In honour of our 50th Anniversary this year, we're publishing an article written by a former member, John Glasscock, about the early days of the New Stagers Group.
In the beginning, J Arthur Rank created flour mills, a cinema chain, and Methodist Central Halls. His idea for the Central Halls was that they should combine religion, commerce, and showbiz – anybody who has seen ‘Leap Of Faith’ will know how easy it is to corrupt such an idea, but Rank managed to make it work for the benefit of the public so that everybody was happy – at least pre-War. At Southfields, a row of shops brought in rent, a thriving congregation brought in donations, and Saturday night music hall evenings brought in profit. Before my time, but my parents remembered stars of the day like Arthur Askey, Elsie and Doris Waters, and Wee Georgie Wood topping the bill.
But after the War, money was tighter. The professional acts had to go, and instead we had the equally popular May Festivals, staged on the first two Saturday evenings in May; a May Queen chosen from the church youth club would preside, Twelfth Night fashion, over an evening of short playlets staged by each department of the thriving Sunday School , and a long one-act musical with a cast drawn from all the adult groups within the church. Among these was a curious organisation called the Methodist Order Of Knights; I don’t know what they did, because they were as secretive as Freemasons, but they built the stage in the largest of the downstairs halls so that it was possible to stage regular straight plays without disrupting Sunday services. Southfields Drama Group presented two plays a year during the 1950s, but collapsed for a very odd reason.
The Reverend at Southfields was young, and in many respects liberal-minded, but when he came he decreed that henceforth no married couple could be portrayed except by a couple who were married to each other in real life. It was an impossible condition for any director to stomach, so the stage was abandoned, Miss Havisham fashion, with its last set still in place until the Reverend moved to Mitcham. His replacement was older, but more pragmatic in many respects.
It was ‘The Colts Christmas Party’ which caused the problems. Methodism is – or was – very anti-drink, and this show included a monologue in which Alan Dracup tried to explain the finer points of pouring the dregs of several bottles into one, and ended with a graceful collapse over the footlights and into the audience. It was so obvious that they were ‘not amused’, and poor Alan never returned – a great pity during our attempt to run a cricket team, as he was a wicket keeper of almost Minor Counties standard.
By the Summer of 1967, five former Colts, Pat Enfield and Malcolm Whitt, soon to be married, David Bentley, Susan Dilloway and myself, formed a steering committee to test support and mould the essentials of the Methodist Constitution for Drama Clubs into a version that would give us as much freedom as the Reverend would allow. The name was originally supposed to be Ravensbury Players, but somebody – I think it was Malcolm – mentioned the need to attract the OLD stagers (the few remaining Southfields Drama Group members still interested in trying again). So NEW Stagers it became, and remains.
Of the names shown in the programme for the three one-act plays of 1968, only Thelma Harden was ex-Southfields Drama Group. But four others, not cast at that time, did have a part to play later. Bert Whitt, father of Malcolm, worked for French’s Acting Editions. He never wanted to act, but he was a superb first Treasurer and knew his way blindfold round the fire regulations and the rules for public performances. May, his wife and Malcolm’s mother, was a character actress of enormous benefit to us over the first five years. Don Hammond did act sometimes, but was chiefly valuable as an utterly unflappable director who could coax miracle performances out of people with no previous experience. His wife Florrie, known on stage as Val, was a loose cannon; she walked out on us near the end of rehearsals for ‘Sailor Beware’, but with hindsight, Florrie knew better than anybody that ‘that’ll do’ is never good enough. New Stagers owes its status as a good amateur group to a woman who wouldn’t compromise.
