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Humour amid tragedy at Changi Prison (1992)

January 15, 2013

90's Flashback

Slim De Grey brought smiles when life was a struggle

On With the Show’s

Flashback to Variety Today 1992

Slim De Grey relives the `funny side’ of life as a POW in his latest book Changi, The Funny Side.

By VALERIE JONES

IT’S hard to believe there could possibly have been a `funny side’ to life as an inmate of Singapore’s notorious Changi Prison under Japanese rule during World War II. But an Australian entertainer who was there at the time is about to assure the world there was.

In his newly-published book `Changi, The Funny Side’, Slim De Grey a comedian, actor, songwriter and playwright, tells for the first time in print of this unexpected facet of life as a prisoner of war in Changi.

“There has been so many books and autobiographies outling the bad side; the attrocieties, deprivation and disease. But I believe it is most important that the families of those who died at least know their loved ones had a bit of a giggle while they were in Changi,” Slim said. “I think it will be of some comfort to them to now it wasn’t all bad.”

He said the amusing incidents he has written about in his book have remained so alive and vivid because he has used many of them in his comedy routines during the years. “My two sons had always been on at me to write a book about these funny incidents, so when I semi-retired to the Gold Coast four years ago the time seemed just right to finally write the book.”

This he did over 18 months, somewhat laboriously writing it all in longhand before he transcribed it `two-finger style’ by typewriter. He worked typically Gold Coast style, often on a floating lounge in his pool, or in the shade of the poolside cabana. “It came very easily to me apart from the spelling,” said Slim who still lives up to his nickname being 6ft 2.5in tall and reed slim.

Because he had never attempted a book before Slim was pleasantly surprised at the favourable reaction to the first pages of his narrative when they were shown to ‘experts’. “I was told to just keep going like I was,” he said.

During his three-and-a-half years in Changi prison Slim was a member of an Australian Imperial Forces Concert Party which the Japanese allowed to entertain the prisoners every night except Sunday.

The 30 or 40 member troupe performed three-and-a-half hour shows which they changed fortnightly. “The shows ran right up until four months before the end of the war. I suppose the Japs agreed to them to keep the 20,000 guys happy. After all, it could have been pretty nasty if they had decided to turn on their captors.”

Slim politely declines to talk about horrors of Changi. Ï have deliberately left the bad side out,” he said.

He says instead that working with the Concert Party kept him mentally fit. “We wrote and rehearsed all day and then performed at night. There was always something to do. We could always find something to laugh at. I suppose that’s an Australian trait laughing at adversity.”

Slim sees his book as a history book, and laughs that it would probably be one of the few `history books’ school students would actually enjoy studying.

He describes Changi as the `best out of a bad lot’. “On the bright side the concert party was a great apprenticeship for show business. When I went away in the army I was just breaking into show business. I was a much better entertainer when I got back and found it easy to enter the ranks of show business. After all, I had worked solidly for over three years without pay. It’s not much different now!”

He said a handful of the Concert Party had gone on to become professional entertainer. These included the late Syd Piddington who became famous for his ESP shows. “I’m the only one left working now,” said Slim who still works the club circuit, mainly in Sydney.

Slim has recorded three comedy albums and his film roles and TV appearances on such shows as Matlock, Division Four, Homicide, The Sullivans and A Country Practice have made his face well known to many Australians.

He bears no bitterness to the Japanese although he made his feelings quite obvious in his song `Bowing to the Japanese’ which he describes as `a bit of a send-up about the Japs buying up the place’.

He performs it in Sydney, but said `people get a bit annoyed when I do it up here’.

Many ex POW’s returned to Changi on February 15 to mark the 50th anniversary. Slim was not among them. “I have been back to Singapore, but I didn’t go back to Changi. I’ve been there before and I didn’t want to chance getting put back in jail.”

`Changi, The Funny Side’ is published by Writers World, and is available at bookstores and newsagents, price $12.95.

UPDATE 2012 – from the Editor

I was privileged to know Slim De Grey, born Clifford Frank `Slim’ De Grey on May 20, 1918 in Lytham, England, UK, for many years. In fact, I bought and still reside in the home he owned when he wrote his book, `Changi, The Funny Side’. I don’t have to look far to be reminded of this delightful personality who always saw the funny side of everything, even when he fell in the pool and injured himself – the reason he cited for eventually selling the home to me. Slim De Grey was larger than life. Not only because of his over 6ft 2in stature but because of his infectious laughter, innate sense of humour and endearing charisma, a gift he shared with all who knew him and the many fans who admired him. Slim popped up all over the place – on television, in movies and on the stage. He was a much-loved performer in clubs and venues throughout Australia as well. The veteran performer had a long list of credits to his name including Wake in Fright (2012), Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (2001), A Country Practice (1983), Bellamy (1981, Young Ramsay (1980), Chopper Squad (1979), Matlock Police (4 episodes between 1971-75), Boney (1972), Homicide (1968 and 1971), Woobinda, Animal Doctor (4 episodes in 1969 and 1970), The Doves (1970), Age of Consent (1969), They’re a Weird Mob, Riptide (1969) and Skippy (2 episodes). Sadly, Slim – the man who made us all laugh and feel good about ourselves – died on his birthday, May 20, 2007, aged 88.

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