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Feather's Miscellany: Theatre

...Whatever your skill, whatever your interest, there is always a place for you in the theatre where you can contribute your talent to a production...

John Waddington-Feather, extolling the joys of being involved in the theatre, tells of Yorkshire actors and actresses who became household names.

The theatre is a bastion of democracy and a chronicle of time. Anyone can take a part in a stage production, for whatever your skill, whatever your interest, there is always a place for you in the theatre where you can contribute your talent to a production.

Although actors and actresses are an essential part of any play, there is a back-up team supporting them: wardrobe mistresses, electricians, carpenters, painters, sometimes musicians, all of whom contribute to a successful production. Then there are the architects and builders who erect the fabric of theatre buildings; and once a play is under way there are loyal ushers and ticket sellers; not forgetting the cleaners who tidy up afterwards and the committees who run the whole show.

Now I’m talking here primarily about the amateur theatre, because it is the little theatres and drama groups in our villages, towns and cities which are the life-blood of the English theatre. It is from them that many of our professionals come having been stimulated and trained by them as youngsters, because it is in our youth, starting at school, we first make our entrance into the world of the theatre.

I don’t know what schooling is like these days for it’s changed radically since I left teaching only fifteen years ago. I taught all my working life, but in the time I’ve left teaching schools and teaching methods have changed a great deal; so I can only comment on what happened when I was at school as boy and man. Then, schools produced plays at every level: from primary through to the end of secondary. Afterwards, at college and university, there were active drama groups.
Moreover, if students didn’t actually act on stage, at my Grammar School they read plays in class; so that by the time they’d reached the age of fifteen, they’d read and studied at least a couple of Shakespeare’s plays and probably read plays by Priestley, Shaw and Wilde and other well known playwrights.

This early encouragement in drama lasted me all my life; and the techniques I picked up then came in useful in other walks of life: teaching in the classroom, officiating and preaching in church, giving talks. Many of the clergy I know would benefit from a bit of stage training; so would our politicians – especially on when to shut up and make a dignified exit!

And while we’re on the subject of voice quality, I can’t resist telling the true story of a prisoner with a golden voice I once ministered to as prison chaplain. He was the prince of con men, embezzling money and bouncing cheques right across Britain and into mainland Europe, and ending up for a time in Shrewsbury Prison. Let’s call him Rhys Llewellyn-Evans, for when I met him he carried a double-barrelled name like myself; yet he was born Jack Jones, the son of a Welsh schoolmaster, like Dylan Thomas, and like Thomas he’d a magnificent voice. When he read in chapel it was like listening to Dylan Thomas read the lesson. He held the inmates spellbound; and had he gone straight he’d have made his name on the stage. He was a superb actor and that’s why he was a good con man. His beautiful lilting Welsh voice was magnetic. He could charm anyone – and the money from their wallets.

The area around Keighley where I was brought up produced well known male actors like James Mason from Huddersfield and Patrick Stewart from Mirfield. Brian Blessed, Charles Laughton and Tom Courtenay were other Yorkshire actors who came from further afield at Mexborough, Scarborough and Hull respectively. But it was two actresses from my home town, Keighley, who made their names on the stage and in films.

The first was a girl who began life as an usherette at the Ritz Cinema, just across the way from my Grammar School in the middle of town – where she was wolf-whistled on her way to work by lads like my elder brother Harry, hanging from the chemistry laboratory windows across the street. She ended up being a film starlet in the 1940s and 1950s; and also had bit parts in television serials like Z Cars. She was a beautiful girl with head of ravishing blonde hair, so striking that Jacob Epstein, the sculptor, carved a bust of her, which used to stand in the Royal Festival Hall. I passed it often when attending symphony concerts there in the late 1950s.

The starlet’s name was Sandra Dorne, sometimes known as Sandra Holt, her actor husband’s surname; but she was born Joan Smith, the daughter of a mill labourer in Keighley. Like myself she was brought up in a terrace house, and like myself she would have had a good grounding in drama at school. However, being somewhat better looking than myself she went further in her stage and film career.

She was born in 1925 and died relatively young in 1992 at the age of sixty seven; but in her short career, she packed in a great deal of acting, picking up parts in over forty films before moving into television. Films in which she had leading roles included: Saraband for Dead Lovers, Don’t say Die, The Clouded Yellow, Hindle Wakes, The Beggars’ Opera and The Third Man. Not bad for a starlet who began life as an usherette.

The second lady of the stage who came from Keighley was Mollie Sugden, that much loved store assistant in Are You Being Served? She was born Isobel Mary Sugden in 1922 and died in 2009. She was best known as a comedy actress in the role of Mrs Slocombe in the television comedy series Are You Being Served? which ran on the BBC from 1972 to 1985; but she also appeared in other television series like The Liver Birds and Coronation Street. However, she started her professional on the stage acting career in rep appearing in theatres all over the country, including the Queen’s Theatre in her home town of Keighley.

My sister was at Keighley Girls’ Grammar School with Mollie and remembers her well, for she was often asked to recite poems from memory in front of the whole school. The story goes that when she was only four, she heard a lady recite a humorous Yorkshire poem which made people laugh. She memorised that poem and used it later when she was asked to recite at some social gathering. By the time she’d finished, the audience was falling about laughing. Their response made her feel how wonderful it was to be able to make people laugh – and from that time on she continued to make people laugh with her recitals and in her acting. What a calling in life!

Shortly after she left school, war broke out and Mollie went into a munitions factory making shells; but while working in the factory she continued acting with an amateur concert party called “The Good Companions”, boosting morale in the area as a recitalist in performances all over the area. Then, towards the end of the war, she fulfilled her ambition to become a professional actress and attended The Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.

Leaving drama school she joined a repertory company for eight years before moving to television in various roles, including parts in The Liver Birds, Hugh and I, and Son of the Bride. So she was already well known in British Television before she on the role of Mrs Slocombe in “Are You Being Served?” where she portrayed the saleswoman with a superior social bearing and accent, through which her Keighley accent and demeanour poked through in times of stress. She especially became famous for her repartee with John Inman in a string of double entendres about her pussy. Later, she had a variety of parts in sit coms like Coronation Street. She married in her forties a fellow actor, William Moore, by whom she had twin sons, never letting her professional career interfere with their upbringing. Indeed, she insisted in taking them to school each day, sometimes appearing in one of those outrageous hairstyles she had as the shop assistant for she had to go straight from school to the studio to begin filming.

She also became famous in the States where her programme had a wide following. In 2002 a tribute to her was aired on American PBS stations, featuring several of the cast of Are you Being Served? Her latter years were spent peacefully with her family in Surrey where she died in 2009 at the age of eighty seven.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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