I first ‘trod the boards’ when I was about six or seven years of age, in a nativity play dressed as a penguin, a non-chirping part, at St. James Church Hall, in Elmsleigh Drive, Leigh. That particular stage, I found out many years later, was the first church hall stage in the area to be fitted with a fire safety curtain, better known in the profession as ‘the iron’.
Why a penguin? Well, my older brother had a part as a traditional shepherd, and I kicked up such a fuss, that I wasn’t included, that I can only think, to keep me quiet, they let me join in – but the only costume that fitted that the cub mistress could find in the wicker costume basket was that of a penguin!
Other times I can recall performing on a stage each year were as a competitor in the Southend and Leigh music festivals and many fateful talent contests at holiday camps.
But I had no thoughts about being involved in things theatrical in the future, although I was a bit of show off and I was always clowning around.
I was educated at Eastwood from infants through to senior school and sung the boy solo part of ‘Once In Royal David’s City’ a few times both at school and St. Lawrence Church, Eastwood, where I was a chorister. On leaving school I had a couple of jobs, well three in all: one as dogsbody at an engineering firm that maintained the rides in what was once called Peter Pan’s Playground and the other two in the City as an office boy in a stockbrokers’ firm called Tingy & Baskett (known on the floor of the Exchange as ‘Stingy Baskets’ and another similar name!) followed by a then little known firm of solicitors in a small dingy office in The Royal Exchange Building at No. 1 Threadneedle Street. They were Simmons and Simmons and still are, but now operate from huge premises at City Point, London EC2, have gone global and employ thousands.
On Thursday 23rd April 1964 I took the ‘Queen’s Shilling’ and joined the Army as a boy soldier. I was posted to an All Arms Junior Leaders Regiment in north Wales, then to Parkhall Camp, Oswestry, Shropshire, until eventually I was stationed at Mansergh Barracks in Gutersloh, Germany, where there was a large school on the camp for servicemen’s children. It transpired they were putting on a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe and some of the teachers I knew suggested that I might like to take part. I thought “why not?” and became a member of the cast as a Peer of the Realm.
This was also the first time that I became aware of the theatre term ‘prop’. The director, a school teacher by the name of Don Friswell, decided that the character Private Willis, a Guardsman, would look better with a rifle with which he could do some ‘business’. It so happened that my battery, K Battery, 5 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, was having its armoury up-graded and for a short time we were responsible for our own rifles – to be locked securely in our personal lockers. I thought I would help the production by lending mine for the short run, first removing the working parts to make it unserviceable: proving, at least to myself, that I wasn’t completely irresponsible.
On the last evening of the production the CO of my regiment was sitting in the front row of the school hall auditorium. Next to him was the Regimental Sergeant Major, who proved very keen to speak to me after the show and put me on a charge for the insecurity and misappropriate use of a personal weapon! The next day I was marched in double time to stand in front of Lt. Col. D A Bayly, RA and await my fate, which, under the circumstances, didn’t turn out to be at all what I was expecting.
The CO said that he had enjoyed the show and asked if I had enjoyed participating. Then he told me it wasn’t the ‘done’ thing for a British soldier to lend out his firearm but let me off with a warning. From the infuriated expression on the RSMs face this was not quite the verdict he was expecting either!
I can only think that the generous way I was dealt with by the CO was due to the fact that I was already engaged by him for that evening, as I was on many occasions, to wait at table and serve drinks for a private party at his home. This I also did for other officers and their wives, as well as some baby-sitting. A nice position to be in and nice little earner, as ‘extra duty’ pay.
When I left the Army I became very much involved in the arts scene here in Southend, including involvement with Ridley Studios in the Leigh Road and the Southend Youth Theatre in Milton Street, where also for a short period of time I became lighting and technical adviser.
Ridley Studios, founded in 1955, owned and directed by professional actress Peggy Batchelor, supplied many a young actor/actress for various plays at the Palace such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. A particular young lady in that 1970 production, Michelle Lambourne, went on to work for Anglia Television as the hostess/card dealer for the game show Gambit, which ran from 1975 to 1985, as well as other acting roles.
Many other former Ridley students, having first ‘tread’ the boards at the Palace, also went on to professional careers in theatre and the associated arts. One of three patrons of the Studios was Dame Sybil Thorndike, who, in 1936, had appeared at the Palace Theatre.
When, in 1974, I was teaching part-time at the studios, Peggy requested that I prepare something with the Ridley students for the Leigh Music and Drama Festival, to be held at the Leigh Community Centre. I wrote a piece entitled The Chess Board of Life, in which I cast the aforesaid Michelle Lambourne as the narrator. Whilst I was on honeymoon Peggy took over rehearsals. However, with great respect to Auntie Peggy, as she was fondly known by many who knew her, when I returned and took over I hardly recognised the piece I had written, and therefore I changed it back again!
The day dawned and the students excelled themselves, moving in perfect precision across the stage, just like the pieces on a chessboard. However, whilst the adjudicator was deliberating, and writing his critique, Peggy, in a furious mood, took me aside and tore me off a strip: her concern was that God had been portrayed as being of two spirits, feminine and masculine, and members of the audience might well have felt upset at that particular conundrum, as might the adjudicator, for “hadn’t I realised he was Gay!?”. I hadn’t and it would not have in any way concerned me had I done so. Whatever his sexual orientation he was a fine adjudicator especially when he eventually made wonderful comments about my work, the students characterisations – and then awarded Ridley top marks and yet another cup for the studio display cabinet, which consequently brought on a broad smile and a big hug from ‘Auntie Peggy.’
I would like to take this opportunity to stress that Peggy was only worried for the adjudicator, that he might possibly have been offended, and that she was not being and never has been homophobic.
During the management of Alexander Bridge, Ray Cooney, Tony Clayton and the opening production of the Palace Theatre Trust all the children’s and teenage parts were taken by students of Ridley, including The Happiest Days of Your Life (1957), The Housemaster (1959), The Innocents (1965), Spiders Web (1982), and, as already mentioned, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The Studios were also sometimes used by the Palace as a rehearsal space.
Peggy eventually sold the Studios and moved to Wendover, Buckinghamshire where, in 1984, she married her sweetheart from 1944, Air Commodore Arthur Clegg. The Studios carried on for a few years at its location in the Leigh Road under the directorship of Elsa Owen and then the business was sold, and the building became a private dwelling. A new studio opened in Hamlet Court Road as Ridley Theatre Store & Studios, but sadly the old Ridley era had long ceased to be and it was now a faded shadow of its former self. At the end of 2013 the premises in Westcliff were closed and the name Ridley was no more, other than in the many happy memories of those once young thespians of yesteryear.
In her time ‘Miss’ Batchelor’s students were a force to be reckoned with in all competitive festivals. Not only had she been a great influence on drama in the area but she also broke new ground and became the pioneer of the children’s theatre movement in the Southend Borough.
Widowed in March 1994, Peggy was almost 99 years of age when I first wrote these words (in June 2015) and most determined to receive the Queen’s birthday telegram in a year’s time, well before, in her own words, she “Pegs it”!
Well, it’s now March 2017 and, although she is somewhat frail, Peggy has, in pride of place on her table, next to a few remaining copies of a biography about herself, this telegram/card.
Eventually I received an educational grant from Essex County Council and was offered a place as a mature student at the then Southend Technical College Department of Music and Drama. Head of the Drama section was Hilary Clulow, herself a former student of the Ridley Studio’s. Having for some time been a young secretary to former artistic director of the Palace Theatre, ‘Peter’ Alexander Bridge,* in or around 1969 she had replaced Geoff Melbourne as head of the college drama department, ran a Friday evening Ridley Theatre Workshop at Chalkwell Schools and with a very talented local school teacher, Geoff Dye, also became Director of the Southend Youth Theatre. From there she secured the position of Director of Theatre in Education at the Palace Theatre, Watford. In addition she also served on the board of The Palace Theatre Trust Westcliff, which was formed in 1970.
