A Personal Memory of the Sinodun Players Amateur Dramatic Society, 1948 – 2008.
(Dedicated to Mrs.´C` and all those who have laboured long and with love for the Players.)
N.B. The idea for this ´history` is that a record be made of the inception of the Society. Although various publications have been written about different aspects of the Players, a complete history of the early days has not previously been attempted . There are now many members who do not know of this time and who may find something of interest among these various reminiscences. Although I have always maintained my contact with the Players when I was pursuing my own career elsewhere, there are a lot of gaps in my personal memories, and of necessity, this is a composite work. I am deeply indebted to Jan Castle, Jennifer Thompson and Christina Eke , for their own memories, dates and details, some of which I had forgotten, in their own publications about the Sinodun Players.
The Early Days
Although Wallingford had seen other Amateur Dramatic Societies come and go, it was not until the evening of January 8th 1948 when Frances Curtis called a meeting at the Brightwell Village Hall, that the Wallingford area came to know an enduring group calling themselves The Sinodun Players. This title, chosen after the Norse name for the range of hills slightly to the North of the villages of Brightwell cum Sotwell, was suggested, to include the whole area and not just the village, or Wallingford.
The Curtis family had settled at Slade End Farm, at the Eastern end of the village, ten years earlier in the September of 1938, after William Curtis´s market garden at Heath Row Farm had been requisitioned to make way for further extensions to London Aerodrome. This would eventually become known as the world famous Heathrow Airport Before her marriage, Frances Nellie Hind, had been a member of the famous Gaiety Theatre in London - the George Edwards Gaiety Girls. Such was their distinguished beauty and charm that, previously, many from this historic theatre had married into the aristocracy and gentry of England. Frances Curtis was not typical of what would have been expected from this background. In stature, she was a small, slight woman with short grey hair, invariably dressed in a skirt and jumper, of muted colours, and often with a favourite silk scarf round her neck. She was a warm and caring character who inspired a great deal of affection. Always full of energy and always busy, but never too occupied to hinder her abiding interest in people. Apart from being a member of the Womens Institute, the Mothers Union, and the Red Cross, she was also a Governor of Brightwell´s Church School. She had a great social conscience and played an important role in the life of the village. Like many who are small in stature, she compensated with a dynamism and an indomitable strength which made her a natural leader and served her admirably for her future role. She was kind, thoughtful and generous, but she also possessed a character of great determination and indefatigable perseverance. Thoroughly feminine but with a ´will of iron.` Following the busy war years on her husbands farm the ´call of the theatre` soon proved too strong for Frances Curtis to resist and now that normality had returned to the village, she realised her talent was to encourage others, of similar enthusiasms, with her passion and love of the stage. Her idea was of founding a local drama group.
Responding to the call, twenty-seven people attended the Village Hall Meeting. Not all of them were aspiring actors, although two new members had been Professionals before their retirement. Jerald Reed, though elderly and frail, possessed the stentorian tones and clipped enunciation associated with the Grand Classical Tradition exemplified by Sir Henry Irving., Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and Harley Granville-Barker. He and his wife Eva continued for many years, playing with great authority, whatever came their way. Their daughter also joined the mixed company, of housewives, a bank manager, an electrician, school master, pharmacist, and shop keepers. All coalesced into a working group and prepared themselves for their first production in April. Very soon, others joined them and the Players were firmly established as the new Drama Company in the area. Sir Leslie Frederic Scott, previously Lord Chief Justice of England, had recently retired to the Red House in Sotwell. Theatre being among his many interests, he was easily persuaded to become the first President of the Sinodun Players. He also vigorously continued to defend the rights of countrymen against the encroachment of farmers and others who were abusing the ancient Rights of Way, and founded the Society for the Preservation of Rural England, in order that this should become of National concern.
Where there is no doubt that Frances Curtis was entirely responsible for the foundation of the Players. It is sometimes not appreciated, that she also ensured that everything was done to preserve its continuation. She not only used her own resources to finance the Players during those early years, but she also made use of her many contacts within the Theatre world, as well as opening her own home, the beautiful and spacious Georgian farmhouse at Slade End in order that the Sinodun Players may have a permanent place in which to meet.
Her husband, the long suffering, generous and hospitable Mr. William James (Jim) Curtis, soon to be known affectionately as ´Gov.` often took refuge in the farm office during the evenings of the winter months when the house was invaded by the Players, but only after he had lighted an enormous log fire in the open grate of the Drawing Room which had now become the Societies Club Room. Coats were strewn over the long tables in the stone flagged entrance hall, with no-one bothering to knock on the front door as it was ´open house` to all members. For the initial productions, their son John was co-opted by Mrs.´C` as she was now known, to design and paint the scenery. Though he was primarily a farmer, his Pantomime sets have rarely been equalled. On one occasion he was also dragged, much against his will, into actually appearing on stage, but this was to be the first and the last time that he submitted to his mothers pleadings. The fourth member of the household was the mother of Mrs. Curtis, a Mrs. Fanny Hind known by the endearing title as ´Gran.` This redoubtable old lady became an enduring supporter of the Players, and many times we were coerced into her room and regaled with a selection of strong drink which would have rivalled a five star hotel and which she had secreted in her walk-in closet. Although it was a large house, at rehearsal times, especially for Pantomime, we seemed to take over the whole house with our various dance routines, devised by Edna Shepherd, in the clubroom, with singing in the music room and readings in both the library and dining room. There were also many occasions when we invaded the large farmhouse kitchen. Ultimately the farmyard barns themselves were commandeered into the service of the Players.
