The magic of the theatre

A signed photograph of Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warriss.

A signed photograph of Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warriss.

As a theatre lover from an early age, I started building up a collection of theatre programmes more by accident than intention, starting with those glittering Blackpool summer shows of yesteryear and continuing through drama and top contemporary musicals.

In the old days the programmes were much simpler, and prices ranged from three old pence to sixpence, a far cry from today’s prices, as were the costs of theatre seats. In 1965 seats for the Ken Dodd Show at the London Palladium ranged from 7/6d to . According to the programme, dining atVerreys in Regent Street cost 21/- for four courses.

Many programmes for the Ken Dodd Show were saved, mostly from his shows at the Blackpool Opera House in the 1960s, but one of the earliest dated from 1955 – Peter Webster’s production at the Central Pier which boasted Ken Dodd and Morecambe andWise on the same bill, together with Jimmy Clitheroe, who was billed as a little comedian with a big future.

In the same year George and Alfred Black pre-sentedThe Big Show at the Opera House, with Jewel and Warriss and Alma Cogan, a spectacular variety show with high-kicking show girls, specialty acts, sketches and the staging of the San Francisco Earthquake! This was typical fare for the big seaside variety show.

Producer Peter Webster used to stage talent shows on the Central Pier with both children and adults, and was very popular with holiday audiences. He also spotted Ken Dodd, and brought him to Blackpool audiences.

Other top comedians graced the Blackpool stages, and they are all in my souvenir collection. Al Read, Nat Jackley, Charlie Chester, Dick Emery, Arthur Haynes, Arthur Askey and Max Bygraves. Some of these starred at the resort’s Winter Gardens in the 1960s, and before this, in 1957, Bob Monkhouse starred there, then again in 1960 in a musical play with a difference, Don’t Stop,You’re Killing Me. One of my early favourites, Dave King, wasn’t only a funny comedian and popular on TV, but also an excellent singer and actor. He had his show there in the 1950s, sharing the stage with ShaniWallis.

The 1961 programme for Bernard Frankie Vaughan Show at the Palace Theatre, Blackpool.

The 1961 programme for Bernard Frankie Vaughan Show at the Palace Theatre, Blackpool.

The North Pier’s theatre saw stars like Bruce Forsyth and a fairly new comedian called Des O’Connor as well as popular acts such as Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson, vocal group The Mudlarks and the famous puppets Pinky and Perky, famous pigs long before Babe was born.

The Queens Theatre, demolished to make way for a store, saw singing stars such as The Beverley Sisters, Joan Regan, Eve Boswell,Anne Shelton and comics like Tommy Cooper. Shirley Bassey was a regular at the Blackpool Opera House, and she and stars such as Vera Lynn and Dora Bryan all did Sunday concerts, and were backed by the wonderful Bob Miller Orchestra in the 1960s. There were none of today’s self-contained acts or miming in those days.

FrankieVaughan weaved his magic at the old Palace Theatre, another venue destined for demolition in later years, as did a comparative newcomer, Roy Castle.

An early favourite of mine, Michael Holliday, starred in many Blackpool shows, scoring with his relaxed singing style at theatres such as the Hippodrome, later to became the ABC, which had shows with Frank Ifield, Kathy Kirby and Cliff Richard. Cliff was seen in his early days at Sheffield’s Lyceum, and drowned out by his screaming fans.

As well as musical shows, my programme collection brings back memories of many plays, including Signpost to Murder, with Margaret Lockwood, at London’s Cambridge Theatre and The Mousetrap. Wendy Craig and Michael Craig starred in I Love You, Mrs. Pattison at St. Martin’s, and before its West End debut a play called Make Me a Widow toured the provinces When my friend and I commented to the actors at the stage door about not liking the surprise ending, the stars Glyn Houston and Frederick Jaeger jokingly promised to have the ending re-written for the West End.

In more recent times top shows and dramas have come to the provinces, enabling us to enjoy the theatre on our doorsteps.The bulk of my programmes from later years come from the Sheffield Lyceum and Bradford Alhambra – great musicals which contrast from tuneful shows like 42nd

Street and Copacabana to ]esus Christ Superstar. Although Phantom of the Opera is one of the most spectacular shows, the stunning Les Miserables must be my all-time favourite.

Yet there are many more that have made impressions – Cats, West Side Story, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Oliver,Joseph and Evita. Marti Webb starred as Evita, and in contrast played Miss Hannigan in Annie, and that brilliant actress Sean Phillips brought to life Marlene Dietrich in the musical Marlene, before it opened in the West End.

Dramas such as the stage version of the film Brassed Off have made their debuts in the North.This highly-successful play premiered at the Sheffield Crucible before doing London. Acclaimed actors such as Sir Derek Jacobi, Frank Finlay, Nigel Havers and Michael Dennison appeared, as did the McGann Brothers – Joe in the impressive Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Mark in An Inspector Calls. Both Dennis Waterman and the former Mrs .Waterman, Rula Lenski, have shown their talents in Jeffrey Barnard is Unwell and the Barbara Taylor Bradford first stage play, Dangerous to Know, which Rula herself was not too keen on.

Paul Eddington, shortly before his death, starred with Richard Briars in Home, making an excellent team, and Shirley Valentine was given the impeccable GwenTaylor treatment.

Stars galore, in a contrasting array of drama and music, over the years are all there in around 100 programmes, which hold magic memories of the theatre – and the theatre remains just as special today, with vast and varied entertainment which, hopefully, will captivate new generations.

Pamela Watford

Morecambe and Wise were among the stars at the 1955 Let’s Have Fun show at Blackpool’s Central Pier.

Morecambe and Wise were among the stars at the 1955 Let’s Have Fun show at Blackpool’s Central Pier.

Alma Cogan starred alongside Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warriss in George and Alfred Black’s The Big Show at the Opera House, Blackpool, in 1955.

Alma Cogan starred alongside Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warriss in George and Alfred Black’s The Big Show at the Opera House, Blackpool, in 1955.

Margaret Lockwood was among the cast of Signpost to Murder, by Monte Doyle, presented by Emile Littler at London’s Cambridge Theatre.

Margaret Lockwood was among the cast of Signpost to Murder, by Monte Doyle, presented by Emile Littler at London’s Cambridge Theatre.