We Never Had It So Good
A dramatic society affiliated to a Methodist church had to abide by a set of rules which could have proven restrictive. But although the Reverend and his successor should have been bound by those rules, they both took the view that anything which encouraged outsiders to come into a church-backed society was an outreach programme which had to be kept going at all costs. With hindsight, Society Stage Manager David Bentley and I should never have bailed out at the same time to work on the newly-revived Isle Of Man Railway. We returned at the end of the 1968 summer season to find what was almost a new regime. Almost all of the ex-Colts had drifted away, thinking the group was a dead duck. It was an embarrassment to admit to any association with ‘Blue Murder’, ‘Sussex Nativity’, or the slightly less incompetent ‘A Phoenix Too Frequent’, before our first real hit, ‘The Late Edwina Black’.
‘Edwina’ was the first play we’d dared to invite the local press to see, and the Wimbledon Borough News – quite rightly – accused us of underacting. We had to, to keep the style consistent. Dennis Wildey (Inspector Martin) had ‘flu, and with no understudies had to go on doped up to the eyeballs. He could hardly stop shivering and had to do all his longer speeches sitting down, which meant that the blocking of Acts I and III had to be ignored, but even so, it was so much better than what had gone before. Several people from the audience signed up on the spot. That was the Autumn of 1970, and we knew we had to do something quickly to keep those newcomers busy, so we decided to leave the ‘Edwina’ set intact and turn the big bookcase into bar shelves for a music hall. An authentic-looking 1895 set was too good to waste.
We could do that because nobody else used the stage. No rushed get-ins, no turning up early on a Sunday morning to dismantle. We didn’t know how lucky we were. We didn’t have to pay hire charges and the Church Trustees even found it possible to give us a small grant towards updating the lighting. From the very start they had given us a room for a workshop – it was up four flights of stairs, though, and the original Southfields DG flats (hardboard on edge-on unplaned 2x1 held together with nails) were a pig to get up and down. So we had started to rebuild them using Dasco, a new material at the time, made from two layers of tough brown paper bonded with tar. It was cheaper than canvas, but difficult to stretch and difficult to fireproof. But as we were a theatre club, provided that we only advertised within the building and didn’t sell tickets, fireproofing was not an absolute requirement. We could not have obtained performance licences because the only emergency exit was backstage.
For the music hall in January 1971, Hugh Lincé organised a barber shop quartet; Dennis did an effective mind-reading act with new member Christine Low – whom nobody out front yet recognised – as his audience plant; I was billed as ‘The Voice Of The Few’, doing all the voices for a spoof Doctor Finlay’s Casebook; and a lad who shall remain nameless since he was otherwise a walking disaster area was a stand-up comic in Victorian urchin mode – think Jack Dee crossed with The Krankies. Christine’s husband John Low did the lights because our two regular lighting men, Hugh L and Malcolm W, were both busy with the music. Malcolm was able to pick up any tune you could hum for him and play it on the accordion, which had proved invaluable for the Colts XI and again here.
But the star and top of the bill was Rosemary Goodleigh (‘Rose Monahan, The Jewel Of The Emerald Isle’) who looked like a film star, sang like Susan Boyle, and was actually a friend of Thelma H’s who drove a bread van. That came in very handy on the rare occasions when we had to hire furniture, but Rosemary, despite her looks, acted very rarely, as she was that godsend, a natural-born prompter.
Having kept new members interested, we wanted a play that would use Don and the three ex-Southfields DG actresses, hence ‘Breath Of Spring’, but it was a good mix, with Christine as Hattie the dithery china-mender and Dennis’s wife Julie as speech therapist Nan. David Sixsmith had by then replaced the previous minister, and he was reluctantly persuaded to play Sergeant Pape. Actually, he was rather good. Pape has a uniformed sidekick called PC Kemp. It’s just a walk-on, so I stage managed in uniform. During the Saturday performance some kids started kicking the backstage emergency door from outside. I put on my helmet, flung the door open, and you couldn’t see ‘em for dust. We never had that problem again!
