When the concert party entertained townsfolk
SHOWBUSINESS takes centre stage today, with the curtains opening at Gorleston Pavilion where local soprano Helen Hill made her professional debut pre-war before achieving fame on the national wireless.
The latest about her stems from Mrs Diane Brown, of Beach Road, Caister, sending me photographs bequeathed by her aunt, Mrs Hilda Lansdell.
One shows Mrs Lansdell’s friend Nellie (Helen) Hill in her amateur days in costume as Phyllis in the 1925 production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe by the Great Yarmouth Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society. The Mercury reviewer wrote that her “dainty acting and singing...is all done with such a pretty naivete, sprightliness and unaffected simplicity as to establish her claim to be regarded as an operatic artiste of great promise.”
Other friends are in 1921 pictures of The Merry Makers, a concert party based at the old St Andrew’s Hall off High Street where Mrs Brown attended Sunday school as a child. The only other person in the pictures Mrs Brown can name is Miss Doris Offord, a former Edward Worlledge School pupil and a life-long friend.
She adds: “My aunt also talked of seeing Elsie and Doris Waters at Gorleston Pavilion (where their careers started before they became national treasures as the Cockney Gert and Daisy on BBC radio). I can remember Helen Hill on the radio.”
And now for an unexpected delight, an email from Dr Stuart Murray who Googled Frank Wilcock and Robert Rutherford and was led to two of my features about the pair, writers of comedy material and songs and founders of the Gorleston Gossips; Wilcock married Helen Hill.
Dr Murray, a psychiatrist dealing with young people, has long sought information about the duo. “They most certainly had hundreds of their pieces performed in Boy Scout troop Gang Shows in the 1950s and 1960s when there were something like 2000 of these shows being performed in the UK alone, but they left almost no trace of their work.”
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I put him in touch with Mary Fielder, Rutherford’s daughter, who had supplied me with information for those columns. She possesses some of the pair’s most frequently used titles, the rest being archived in a Manchester area museum.
Mrs Fielder told Dr Murray: “My Dad gave up his day job in 1928 and with Frank ran summer concert party in Gorleston until the threat of war closed down the East Coast. They earned their living through the war writing comedy material for radio and entertainment all over the country, and gained a reputation for comedy material from monologues to whole company production numbers.”
When popular comedy changed radically and included smuttiness that neither wanted, they turned to the amateur world, writing deliberately for younger performers - the Scouts’ Gang Shows were going strong at that time.
Out of this developed pantomime scripts purpose-written for amateurs.
Dr Murray wrote to her: “I thought I would never manage to trace your father’s splendid work. I think he was a genius because he was a very gifted writer and knew that particularly the scripts used in Boy Scout Gang Shows were in the right idiom for them.”
From ex-Mercury colleague Tony Mallion came this message: “How delightful to read the recollections of Mike King, especially the piece about the tiny keyring harmonicas given away at the ABC. At last someone else remembers them too. I thought it was only me!
“The show was a week’s run starring ventriloquist Peter Brough and Archie Andrews. He was at the height of his popularity on the radio and I got my Dad to take me to see the stage show at the ABC. We were in an aisle seat and the kindly usherette seated nearby kept handing me sweets.
“She handed me another which I started to bite on and almost cracked a tooth - I hadn’t realised they were the mini mouth organs to which Mike King referred!
“I think it was the Three Monarchs on the bill (though it could have been Ronald Chesney) and children in the audience were handed the instruments and invited to accompany them during their act.”
I mentioned here Albert Chittleburgh, member of a Yarmouth butchery family, whom I knew as manager of a Lowestoft cinema in the Fifties when he gave and my fiancee me free seats and umpteen sweets.
Richard Kerridge, of Parkland Drive, Bradwell, says he was at school with Albert’s only child, Michael, early in the war – during which Mr Chittleburgh was the Yarmouth area’s official meat allocator - and they became good friends.
Albert and his wife Marian (nee Edwards) were both keen members of the “Yarmouth Ops and Drams” and she was a close friend of Richard’s mother, Evelyn (nee Harper) and knew Helen Hill very well.
“My wife and I, when we were courting, also had free seats at a cinema in Lowestoft where Albert was manager!” says Richard.
“He nearly always had a pocket full of sweets to distribute to all and sundry. Later he became manager of the Carlton Hotel in Great Yarmouth from where he used to give us the left-over avocado pears!”
When Michael moved away, Richard lost touch with him and was saddened to discover that he died in 2009, leaving a widow and three children.
As for my recent photograph of star comedian Tommy Trinder mingling with his audience in Yarmouth, Derek Cook, of Middlestone Close, Gorleston, says “Tommy always liked to interact with his public” and recalls that after the end of one show he appeared in overalls, sweeping the stage with a broom!
That was a regular occurrence for Tommy, I believe.