Was I really only eleven years old, when I saw my first serious play at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen? It was in the 1950s; and the play was The Lady’s Not for Burning.
Who took me there I no longer remember; but so thrilled was I by the drama and the spectacle that I was to return many times in the years which followed, to see the same company perform a remarkable selection of plays from classics to modern comedies. Ring Round the Moon, The School for Scandal, An Ideal Husband, You Can’t Take It with You; with a bar of chocolate nougat for company, I saw them all from the ‘gods’ in my schooldays thanks to the Wilson Barrett Company.
Wilson Barrett himself, or Bill Barrett as he was known, was the grandson of a distinguished actor-manager of the same name whose company performed in the late-Victorian era. Born in Bristol in 1900, Barrett junior spent much of his working life in Scotland, for which he had a particular fondness.
He served his apprenticeship in repertory theatre as a member of a company run by Jevan Brandon-Thomas, which played in Glasgow and Edinburgh between 1933 and 1936 and hoped to get established in London. When that enterprise failed for lack of financial backing, Barrett found backing of his own and took over the company, opening in 1939 at the King’s Theatre in Hammersmith.
Barrett’s account of theatre life during the London bombing makes hair-raising reading. Before long, however, the London theatres closed and the company returned that same year to Scotland, audiences giving them a remarkable welcome both in Edinburgh (at the Empire at first) and at the Glasgow Alhambra.
Barrett notes, in his book about the company, that he had never experienced anything quite like the warmth of a Scottish audience to players whom it likes. Nowhere had he known the emotional contact which they found in these Scottish cities.
There was a brief return to London, when theatres re-opened; but audiences were so poor during the bombing that it was a question of closing down or closing for good.
Scotland, then, became the company’s home; only, once, on the way there, Barrett was severely injured in a train crash, his spine being crushed and his pelvis fractured. He was rendered incapable of military service. Indeed, as long as the war lasted, he had to rely on the services of actors who were similarly ineligible.
His leading man, Richard Mathews was exempt on the grounds of diabetes, which did not prevent him from acting as producer when required and taking charge of one half of the company, when it played in two different cities simultaneously.
Elizabeth Ashley was to become both Mathews’ wife and a leading lady with the company. Other prominent performers in the early days were James Donald and Elizabeth Sellars, who were both to make a name for themselves in the film industry.
It was not until 1947 that the company opened in Aberdeen, having been invited by His Majesty’s Theatre to perform a few plays on an experimental basis over the Christmas season.
The experiment proved so successful that they returned in the summer of 1948 with a repertory season which included productions of Priestley’s Dangerous Corner and Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, as well as adaptations of Jane Eyre and Little Women and plays by Coward, Pinero and Sheridan.
To their great relief, their first production, Jane Eyre, was a huge success. Everyone had told them of the biting winds they would have to endure in Aberdeen and that they would never find any real heat even in midsummer. When they finished the season with The School for Scandal, which was “packed from floor to ceiling all week”, Barrett reported that he himself was bathing twice a day and was so sunburnt that it was agony at night to wear the heavy velvet coats the production called for.
Going to Aberdeen, Barrett reflected, had been like “…going back in time half a century to the days when courtesy and politeness and charm were everyday occurrences. The shop-keepers willingly ransacked their shops from top to bottom to find anything one wanted and if they didn’t have it, were so distressed that you almost cried for them.”
Another generous gesture was that of the theatre management, who at the dress rehearsal for their first Aberdeen production, when the exhausted actors were still rehearsing at 11.30p.m., had sent a hamper round to revive them.
It is interesting now to look through the programmes of those summer seasons of the past, when for six shillings (30p) in the orchestra stalls or one-and-sixpence (7.5p) in the balcony (and a mere sixpence (2.5p) for the programme!) one could gaze up or down at one’s idols on stage and be transported for a couple of hours into another world.
It was fascinating to see so many fine plays, which not even the amateurs seem to bother with nowadays, and so many talented players, some of whom went on to greater fame in days that followed.