Around this time Hilary went into partnership with a chap named Graham Pearson who, alongside Pearl ‘Poison’ Penrose, worked as a theatre/drama critic for the Southend Standard. I mean no disrespect to Pearl for adding the nickname she acquired locally for her forthright, no holds-barred, criticism of various productions at the Palace and other venues! To be honest, away from the written page she was a very warm and kindly person but in her hand a pen could become a decisive weapon!
However, I digress… Together, Hilary and Graham opened a small shop in the London Road, not far from the Theatre. Named Kaleidoscope, it sold beads and other such goods reflective of the 70s era. Its colour scheme of yellow, white and purple, in a swirling cloud design, was masterminded and executed by myself and fellow student Keith Taylor. At the opening, local dignitaries and people of the theatre exclaimed, waffled and muttered their approval whilst continuously recharging their wine glasses with cheap plonk. However, through sober eyes – and on reflection – the design was hideous, the colour scheme utterly ghastly, but the financial reward was extremely acceptable to two cash strapped Drama Students on meagre grants!
After leaving college Keith moved to Brighton, traded in ‘good quality’ wine imports, joined the Green Party and became an MEP (no longer strapped for cash!).
Graham Pearson continued in journalism whilst also appearing as a member of the acclaimed Southend Shakespeare Company where he took on many lead roles.
Following its formation in 1951, to celebrate the Festival of Britain, The Southend Shakespeare Society, as it was first named, made its debut at the Palace in December 1954 with a production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and then regularly performed ‘main stage’ under that same name. In November 1962, having changed their name to The Southend Shakespeare Company, they presented another performance of ‘the Dream’ to celebrate this. They continued to regularly perform in the main house until the week commencing Monday 20th November 1967 when they concluded their many years of productions at the Palace with a staging of The Merchant of Venice. It was after this in the late 60s early 70s I had a short association with the company when I was requested to light two plays for them: Lady Precious Stream and Macbeth on the old Technical College stage at Carnarvon Road, where the company were performing until moving to the Southend Youth Theatre in Milton Street (which was demolished in June-July 2015).
After a long absence from the Palace, on Sunday 21st September 1980 they yet again presented ‘the Dream’, this time to raise money for the Palace Centre appeal, a scheme which included in its plans the Dixon Studio Theatre. That opened in September 1982 and is where the SSC now, since April 1986, with a performance of The Wild Duck, regularly stage their productions and where the aforementioned Graham Pearson performed on many occasions up until his untimely death in early February 2015.
On closer examination of the above photograph, and then another look at an existing 1970 programme, I now realise that I was not the only one in that production who had a link to the Palace. There was one other, and she is the fair-haired girl on the left of the steps leading up to the stage. Later to become a professional actress, this is Phoebe, the youngest daughter of ‘Mick’ and Beryl Scholfield, who each in their turn became Mayor of Southend. They were most ardent supporters of the Palace Theatre and the Arts in general. In 1969, as a councillor, Beryl was in the forefront of a successful protest movement for re-opening the theatre after it went ‘dark’ following the exit of Alexander Bridge, who ultimately became blacklisted by the Actors Union Equity for some financial irregularities.
As a backdrop to this, one of many turbulent periods in the history of the Palace, some local cinemas also had their problems, instigated by a Watch Committee which later became the Southend Public Protection Committee. Well into the 1970s a few councillors of a self-righteous nature empowered themselves to ban certain films locally which they perceived depicted explicit and immoral content that the general public of Southend should be protected from viewing – films which had already been passed by the British Board of Film Classification, officially responsible for censoring and labelling all films released in the UK!
Even though the Theatres Act had abolished censorship of the stage in 1968 it was most fortunate that the influence of the sanctimonious committee didn’t extend to local theatre and create the possibility of banning plays at the Palace such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1970 (which also had Louise, the eldest daughter of the Scholfields, in the cast as Miss Kerr) or The Boys in the Band (1973) and Equus (1975). At the time, all three were thought to be controversial.
An interesting article appeared in the Sunday Times in 1972 where the Chairman of the Southend Borough Council Watch Committee/Public Protection Committee got an unsought headline a movie, believed to be the 1972 film Last Tango in Paris starring Marlon Brando, in which there was an allusion to oral sex. ‘We will not swallow oral sex in Southend’, he thundered, thus assuring his small footnote in a ‘Did I really say that?’ dictionary of quotations!
On 27th October 1973 the film was banned from being shown at the Odeon Southend and any other cinemas in the Borough. I seem to remember that ‘Southenders’ wishing to see this, and some other locally banned films, happily travelled the 12 miles to Basildon and watched them there.
In all, from 19th September 1970 to 22nd March 1978, 44 films were banned in Southend, although, following a reconsideration in October 1974, Straw Dogs, which was initially banned in January 1972, was allowed to be shown in the Borough, as was The Exorcist in February 1976, which had first been banned in October 1974. Thriller was the last to be given a reprieve during the period. Having been banned in June 1977 it was, after reconsideration, permitted to be shown in November 1977.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was provisionally banned on 9th June 1976. Five years later the stage play opened at the Palace, on Wednesday 11th February. In its cast was Charles Sharman-Cox and one Ken Caswell. Ken, with his wife Linda, herself being quite a regular at the Palace as wardrobe mistress and actress, in time applied for and became heads of Drama at the old Technical College in Southend, where Charles and I had studied. Ken eventually went onto other things, including appearing in the original cast of Les Miserables and then directing that show for Cameron Mackintosh, plus other work in the UK and abroad. Having for a short time also taught at Milton Hall School, Westcliff, Linda had retired from acting before she moved away and made an appearance in an episode of the television series Cash in The Attic where she was attempting to raise £1,500 to convert her garage into a studio. For what purpose I have no idea; however, I seem to recall that while she was at the Palace, from her home in Valkyrie Road, she had a fondness for designing in ‘Batik’; a technique using dyes and wax on fabric to create a pattern or picture. Indeed, I exhibited some of her work in conjunction with the monthly Lunchtime Concerts that I’ll refer to later in some detail.
I understand Hilary Clulow finished her teaching career as head of Drama at Shoebury High School, although as I write [July 2015] she still regularly adjudicates around the country, on behalf of the Guildhall School for Speech and Drama, as far away as Hong Kong.
A Southend College Drama student at the same time as myself was the above-mentioned Charles Sharman-Cox, who over the years also did a considerable amount of work at the Palace – and beyond, as recorded in the book Tales From The Palace Theatre which he helped compile. Godfrey Hamilton, who in October 2007 won the Palace Theatre Guild Writers Festival award for his play Take Me With You, was also a budding thespian at the college about the same time as Charles and myself. Godfrey married his long term partner Mark Pinkosh, founder of the Starving Artists Theatre Company, and they live in the States. Two other notable students at the College, particularly for their strikingly good looks, were Angela (Angie) Janes and her younger sister Lynne. Whereas I believe Lynne studied art design and fashion, Angie opted for drama and, in 1970, she played Heidi Irmgard, a named character not in the original play but in the Southend College production of The Physicists. Also in the cast were Charles as Ernst Heinrich and Godfrey as Adolf-Friedrich. In The Bold Prima Donna, as Mrs. Smith, Angie played alongside Charles as Mr. Smith and Godfrey as Mr. Martin. Ismene was her character role in Jean Anouilh’s play Antigone, with Charles and Godfrey as Chorus and Messenger respectively. On leaving the College she took up a career as a model and Playboy ‘Bunny’, then in 1978 she married footballer George Best. Later on, she became a PA and fitness trainer to singer Cher as well as other celebrities in America, before arriving back in this country with her son Calum and setting up a Metaphysical Gym on the banks of the Thames at Hambledon, Henley.