The Attics were the set of rooms at the top of Slade End House, where the extensive and varied wardrobe was stored. Here also was the workroom, known as gossip's glory hole where several helpers sat behind their whirring sewing machines on the trestle tables, which also served for cutting out materials. The place was always crammed with half made and completed costumes plus all the paraphernalia necessary for the creation of this finery. Pins were strewn over the floor, having been used for fittings and which scratched painfully when still attaching sleeves to tunics – or even worse, if still pinning together the legs of britches! This hive of industry and the good humour of the sewing team always made a visit to the attics a welcome break from the intensive rehearsals below. We also were able to get an idea of what we would be wearing on stage and how we would be able to handle the costumes. There was also a special smell – not at all unpleasant but unidentifiable. A mixture of musty military uniforms, of which there were many, and of the new bales of exotic materials which Mrs.´C` had bought from the theatrical suppliers in London. On a couple of occasions she asked me to accompany her to Soho where she seemed to know everybody in that fascinating area of theatre-land. A lot of these costumiers and suppliers have now gone, but in those days, all round Berwick Street and Broadwick Street, it was an ´Aladdin´s cave` of theatrical delights. We were always greeted with hugs and kisses and after long reminiscences, came away with masses of fabrics and ornaments which she had visualised for the next productions costumes. Another of her tremendous talents was her unerring eye for what would look most effective whether it was for a straight play, for a Masque, or for Pantomime. She instinctively knew what was right and even if the detail was not always authentic, it always created the right impression.
Cinderella was chosen as the first Pantomime to open in the Brightwell Village Hall in 1949. There was a truly bravura performance, from Mrs.´C` as Prince Charming, with all the traditional thigh slapping on a pair of fabulous legs. She was, after all, a Gaiety Girl !!!! Although her voice was not strong and had a slight tremolo, she was the epitome of all that could be desired in a Principal Boy. Jean King was her Cinderella with Sid Turley as a bright-eyed Buttons. John Curtis had fabricated a Proscenium Arch of wood and canvas with small orange lights on the top of pillars either side of the minute stage, with curtains made of dark green Hessian. The scenery, the costumes, the lights – all were the elements of sheer magic, and what was to become the long tradition of the Players Pantomimes, was established.
The particularly English tradition had long been part of the post-Christmas ritual. For those living in the Wallingford area, this normally meant a visit to the beautiful Art Deco, New Theatre, Oxford or for the very fortunate, a complete day out to London, to see one of the shows which had been re-established after the war. Competing with the famous Palladium Pantomimes were the Bertram Mills Circus at Olympia and the new innovation of the Pantomime on Ice. A spectacular and lavish extravaganza, including all the elements of burlesque, music, colour and fantasy, with the added ingredient of ice skating. Against all this competition, Mrs.´C` and the Players may well have been thought foolhardy to venture into this theatrical contest. Notwithstanding the rivalry of other amateur groups in the area, the Sinodun Players Pantomimes went from strength to strength, succeeding beyond anything which had been envisaged. The audiences grew and came in their droves. Very soon it was necessary to have a two full weeks of performances, and even when squeezing in three shows on the Saturdays, the hall was invariably fully booked. All the traditional elements were faithfully included. Local topical incidents were used within the dialogue and when specially mentioned, the names of visiting groups always received a loud cheer. It was a family affair and this was enormously appreciated by the whole of the audience. Within the town, Ruby May Prince, the wife of a local nurseryman, ran a Ballet School for young aspiring dancers. Although they had their own showcase they had been invited to participate in the Players Pantomimes and subsequently became an integral part of the shows. Their fairy ballets nearly always heralded the transformationscene which Mrs.´C` regarded as essential to the fantasy of Pantomime. Whilst it may also sound cynical, their various family members and friends also helped to sell tickets and swell the audience. The Box Office for all the Players shows, was in Chadd´s Tobacconist and Sweet Shop just off the Market Square, with Eunice Chadd firmly in command of the ticket sales.
It is difficult to know exactly what it was which endeared these pantomimes of the Players to such a large and varied audience. The same faithful aficionados would turn up year after year and never miss these evenings. Both old and young found humour and enchantment, and returned regularly to see the latest which the Players had to offer.
Following Mrs.´C`s starring role as The Prince. The next few years saw Jean King making the Principal Boy her own preserve. This was the perfect vehicle for her. She had a strong face, with a voice to match. She radiated virility and more essential than anything else for a britches part, she possessed the most wonderful legs which went up to her armpits! Although she sometimes took part in the various Garden Party entertainments, her forte was for Pantomime and as so often happens, she became type cast and rarely appeared in anything else. For those who remember, she personified the very best Principal Boy the Society has ever seen.
