Julian Fellowes turns Half a Sixpence rewrite Kipps into winning fun

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In a surprisingly class-conscious stage adaptation of the HG Wells-inspired musical from the Downton Abbey creator on Sky, Charlie Stemp radiates kindly innocence


What’s in a name? Quite a lot in the case of the musical Kipps, which aired on Sky Arts on Wednesday night. The title comes from the 1905 HG Wells novel, but the show itself is a radical rewrite of an earlier musical version of the story, Half a Sixpence, which starred Tommy Steele on stage and film in the 1960s. Julian Fellowes wrote the fresh book, which he titled Half a Sixpence, in 2016, while George Stiles and Anthony Drewe added seven new numbers to the original David Heneker score. What we saw on screen was a filmed performance at London’s Noël Coward theatre in 2017.

So what’s the difference between the original Half a Sixpence and Kipps? I would say that the former – especially in the 1967 film version where Julia Foster co-starred with Steele – was essentially a romantic tale about how Artie Kipps finally finds true love with his childhood sweetheart, Ann. Kipps is closer to Wells’s original in that it is a comic parable about the English class system. I even wonder whether the novel influenced Shaw’s Pygmalion, which dates from 1912, in that it shows how in a rigidly stratified society accent determines status.

Given Fellowes’s creation of Downton Abbey, what is most surprising about Kipps is its portrayal of the English upper class as brutally snobbish predators. Artie himself is a Kentish draper who comes into a fortune and finds himself, despite his avowals to Ann, falling for the do-gooding Helen Walsingham. But it is made abundantly clear that Helen is being used as bait by her upper-crust family to hook the wealthy Kipps.

Tommy Steele in Half a Sixpence.
Calculated charm … Tommy Steele in Half a Sixpence. Photograph: Moviestore/Shutterstock

Two artfully juxtaposed numbers demonstrate how money can be used for ill or good. In one, Ann’s criminal brother tempts Kipps with capital gains. In another, the raffishly thespian Chitterlow hymns “the joy of the theatre” and asks Artie to invest in his new play.

But I’ve long argued that any musical needs a moment of ecstasy where song, dance and story combine to spirit-lifting effect. In Half a Sixpence, it comes in the number Flash, Bang, Wallop, which is a pub knees-up with its roots in English music-hall. In Kipps, it comes in a new song, Pick Out a Simple Tune, where Artie galvanises a starchy musical evening by playing on his banjo: “Just keep plucking with your plectrum / make new friends across the spectrum,” he jovially sings as Folkestone’s finest rattle spoons, whirl, twirl and even swing from the chandeliers.

Fun as the musical is, it already shows its age: conspicuously, there is no diversity in the casting. But Kipps confirms Wells’s point that gusto and goodness can overcome the whaleboned snobbery of the class system and the show boasts an invaluable asset in Charlie Stemp, who went on to play the chimney sweep in the stage version of Mary Poppins. Tommy Steele was likable in Half a Sixpence, but there is something a touch calculated about his charm. Stemp radiates kindly innocence and reminds us that Wells subtitled his quietly subversive novel “the story of a simple soul”.

  • Kipps is repeated on Sky Arts at 3pm on 1 January.

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