I well remember, in the mid-60s, roller-skating at Roller Palace on Pier Hill to the sound of ‘I Got You Babe’ by Sonny & Cher. In fact, I always held those two responsible for popularising ‘hipsters.’ Damn things, I never felt comfortable in them: I just didn’t have the hips to support the wretched things! (These days, 2015, they would be very popular as many young men deliberately wear their jeans down round their thighs to proclaim to the world the colour of their in-vogue underpants with designer label!) I also remember, as a child, roller skating at the old Southend Pier Pavilion before it burnt down in 1959. Now that ages me.
A close friend of mine, and another student of drama, was Maria Boosey, a talented young lady who, many years after leaving the College, and with a little bit of prompting, made a reasonable living performing as a Cher look-alike.
At this juncture, I feel compelled to mention the following coincidence. Although both were involved in drama in the Southend area at about the same time, it seems quite incredible that Maria Boosey and Michelle Lambourne never met, or knew of the other, whereas I knew and am still in touch with both. It was only when Maria moved to a property in Fobbing, Essex, that she was informed that a previous owner/occupier of the neat little bungalow called Dingly Dell, overlooking the marshes towards Benfleet and onwards to the heights of Thundersley, was the former Basildon Carnival Queen and TV hostess Michelle Lambourne.
My first real connection with the Palace Theatre was in May 1971, when Hilary Clulow introduced me to artistic director Tony Clayton. (I did recall seeing him at the opening of the Kaleidoscope shop, but thought it best not to mention my ‘artistic’ involvement with those particular premises!) Although by then I had done a fair bit of acting my main interests at that time were mime, stage management and stage lighting. Tony required an assistant electrician and I got the job at £15 a week.
I was very fortunate that Tony had come up through the ranks, so to speak, his career having started as an ASM [assistant stage manager]. He and his resident stage crew were so very encouraging towards me, especially stage manager Barry Richardson, who had a wealth of experience and knowledge in all aspects of backstage work, as well as lighting, which he so generously shared. He sadly died some years later in a car crash while in Wales. Bill Squirrel was the carpenter and he taught me how to build and construct stage sets. Again a man with a wealth of skill and technical knowhow. Dorothy Draper, the stage designer, who lived in a flat in Meteor Road, was a wonderfully eccentric character ‘of the old school’ who gave a lot of her time to me explaining and demonstrating how to stretch a canvas, texture a stage ‘flat’ and how to make various stage props.
The first production I lit solo was Twelfth Night in May 1971. I still remember the good use that Dorothy, for a ‘cyc’ (cyclorama), made of rolls of blue x-ray swabbing which she somehow managed to obtain from Southend Hospital.
The cast of Twelfth Night. Some remained as the cast of The Circle and The Anniversary with the Palace Theatre Company.
Left to right (Standing): Bill Squirrel, Brian Bridmore, Liz King, Tom (Day Man), Andrew Lane, Nina Thomas, Moray Black, Barbara Miller, Andrew Brent, Bruce Bennett, Ann Hamilton, Tony Clayton, Roger Davenport, Bernadette Gibson, David Rowlands, Michael Elwick, Peter Monk. Kneeling: Paul Arlington, Gabrielle Wheeler, Nell Page, Barry Richardson, Iris Snell, Sue Severn, Roland Oliver.
The above photo is believed to have been taken at the Palace Theatre Ball in May 1976. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of Iris Snell, who worked in the box office from 1967 to 1988, part of which time she took over as Box Office Manager on the retirement of her good friend Nell Page.
Stage lighting at the theatre was controlled from a Rank Strand Resistance Dimmer Board, better known as the ‘hands and knees board’ because you needed hands and knees to operate it…and feet as well!
A steep wooden ladder was the only access to this upright electrical monster situated on the ‘perch’ side of the stage above the prompt desk. This backstage, antiquated monstrosity was about four times the length of the one shown in the photo above and also included a ‘patch board’, so that the circuits could be interchanged to suit the requirements of the production. Most times the only way to view the stage while operating was through a gauze covering a window cut into the ‘tormentor’.
To operate the ‘board’ you would unscrew and position a handle on the bar which would correspond to the density of light required for each channel/circuit. Where the lever went through the plate was a divisional marker. When the handles for the required circuits were screwed tight in position then you could fade in or out as required by turning the big wheel at the end. You could also fade in or out an individual lantern by moving an untightened handle independently of the bar. Also, by turning two wheels at one time, you could bring about a cross fade. Below the handles there was a brass knob which was handy for knee or foot operation. Perhaps, unknowingly, this was my basic training for my later career as a juggler, pipe and taborer [player of tabor pipes], etc!
The lanterns in main use when I first started at the Palace were of Rank Strand design, consisting of the old faithful Patt 23 Profile spot, which could also take a Fresnel lens, and the ever useful Patt 123 and Patt 223 Fresnels. Patt 60 floods and ‘S’ compartment battens completed the majority of the stage ‘rig’. FOH (Front of House) lanterns were mostly Patt 264 bifocals with a few Patt 23s situated in the ‘ashtrays’ (as we called the boxes!). Later ‘T’ spots became fashionable and then lanterns, lighter in weight, from lighting supplier CCT.
For the uninitiated, the term ‘lantern’ refers to a stage light – which houses a lamp, not a bulb: bulbs grow in gardens! I recall that, for many years, on the front of the circle there was a somewhat archaic slide projector which showed advertisement slides of local shops and businesses which were projected in the middle of two black laurel leaves painted on the ‘iron’ (fire safety curtain) ‘brought in’ (lowered) in the interval. Of course that was long before 1992, when resident designer Judy Reaves beautifully repainted the curtain in its current art nouveau style.
There is an alcove at the back of the stage which was originally built around the early twenties to house ‘back projection’ film equipment. I seem to remember that same alcove was put to that identical use in 1971 for Tony Clayton’s production of It Sticks Out A Mile…And A Bit, which had in its cast not only his wife Anne Hamilton but also local actress Susanne Heath, an ex-pupil of St Bernard’s School (as was Helen Mirren who, in 2012, wrote the forward to ‘Tales From The Palace Theatre’. Helen is a great supporter of the Palace, although she never performed there).
I recall that following It Sticks Out A Mile…And A Bit (referring, of course, to Southend Pier) there was an after show party at the theatre at which I and a girlfriend lingered too long in an upstairs dressing room, resulting in us getting locked in! It proved no problem exiting the stage door, at the top of a flight of stairs which led down to an alleyway at the side of the theatre, as the door was on a latch. It was the height of the locked black sliding gate that led out to London Road that proved the problem, especially after a few drinks!
If and when extra stage lighting was needed for a particular production it was normally hired from JBE Stage Hire, its proprietor being Robin (Robbie) Barnes who, with his father Joe, for many years, performed puppet and magic shows on the sea front at the Puppet Theatre, Eastern Esplanade and the Chalkwell Beach Theatre. In the 50s, Joe Barnes was licensee of both theatres and known by many to be one of the greatest outdoor puppet operators in the country.
Famous French photographer the late Robert Doisneau took a photograph of The Chalkwell Beach Theatre on Monday 2nd October 1950*. By 1960 it had been altered and the proscenium made smaller allowing more wing space, but it was completely destroyed by a fierce gale on February 28th 1967; sadly never to be replaced.
*In May 2015 I sought permission from copyright holders Atelier to add the Doisneau photograph to this narrative. Regrettably I was refused. However, the photo can be located, and viewed quite legally, on various internet sites, including Atelier, by looking for “ Naufragé solitaire, Chalkwell beach.” A sign attached to the proscenium reads: “Joe Barnes Presents: Reg Jason with his Punch & Judy, Ventriloquism, Magic and Puppets.”
The following information was kindly provided by Zenia Jamison:
In June 2017 Zenia Jamison contacted David Simpson, our archivist, to say that her great grandfather, Reg Jason/Reginald Jamison, performed with her relatives at the Chalkwell Beach Theatre. He is featured in the Robert Doisneau photograph: he’s holding the flowers, while her father is the ‘audience’.