Sometimes, when a performer entered on stage, it became apparent that we had our fans as you would hear their names whispered.. Not very helpful to the characterisation of the role they were playing, but very satisfying to the ego, nonetheless!
Heroes were cheered and Villains were hissed. The Good Fairy came on from Stage Right and the Evil Magician from Stage Left. The Comics threw their custard pies and the audience howled with laughter. The technicians created magic and fantasy and the musicians set the scene with their melodies and effects However, not only were the audiences entertained by the surprises on stage. The cast also entered into the spirit of anarchy with a vengeance and often included unscripted elements into the show. On one occasion in Goody Two Shoes the chorus were all looking into the wings, expecting the entrance of the two ´funny men` only to have them creep up behind them from the opposite side. The next few lines were unheard due to the general hilarity among the cast. All most unprofessional, but great fun! Another occasion, when Denis Wood was playing Dame, he petted the cow's muzzle and was rewarded with a blast of talcum powder from a bicycle pump hidden in one nostril. Again, the cast were helpless with laughter, and which was fully echoed by the audience. It was an enchanting time – as in the words used in all the Players' Christmas shows for the past sixty years. ‘Pantomime! Pantomime! What a thrill: what a time! When all the world its cares can leave, in the land of make believe. On it goes, so sublime – It´s entertainment's greatest show. So! Long live Pantomime!
The Garden Parties
As there had been no Village Fetes since before the war, Mrs.´C` decided that in order to advertise the newly formed Sinodun Players, this tradition should be revived, and where better to hold it than in her extensive and very beautiful garden.
The first of these was held in the summer of 1949. ´Gov.` had been prevailed upon to supply his farm workers to spend the days prior to the event preparing the grounds of this lovely house. On the appointed day, with hot sunshine streaming through the leaves of the trees, visitors were greeted at the front gate which was decorated for the occasion with gaily coloured bunting. They were then directed to where under the shade of the two enormous Cedars and a variety of other trees, were set up Dunking for the Apple, Shove Halfpenny, a Punch and Judy, a Treasure Hunt, plus a miscellany of other stalls and entertainments ranged throughout the garden., all manned by members of the Society in a variety of costumes The tennis court had been despoiled by large bales of straw forming the area for the Bowling for the Pig (also supplied by the generous ´Gov.`) This was always tremendously popular with everyone – man and boy (and including a fair number of the fairer sex) taking their chances with the bowls and skittles and always being at the centre of a large crowd.
Beginning the afternoon, was the Children´s Fancy Dress Competition, for which I had persuaded my mother to make me a costume. Nothing daunted by the fact that there were only a few hours in which to create this, I was launched forth as a ´street arab.` Because my original Morocco slippers were far too large, all I could manage during the parade was a slow shuffle. However, this characterisation, though entirely unconscious, won me the second prize, awarded by the well known actress of the time, Beatrix Lehman. She lived nearby, at the Coach House, Little Wittenham, and had been invited by Mrs.´C` to be the Guest of Honour and to open the Fete. Having seen the Six One Act Plays the previous year, then been enthralled by the Pantomime Cinderella, and now singled out by a ´real actress,` I was ´hooked` and was immediately invited to join the Sinodun Players as its youngest member.
Following the prize giving, tea was served in the Rose Garden, centred round a sundial, immediately outside the doors at the rear of the house and adjacent to the kitchen. Whereas the front of the building was covered in a profuse Virginia Creeper, at the back there was an ancient and beautiful wisteria climbing up the walls with heavy clusters of purple and deeply scented blossom. This lovely situation provided a few calm moments of refreshment away from the hurly burley taking place in the rest of the garden. In the early evening, after the heat of the day, the Entertainment began with everyone seated around on the grass, as a Masque, including dialogue and the dancing of a Pavan, a Gavotte or a Minuet – according to the scene – was performed.
This became an established tradition and were always costume pieces, centring round music and movement, even if the action also included comedy. Invariably, these divertissement were very well received and became a popular part of the whole day. On one later occasion, a bawdy element of comedy was unforeseen, when John Atwell who was playing Comus, had not realised that his costume would not include any form of interior support within his tights, and inadvertently became the ´star` of the show, when show he did, leaving nothing to the imagination! Although somewhat discomforted, he displayed true professionalism and continued with the greatest aplomb.
Later, in the evenings, lights appeared in the trees, augmented by floodlights from the top of the bay window, for the general dancing which was to end this afternoon of festivity. Following a long and arduous day for the members, this was the time when they were able to relax and enjoy themselves, which they often did with great abandon. “When the wine is in, the wits are out” On various occasions, the Players exhibited their stamina – especially after visiting ´Gran´s` room in order to bid this delightful and endearing old lady “goodnight” and ending up, yet again, with a glass in hand! After one such party, a member who was also the highly respected and very staid schoolmaster, was found in a ditch on the way home, singing, lustily to himself, the song which had performed earlier in more sober surroundings.
