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Ding-ding! The day Reg turned up!

PUBLISHED: 17:04 29 January 2009 | UPDATED: 12:52 03 July 2010

BACK IN TIME: One of David Richards' King Street shops

BACK IN TIME: One of David Richards' King Street shops

TODAY'S offering is one of those occasional miscellanies, a variety of differing topics - for example, renowned entertainers, shops, a German U-boat and the Home Guard.

TODAY'S offering is one of those occasional miscellanies, a variety of differing topics - for example, renowned entertainers, shops, a German U-boat and the Home Guard.

We begin more than three decades ago with the briefest of visits to Great Yarmouth by a television star here not to grace the stage of one of our theatres by strutting his stuff, but simply to lend his name to a new business by making a personal appearance at its opening.

That celebrity was Reg Varney, from the long-running television comedy series On the Buses, who died in November, aged 92. The actor-comedian became a household name as the happy-go-lucky bus driver in the long-running sit-com launched in 1969.

Although some of the other actors in the show - like Stephen Lewis, who played the hapless inspector Blake, and Anna Karen (Olive) - spent the summer of 1972 in the farce Stop It Nurse at our Windmill Theatre, Reg Varney did not come here until 1976 when he publicised the opening of the John Walton menswear and schoolwear shop in Market Gates, the retailer's 19th in south-east England.

Sorry, but I cannot recall the branch, long-since gone from Yarmouth town centre and probably its other locations. It was part of the new Market Gates retail development which saw generations-old buildings fronting the Market Place demolished, before the complex expanded to include the land on which the Regal Cinema stood.

I am not alone: friends to whom I mentioned John Walton shook their heads and confessed that they could not recollect it either. It promised much when it opened, but presumably quietly packed up and left. The “several leading schools” in the Yarmouth area who appointed John Walton as their stockists had to look elsewhere, or return to their former retailers.

I found an internet outlet selling DVD sets of On the Buses, some of which included extras like “a couple of minutes of silent raw news footage of Reg opening a menswear store called John Walton.” It could have been film of any one of the branches, of course, not necessarily Yarmouth.

And from one veteran comic actor to another - Jack Douglas, who died last month, aged 82. His twitchy character of Alf Ippititimus became familiar on variety stages and television, while on the big screen he appeared in several Carry On films.

His first season in Yarmouth was 1961, topping the Royal Aquarium bill with comic Joe Baker for whom he had been the “straight man” for some years. But one night Baker became locked out of the theatre where they were playing, leaving Douglas to perform solo - a nervous performance that saw the birth of Alf Ippititimus.

In 1969 Jack Douglas starred in the comic play Don't Tell the Wife at the Windmill for his friends, impresario and theatre owner Jack Jay and his family, returning two years later to draw big audiences to the same venue with When the Wife's Away. That second visit to the Windmill was an opportunity for him to leave his hand and foot prints in wet cement outside the theatre, Hollywood-style, as a permanent memento of his visit.

I reviewed the opening night of both Jack Douglas farces, and recall that during one, a piece of scenery accidentally fell from high above the stage, luckily hitting none of the cast. The star quipped instantly: “I must remember to get that roof fixed!”

The falling scenery and his impromptu joke thereupon became part of the twice-nightly shows for the rest of the run.

As for other retailers of yesteryear, reader Sylvia Beaney, of Sturdee Avenue, reports that another of our old shops has now been converted into a town house. She well remembers the long-closed former premises of Richards at the south end of King Street, near the St Peter's Road corner.

“I wonder if anyone remembers Richards having a stall on the Market Place in the early 1950s as well as the shop in King Street,” she writes.

“His shop was an Aladdin's Cave. He sold everything - bedding, towels, tea towels, socks, underwear, bundles of elastic tape, bias binding, shoelaces...everything you wanted you could probably buy from Richards, all good value factory rejects. Also, you could buy remnants of material, cottons, needles and cutlery.

“When I was a teenager, I used to buy nylons that were flawed, but well hidden, because they were very cheap but still good quality. After Mr Richards died, his son took over. The shop was trading until the late 1980s or early 1990s.”

I can recall that in the window, perhaps out of step with the other merchandise, were thumping great slabs of Cadbury's Dairy Milk chocolate at a bargain price. It was one of those shops probably overpowered by the current vogue of £1 stores that succeeded them. David Richards also traded as a clothier on the other side of York Road, in premises now occupied by a barber.

Last March Mrs Beaney was featured in this column, 50 years after the courageous rescue of her husband, Arthur, who was in grave danger of “drowning” by suffocation when malting barley cascaded down on him as he worked at Lacons Brewery.

His colleague and friend, Ray Hall, jumped into the vat and managed to keep scooping the grain away from his mouth until more help arrived.

After their ordeal, the two workmates went back to Arthur and Sylvia's home in York Road where she made them a welcome cup of tea while they unwound.

U-boats? Well, Jean Bean, of Sun Lane, Bradwell, has shown me the sixpenny programme for the three-day stay of the captured German U-boat visited by long queues of curious sightseers at her Hall Quay berth in June 1945.

The 220ft U776, with an endurance of 11,000 miles, had never posed a threat to Allied shipping, for her maiden patrol in the English Channel in 1944 was devoid of incident, and she surrendered to two British frigates off Ireland on her second voyage.

The programme belonged to her late father, “Benny” Carrier. The submarine was touring British ports to raise money for the King George's Fund for Sailors. Here, only servicemen and women boarded U776 the first day, the general public on the two subsequent days.

The 1939-45 war leads us to my recent photograph of the Home Guard unit based at the Church Road School in Gorleston, taken about 1941.

Former member Jack Stowers, now of Lowestoft, identifies two more of them: Ronnie Leggett, who joined the Indian Army and postwar managed the South Denes caravan site, and Horace Durrant who moved to London for a railways appointment.


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