Zenia also very kindly sent in these fascinating photographs:
A young Linda Jamison (Zenia’s aunt), with theatre licensee and puppeteer Joe Barnes.
The clown is Zenia’s great uncle Sid Jamison, with another great uncle, Ron, in uniform. It is not known who the child is.
Zenia’s father, David Jamison, with his cousin Ann Richards (left) and his sister Linda (right) watching the theatre. Note the railway bridge behind them, which indicates where the theatre was.
The clown is Zenia’s great uncle Sid Jamison, the lady is Gladys, her great grandmother, and on the left is Reginald Jamison, her great grandfather. They called themselves the Jasons, and made the puppets themselves.
Zenia thinks these photographs were taken in or around 1952. She recalls her grandfather presenting puppet shows at her birthday parties.
Unfortunately she doesn’t know what happened to the puppets, nor does she have a great deal of information about her performing relatives. So she would love to hear from anyone who remembers this theatre and/or her family. Please contact her through our archivist.
End of Zenia Jamison’s insert.
In 1951Joe Barnes became Vice-Chairman of the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild, its past President having been the famous Edward Gordon Craig, son of the equally famous actress Ellen Terry.
After his father died Robbie carried on the business for a few years and then started off his lighting company in his garage in Sherbourne Gardens, near the airport, and as he expanded he worked from a lock-up off Alexandra Road, and then further expansion saw him take up premises in Union Lane, Rochford. JBE served the Palace Theatre with lighting and electrical stage props for many years.
The Palace, in the person of [artistic director] Chris Dunham, allowed me to borrow some extra equipment when, from 1978 to 1983, I was lighting director for the Essex Folk Festival at Rocheway, Rochford.
While I was working for Tony Clayton, as a rep theatre the Palace found itself heading towards financial trouble (nothing new there!). So Tony organised an appeal. One of many events to raise money was a 20 mile sponsored walk – in which I participated and came in first ahead of Tony (as mentioned by him on page 71 in ‘Tales From The Palace Theatre’). All that Army route marching at last paid off towards a good cause!
Sadly my time as assistant electrician was somewhat short lived due to a recurring medical problem following a hit and run injury I received in the Army whilst hitch-hiking in Denmark (that’s another story!!).
I finally ceased full-time employment as a member of the Palace Theatre Company after the production of The Lion in Winter on 3rd July 1971. However, Tony was extremely kind and suggested that I work as a paid casual, and my involvement with the Palace continued until the end of Chris Dunham’s fruitful era in March 1999.
Sometimes, Jon Paul, who owned a leather shop in Southend, would promote a rock band of some description for a Sunday afternoon show at the Palace. I well remember Sunday afternoon, 12th September 1971, when I had been asked to come in to do a bit of lighting. Uriah Heap was the band, a type of psychedelic rock band with a few strobes. All they wanted from me were a few colour changes and as many flashes as I liked. Stage Manager Barry Richardson had already stipulated the then rules of the theatre regarding the use of strobes, which included the angle that they should be set in relationship to the audience and, most importantly, the pulse rate. As the show progressed I could see from where I was up on the perch that one of the band’s roadies was interfering with them by changing their angle and pulse settings. I told Barry, who went across the stage and reset them. However, the roadie changed them again, whereupon Barry, short in stature but loud in voice (which he had to be considering the volume) told the roadie in no uncertain terms that if he was to do the same again then as the theatre’s stage manager he would pull the plug on the whole show. The roadie protested and Barry retorted “My stage, my stage and if you don’t like the fucking way I run it then piss off and take your rotten band with you”. Which made Sally, my girlfriend at the time crease up with laughter! (By the way, she was a daughter of Harry Threadgold, who played goal for Southend United for ten years until he retired in 1963 and became landlord of the Ship – now demolished – on Marine Parade.)
It was sometime during Tony’s reign that stage management were short of a carpet for a particular set, and knowing my parents were away for a couple of weeks I let the Palace borrow one of theirs. The problem was my parents came home early and wanted to know where their carpet had gone. I explained and, although they weren’t at all happy, they let the theatre keep it, firmly taped down on the stage, until the end of the run, and received some complimentary tickets for their unwitting generosity.
I kept in touch with Tony Clayton for quite a while after he left and took over the Key Theatre in Peterborough.
My involvement with the Palace since then has been long and most enjoyable, working on some occasions for [artistic director] Leslie Lawton as well as paid casual and performance work, later writing and directing a school tour for Chris Dunham.
It was with Leslie Lawton, in March 1973, that I played one of Tybalt’s men in Romeo and Juliet. Lady Capulet was played by Rula Lenska, who virtually lived out of a London taxi parked in the street next to the theatre. No double yellow lines there then. Following one matinee I fondly recall having afternoon tea with her in the back of the cab.
Although I was well skilled in stage fighting, having been taught some years previous by Max Diamond, of the then British Jousting and Stunt Association, I still suffered a back injury in the production due to a bad fall. Having first been cared for under the stage by Rula, who, I believe, had trained as a nurse before taking up acting, I was carted off to hospital in my tights and tabard. Fortunately, I survived to return the next night and complete the run.
In October 1972 I had been asked to play a Swiss Guard in a production of Hadrian the Seventh which ran from Tuesday 10th until Saturday 21st.
In 1973 I formed a mime company, Les Voix Perdues [‘The Lost Voices’], and sometime in that year, or soon after, I was approached by The Palace Theatre Club to present a performance for them one Sunday afternoon on the main stage. This I did with my then fiancée, Christine, to considerable applause.
I believe it was around about this time when I was invited by the late Peter Baylis, then Chairman of the Southend Music and Drama Festival, to become a convenor of the Drama section and selector of subject matter for the Mime classes. I was more than happy to accept and I filled the position for a number of years. In October 1983 I presented the Festival with the Les Voix Perdues Mime Challenge Cup and in October 2010 I found it an honour to be invited to Dunston Hall, Norwich to give an hour’s talk at the annual convention of the National Federation of Music and Drama Festival Adjudicators on the subject of Mime and its style of presentation for festivals.
Later, after mid-1975, for Chris Dunham, I continued to work as a theatre casual, for ‘fit ups’ [erecting the sets], lantern rigging, fly man, etc. When a show finished its run on a Saturday night we would ‘strike’ (take down) the old set and ‘fit up’ the new one, quite often working through Sunday as well. Monday would be technical and dress rehearsals, ready to open on the Tuesday. Chris would sometimes call in on a Sunday to do some paperwork. If his wife, actress June Watson, was away somewhere on tour he would occasionally bring their son Nick with him. He would sit in the auditorium and watch our antics and listen to our banter, which was naturally somewhat restrained in the presence of such a young guest! (Nicholas grew up to become a barrister and was called to the Bar in 1999.)
‘Strikes’ and ‘fit ups’ were on the whole very hard and heavy work, but great fun, with our continuous banter to keep us going. Half way through, in the early hours of the morning, someone would go below the stage and put the kettle on. We would sit in the stalls and have a break, looking up at the stage to see what we had achieved and what was to be done next.
I loved to tease Richard Baker, one of the set designers. He seemed to fall for it every time. I would sit next to him and chat about the set generally, to give him a sense of my sincerity, and then came the punch line… “Richard, tell me, what was actually going through that head of yours when you designed this set, was it something deep and meaningful that us mere mortals can’t see?” He would stand up, explode with some explicit language, storm back on stage and start working. It was all in good fun. In fact his sets were very good although, to the frustration of Ray Burgoyne, the stage carpenter, they often didn’t quite fit together as the plans had suggested, so a lot of extra trimming and botching had to be carried out! It was not unknown for a claw hammer to leave Ray’s hand and go flying across the stage in frustration, as Ray’s assistant, Paul Lloyd, would chip in with the timely remark “He’s off on one”! But we were a ‘family’ so no one took offence…we just ducked!
