I RECENTLY visited the West Yorkshire Archives in Wakefield. I wanted to explore the albums connected with St John’s Players, West Vale.
Before and after the 1939-’45 war they were a drama group in the village. In 1947 I joined them and worked on several plays with them. Those were some of the happiest years of my life.
The memoirs are in safe keeping now. There are three albums, mainly photographs of productions with clippings from local newspapers.
All were collected by Bill Barraclough, the actor-producer throughout the whole life of the Players. Some people say that you cannot be both actor and producer. Bill Barraclough was the exception which proves the rule.
He also said: “There is one difference between the standards of the professional and amateur theatre. It’s simply that they get paid.”
The first stirrings of St John’s Players are to be found in 1934. The young Bill and his friends put on a show called Variety on Parade, “an evening of mirth and melody” at the West Vale Institute.
It appears to have been similar to the summer shows performed by pierrots on the beach at Scarborough or Bridlington with a songsheet lowered from above for the audience to sing with the players.
Another show appeared in 1936. It was The Spice of Life, the title of the popular signature tune of Palace of Varieties on BBC radio at the time. The show was arranged by Will Barraclough (always Will on the programme) with orchestra directed by Hanson Wood.
The Players’ first full-scale play was Stray Lady, a farce by Lyddon Surrage, in the church schoolroom at West Vale in November 1939. Reserved seats cost 1s3d (6p) with unreserved at 1s (5p) and children 6d (2.5p). The audience sat on long wooden benches. The programme advised: “Don’t forget your gas mask!”
The play introduced Eric Ducker into the cast as the leading man. He was still acting when I joined in 1947, with Letty Squire, Kathleen Maude and Mildred Barraclough.
This first play must have been a success because the Players followed it in February 1940 with House of Whispers, a thriller also by Surrage.
Soon the Players were in full flow with no fewer than four productions a year. Many theatres were “dark” during the war; there was no TV and the public demanded to be entertained. Plays such as To Have the Honour and Happy Days quickly followed, to keep the wartime spirits up.
But the repertoire included far more than simple drawing room comedy and the 11th production was an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s thriller Love From a Stranger.
We had one more “jolly good show” at West Vale in Easter week followed by a Victorian thriller, Gaslight, by Patrick Hamilton. The Players certainly had an ear for their audience!
The orchestra, directed by Hanson Wood, was still swinging along during the interval in On Approval by Frederick Lonsdale in May 1944, just before the D-Day landings.
Bill Barraclough was like the Pied Piper of Hamelin; we simply all followed him. He had the capacity to get the best out of everyone. If you gave a hand arranging the school benches for the audience you’d find your name on the programme as hall manager.
For years Hilda Heywood managed the box office from her front room. When advance booking opened a queue formed outside her house.
Bill, with the experience of over 25 productions behind him, always worked within the confines of the Church. Lent was strictly observed with no secular plays staged during that time.
A passion play before Easter was permitted, however, and, indeed, he produced one in which I made my first appearance as St Thomas. After that I was offered a part in The Ghost Train by Arnold Ridley.
I said those were some of my happiest days. So inspecting the memoirs 65 years later meant that the albums were awash with tears of nostalgia.
One production in October 1948 was the thriller Grand National Night. The plot hangs around a ticket for Aintree, found in a raincoat pocket. If the detective sees it this will destroy the alibi of the chief suspect.
At one point the ticket is placed on a table as the other characters leave. After a pause the detective comes back, pockets the ticket and leaves by the French windows. In a highly charged moment the suspect returns, dashes to the table and, finding it empty, gazes helplessly around.
The audience was equally gripped when, from the fifth row, came the strident voice of Mrs Purdy. “Nay, lad. Tha’s wasting thy time. He’s tekken it.” The tension was released like a firework in a public lib-rary. Anaemic men turned purple and exploded in guffaws of laughter. Women embraced their husbands for the first time in years. Elsie Lumb stood on the piano stool, waving her music sheets, before order was restored.
We could only draw comfort that our own performance had been good enough to produce such total illusion. That was more than job satisfaction. It was life satisfaction.
n The Rev Francis Wood (pictured, left) left Heath Grammar School, Halifax, in 1944 and started a career as a chemist in industry. Later he trained for the Church and served for over 50 years in Newcastle upon Tyne. He retired in 1993 and is now a freelance broadcaster and writer on his interests, which include sailing, theatre, real ale and the Church.