordings of the late nineteen-thirties and nineteen-forties encompassed oratorio, opera and ballads, as well as duets with Anne. Webster’s more serious recordings were often under the baton of Malcolm Sargent, Lawrance Collingwood, Basil Cameron or
’s Warwick Braithwaite with the Hallé, the Liverpool Philharmonic or the Royal Philharmonic Orchestras. His recordings with piano accompaniment were nearly always with the eminent accompanist Gerald Moore. New Zealand
Webster enjoyed telling the story of a particular recording session with Gerald Moore. They had one more song to record before the session ended. The song was Phil, the Fluter’s Ball, and Gerald Moore suggested that they should see how fast he could play it and how fast Webster could sing it with clear diction. This was no problem for the finest accompanist in the world and for a singer who had spent four years performing Gilbert and Sullivan with the D’Oyly Carte Company.
At the beginning of the Second World War, he recorded The Lost Chord at the Kingsway Hall in
, accompanied by the organist Herbert Dawson. As they were reaching the end of the song, the All Clear siren sounded, which meant they had to redo the recording to cut out the sound of the siren. There had been no air raids at that early stage of the war so presumably the sirens were being given a trial run. The blitz was yet to come and would destroy Webster’s beloved Queen’s Hall. London
His oratorio recordings are particularly fine. The solos in Samson from the moving recitative O loss of sight and the following aria, Total Eclipse, to the fiery Why does the God of Israel sleep?, with its unrelenting Handelian runs, demonstrate how easily he moved from one mood to another, always singing with flawless technique and clear diction.
He made recordings with other distinguished singers of the day in operatic ensembles, such as the quartet from Rigoletto, with Noel Edie, Arnold Matters and Edith Coates, to the trio from Faust with Joan Cross and Norman Walker. He sang duets with soprano Joan Cross and baritone Dennis Noble from La Bohème and the Miserere from Il Trovatore with Joan Cross. He recorded duets with the baritone Dennis Noble from the Victorian and Edwardian Excelsior and Watchman, what of the night? to the brilliant extended scene in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. He recorded the duet in Madame Butterfly with Australian soprano Joan Hammond.
When Joan Hammond first arrived in
from England , she had a sweet lyrical soprano voice. She sang her first Messiah in Australia with Webster as tenor soloist under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham. But by the time they recorded the Madame Butterfly duet, several years later, Joan Hammond had become a dramatic soprano and her voice was very much bigger than it had been when she first arrived in England . Joan had to stand much further away from the microphone than Webster in order for the sound engineer to get the balance for the duet right. Webster also sang excerpts from Carmen with the Sadler’s Wells chorus and orchestra, with Dennis Noble, and with Nancy Evans, Anne’s old friend from England Liverpool, as Carmen.
Anne and Webster formed their duet partnership around the time of their marriage, in addition to their solo work and Webster's extensive recording, film, oratorio and concert work.
Despite Anne’s success on stage and radio, recording companies had not shown any interest in putting her voice on record. She made a test recording of the Waltz Song from Merrie England in 1936, a recording which Webster managed to obtain from HMV. Eventually she did make a few solo recordings and sang in a Noel Coward medley with Joyce Grenfell and Graham Payn, but the bulk of her recordings were duets with Webster. My favourite solo recording of Anne’s is Raymond Loughborough’s A Song in the Night, which she sang on a Pathé film short in 1936.
Their first duet recording in 1939, the year after their marriage, was If You Were the Only Girl in the World, with A Paradise for Two on the flip side. Before these recordings were made, Anne had sung with Webster in a number of broadcasts, and had been the anonymous soprano voice in a radio series called The Voice of Romance in 1937. In this series he too was anonymous, but by this time, most people would have recognised his distinctive voice. Their duet recordings were instantly popular and there was a great demand for them. By 1940 HMV issued a separate pamphlet about Anne and Webster’s duet recordings, which was included in the HMV catalogue of that year.Jeannie C