One of Richard’s many exceptionally brilliant set designs was for The Rocky Horror Show in June 1985. I particularly mention this show because Richard proved his ability to deceive an audience with, in this case, what they perceived to be a metal construction was in fact entirely made of wood. Yes, and that ‘metal’ studding was nothing more than plastic caps. He was, however, somewhat concerned as to how to dress the back of the set within the given budget when one of the ASMs, Graham Middleton, known to us all as Farter, due to him having, seemingly, uncontrollable bouts of flatulence, mentioned an old bundle of dusty silver ruched drapes on the floor of the fly gallery. Richard investigated and was over the moon with what he discovered, as can be seen with full lighting effect in the photo below.
There is also a connection, although a slender one, with the Palace Theatre and the 1975 film version of the stage musical: The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
You, my reader, I am sure will recall my mentioning playwright Godfrey Hamilton and his Guild Writers Festival award here at the Palace. Well, when, in the early seventies, Godfrey first left Southend he bought and lived in a property in Abbey Road, which was just a sprightly eight minute walk from the famous ‘Beatles’ zebra crossing. Finances being stretched he decided to take in lodgers, one being Texas born actress/model Fran Fullenwider who played an extremely large buxom Transylvanian in the said screen version of the stage musical.
I am not being offensive to the memory of Fran when I say she was so large that if, when I visited, she answered the door, she would reverse back down the hallway and step into a side room to enable my then-meagre frame to pass, so she could then go back and close the front door behind me! (I used the word “slender” to describe the connection between the Palace and the film, and perhaps it is, but there again how can it truly be classed as slender, I having used Fran Fullenwider as being pivotal to the link…? It is said that 5′ 2″ Fran, who died in May 1997.aged only 52, had, during one period of her life, weighed 21 stone. It is also said that she inherited millions from a wealthy aunt back home in the good old U.S of A. I recall Fran making coffee for me in a plastic mug. If only I had known of her fortune I would have at the very least requested bone china!)
Richard, now self-employed, is a local theatre and domestic curtain track specialist who I would have no hesitation in recommending. Ray eventually exchanged hammer and nails for brush and pallet, exhibiting and selling his work from where he now lives in Suffolk with his saxophonist wife Gillian, who is a music teacher of woodwind and brass. Paul became the Site Manager at Westborough School, where he was thought of with high regard by both staff and pupils. He eventually moved to Norfolk.
If we were called back on a Sunday afternoon and the weather was fine we would quite often, minus mugs of tea or coffee, go up on the flat roof for our break. This was where the auditorium chandeliers were winched down from for maintenance. The roof was accessed up the main ladder to the fly gallery then a further ladder to a small door that opened onto the outside world.
From the fly floor there was another tall wall mounted ladder which led to the grid above. I can’t remember how many times I hit my head on the girder atop of that ladder if required to go up there to drop down extra flying lines. The Palace was, and still is as I write [March 2015], mostly a ‘hemp theatre’, which means that bringing in a ‘Frenchman’ or a cloth is done manually, by one or two fly-men, as opposed to the counterweight system (as is used at the Cliffs Pavilion).
It was while I was also working as a casual at the Cliffs that I was fortunate enough to get to know an elderly couple who frequented the downstairs bar. They were Eva and Alex Hart. In her younger days, in the 1930s, Eva, her stage name being Eva McEwen, was a highly respected local dance teacher and, through her Eva McEwen School of Dancing, produced shows at many of the theatres in and around Southend, including the Palace.
In our conversations Eva would often mention Frankie Howerd and how they became friends, finding him bits of work when, as a Gunner in the Royal Artillery, he was stationed at the Garrison in Shoeburyness from 1940 to 1942.
According to Mr. Howerd in his autobiography ‘On the Way I Lost It’ (ISBN 049101807X) in that time he had some success with concert parties. In his own words, “[these] revived my interest in “Talent Nights”, and one was held at the Palace Theatre at neighbouring Westcliff-on-Sea”. Dressed in khaki, he introduced his chosen song-to-be, ‘She Sits Among The Cabbages And Peas’, but, before he had a chance to sing a note, he heard, from the wings, the manager’s voice hiss “Get off!” and down came the main tab (curtain)! The manager, in no uncertain words, told Frankie that he would not tolerate such filth and to get out of his theatre! (David Simpson, archivist, adds: This is really fascinating. According to further research by Peter, the most likely date for this aborted performance is autumn 1940. However, the Palace closed in June 1940, and there are no records of any further shows until the theatre reopened in 1944. Which is, of course, not to say that this ‘Talent Night’ didn’t go ahead: it could have been a one-off hire. Unfortunately, there’s no advertising for such a show, or report about it, in the ‘Southend Standard’, so we are left with the tantalising possibility that Westcliff missed out on one of the earliest performances by this great comedian. Happily, Frankie Howerd did subsequently perform at the Palace, in August 1989 in ‘An Evening with Frankie Howerd’. One wonders whether he finally got to sing this song to a Westcliff audience on that occasion!)
One day, after Alex had died, I called to see Eva at her home in Bournemouth Park Road. She was very excited and ushered me into the front room – and there sat Frankie, having a cup of tea and one of Eva’s delicious homemade cakes! There were no ‘Nay, Nay’s’ or camping up, just a well-known chap having a cuppa. We had a quick chat, mostly about Eva and how she was coping on her own without her beloved Alex. I don’t even remember being offered any refreshment, which was most unusual for Eva; I think on this occasion she was eager for me to leave so she could have some time alone with her old friend…and who can blame her.
When Eva herself eventually passed away I wrote to Frankie to tell him and he sent me a nice letter of thanks. I am sure that I still have it somewhere. I hope I’ll find it again someday soon; however my filing system might prevent me doing so for quite some time yet.
(David Simpson, archivist, adds: Well, it took until early 2019, but the letter finally came to light! For the rest of this story, see Peter’s follow-up reminiscences at the end of this article.)
I believe it to be worthy of local interest to mention that a programme given to me by Eva, relating to a Variety Matinee at the Palace Theatre on Saturday 1st December 1934, lists a tap dance performance by Hazel Offredi. Hazel was the aunt of a very close friend of mine, Warwick, who was also once a student at the Drama Department of the Southend Technical College. At the beginning of hostilities with Italy during the Second World War the Offredi family changed their name to Offord and became well known locally for their restaurants.
Eva kindly gave me the programme not long before she died. Now, in March 2015, I have been pleased to donate it to the Palace Theatre Club archives, to be held in her memory. David Simpson, the archivist, told me that, until he saw this programme, he was unaware of this show. So I like to think that Eva would be proud that she has added to the knowledge we have about the shows at the Palace, and that this programme is in safe and respectful hands.
On leaving college Warwick found employment as stage lighting technician at what was originally called the Hampstead Theatre Club, a large portacabin in Swiss Cottage out of which, after some 40 years, grew the now Hampstead Theatre. When time allowed I would sometimes see a show then help de-rig and rig with ‘Woff’, as he was affectionately known to all. Before he died in 2008 he changed his name back to the original family name of Offredi.
Back in 1970, the first of August to be precise, ‘Woff’ and I were involved in erecting a small stage in a field adjacent to the house and gardens of the vicarage to St. Lawrence Church, Eastwood where, you my patient reader, will recall I had been a chorister in my younger days. This stage was to facilitate the bands for a free music concert, ‘Rock With Shelter’, organised through Blackhill Artists by a local schoolmaster and teacher of drama, Mr Bob Lawrence, who was a good friend and working associate of Peggy Batchelor, who, of course, knew Hilary Clulow at the Drama Department at the Technical College (both of whom I have already mentioned).
