It’s June 1960, and I’m a 17-year-old, standing on the stage at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff, being kissed by a tall, handsome, young man. How did this come about?
My Mum and Dad were born in Southend. My father was a designer draughtsman and during the war he worked on jet engines in the Coventry area. (We were always led to believe he was working with jet pioneer Frank Whittle, but as Frank W. was RAF I don’t know whether that was possible. However, he definitely worked with him after the war.) My mother was evacuated to Winsford in Cheshire where I was born; delivered, I was told, by my grandmother in the middle of an air raid – although I later researched air raids over Winsford and there weren’t any, so perhaps I was born in the middle of a false alarm. Which just about sums things up! Anyway, Mum eventually joined Dad in Coventry (where my brother was born) and then we all moved to Southend in 1952. I had just passed the 11+ and I was transferred to Westcliff High School, where my Midlands brogue caused much merriment!
As a little girl I was always dressing up and putting on plays for my long-suffering parents and friends. I just loved anything to do with the theatre! Something needed to be done, and I was sent to the Ridley Studios, then in its infancy, and run by the inspirational Peggy Batchelor, who was given the task of smoothing the rough edges off this skinny little schoolgirl. There, I found myself in my element.
In those days Peggy held classes in her home and I remember the kindness of her mother and father. My Midlands accent diminished and I made special friends with two pupils, Yvonne and Sandra – where are they now I wonder? We performed in festivals and one year I won a poetry prize! I was also ‘loaned out’ to WIs and the like when they needed a young girl for a part.
One year Peggy invited the three of us to go with her to a residential drama course held at Thaxted. Over a Bank Holiday weekend we learned a part written especially for us, made costumes and scenery and on the Monday performed it.
This was magical and, on returning home, I immediately joined some local amateur dramatic societies.Every Saturday we three girls would take the train up to London and go to the Old Vic matinee. We were fortunate enough to cover the 1955/56 season with Richard Burton and John Neville. I don’t think we missed a play and we saw Richard and John dual-role as Othello and Iago. We always arrived early and would hang around the stage door – everyone spoke to us; we were so regular that some of the actors even knew our names. Richard Burton and his then wife Sybil Williams were very generous with their time and we got autographs. Unfortunately it never occurred to me to take photographs though, looking back, I realise we were seeing theatrical history.
It was a privilege to meet and see so many famous actors: Claire Bloom, Zena Walker, Michael Hordern, Corale Browne, Wendy Hillier and Barbara Jefford to name a few. Greedy for more after the performance we hurtled along to Shaftesbury Avenue. Being Saturday night most plays were a sell-out, apart from seats in ‘the gods’ which were released a couple of hours before the curtain went up. We always joined the shortest queue but, even so, sometimes reached the box office when the last ticket had been sold – but then, more often than not, we were allowed to stand at the back.
At the Royal Court I remember seeing Joan Plowright when she first came to notice, receiving rave reviews for her performance in William Wycherley’s The Country Wife, and being at the Saville Theatre for a performance of The Rivals with John Clements, Kay Hammond, Athene Seyler and Laurence Harvey (who drove around London in a yellow Rolls Royce!)
I think it was at the stage door of the Saville Theatre that we met Sir Lewis Casson, husband of Dame Sybil Thorndike. He was appearing with Paul Daneman in George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma. He was interested in our theatre adventures and amazed when we told him we still had to catch the last train back to Southend. I remember him saying ‘I wish there were more around like you.’ The day took most of our weeks’ pocket money and there was still the Palace Theatre to fit in: Each week I eagerly parted with my 1/6d and headed upstairs to the balcony (as the gallery was called in those days!).
Once in a while the Arthur Brough Players, the resident repertory company, would have a famous guest artiste. Sabrina Fair, later to be made into a film with Audrey Hepburn, was to be staged and popular film and radio star Paul Carpenter – who could forget him as Larry Duke in the film Stock Car, or as the cowboy Jeff Arnold in the radio series Riders of the Range – was to play the lead.
