Remembering the shows of Great Yarmouth’s ‘ops and drams’ company

COLD SNAP! Yarmouth Operatic and Dramatic Society members wrap up to rehearse the musical Oklahoma i

COLD SNAP! Yarmouth Operatic and Dramatic Society members wrap up to rehearse the musical Oklahoma in an unheated theatre in 1955.Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY - Credit: Archant

Although the final curtain has rung down, never to rise again, there is still good reason for an encore to rekindle happy memories of the glorious shows staged in Great Yarmouth theatres by our local “Ops and Drams” company.

DEBUT: young Neil Pearce, in white shorts, rehearsing for his first role as Little Jake in Annie Get

DEBUT: young Neil Pearce, in white shorts, rehearsing for his first role as Little Jake in Annie Get Your Gun in 1958, with principals James Aldous and Stella Holles singing.Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

Yarmouth Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society, founded 116 years ago, has long-since produced its last show. And while this column was reflecting recently on some of them – especially the great musicals by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Lowe – we learned of the company’s closure.

That previous offering, illustrated by a picture from the 1967 production of The King and I, prompted a letter from Neil Pearce who informs me: “I can’t imagine that many members of the cast in your main picture are still alive...but I am. I’m the slave on bended knee in the foreground. I was just 18 at the time.

“My sister, Kristina Seabert, living in Rollesby, posted the cutting to me and your article has certainly provoked memories for me.

“I joined the cast with three of my friends at the time, Chris Elliot (we are still in touch), Martin Burniston and Bob Bowman. We had great fun. The productions played to packed houses in theatres that seated (I believe) up to 1000 people at the Wellington Pier and the Regal.”

Neil, now resident in Worcestershire, sends me the programme from his first outing – as Little Jake in Annie Get Your Gun. “We staged it in April 1958 when I was 10. Nellie, Jessie and Minnie (Annie’s sisters) were Wendy Jackson, Irene Wallace and Stephanie Waterson respectively. Stella Holles played Annie Oakley, with James Aldous as Frank Butler.

He continues: “Some great names, characters and supporters were in those casts that carried GYOADS through its most successful era. In addition to your memories, Derek Marshall was a tireless perfectionist and a great motivator for us teens who wanted little more than to get into the girls’ dressing rooms!

Most Read

“Bob Moore (Derek’s companion), Phyllis Brett (her wicked witches would have troubled Harry Potter!), Gordon Canwell...the list goes on. Great voices and fantastic talents. I have never attended a more professional and dedicated group or seen a grander production.

“Oklahoma was one musical I missed and wanted to perform in. My chance came with the Maidenhead AO&D group and I got to play the Sheriff - stardom at last, but not the same as GYAODS.”

Neil adds: “Truly worth remembering. Thank you, Peggotty.”

Former Mercury colleague David Wakefield, who reviewed many of the “Ops and Drams” productions, has added his memories: “Like you, I spent many a happy evening in the stalls watching shows of such a high standard. Before I went to my first Yarmouth Amateurs concert, Mercury editor Wilfred Bunting told me that this was no ‘village hall’ society, but equal to West End standards - thus I should write accordingly!

“Of course, like in so many other matters, he was right!

“I well recall my first Amateurs coverage, on a freezing Easter Monday afternoon in the 1960s; it was Derek Marshall in one his revues called Top Hat, or something similar, at the Wellington Pier. The last one I covered was in 1997 on the Britannia Pier, Me and My Girl - one of the last musicals they did, but to my mind one of the best. It was produced by Janice Bacon, who freely admitted that the superb Act One ‘closer’, Lambeth Walk, was devised and choreographed by her father, Jack!

“Memorable days and some memorable performances. I rated Gordon Canwell’s Luther Billis in South Pacific probably better than Ray Walston in the movie; likewise Jack Bacon’s King in The King and I was beautifully done. Happy days!

“When I came to Yarmouth I was already familiar with the Canwells as they were leading lights in the Westwood Works (Baker Perkins) am-dram society in Peterborough, my home town, and I recall them starring in musicals like Brigadoon, South Pacific and The Pajama Game (now being revived in the West End, I note).

“So many wonderful performers, like Brian Goodfellow, Nick Jeffries, Derek Marshall and Bob Moore, Ilene Hadden, and the daddy of them all, Jack Bacon, because of his ability behind the scenes as well as on stage.

“I remember Jack telling me after the first night of Flower Drum Song how he had to lean (casually, of course) against one of the ‘flats’ to stop it coming down! The Sound of Music was notable not only for Marilyn Canwell’s leading lady performance, but for Hazel Marsh’s Climb Every Mountain - I have seldom heard it done better.

“A later performance of South Pacific introduced a certain young Myleene Klass.

“I agree with your comments about Terry Bird in My Fair Lady (I had termed his portrayal ‘masterful’). That production, incidentally, nearly didn’t go ahead as one of the sets, Higgins’ study, was a huge thing and couldn’t be dismantled. Stage manager Don Harvey told me that they got it in through the ABC back doors - with not very much to spare.

“The pantomimes were legendary, mainly because of Derek Marshall’s number of costume changes.

“The Shrublands ‘am dram’ society was also very good, although I cannot recall any of their performers offhand.”