Southend in those days was a hot bed for Drama and the arts in general, with everyone knowing everyone else; such tentacles spread far and wide. On the quite extensive concert bill that hot summer’s afternoon in the freshly mown field in Eastwoodbury Lane were artistes such as Surly Bird and the controversial Edgar Broughton Band, whose last song of their set was ‘Out Demons Out’. Quite an appropriate song considering the location next to a church!
Also playing that sunny afternoon was a relatively unheard of singer, songwriter and actor, David Robert Jones, better known as David Bowie. However, this was not the first time he had performed in the Borough. In the July of that same year he had performed at The Fickle Pickle Club at the Cricketers Pub just down the road from the Palace Theatre.
From 1975 to 1979, with my good friend local folk musician and songwriter Jack Forbes, I devised and became administrator and co-producer of the monthly lunch time concerts: Palace at Twelve. During this period we were the first to introduce the use of the Palace Theatre as something of an all-round arts centre for the displaying of paintings and sculpture by local artists. These were chosen by us and exhibited in the upstairs bar where the concerts took place (now partly the ‘green room’) and along and the adjacent corridor. The changeover was monthly to coincide with the lunch time concerts.
On November 5th 1976 Derek Lowe, local playwright, personal friend of Bernard Miles and occasional sketch writer for the satirical TV programme That Was The Week That Was opened our birthday celebrations with an ode:
Derek was also a published poet and founder member of Southend Poetry Society and Poetry Music Group. Being a dab hand with an artist’s brush and pencil he often exhibited paintings and sketches at the Beecroft Gallery in Westcliff.
He lived with his family little more than a stone’s throw from the theatre. He was an artistic inspiration to all who met him and a stalwart patron of the Theatre, as was his daughter, Caroline, who remembers being taken to pantomimes at the Palace from a very early age. In 1983 she married Mac Elsey, who had been an ASM [assistant stage manager] at the Palace in the winter of 1972-73. When Derek died just a few days after his 51st birthday I and other friends involved with the arts in Southend contributed towards a cup in his honour. Aptly named The Derek Lowe Memorial Cup, it was presented to the Southend Music Festival with the wish that there should be a new class in the annual Festival named ‘Original Poem’ and that the cup should be awarded to the winner of that class.
Mac, who is still happily married to Caroline, continued in theatre work and is part of an actors’ co-operative. Caroline, a successful local businesswoman with her own Personnel Consultancy company, holds a degree with honours. For her dissertation she chose…surprise, surprise, pantomime!
During this time we were able secure a grant from Eastern Arts Association for the running of the concerts and to contribute to a main house concert with John Betjeman and the Barrow Poets. Sadly, due to ill health, John was unable to commit himself but the Barrow Poets gave a delightful evening’s entertainment on Monday 29th November 1976.
Right from the start of our venture into Lunchtime Club concerts we had arranged for the Palace to hold a separate financial account for monies taken from the ‘hat’ and later the grant. This was dealt with by Iain Reid who had for the time being given up acting and had become the theatre manager and licensee. It was with the enthusiastic backing of him and [artistic director] Chris [Dunham] that we knew we were on to a winner, and it wasn’t long before the forthcoming concerts were regularly mentioned in the show programmes. The Palace had also become what Southend sadly lacked, a ‘Centre for the Arts’. Many years after Iain had left the Palace I bumped into him in Borehamwood, where I been invited to attend a meeting to discuss my possible contribution into setting up Circus Space [the UK’s leading provider of circus training] while the idea was still in its infancy. Iain, I understood, had become some sort of arts representative for the Gulbenkian Foundation, which Circus Space had approached for some financial backing.
What this article fails to mention is that Steve Seabrook, also known as Steve Hooker, lived six houses down from me in Leigh, and it was I who had also booked him and his band for the private party which was in the garden of my brother’s home in another residential part of Leigh.
At the time Steve was married to Jane, one of the daughters of Geoffrey Sleigh-Johnson, a well-known local church organist. Geoffrey was my choir master when, many years earlier, I sang at St. Lawrence Church in Eastwood (as first mentioned in paragraph four at the beginning of my story). I admit I hadn’t seen Steve’s act before the party, nor when I had booked him, in good faith, for the Lunchtime Concert, in part as a way of showing that we were not biased and we were keen to demonstrate a broadness in the choice of music we presented.
However, as Steve writes on his website for 2007: “We didn’t have any success locally outside of The Railway – no other venue would touch a band like us, our Saturday lunch time slot booked at the Palace Theatre was even cancelled before we had a chance to step on stage and prove how ugly it could get.” Well, at the party I had seen and heard ‘how ugly it could get’ – no more proof needed! Furthermore, now armed with such knowledge, there was no way Jack and I were willing to subject the Lunchtime Concerts to such an unpredictable group of musicians.
However, over the years Steve has mellowed and amassed a tremendous following with his present style of music, both here and abroad, having played with some of the big names in his field. He has been persistent and has worked hard at his chosen profession with his particular style and in so doing has amassed a considerable about of tour dates well into the future. To steal a line from a Warwickshire bard “All’s Well That Ends Well”!
The opening of the extension of the theatre in May 1982, when it became the Palace Theatre Centre, incorporating the Dixon Studio and the closing of the upstairs bar to become the green room, more or less brought an end to the concerts in their original format, although Jack continued them for a time in the new bar. Sadly that didn’t have quite the same intimacy and, through no fault of his, became only background music sessions for hardened drinkers from next door in the Plough.
Over the years Jack also collaborated with Charles Cox on scripts for Palace-Go-Round: Inspector Quavers Musical Case (1984), A Dip in the Thames (1985) and A Big Day for Mr Punch (1985). Sadly Jack past away in 2016, but his legacy will live on in his songs and music and general involvement in the arts of our town.
Back in 1976, Chris [Dunham] asked me to research the music and write the lyrics for the Palace production of The Wakefield Mystery Plays presented in the April that year. Two years later, I was again asked to write lyrics, this time for The Passion, presented in March 1978. That same year Angela Layton was stuck for a song for her Palace-Go-Round play The Turnstone and asked for my help, which I was only too pleased to give. I managed to write it there and then, in the old theatre bar, much to Angela’s delight and my relief. [‘Palace-Go-Round’, which ran from 1977 to 1990, took plays out to local schools. There were usually three tours a year.]
This was, in fact, to replace another song which Angela described as an old Essex song called “Shoals of Herring”. It was actually “The Herring Song”. (“Shoals of Herring” was written many years later by folk singer Ewan MacColl, who was once married to theatre director Joan Littlewood, of Theatre Workshop fame.) Neither song was from Essex, and both were out of context with the episode in the play that referred to the Shakespearian actor William Kempe (commonly referred to as Will Kemp), who danced from London to Norwich, passing through parts of Essex en route. So I wrote:
Will Kemp’s Song
Written for the Palace Theatre production of The Turnstone by Angela Lanyon
I dance’s to Norwich from old London Town
Good ale shall be my fee
Tonight I lays my head under a blanket of stars
In this the fair Essex County
Then tomorrow my legs will be supple and keen
Just as they were before
And I’ll dance the Morris across meadow and lane
Till I cant’s dance no more
In some tavern I will find me a wench
A pretty girl to be sure
And I’ll kiss and hug her through the long night
Till the morn, then I’ll dance some more.
Bells, pipe and tabor will play out a tune
A ditty so loud and clear
So all good Englishmen along the way
Know to line the streets to cheer
O William! O William! O poor William!
Your writing will ne’er give you fame
But this old foolish clown Will Kemp by name
Has the freedom of Norwich to claim.
(Chorus (to be sung between each verse)
With a tap, tap, tap
And a clap, clap, clap
A jingle from under my knee
With a shout and a stamp
And a rant, rant, rant
You can all sing along with me.
(The basic traditional tune route is also that which is used for John Tam’s song “The Year Turns Round Again” for the National Theatre production of ‘War Horse’ which premiered on 17th October 2007.)
On 27th February 1978 Chris Harris presented his one man show Kemp’s Jig at the Palace.
