Annual actors’ service pulled in the crowds

IT was standing room only back in the 1961 at a Great Yarmouth Church that was packed to the rafters for the annual actors’ service.

And I could well be correct if I ventured an opinion that when St James’s was full to overflowing, the majority of those worshippers were not drawn by the solemnity of worship, the promise of a rousing sermon, or even the centuries of religious tradition that permeated the hallowed building because it was only a few decades old.

For I am talking about the yearly occasion when the Sunday assembly of the usual faithful few was swollen by sightseers and fans anxious to snatch at least a glimpse of their show business favourites attending the annual actors’ service there.

This was in the Sixties, and in 1961 the Mercury reported that all 550 seats in the church were occupied, extra chairs were brought in, and some folk happily stood. A photographer, probably the late Les Gould, long-serving Mercury cameraman, snapped stars arriving at the church and took pictures during the service.

Half a century later, those pictures have been passed to me by Rosina Haskell and Jodene Barron, both involved in the St James Health and Resource Centre in the deconsecrated former church on Admiralty Road; there is still an active St James’s Church, a hall in Queen’s Road.

It is five years since the opening of the centre, and today a three-day art exhibition is being staged there as part of its anniversary programme.

So, who were these luminaries of the British entertainments scene among the congregation at that 1961 actors’ service? Well, Bob Monkhouse (Britannia Pier) and Tommy Steele (Windmill) read lessons, and the collection was taken by sidesmen Bruce Forsyth (Wellington Pier), Bob Monkhouse, Frankie Howerd (Windmill), Anthony Cundell (Norfolk Repertory Company, Little Theatre) and Yarmouth impresario Jack Jay. Dickie Henderson was in the congregation.

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The hymns were accompanied not only by the church organ but also by a 30-strong orchestra of musicians from various pit bands in the resort, with musical directors from different shows fronting it. Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers played, too, and there was a rock version of Blake’s Jerusalem.

As usual, the mayor and mayoress were at the service, but Mr and Mrs Edgar Barker had difficulty in leaving the church and getting to their limousine because of the hundreds of celebrity-spotting fans thronging the church grounds to take photographs of their favourites and collect autographs.

In 1966 those involved in the service included Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd and the Dallas Boys (Wellington Pier), and Karl Denver (Britannia) who, with his trio, played a soulful spiritual.

Baritone Edmund Hockridge (Wellington) sang a spiritual in 1963 when Ronnie Corbett (Royal Aquarium) read a lesson, both supported by other Yarmouth and Gorleston entertainers. As usual, the Yarmouth actors’ chaplain, the Rev Christopher Heigham, conducted the service.

Most of those showbiz folk are now dead, but we still remember their acts and probably comment inwardly that “they don’t make ‘em like that any more” as we find it hard to take to many of 2010’s performers.

Three other entertainers have died recently – one of them a sportsman who undoubtedly merited the “entertainer” description. That was Alex Higgins, 61, the troubled snooker genius whose popularity and skill far outweighed his frailties.

I saw him in action twice, once as the star player at the annual snooker finals of the Yarmouth Police Social Club, the other at Gorleston Conservative Club. On both visits he mesmerised his audience (and opponents) as he quick-potted his way to victory.

The police used the long-gone Gorleston Links Hotel table for their tournament finals, attracting top names as the guest snooker celebrity until rising fees and limited spectator space meant they had to settle for B-list baize experts. Others who had featured in this annual police event included a teenage Jimmy White, world champion Ray Reardon, Tony Meo, Tony Knowles...

In fact, White made the best break ever made on the Links table, his 129 being three points better than that of Hurricane Higgins, the previous holder.

That visit to the Conservative Club by Higgins was memorable for the wrong reasons. He arrived so late that the impatient audience had to be content with watching members playing matches to pass the time. And when he did walk in, looking as dishevelled as did his uniformed young woman chauffeuse, there were nudge-nudge wink-wink reactions from the spectators, aware of their star guest’s reputation as a ladies’ man.

Higgins apologised, explaining that their untidiness had resulted from their car either breaking down or suffering a puncture near King’s Lynn – I cannot recall which, three decades on. But then he got down to business immediately, racking up his own set of balls which he invariably brought, and cleared most of them within minutes as he notched up a brisk century break. His popularity had not been dented one jot by his late arrival or scruffiness.

The two others who died purveyed the kind of popular music I and many of my generation loved: one was 87-year-old Jack Parnell, the original drummer when the great Ted Heath and his Music was formed just after the war, and the other was Mitch Miller, whose orchestra and chorus produced the exciting new sound behind American singer Guy Mitchell to propel him to stardom on both sides of the Atlantic.

Jack Parnell surrendered his Heath drum stool to the dynamic Ronnie Verrell and formed his own big band, but then became musical director of ATV and fronted the orchestra for its hit long-running commercial television programmes like Sunday Night at the London Palladium and The Muppet Show which attracted millions of viewers.

In retirement he lived down the coast in Southwold but continued to play the drums at jazz sessions in Suffolk and Norfolk.

In my teenage years my record collection (old 78rpms) bought at the Regent Street store of Carr & Carr included most of Guy Mitchell’s hits, those bouncy sea-shanty type ditties driven along by a chorus, claps and French horns: Truly Fair, Roving Kind, She Wears Red Feathers, Pawnshop on the Corner, Liberty Belle...

Miller turned Columbia Records into America’s biggest label, scorning the emerging rock ‘n’ roll and helping the careers of crooners like Johnny Mathis, Doris Day and Tony Bennett.

l WERE you in the congregation at any of the annual actors’ services at St James’s Church in Great Yarmouth in the Sixties? Or, perhaps, celebrity spotting outside the church? Please send your memories to Anne Edwards, editor of the Great Yarmouth Mercury, at 169 King Street, Great Yarmouth, NR30 2PA, or e-mail her at