Knighted actor trod the historic boards in our town’s Theatre Royal
PUBLISHED: 17:07 08 September 2017
Mrs Peggotty and I went to the Theatre Royal recently – the one in Norwich, of course, because Great Yarmouth’s Theatre Royal was demolished in 1929 to make way for the construction of the much-lamented and long-demolished Regal Cinema.
In the city we saw the musical Funny Girl, the story of Fanny Brice, the undisputed queen of Broadway across the Atlantic during the last decades of our Theatre Royal before the final curtain fell there.
As an avid filmgoer from an early age, I was always curious about the strong British contingent of male actors who managed to stay safely in the United States during the last war, regularly providing upper-class portrayals of English gentry in American films. Their numbers were sufficient to field cricket teams, thus providing a different sport for Americans weaned on US football and baseball, matches seldom abandoned for “Rain stopped play” as in a UK summer.
The only baseball I have ever seen was an exhibition by American servicemen from the Norfolk air base at Sculthorpe staged at Yarmouth’s Wellesley Recreation Ground in wartime 1943 as one of the charitable Hospital Week programme of money-raising events – a minor counter-balance to the cricket played in Hollywood by those faraway British chaps.
One of the main expatriates was Sir C Aubrey Smith (1863-1948), far too old to have been regarded as one of those staying out of harm’s way in a country that was not at war until the shock 1941 air attack on America’s Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. His screen roles were described by my cinema directory as “crusty, benevolent or authoritarian old gentlemen” so he played himself, more or less.
I did not realise until briefly researching him for this column that it was neither his title nor his screen status that merited his position as captain of the Hollywood-based cricket team: it was because in his younger days before emigrating across the Atlantic between the wars, he was a nationally-famous cricketer, playing for Sussex and once capped by England.
Moreover, his regular work in front of film cameras followed years of experience on British stages - including appearances here in Yarmouth in our Theatre Royal, which stood at the town centre end of Regent Road for a century and a-half from 1778 until 1929.
I cannot remember who gave them to me, but for many years I have possessed some pages photocopied from an old book entitled Playhouses of East Anglia that, of course, includes a Yarmouth chapter; unfortunately, they provide no information about the author or its publication date, probably about a century ago.
Writing about our Theatre Royal, the author said: “Yarmouth playgoers will recall with pleasure the visits of Edward Terry and Aubrey Smith in the Nineties of the last century when the latter’s fame as a cricketer was greater than his dramatic renown.
“Nevertheless, in those days he was magnificent as Aubrey Tanqueray.
“As for cricket, the members of the companies with which Aubrey Smith toured had the good sense to make him captain and, if he happened to be in form with bat and ball – as he nearly always was – it was the case of Smith against The Rest and an easy victory, however uncertain and untutored the other ten on the side might be.”
Adjacent to our Theatre Royal for seven years (1867-74) stood the Regent Hall - subject of a recent column. From Lowestoft, regular correspondent Trevor Nicholls writes regarding my mention of the Prince of Wales being in the audience there three times in one week.
“I think he was in Yarmouth in connection with the Artillery Militia,” says Trevor. He liked to have a good time.
“On May 30 1882 - the day before he opened Yarmouth Town Hall - within two hours of arriving HRH and Count Bismarck, son of the Chancellor of Germany, were at a burlesque at the Aquarium!”