In 1982 I walked and Morris/jig danced from London to Norwich in the same vein as Kemp had done in 1600, with lots of rests at taverns on the way, but minus the wenches! My brother was with the Leigh-on-Sea Round Table at the time and they were stuck for a fund-raising event which resulted in Gill, my wife to be, and I coming up with the idea that they should follow in the dance steps of Kemp. I thought it only fair to accompany them.
That same year, in May, Chris Dunham put on Cabaret and I gave lodgings to one of the young actresses for the run. She was Linda-Jean Barry, cast in the show as a dancer at the Kit Kat Club. It must have been an exceptionally warm May because she tended to spend a lot of time between rehearsals and performances sunbathing topless in my back garden. I for one didn’t mind but one of my neighbours did so – not that I took any notice…of the neighbour! Linda has gone on to do a fair amount of television work.
The set design for the show required a spiral staircase which duly arrived on stage at the fit up. As I had experience of such an awkward item, having purchased and dismantled one some years previously from Palmeira Towers in Westcliff and installed it in my house, I was given the task of constructing the one for the show and attaching it to the perch where, in years past, the old Rank Strand Dimmer Board was situated. I like to think that Chris [Dunham], playing the part of the MC, in part gained his confidence for his performance whilst on a spiral staircase from attending some of the frequent parties at my house in Leigh!
I recall that it was in about 1982 that John Sandford came from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin to be Stage Director at the Palace. It wasn’t long before he started hiring lighting from a small firm in Sutton Road which I believe was called SM Lighting, and it also wasn’t very long before he was claiming he had a partnership in the company. I believe this was more or less the end of the long connection between JBE Stage Lighting and the Palace, except for the amateur companies.
I have a lot of respect for Leigh Operatic and Dramatic Society and the amateur companies in general. However, it still makes me smile to remember back to a production of Merrie England in October 1971, when one scene, I believe it might have been the opening number, was set around a game of croquet. The props, hoops, mallets and balls had for some reason not arrived for the dress rehearsal, consequently, on the first night, due to the rake of the stage being possibly the steepest in the country, the first ball, when struck by mallet, rolled straight down into the orchestra pit and bounced off the timpani [kettledrum]!
It was said, and was often proved to be the case, that a tell-tale sign that the amateur companies were ‘in’ would be the appearance of copies of ‘The Stage’ newspaper, which was avidly read by some members of the cast in the bar prior to the show. Following the finale curtain these same people could often be recognised, again in the bar, by just a hint of ‘five and nine’ greasepaint, not having had it fully removed. Mind you, I’m not really one to talk, having once driven from one gig to another with a full white-faced mime make-up on – which nearly caused a car crash at the Kent Elms traffic lights when an astonished motorist spotted me. Very unprofessional!
On request from Dave Hatfield, owner of Projection Records of Leigh, I lit the ‘Battlefield Band and Rhythm on the River Concert’ in the Dixon Theatre on 26th February 1983 and again the ‘Pete Rowan and Rhythm on the River Concert’ on Saturday 16th April that same year.
For many years one of my interests was magic lanterns and the different types of slides that went with them. I owned a whole set of slides depicting the story of Peter Pan which, with various enlarged photographs of the slides and some of my other magic lantern paraphernalia, were exhibited in the foyer for the 1986 Christmas production of Peter Pan.
Many times I was employed for courtyard entertainment, from performing magic tricks and juggling to diving through flaming hoops and fire eating.
The television channels at one time were going through a period of showing, of all things, chainsaw juggling. So the next time I was performing in the courtyard I produced three chainsaws, started them up and asked the audience “Has anyone seen chainsaw juggling before?” Thankfully some said yes – so I turned off the saws and said “Well we won’t bother with these then!” and just carried on with something else. The next time I was asked to perform was for Lark Rise and Candleford in August 1986. However, (perhaps fortuitously) I was forbidden to juggle the chainsaws:
I am still not quite sure what worried Chris most: injury to me, the audience or his beloved willow-type tree in the centre of the courtyard (where the controversial sculpture of ‘Leda and the Swan’ was later to take centre stage)!
After six years of attracting some of the top folk acts in the country the Essex Folk Festivals were no more. So, on 8th April (Easter Bank Holiday Monday) 1985, 5th May (May Day Bank Holiday Monday) 1986 and the 1987 May Bank on Monday 4th, the Palace, following the success of Lark Rise in June 1984, with administration assistance from Charles Sharman-Cox, Jack Forbes and Dave Hatfield, put on its own series of one day folk festivals and billed the likes of Dave Swarbrick, Robin Dransfield, Blowzabella, Dave Burland, Bill Caddock, The Oyster Band and Frankie Armstrong, to name but a few, plus a wealth of local artistes including me, as part of Balzup, a street entertainment juggling troupe I had by then co-founded.
What I consider to be a witty name for the troupe was the brainchild of a dear friend of mine, Lynda Bridge (nee’ Russell), who was an ex-pupil and teacher at Ridley Studios, had studied Drama at the College and played Hermia the reluctant lover to my Demetrius. She had also been a member of the Southend Youth Theatre and, for a short while, her brother-in-law, Simon Bridge, performed as one third of the zany juggling, fire-eating Balzup troupe whilst pursuing a career from journalist to professional actor.
In July 1993, having been cast by Gale Productions as Ragner Folkbeard in a touring show of Erik the Viking, by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, Simon found himself performing on the main stage at the Palace Theatre for a five day run from 13th – 17th July. On 9th December 2004 he returned again, until 2nd January 2005, playing Geppetto in a New Palm Production of Pinocchio… Small world isn’t it!
On Saturday 22nd July 1989 I was booked by the Palace to present ‘Professor Optical’s Travelling Show’ for children from 12-2pm in the foyer.
By 1990 I had written a radio play Long Gone Are The Days, which was broadcast twice, once being on Christmas Eve 1987. I was still very much involved in juggling and other aspects of physical theatre, which resulted in me directing the first Southend ‘Schools Out’ Circus Project. Following a booking in 1989 at Danbury youth camp, where I attempted and failed to teach Prince Edward to juggle, I also taught and directed the Essex Youth Circus in Thurrock.
After Christmas 1989 Chris [Dunham] contacted me with the idea to include elements of circus skills in his next Palace-Go-Round schools tour. He asked if I could go away and think how it could be achieved. A few days later I told him some of ideas I had and he arranged for me to meet with an actor-director he knew, so that we could work through my ideas and she could put them into script form.
I duly travelled to some unremarkable private dwelling somewhere near Hemel Hempstead and, with whoever she was (her name escapes me), we discussed my ideas. A few weeks went by and I received from Chris the draft of the script. I wasn’t best pleased: the woman had taken some of my ideas and put her name to them. Besides that, my plot had ‘gone out the window’, so to speak and the draft was short, and had no substance or continuity. I was not a happy bunny.
Through his secretary, Iris Stewart, I made an appointment to see Chris (all formal, like) and I told him of my disappointment. He looked at me with one of those ‘gappy’ grins only he could muster and said “Well, can you do any better?” I took a deep breath, said that I could, and he said “Right, you will be hearing from me”, which I did on 30th January 1990. By then I had written, and typed up, not only a draft but also a working script, ready for Chris’s perusal.
It was written for a cast of four – three male and one female – to cover eight characters which were: King/Jailer, King’s Daughter/Illusionist/Apparition, Prime Minister/Clown and Acrobat cum Juggler. Physical skills required were: King: Stilt walking and juggling; King’s Daughter: Acrobatics, juggling, diabolo [a juggling prop consisting of an axle and two cups or discs], plate spinning and club passing [passing clubs from one performer to another]; Prime Minister: Unicycling, juggling, diabolo and object balance; Acrobat: Acrobatics, diabolo and club passing.