The stage left wings at Southfields Central Hall were usually a bugbear, because the stage ended there, and you had to climb steps from floor level, but for ‘A Letter From The General’ this was a positive advantage. We built the set, a room in a Chinese Mission Station, with a verandah. We had more uprights for banisters than we would normally use, having visited demolition sites to strip any assets which would otherwise be scrapped. It brought in loads of useful wood, and also two gaslights which had been used for ‘Edwina’ and the music hall. Gordon Neal joined us for the first time as Captain Lee, and he was the best character actor we had over the next few years. Phoenix Players, our next-door-neighbour group, had just folded, and of that group, Malcom and Margaret Beard appeared as Stilton the British Consul and Sister Lucy respectively, both sounding exactly right. Margaret’s soft West-of-Ireland lilt contrasted perfectly with Thelma H’s embittered Belfast. Rosemary, in a rare release from the prompt corner, was marvellous as Stilton’s equally embittered wife, and ex-Colt John Nicholson coped with the accent of a German priest without being quite comfortable. May Whitt and Val Hammond (for the last time) completed what was, in my opinion, the best-cast team we ever had in my time. The Church authorities thought so, too, and wanted a repeat. They got it, but it wasn’t the same.
In the Autumn of 1971 we joined NODA, and our rep Les Cowham came for the first time to see ‘Sailor Beware’. We chose it, believe it or not, because we had two naval ratings uniforms we’d never found a use for! The production could have foundered when Val resigned, but Thelma H, who was directing, took over the Peggy Mount lead and played it as a small nagging shrew to very good effect. Another departure from conventional casting was new member Kate Bullen as Daphne Pink, usually something of a tart-with-a-heart part. Kate was posh – think Lady Edith in Downton Abbey – and Thelma directed her to be trying hopelessly to fit in, which meant I, as Carnoustie Bligh, had to be totally in awe of her. Gordon was brilliant as the downtrodden Henry Hornet, and another newcomer Maureen Lancaster hilarious as the hapless Edie. Dennis made a fine upright Albert, and Christine as his intended showed just the right hint of petulance to warn you that she would grow to be just like her mother. But somehow, neither Sue Dilloway as Florrie Lack nor John N as Reverend Purefoy quite got what Thelma wanted of them. Had she not had the added burden of playing the lead, I’m sure she would have got them spot on. Les Cowham loved it. His first NODA review ended ‘Going up? You bet they are!’
Two Hectic Years
During the ‘Sailor Beware’ rehearsal period Gordon brought in one of his neighbours, Janet Walker; Janice Ebdon rejoined from the Colts XI; and Brenda Hance came – as had Kate – in response to our card-index entry in Wimbledon Library. That was a recognised way to get members in pre-Internet days. David Bentley was therefore able to field a completely different cast for ‘The Camel’s Back’ in February 1972, but it was a little bit 2nd XI-ish, with too many inexperienced people. The acoustics at Southfields Central Hall were poor, and this was the only production I, out front having just designed and built the set with invaluable help from David’s girlfriend Rosemary Wood, really could not hear very well. Rosemary W’s contributions to the group were quietly outstanding. You would tell her what you wanted, she’d just say ‘OK’, and she’d go away and do it – costumes and lampshades for ‘Edwina’, the mock-heraldic shield for the proscenium arch, window backings… I think the only time she appeared on stage was in the music hall chorus, but I bet the group missed her when she and David married and moved to Southampton.
That brings us to our first away game. For Merton Arts Festival, Hugh Lincé brought back ex-Colt Peter Henshall to play opposite John N in Stravinsky’s ‘The Soldier’s Tale’. It is quite a step from vicar to the Devil, but it was John N’s finest performance. Kate narrated simply and clearly, never overstating. It was a wonderful production, let down by a truly rotten companion piece. ‘The Telephone Always Rings’ was dire. Pat Whitt and I did our best with it, but the scenery didn’t fit the much bigger Carlton Hall stage, and I’m sure the audience regarded it as a great let-down after the magic that had gone before. We did it again on our own stage, and again the contrast between ‘excellent’ and ‘barely adequate’ came across.