Imagine how I felt when Peggy asked if I was interested in a walk-on part in Sabrina Fair!
I shall never forget the excitement of my first rehearsal. Grasping my little cream leatherette vanity case I went up the metal stairs to the stage door feeling like a real actress. Initially I was very shy and in awe of everyone, but I was made very welcome. I was introduced to Paul Carpenter. He was tall, dark-haired and wore stone-coloured buckskin boots which impressed me very much. Of course I wasn’t paid and had to provide my own costume, so I wore my best dress, which was a jade green silky material with layers of frilly petticoats.
The dressing room was a bit like a cheerful public lavatory: cream painted brick walls with a red border. It was here, with the rest of the cast, I slapped on Leichner greasepaint and sneezed my way through copious amounts of face powder. Against the wall, a full length mirror, with a large chunk broken off the corner, listed dangerously. In those days Health and Safety did not come into it!
I wasn’t provided with a script and just did as I was told. It wasn’t until I saw the film years later that I understood the actual scene. Paul Carpenter was on stage and I entered, apparently looking for my boyfriend. He pointed and I followed the direction of his finger. My boyfriend then entered looking for me and Paul mischievously pointed him in the wrong direction. The audience howled with laughter. It ended up with us finally meeting and kissing centre stage. My boyfriend, played by Stephen Yardley, who was later to go on and find fame as Ken Masters in the TV series Howard’s Way, was also the ASM and took his duties very seriously. I didn’t let on but, although it was just a stage kiss, it was the first time I had been kissed!
During rehearsals one day I couldn’t believe my ears when Paul asked if I fancied an afternoon out. In the taxi, with Dad’s warning ringing in my ears, I was beginning to have second thoughts, but, mercifully, we were dropped off outside an amusement arcade on the seafront, and we played bingo all afternoon! We became great mates and did this every day for the run of the play.
The opening night was thrilling, and at every performance the auditorium erupted into loud applause when Paul walked onto the stage. I couldn’t keep away from the theatre and would go and watch the rehearsals for the following week’s production.
One morning I was handed a letter – fan mail? It was actually from the stage magazine ‘Spotlight’, requesting my photograph and availability for future work. I was thrilled as I had just had some photos taken and sent off a copy by return, though this fizzled out and didn’t lead anywhere.
Soon it was the last night and it was all coming to an end. The cast gave me a large box of chocolates as a thank you. Paul Carpenter kissed me on the cheek and said, ‘Thank you pretty child, you’ve been great fun. Take care.’ I was only ever to see him again on the screen.
I never became a professional actress; there were school exams to be passed and then I got a job as a trainee hotel receptionist at the Westcliff Hotel. This was not really what I wanted, and my life turned out very differently on a chance visit to Portugal, when I met my future husband John Holland, a sailor, artist, writer and former bit-part film and television actor. We were eventually based there for over twenty years until his death in 2000.
Even though my adventures in the theatre were all a long time ago, I still treasure the memories of a very happy time in my life.
Archivist David Simpson adds: A shorter version of this article appeared in issue 204 (published in October 2014) of the fortnightly magazine ‘Yours’. When Annie was commissioned to write it she contacted me for details about the Palace and, specifically, the production of Sabrina Fair. We enjoyed the shared experience of researching the project although sadly, despite all the programmes we have, we do not have one for that play (the extracts above are from adjacent programmes).
Annie also contacted Stephen Yardley, who played her boyfriend. Despite the stage kiss making such an impression on Annie, Stephen now has little recollection of that play. However, he did kindly provide the photograph that appears here.
It was a real pleasure collaborating with Annie, and I am very grateful to her for allowing her lovely reminiscences to appear here.
Nowadays, Annie is best known for her books for children, particularly the “Stella the Stork” series, although she is currently working on a novel. For more information please see