One summer, I think of 1952, the weather had been terrible and as the day of the Garden Party approached, the continuous rain made cancellation inevitable. This was accepted by all except by Mrs.´C` who was not used to be beaten by mere rain storms. We had been rehearsing a Pierrot show for the entertainment, and she was determined that this would go ahead. Nothing daunted, on the morning of the Party we moved all the sign posts, directing towards the entrance of the farmyard, spread enormous amounts of straw over the mud and puddles, and converted the two enormous 18th century barns into a temporary fair ground and acting area. Despite the heavy rain continuing throughout the entire afternoon, which provoked much witticism about the occasion becoming a “Fate” rather than a “Fête,” the day was a resounding success. Whether this was due to a resurgence of the ´war-time spirit of solidarity in the face of adversity,` we shall never know, but this event was talked of for many years to come as a highlight in the Players existence.
Either ´Gov.` had precognition of what might happen or Mrs.´C` had persuaded him that there was no alternative, for when we arrived to move in, these working barns were empty of the farm machines which were normally stored there. It has generally been recognized just how much the Society owes to Frances Curtis, however, without the continuous support, encouragement and assistance from her husband, her efforts would have been fruitless. As can be seen from his great generosity and his patient compliance in all these situations, the Players are also deeply indebted to William James Curtis.
On with the Motley
Ambrose Applejohn`s Adventure remains a blurred memory of yokel accents and farmer's smocks, and did not make a great impression on my hunger for glitter and fantasy. The following year my interest was revived with Aladdin, with Mrs.´C` directing and in which Jean King played her first Principal Boy. The Finale Scene, when the curtains opened upon the outside of the Royal Palace with all its windows lit, remains as an enduring magical moment! Although this had taken place in the Brightwell Village Hall – to packed houses, it was time to make a move into Wallingford from where most of the audience came. The Masonic Hall became the main performing venue for the next twenty-nine years.
The Masonic Hall was the largest public meeting place in Wallingford. Situated in Goldsmith´s Lane and built in the garden of what had been one of the large and gracious houses to one side of the Kinecroft, the hall itself possessed a small stage within a Proscenium Arch with an 18 foot opening onto a stage 25 feet wide by 12 feet deep. To this could be added a 6 foot deep apron extension, used mainly for Pantomime and productions requiring a larger acting area. There were no Theatre facilities, and the Players rigged Front Tabs and lighting bars for each individual show. Eventually, after running shows for several years under extremely restricted stage circumstances, permission was given for the Society to install two steel beams - running with the sightlines, to facilitate the fixing of flats. In turn, these were modified to allow for a grid to be built under the low ceiling. Whereas, previously we had to make do with sliding flats on and off stage for each scene change, this latest innovation enabled the flying of cloths. Great excitement greeted this professional aspect for the first pantomime to use it. However, it was soon discovered that although great care had been given to achieving the correct deads for each cloth, during the night, the hemp lines had stretched! Before each subsequent performance, we had to arrive earlier than expected in order to realign each of the hanging cloths, ready for that evenings show.
The lighting, to say the least, was primitive, with the first lamps having been made with bulbs being fixed in the bottom of square biscuit tins. These, together with a row of footlights had been transferred from the shows in the village hall. There was always an element of surprise regarding the colour of the light we would see, due to the gels taped on to the front of the boxes, often melting with the heat of the lamp! Philip Chadd, our chief and only electrician (albeit totally amateur) spent much of the ´fix up` period, wiring individual lamps for the show, until one day he had the bright idea of fabricating a lighting bar holding six lamps, for the Front of House. A most sophisticated solution! He also devised a dimming system – although this often failed or fused the entire lighting board. On one occasion, this caused a complete blackout right in the middle of a Pantomime Finale. Nothing daunted the pianist, Edna Kiddie, kept on playing and the cast kept on singing – to great applause at the end!
´Professionalism` was a watchword constantly on the lips of Mrs. ´C` and such was her eye for detail that on the nights of the shows, we had a full compliment of usherettes, who, armed with torches, showed the members of the audience to their seats. Having first had their tickets checked at the door by Eunice Chadd or Ada Lay, they were escorted to the auditorium by Elsie King, Ella Frewin and the Hammond sisters, who also sold the programmes. The quality of these programmes was always regarded by Mrs. ´C` as important as the show itself, and great care was given to ensure that every detail was as she wished. She always maintained that an evening at the theatre was a ´total` experience, and the welcome at the door, and the quality of the programme was as important as the production itself. This tradition of striving for excellence was quickly instilled into us, and accounted greatly for the enviable reputation which the Players soon achieved.
The original wooden chairs were gradually replaced with the luxury of two hundred canvas seated, tubular, stacking chairs which had to be stored away after each production. Following an exhausting evening and after the audience had gone home, the actors and helpers, completed this unwelcome task by crawling under the stage into a very dusty and cobwebbed area. The whole stage had to be struck with everything packed away. The un-written rule was that this should be done, before the end of show party, for the cast and helpers, in the bar area, with the final get out on the following morning. Costumes, furniture and flats were then returned to Slade End for storage. It was a mark of the Players' stamina, that they had sufficient energy to want to party after such a gruelling production, but this was essential in order to wind down following the emotional and physical stress of a period of protracted rehearsals, culminating in exhausting performances. Normally, the party was part of the largesse which Gov. Curtis lavished upon the Players over those first years, although on one occasion in 1960 when Kitten played Aladdin, her husband John Ellison played host, as a mark of his appreciation to the Society.