But we redeemed ourselves, I think, with ‘Time And The Conways’. Ursula Carpenter joined us as an extra set designer, which was just as well, as I could never have done the job alone. Rosemary W, like many of our other women members, was far too busy on costumes. A cast of nine, five of them female, to be dressed authentically for 1919 (Acts I and III) and 1938 (Act II). Only newcomer Lesley Smith didn’t need her make-up re-done in the intervals, as she was dead for Act II. Ursula and I were able to watch most of it from out front, but nipped round to work like demons during both intervals. To change a room from opulent to genteel-shabby and back again is more difficult than putting up a totally different set. Roger Bird, a long-standing church member, guested for us as Alan Conway; he’d never met Kate before rehearsals, but their chemistry as beloved brother and sister (trickier than playing a couple, I always think) was deeply moving. Maureen threw off her Edie twitterings to be a fine matriarch, charming in 1919, borderline alcoholic in 1938, and the rest of the cast – Julie, Pat and Lesley as the other three sisters, Dennis as the calm solicitor, Gordon as nasty Ernest Beevers, Janice as silly and shallow June Halford, did justice to a really excellent script. Only Neil Crafter, another ex-Phoenix, seemed ill-at-ease in his ex-Royal Flying Corps uniform, as well he might: it was adapted from John N’s RAF uniform, and Neil is about three inches taller! He was fine in civvies for Act II, but the head of drama at Southlands College, deputising for Les Cowham who had too many shows to see that week, tore into him with quite vicious cruelty. He never went on stage again in my time, though he did the rehearsed readings in the church coffee bar, and captained our ill-fated cricket team (played 3, lost 3) of which the best that can be said is that we didn’t lose a single male member during that summer break!
That was just as well, because the church insisted that we do ‘A Letter From The General’ again. They were quite within their rights. The Church Constitution clearly stated that one play in three must present a Christian message. Our problem was that Malcolm B (Stilton), though barely forty, was in hospital with a lung disease which was not TB, but possibly related to asbestosis or silicosis. His wife Margaret was naturally too upset to consider reprising Sister Lucy, Val had gone, and the second production was therefore a shadow of the first. Christine took over from me as director, as I had to go on for Malcolm, Janice for Margaret, and Janet for Val. Without Chris we should have buckled under the pressure of doing it in a month, but we managed it, including the identical set despite most of the flats having been repainted, but only Chris’s comment: ‘We don’t do this for the church, we do it for Malcolm and Margaret’ got us through it.
Dorothy L Sayers is not only known for Lord Pete Wimsey, but ‘The Man Born To Be King’ is a cycle of plays based on the life of Jesus which were written for radio and cannot really be staged. We had planned to do them after Sunday evening services – Don being the instigator – before we were asked to repeat ‘General’. So we did, and just about every member was in at least one. The clearances in the coffee bar were so tight we regularly rubbed knees with the audience, but it was a valuable public relations exercise; by this time, only a small minority of us had any connection with the Church, and it gave the audience members the chance to get to know everybody else.
Ken Hamilton was one of only two members (the juvenile disaster from the music hall was the other) who looked in on a rehearsal from out in the road and came in to ask to join. Ken was a cobbler who worked in the heel bar at Waterloo Station, but he was a much better cobbler than that implies. He made me a pair of built-up shoes for the next production, ‘Something To Hide’, 5’10” being better for Inspector Davies than 5’8”. Thelma Twitchin and Brenda Hance had not really shone in ‘Camel’s’, but Thelma T came into her own here, opposite a suitably creepy John N, and Brenda and Ken in the two smaller parts were ideal. Stage firearms have a bad reputation, but our starting pistol behaved perfectly on both nights, and Thelma’s shooting of John brought gasps of horror both times. Leslie Sands, the playwright, was very well known at that time for playing Sergeant Cluff in a long-running TV series – mainly because everybody adored his co-star, a border collie called Clive. As a result, what was really only a pot-boiler drew sell-out audiences both nights.