A case in point is the actress Pat Sandys (daughter of a celebrated editor of the Scottish Daily Express, Sandy Trotter) who as “an exceedingly dirty schoolgirl” used to spend her summer holidays backstage at the Glasgow Alhambra and having passed her Highers joined the company permanently as an assistant stage manager.
No one thought she would ever be able to act; but she it was who, in time, played “a most moving” Ophelia to Wilson’s Barrett’s Hamlet and who took the leading role in that memorable play, The Lady’s Not for Burning, I saw as a schoolboy.
Having left the company, she later became a director of ITV’s police saga, The Bill, married the actor Philip Bond (They were later divorced) and became the mother of three children, two of whom, Samantha and Abigail Bond, followed her into the acting profession. She died in 2000 at the age of 73.
Others who made a reputation on television include Geoffrey Palmer, co-star of Judi Dench in the television series As Time Goes By; Edith MacArthur, a leading light in the Scottish theatre who played the laird’s lady, Elisabeth Cunningham, in STV’s Take the High Road; and Walter Carr, probably best known for his portrayal of Dougie in the BBC’s adaptation of Neil Gunn’s Para Handy books, The Vital Spark.
Wilson Barrett had nearly turned Wally down. Not only had he “the broadest of Scots accents” but as he was “all length and no breadth”, Barrett could see no future for him except on the stage management side; yet he later confessed, “I don’t ever want to see a lovelier performance than Wally gave in _Our Town_”.
Wally joined the company in 1948; Edith and the Sussex-born actor, Leon Sinden in 1951. They all remained close friends till Wally died in 1998. Younger brother of the actor, Sir Donald Sinden, Leon was long associated with Perth Rep. and with the Pitlochry Festival Theatre, where an annual award now bears his name.
Other WB performers I had the pleasure of meeting in Glasgow in later life were Robert James, who recently appeared in a re-run of The Onedin Line; William March, who became Organising Secretary of the SCDA and was an old friend of my next-door-neighbour; and Madeleine Christie, the mother of a Head of Programmes for BBC Scotland.
When, unexpectedly, I met Madeleine in the home of a mutual friend, recognising her at once, I exclaimed: “Madeleine Smith!” Laughing heartily at this inadvertent reference to the Glasgow woman accused of poisoning her lover, she said she felt she should offer me a cup of cocoa. Wilson Barrett referred to her as “that brilliant comedienne”. She was certainly on form that day.
Elaine Wells, Ruth Porcher, Marjorie Mee-Jones, Molly Francis. Whatever became of these celebrities of their time? Or of the character actors, Edward Waddy and Donald Layne-Smith, the latter a founding member of Donald Wolfit’s Shakespeare company? These old stagers are long gone; but one of the juvenile leads of long ago, Lawrence Dalzell, had a second incarnation as Larry Dalzell, theatrical agent. John Schlesinger, whose name appears in HMT programmes of the 1950s, became more widely known as director of such films as A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar and Darling. Like Peter Nichols, author of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, he had joined the company to experience drama from the actor’s point of view.
Producers (or directors as they were coming to be known) included Joan Kemp-Welch and C.B. Pulman, the latter retiring to the North-East, where he earned a new reputation as theatre critic and chairman of Grampian TV’s discussion programme, Points North.
In a postscript to his book, On Stage for Notes, Wilson Barrett looked forward to the company’s 25th anniversary and to a possible second volume. Sadly, these were never to materialise; and after 17 years of existence, eight of them embracing Aberdeen, the company finally closed in 1955. Television was growing in popularity; too many people opted to be entertained at home; and the theatres refused to guarantee against loss.
The company was dispersed; the costumes and sets were all sold off. Apart from a few surviving players and photographs of plays, only the theatre programmes are left; and the memories of those who bought them.
It may be too late now to revive repertory theatre in Aberdeen. So many people have forgotten, or indeed, have never known, what is meant by quality drama.
Acknowledgments for the loan of photographs: to Leon Sinden; to Aberdeen Public Library for pictures from On Stage for Notes, by Wilson Barrett [William Blackwood], and to Edi Swan of His Majesty’s Theatre.
Douglas Kynoch, D.K: AGS; ma, au; itv; bbc; isbn; oap.Tweet
This is an article from the December 2010 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.