If the stage at the Masonic Hall left a great deal to be desired, the Dressing Room facilities were worse. Both men's and women's dressing rooms were at the top of a flight of stairs with the mirrors and lights perched precariously on top of the gas stoves. These rooms were really the kitchens serving the hall for Masonic functions. Not only was there very little space in which to manoeuvre, but the omni-present smell of gas mixed with grease paint did nothing to calm first night nerves.
Apart from theatrical productions, the hall was used by local societies for their dances. The Players always held a spectacular Ball, usually a Costume occasion, following a theme which provided the basis for the Cabaret entertainment. One year the inspiration was London, with a twelve foot high Eros, painted on a softboard cut-out, creating a backdrop for Piccadilly Circus. The flower sellers and the costermongers of Covent Garden provided a miscellany of all the old traditional songs associated with that area. Another year it was a Caledonian theme, when half a dozen of us had been cajoled into spending weeks under the relentless tuition of enthusiastic member and Scotsman Guy Severn, learning the skills of Highland Dance. Accompanied on the night with Bagpipes, we gave a fine exhibition of Scottish dance and then led the general company with swirling kilts into a combination of reels and hard drinking. These were all immensely popular events and gave the members of the Society another opportunity to let their hair down in a more relaxed atmosphere.
These were the years in which the Players were establishing themselves as one of the major Amateur Drama groups in the area, and we are grateful for the regular use of the Masonic Hall at this crucial period of our formation. Despite the difficulties of mounting productions within a space not designed or equipped for theatrical productions, the hospitality and assistance provided by the Wallingford Masons contributed to our years with them as an extremely happy and satisfying period. Only on one occasion, during our time there, did we have to cancel a performance; that was when thick snow blocked the entrance from Goldsmith´s Lane making it impossible for anyone to get in. This time, even Mrs.´C` had to admit defeat!!!
The Annual Dinners were yet another of the social occasions when the Players could get together, taking place at various venues including the George Hotel, The Boat House and the Kingfisher at Shillingford. These were purely social events for the members to all meet together at one time, and in one place, and in which to enjoy themselves without any pressures of learning lines, sewing costumes, or painting scenery. On two occasions, in the early 1960´s, during the Whitsun bank holidays, we also got together for a Bar-B-Q in the garden at Sotwell Manor. Denis and I spent the previous day putting stage flood lights in the trees (with great discussions as to which ´gels` would look most effective) and building the fireplace, whilst the ´girls` started the preparations for the food – and, more importantly – the drink. A general invitation was made and Players turned up, some bringing guests, so it was a very mixed and congenial gathering. Fortunately, as occasionally happens, the weather was perfect. Hot, dry days blending into a warm balmy evenings. The garden looked magical, the atmosphere was relaxed and everyone replete. Sausages, hamburgers, rolls and salads had been consumed with relish. The trifles and sweets had been a tremendous success, and the wine had ´flowed` to great satisfaction. At the end of one evening, a very attractive and vivacious young lady said to me, what a marvellous party it was, and did I know who was the host? As I had thought of it as a ´Players Occasion,` for once modesty prevented me from answering immediately. I responded by asking who she and her friends had come with, only to be told “Oh, we were passing and saw there was a party , so we just came in”!!!!! So much for their ´spontaneity`- I only regret that I couldn´t think of a suitable, impromptu reply. Only afterwards, I thought ´All advertising is good advertising, so why not this occasion`? At least, this demonstrated our ´human side` rather than being thought intense theatrical luvvies.
When a play was performed, the Masonic Hall was usually booked for an entire week. This also applied to the Pantomime, however, very soon the popularity of this annual event was so great that this was extended to two weeks, sometimes with three performances on the Saturday. Although, because of lack of time, some of the pantomime scenery was prefabricated outside the hall, and even on occasions some painting was started, this was always completed when on stage. Sometimes the very brief time for preparation necessitated painting cloths on the floor of the hall during the day and even when rehearsals were taking place in the evenings. On the odd occasion when designing and acting in panto, many times during painting it would be necessary to stop in order to rehearse, then rush back to finish what I was doing. All quite frenetic, if not schizophrenic! On other occasions, it was a case of competing with the cast when painting final details on stage whilst the rehearsal was going on around me. Those taking part were always warned “not to touch anything. It may still be wet!” On one occasion, when John Curtis was still designing and painting, he did not complete the Finale set for Sleeping Beauty until the final performance! Every evening we saw a little more added to the backcloth until on the Saturday, a fountain with silver glitter as the water spray, graced the palace scene.