The stage at Southfields Central Hall was marred by an arrangement of ‘L’ girders which meant that a box set usually only gave you the width of a train corridor behind the back wall of the set. Up to that time we had avoided farces for that reason, but we all loved the script of ‘See How They Run’ so much, we felt we just had to try it. Ursula and I agonised over the set, and warned Thelma H, who was to play Miss Skillon, who faints in front of the French windows, that she could very well get kicked in the head! In fact, it was one of our most joyously successful romps. We had one new member, Martin Rous from Southlands College, who eventually married Thelma H, which was fine, and whisked her off to Norfolk, which wasn’t. Martin was very short, very volatile, and very, very funny. He got so much into the part of the fanatical Nazi prisoner of War that he broke my beautifully crafted poker when he had to use it as a weapon, and I had to dash up to the workshop at the Friday interval and mock up a replacement in twenty minutes. Both Malcolm W and Hugh were acting together for the first time since music hall, so John L was back on lights, I was SM, and since Don was playing the Bishop of Lax I can’t now remember who directed. It could have been Christine. It certainly wasn’t Kate, who had the female lead; whoever it was did a superb job. That was the only time I remember somebody coming to see a show as a result of the ad in the NODA Bulletin. He grabbed Hugh, who was the first cast member to get changed and go out front, shook his hand nearly off, and said ‘Wonderful! Better than The Mikado! I’ve got it all on tape, you know’. And he had. Bloody cheek! He’d sat there with a cassette player running the whole time without asking anybody’s permission. It was a huge hit with everybody, but Don had concentrated on watching Ken in the fairly small part of the RMP Sergeant, and decided he had to find a script for our next religious play that could be cast around Ken as somebody quite unique.
We’re talking here about a class-conscious age. Most dramatic societies – even the non-cliquey ones – drew only on a limited range of members at that time. We ranged from Ken, a cobbler, and Gordon, a warehouseman, to Kate, a post-grad who had been invited to Nicaragua to catalogue their postage stamps. Most nights after rehearsals you’d find us in a grotty pub behind Earlsfield station, playing pub skittles like one big happy family. Because that’s what we were.
When Don decided on ‘They Came To A City’ he went first to Hugh, not to me or Ursula, because he knew that lighting was, in this case, more important than set design. And he was right. The shops in the Central Hall frontage were being refurbished, and Hugh took whatever timber he estimated might be useful, and built a triangular apron with a city wall and twelve-foot high double doors with sort of Aztec overtones, to create a kind of magic kingdom lit from behind from dawn to dusk, in which Lesley and Ken could do everything except fall in love for real. That they didn’t speaks volumes for her boyfriend and his girlfriend, but the rest of us, including Les Cowham, thought they were a real couple, and the result was pure enchantment. May, Kate, Gordon and I just did what Don told us to do, which was to feed them the lines and let nature take its course.
That was when I should have left the group – on a high – to move to Essex. There was no need to squeeze in an extra summer production, but as with ‘Edwina’, we felt that the triangular set with its city wall was too good to demolish straight away. I had a bee in my bonnet; I wanted to say that I’d directed at least a bit of Shakespeare before I left, and I felt Act I Scene I of ‘Lear’ could stand alone as a one-act. John N had always wanted to do ‘Savonarola Brown’ – a bonfire of the vanities if ever there was one – and Kate was a fan of Captain Scott, so wanted to do ‘Fire In The Snow’ as another rehearsed reading. In August, with the audience fanning themselves with their programmes? What were we thinking of? Those three one-act plays of August 1973 added up to our weakest effort since ‘The Camel’s Back’, and ‘a brave effort’ was the best Les Cowham could say.
I went back three or four times, shift work permitting, to see later productions. The one that sticks in my mind most, because it sums up the New Stagers spirit, is ‘Pink String And Sealing Wax’. Power cuts were forecast, so Hugh had somehow coaxed the Central Hall’s emergency gas lighting to work – probably for the first time in thirty years or so – and the stage was lit by tilly lamps suspended from netball posts. For a Victorian era play it was wonderfully appropriate.