This was accepted by Chris and he also asked me to direct not only my play, The King Who Lacked Confidence, for Palace-Go-Round but also The Selfish Giant by Bernard Shaw (adapted by Jeremy Bell).
For The Selfish Giant we needed a simple little ditty so I wrote ‘The Children’s Lament’:
We were very happy there
So very happy were we
With the sun on the flowers
The buzz of the bees
The fruit on the trees
Where we could run and play so free
So very, very happy were we.
Chris did the casting. I asked him if they had all the necessary skills for my play and he said “No, but I am sure you will be able to teach them what you require”. I had always lacked a certain amount of confidence regarding my own abilities, so perhaps sub-consciously my play was based on myself. It wasn’t that I was unable to teach circus skills, because I was and had done so many times, but I only had two weeks to come up with the goods, the whole package. Here I was, directing for a professional theatre with professional actors who knew I was the ‘new kid on the block’.
However, I soon found I had nothing to fear, for they were wonderful to work with; a great bunch of young actors. I learnt from them and they learnt from me. I was also very fortunate to have had an extremely knowledgeable and hard-working (female) stage manager by the name of Jules.
Chris came to see the final rehearsal of the plays and seemed happy with them both, except for the scripted ending of The Selfish Giant. He asked me to alter it, so I added the following lines for the storyteller: “And so the Giant died and left the garden here on Earth to go to one of even greater beauty. And what of me? Well, I now lovingly tend the Giant’s garden and watch the children play. And every time a child is good and helps another, then a new flower grows to make the garden even more beautiful”.
The tour went out in May 1990. The members of the cast, for both plays, were Fiona Watson, Robin Ollett, Oliver Godfrey and Robin Fritz.
Many years later I met Robin Fritz when I was engaged to be the Minstrel at a Medieval banquet in the main entrance hall at the Natural History Museum. Again, somewhat type cast, he was playing the part of a King. Previously to that I had also met Robin Ollett when I was performing at a Four Seasons Event in Morden Park, south London. He, like myself and many others over the years, obtained an Equity card due to the work and experience gained at the Palace when it was a producing, in-house theatre. Robin, now married with three sons, eventually gave up acting in the mid-90s.
My association with the Palace Theatre in times past was like belonging to one big happy family, even to the point of, in 1991, being invited to perform at theatre manager, Malcolm Clements’ granddaughter’s sixth birthday party. It was Malcolm, back in 1986, who had arranged the display of the photographic prints of my Peter Pan magic lantern slides.
I will always be indebted to the Palace, and most of all to Chris Dunham, for all the work he gave me as a paid casual, a performer and as a director for Palace-Go-Round, which resulted in me gaining my Equity card.
I am also grateful for his support for the lunchtime concerts and the Essex Folk Festivals, because it’s all these things, these experiences as a whole, which, with his encouragement, helped mould me and gave me the confidence to follow my chosen career as a free-lance entertainer, a teacher of mime and circus skills, which led me, amongst many other things, to work professionally as circus advisor on four productions of Barnum and teach and entertain at countless schools, libraries, castles and stately homes up and down the country as well as abroad. I have also had the privilege of performing in front of various members of The Royal Family and on two separate occasions Her Majesty the Queen: the last time being in 2003 at Ludlow Castle.
Since my long association with the Palace I have worked and performed at other theatres including, on two occasions, the Globe on the Southbank, which in its way more or less brings me full circle.
“Thank you so, so much for all your work. You were a really brilliant addition to the day, your music was perfect and you really added some Shakespearean authenticity!”
Jessica Lusk, Artistic Coordinator and Assistant to the Artistic Director
When I was a drama student I found myself in Stratford upon Avon. It was quite early in the morning and the town hadn’t yet woken up. On passing the Memorial Theatre I noticed a side door slightly ajar. I peered in and saw there, in the gloom, the stage. I couldn’t resist the temptation, and stepped forward onto the hallowed boards, where great actors of our time have stood. There was not a sound; here was my chance and I took it. I spoke that immortal line “To be or not to be, that is the question”. Then from the darkened auditorium came a slow hand clap followed by an angry voice saying “And here is the fucking answer: Piss off, I’ve been up working all night.” I now know just how he felt!
Anyway, I could go on and on about times past, and my chosen career, and especially my times at the dear old Palace Theatre when it was an ‘in house’ repertory theatre in the days of Tony, Leslie and Chris.
Yes, I have many stories, many tales to tell – but then I should have, because my profession has, for many years, been that of…A Storyteller.
I hope you have enjoyed my reminiscences.
Archivist David Simpson adds: Peter originally contacted me with some questions about the Palace Theatre Garden Parties that were held in Chalkwell Park in the 1970s. In our ensuing correspondence he told me more and more about his extensive connections with our theatre, and I was very pleased when he graciously agreed to ‘put pen to paper’. He had a remarkably varied career at the Palace and I am very grateful to him for telling his story in such fascinating detail. I am especially grateful for his very kind donation of the Variety Matinee programme from 1st December 1934, a show I was previously unaware of. I was delighted to accept this and place it in our archives in memory of the late Eva McEwen, who produced the show through her Eva McEwen School of Dancing, and who gave the programme to Peter a short while before she died.
Peter is still very active, as the multi-talented ‘Peter Optical’. (For further details see www.circusoptical.co.uk.) And, in February 2019, he added this fascinating account of how he eventually returned to the Palace…
My close association with the Palace had sadly ended with the departure of Christopher Dunham in March 1999 and the theatre once again going ‘dark’. However, on Wednesday afternoon, 10th October 2018, my relationship with the dear old theatre was happily rekindled.
Having been engaged as a professional oral storyteller, alongside local fellow professional Story Teller Hannah Brailsford, as part the new monthly initiative Tea & Tales, I was now back in the Palace foyer, telling tales beneath, of all things, a framed photograph which includes me, a good few years younger, in the cast of Leslie Lawton’s 1972 production of Romeo and Juliet! In fact it was the very same photo I have which you would have viewed previously in this reminiscence.
However, I digress, as I often do! And it is now, dear reader, I ask you to travel back to Sunday 27th January 2019, when, by pure chance, I rediscovered the long lost correspondence I received from Mr Frankie Howerd in November 1982 following the death of Eva McEwan, who (as you would have read) he had become friends with during his war time service at Shoeburyness.
Tea & Tales had led to a special day of storytelling performances in the foyer and the Dixon Studio to celebrate the start of National Storytelling Week. Following a discussion in the late afternoon with Hannah, regarding ‘dressing’ the stage for the evening performance in the Dixon, I was now at home frantically rummaging through boxes looking for a silver sacrificial dagger and other bits and pieces, including a sizeable part of a black stage gauze from the 1978 production of Cabaret which we had decided would help create the mood for an evening of ‘Dark Tales’.
Sorting through many dusty containers, I eventually came across one I had forgotten all about (ironically marked “Memory Box”!) in which there were many bits and bobs I had carefully wrapped in newspaper and stored away in 2005. And there, tucked firmly against the cardboard side (what I first thought was an inventory of the contents) was Frankie’s letter! And here it is:
This confirms Eva’s close friendship with Frankie. She had passed away in 1982, so my introduction to him in her front room was clearly some time before then.
While I am delighted to have found this letter, I can’t help thinking how strange it is that it seemingly took my re-establishment with the Palace before I could do so. Somewhat spooky, don’t you think?
And did I find the silver sacrificial dagger, I hear you ask? The answer to that is “no”…perhaps it’s in another “Memory Box”, if only I could remember where that might be…
Footnote: My fellow storyteller Hannah is the wife of actor Martin CarrolI, aka Martin Anthony, who has played a large number of roles in an equally large number of productions at the Palace. And when, as already mentioned, in 1975 through to 1979, to coincide with the Palace’s lunch time concerts, I was hanging paintings by local artists in the bar and corridors Martin’s father Thomas would often contribute his paintings, covering a variety of subjects. Small world isn’t it!