Sets for plays were always constructed and painted in situ on stage. At the beginning, these sets were rather basic, with no sketches or model to aid the actors. We were merely told where an entrance or window would be. Only later did a model become the standard procedure – although, because we were attempting to use the flats which were available, the sets were sometimes subject to slight variation! In the earlier days, the flats were constructed of canvas stretched over a wooden framework. Although these were light and easily manoeuvrable, the disadvantages of vibrating walls soon made the use of fibreboard, then hardboard, a much better alternative. As we had no workshop or paint studio, everything which would be needed had to be transported to the hall. This relied upon everyone bringing their own tools and brushes. It was amazing that everyone returned home afterwards with everything they had brought! The constrictions of space, materials, money and time promoted much ingenuity in the design and construction of sets. Not everything was of a standard comparable with most of the settings of today, but given the conditions under which we were working, we could be proud of what was achieved.
Although the first Nativity Play under the direction of Mrs. Curtis had taken place at St. Agatha´s Church in Brightwell, with Mary (May) Taylor as the Virgin and Mrs. Warner Allen (previously a professional opera singer) taking the part of the Archangel Gabriel, such was the interest by the local clergy that subsequently the Players were invited to take these plays into their churches. Following the pre-Christmas carol singing around the village, during the next few weeks, we boarded a Tappins coach and, loaded down with costumes and props, headed off to Cholsey, Didcot, North Morton, Wantage, Aston Tirrold, and Blewbury. On one occasion, we also had to adapt ourselves to the lovely but tiny church in Kennington, which did not permit a great deal of movement.
These events were enormously popular with our audiences, and as well as being ambassadors for the society they were also great fun for those taking part. Mrs.´C` herself was a dedicated and active Anglican, and like so many within the theatrical profession, the Christian religion was an important part of her life. For a time, these Nativities became a significant ritual for us with various changes of cast, although Pat Napper continued as a wonderful Gabriel, with huge, glittering wings towering above his head. As I discovered on a later occasion, the only way to retain one's balance was to lean forward at an alarming angle. As he was positioned on top of a rostrum above the other actors, this necessity became a very effective aid to characterization.
In addition to these Church Outings we also were soon asked to supply theentertainments in the form of short costume plays, at the nearby village fetes and garden parties. Many times we were called at very short notice to learn and rehearse something which Mrs.´C` had devised and which was to be presented in one of the local villages. As these, obviously, took place in the open air, on more than one occasion, when a rainstorm struck, the drama had to be peremptorily cut short in order to obey the diktat “save the costumes.” On one occasion at Aston Tirrold with Mrs.´C` playing Queen Elizabeth I, in magnificent finery, no sooner had she started her Armada speech, when she was interrupted by Bob Fisher as Sir Francis Drake – as he put it - “because of the inclemency of the weather !!!!” It rather ruined the illusion of her regal posture when seen huddling with rest of us under a convenient tarpaulin. However, the ´costumes were saved.`
The Variety Shows which were much in demand throughout the area were normally just that – a variety of different acts, songs, dances, comedy etc., Sometimes, excerpts from previous Players productions were included especially suitable abstracts from other Reviews, Burlesques and Music Halls. This Miscellany, often improvised only a few days before but never the less alwaysslick and expertly delivered, were immensely popular with our audiences and much in demand.. These tours included Purley, Faringdon, Streatley and on one occasion to Shurlock Row, at the invitation of ´Gov´s` brother – Henry Curtis. These Touring Visits were always enjoyed by all concerned and there are many wonderful memories of the tremendous hospitality we received. Not always were these events without occasional minor problems. At one venue, the Players were faced with having to negotiate a huge ornamental jardinière which occupied a large part of the small stage! Resourceful as ever, this was adroitly incorporated as part of the action, to great effect!
Only occasionally did we take an entire production ´on tour` the logistics of scenery and all that was required made this too difficult. However, on the occasion of one of these rare exceptions at the Fairmile Hospital, where we were performing the pantomime Babes in the Wood in 1965, in front of the patients, there was more drama off stage than on when a member of the audience took a dislike to what was happening and charged into the back of one of the actors! And we thought that we did this for fun!!!
Other demands made upon our time and talents, in addition to the plays which were now in regular production, were the visits to other venues with our Reviews. These had started in quite a modest way – and then, like Topsy, ´grew` !!! Soon, we were again climbing aboard one of Tom Tappin's coaches, often with Bill Tappin driving, and with costumes and props, making our way through the countryside to various village halls where the welcome was always wonderful even though the dressing room space often meant all ´mucking in together` No false modesty was possible where we all zipped each other up during quick changes. By this time we had become an Ensemble, and took everything in our stride as all Good Troupers should. There were no temperaments because there were no ´stars`! We had all taken to heart the notice posted up in the attics at Slade End. “There are no small parts – only small actors” We accepted, gratefully any ´crumbs` which were swept our way. One day playing a principal role and the next, sweeping out the auditorium.
Although I had joined the Society in order to study scene design, this was a time when men were in short supply and boys were nonexistent. After assisting John to paint scenery and making props, then helping do odd jobs in the Bull Croft, I was suddenly drafted into a Nativity Play which proved my undoing. From then on I was used on stage as a series of attendants upon various principal characters. If ever a ´boy` was needed, I was given the role! My ´theatrical career` had taken a new direction! Much later, from 1959 – 1965, although I was acting in twelve of the nineteen productions during this period, I still managed to design, construct and paint ten of them.
On one occasion in the 1950´s we were invited to perform excerpts from Midsummer Nights Dream in the garden behind the George Hotel (now part of the car park entrance) and again, in the 70´s we performed other Shakespeare snippets in the courtyard. The garden of Castle Priory was another favoured venue, (possibly due to the convenient proximity of the Row Barge where the cast, in costume, mixed with the bemused customers.) Here, where the lawn sweeps down to the river from this gracious house frontage, in 1974, Shakespeare´s Twelfth Night was attended by the then President of the Society, Dame Agatha Christie. This world famous author, play-write and creator of the phenomenal Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, had a house – Winterbrook House in the Reading Road - and was a frequent visitor to the town. Upon the death in 1950 of Sir Leslie, Dame Agatha had been invited to fill this vacancy and was the Guest of Honour at the Garden Party of 1952 . Dressed in a flowing gown of flowered organza and a large brimmed straw hat she looked more like a favourite aunt rather than the celebrity she was, going round each of the stalls and chatting with everyone. She remained in close contact with us during the twenty-five years of her Presidency, which included, attending one of her own Plays - Peril at End House with Bob Fisher portraying the famous Detective. Twelfth Night was to be the last time she was able to attend a Sinodun Players production, before her death two years later.
Pageants and Festivals
The after effects of the war were to finally be put to rest in 1951 with the Festival of Britain. The Sinodun Player contribution to the towns festivities was a Masque in the castle grounds. As this was to depict a Medieval episode of history, this meant fabricating numerous shields, weapons and armour of the period. Weeks were spent, in hot sunshine on the lawns at Slade End Farm, under the tutelage of John Curtis, making shields and helmets of chicken wire and papier mache. Then painting with an undercoat of dark grey and finishing off with aluminium paint. The large but docile mastiff which always accompanied John wherever he was working, ended up with ´silver` claws – much to the scorn of Mrs ´C, who dismissed us all as “silly b´s.” When not moulding wet paper or painting, we were set to knitting chain mail out of thick string on large wooden needles. John ´A` seemed particularly adept and finished two balaclavas to our every one! No hands were idle but to ensure that our time was not wasted on mere physical activity, lines were rehearsed until word perfect. Not only was there no end to our talent, but also to our dedication!!!!
A small natural amphitheatre crossed the driveway from the High Street gateway, on the East side of the castle keep mound. Here was performed the medieval history of the Empress Matilda´s escape from Oxford with Audrey Gayfer as the Matilda. She wound her way round the mound pathway until met by Bob Fisher, playing Brien Fitzcount, Constable of Wallingford Castle, who was to give her sanctuary. The heavy shade from the overhanging trees gave a stillness and anxiety to the atmosphere, and although historically she would have arrived in the middle of winter having escaped from Oxford Castle across the ice, the present air of gloom and menace was entirely appropriate on this occasion. There were three performances and between the matinee and evening shows on the Saturday, in the heat of that afternoon, we informally paraded around the town in costume in order to advertise this event.
The 1953 Coronation Year took us to the river. A masque was written for Mrs.´C` again playing Good Queen Bess, arriving by barge from downstream at the boathouse landing, to the immediate North of Wallingford bridge. The audience were arranged on the Crowmarsh bank of the river and saw a splendid show, although it is doubtful whether they heard much, due to the rather primitive sound equipment which was then available.
1955 was the 800th anniversary of the granting of a Royal Charter to the Borough of Wallingford by King Henry II. We are fortunate in possessing a film made by a local physician, Dr. Charles Wilkinson who recorded much of the preparation and some of the performance of this major town event in the grounds of the castle. The B.B.C programme Out and About visited this Pageant which depicted various events of importance during the town’s colourful and historic past. Mrs.´C` was invited to oversee this huge production, where not only all the members of the Players and their now considerable resources and expert knowledge, were to be used to the full, but the cast was to be augmented by other amateur drama groups and anyone from the town who might be interested in dressing up and taking part. A large area was reserved for the acting arena, with stands built for the audience facing the castle mound as a ´backdrop.` This time, the production opened with a Victorian twenty-first Birthday Party held at the Castle Mansion (demolished in the 1950´s) with the progression going back into history including the brief visit to the town by William of Orange, the valiant surrender of the castle by the Royalist Colonel Blagge and finishing with a Viking raid upon the Saxon settlement. A both dramatic and poignant ending was achieved with the lights slowly fading upon the live camp fire which flicked and then died.
Eat Your Heart out, Cecil B. DeMille!
On two occasions, a Nativity Play was performed on a farm cart in the Wallingford Market Square. The first such occasion, used one of ´Gov.` Curtis´s large flat trailers, which we converted into a Medieval Pageant as the ´stage` on which the action was to take place in front of a standing audience in the square. As this was before the time of radio mikes, it had been decided to ´dub` the voices of the actors over loudspeakers around the square. The voices being synchronised by others in a first floor room over Lloyds bank. As it had been impossible to have a rehearsal in such a public spot, the first two nights were not as successful as they could have been. However on the final night, everything went as planned, and all was well. Several years later, Harold Simmons suggested to Denis and myself that we should recreate this previous ´triumph` directed by Mrs ´C.` By the time the discussions were finished as to how this was to take place, we had decided that this time, we would not only use the idea of the Medieval Pageant but also to have Mary arriving on a donkey, the Three Kings, on Horses, and the Shepherds being accompanied by sheep! Not content with a farm cart as a stage, we would use the whole square, with everyone coming in at different entrances and involving the whole of the audience. D.W.Griffiths and Cecil B. DeMille would eat their hearts out!!!!!
Rehearsals had taken place in the new coach park of Tappin´s Garage, off St John´s Road, during a series of freezing winter evenings. Lighting was by kind permission of Bill Tappin who turned on the coach lights, and those who were not acting took refuge against the bitter cold in the warmth of the empty coaches. The horses and the donkey arrived, causing a slight problem in that, as they were unused to one another, they had to be kept well apart. The snorting, stamping and shying kept the handlers busy, whilst the Kings forgetting any attempt at assuming regal demeanour, spent all their energy and concentration in just maintaining their seats. Sheep had posed another problem, so it was decided to do without this attempt at realism and make do with a couple of sheep dogs instead! In order to combat the intense cold and to be able to wear heavy winter clothing underneath, as well as looking authentic, costumes also needed to be voluminous. Rehearsals progressed and despite the logistics of a large cast including children and animals, everything started to ´come together.` A large cart was prepared, to be positioned in front of the Town Hall, Lighting was set up – augmented by an Aldis Lamp, loaned to us for the occasion by the R.A.F. Benson, and fixed high up on the top of Field and Hawkins, opposite the Town Hall and we were all prepared to ´go.`. At the very last minute, the cart had to be moved to avoid the deep shadow of the War Memorial from the powerful spotlight directly across the square. The great advantage of having a stage on wheels meant that it only required pulling the cart a few feet to the right, and all was well. Jose Wood, whose advanced pregnancy was thought to add authenticity to the role of Mary, would be accompanied by Denis as Joseph. He had been a little nervous on Jose´s behalf, having to ride in her condition. In the event, all went well and both actors and audience responded wonderfully to all the challenges!
A further occasion which saw the Players dressing in Mediaeval costume, was during the Dorchester Abbey Arts Festival in 1963 when all the local drama groups were asked to present a specific excerpt in Four Thousand Years of History. The Players were given the Arrival of St. Birinus, Apostle of the West Saxons, in 634 A.D., and the sponsorship by King Oswald of Northumbria for the conversion and baptism of Cynegils, King of Wessex, which established Dorchester as the centre of Christianity for much of the South of England. A large, high rostrum at the West end of the Church provided the main stage upon which the impressive action took place. We made the most of the large space with the grand gestures needed in such an enormous building. Following the ceremony of Baptism and a brief scene depicting Birinus´s mission and the passing of time, the actors ´double up` as pall bearers, shrouded in voluminous black robes to effect this disguise, when carrying an effigy of the now dead Archbishop the whole length of the Abbey Church. Unfortunately, his episcopally gloved hands had not been properly secured and half way through the procession, an arm swung down into the face of one of the bearers. Nothing daunted, it was firmly replaced without a falter in the slow pacing. After the show, we were extremely pleased to hear some of the very complimentary comments from the audience, as to how very “professional” the Players were and that their contribution “stood out” among the rest! Not good for our ´humility` but wonderful for our egos! These excursions certainly proved the versatility of the Society in those early days.
Although the Players had become a very close knit group – achieving a sort of affinity and rapport which is the aspiration and mark of every competent repertory company, there were also those who were not actually members, although their regular and frequent presence almost gave them ´honorary` status. Among these was Lindsay Evans. He was the town photographer who lived and had his studio in Castle street and who was to be seen at every wedding, civic occasion, every event worth recording, and who was a regular and welcomed visitor to all Sinodun Players productions. His gentle manner, his unruly grey hair and rather ill kempt clothing always seemed to portray the man himself. He was what is known as one of natures gentlemen, charming, courteous and friendly – as well as being a superb photographer. As he was a lifelong bachelor, he was well known in all the many hostelries throughout the town, and welcomed in all of them where he rarely had to buy himself a drink. However much he consumed he never failed to remain the perfect gentleman – in fact, it was common folk lore that it was then that he always took his very best photographs. The early records of the Players shows all bear his name plate.
Another regular was Frank Dibb – theatre critic for the Oxford Mail. Formerly he had been a member of the Donald Wolfit Company, which he continued to emulate in his manner and dress. Often he would be seen striding round Oxford, caped coat flowing, mane of white hair escaping from under a large brimmed slouch hat, with a bulging and dilapidated briefcase under his left arm, whilst clutching in his right hand, a shillelagh cane. Although we welcomed his visits, he was a stern critic and we learned much from his comments. When he was pleased, he was also lavish with his praise and many times we were fortunate in enjoying his high favour. He, like Lindsay, was one of those fabled characters that no longer seem to add colour to the world in which we live, and are therefore all the poorer.Click to continue...>>