Friday, 2 March 2012

My usefulness ends with an ignominious return to Fenton

Volume 1 - Chapter 15 - Part 2

My aunt had a very nice piano and she enjoyed playing it for visitors, and these musical entertainments often included locals with whom she had become friends. Needless to say, I was usually recruited for these recitals, and it is possible that as a result it became known around town that I could play. This may have been the reason, but I am not sure about it now, that I was invited to join one of only two theatre groups in the country that had been formed for children. I never knew who formed it and funded it, but I can recall it was run by a professional actor. His Christian name was Jack, but his surname I can no longer remember. He was a typical show business type who could be charming, but was inclined to be temperamental, especially when rehearsing a show during which time he displayed considerable irritation with those taking part. Children of any age could join, but there was a cut off point which was about 20/21 years of age.

Performing in front of an audience was never something I got used to, but in the most part I used to derive much enjoyment from playing for people, especially if they showed signs of enjoying it. Taking inexperience youngsters of the street and turning them into actors was no easy feat, so our leader, producer, and director, knew that he had to break his prodigy’s in slowly and carefully. When I joined the first job he gave me was as an assistant behind stage. They were presenting a performance of a thriller called: ‘The Cat and the Canary’ at the concert chamber at the Rhyl town hall. I shall never forget the opening night as long as I shall live, which appeared at the time to be an unmitigated disaster, but subsequently proved to be a tremendous success. The trouble was we were all inexperienced, the caste of the show, and those of us who were behind stage. It was supposed to be a serious scary thriller, but between us we turned it into a rip roaring comedy.

Cues were missed, and lines came out wrong, and the scenery caused problems as the most dramatic moments. In one scene a distant clock was heard to strike midnight, and we had a dinner gong by a microphone behind stage which someone was to strike gently at the right moment. It had worked well at rehearsal, but on the night after 3 or 4 strokes, the knob came off the striker and in desperation the person carrying out the function tried to continue by striking the gong with the butt end of the stick. The resulting noise sound like someone falling down stairs in a suit of armour, and the audience went into paroxysms of mirth. This was quickly followed by the sinister sound of an outside door banging in the wind, but the person responsible for this sound effect had forgotten all about it, and in desperation tried lifting and dropping a heavy railway sleeper that was found behind the scenery. The resulting crash shook the theatre, and sounded more like a bad road accident than a door banging in the breeze. Again the audience collapsed into gales of laughter, and were obviously having a great time.

The stage was set as the sitting room in an old country house, and at the point shortly after all the hilarity a sinister figure was to be seen appearing through a secret panel by the fireplace. Unfortunately, for the actor playing the part, the scenery was not very well constructed, and the secret door refused to open. Applying more force, and in an increasing state of panic, the actor used such violence that the whole backdrop shook as though a violent earthquake was about to bring it tumbling down. Eventually the secret panel came unstuck and out came the sinister figure in a staggering rush, and it looked so funny that yet again the audience collapsed in uncontrollable mirth. Can you imagine the reaction when the leading actor who had appeared with such abruptness, tried to make his escape through the main door; which was supposed to be a large heavy one of solid oak construction. Being incapable of constructive thought at that moment, the poor chap pulled the door instead of pushing it and it broke off the hinges. With a shrug of his shoulders he picked it up and leaned it against the wall, and from that moment on the audience lost all control and the noise they made prevented all further dialogue from being heard.

That’s it we thought, a complete disaster; no one will come to the other shows which were to run for another week. This is what we thought, but we could not have been more wrong, because a reporter from the local newspaper the ‘Rhyl Journal’ had attended our opening night and he wrote up our show as the best comedy that he had seen in years. The next night we were packed with those who had heard about this great play, something not to be missed, and we decided that we had to try to emulate the previous performance. It worked reasonably well and for the rest of the week we played to full houses, the success contributing to the reputation of the Rhyl Children’s Theatre Club, which always had good attendances to any show they produced from this time onwards.

Not long after our successful disaster, the club began to rehearse for the forthcoming pantomime, which was to be ‘Robinson Crusoe’. It was to be performed nightly for three weeks over Christmas and the New Year at the ‘Queens Theatre’ which was the premium theatre in Rhyl, situated a few yards along the promenade from the top of the High Street. Just about everyone in the club was to be in it, mostly in the chorus lines, as either junior chorus or senior chorus. In addition, there was a host of cabin boys some of whom were designated as pirates, and a number of superior parts which the older members would be given. In every pantomime there is a ‘Buttons’, and this part was given to a young chap named Roger Foulkes, whose father owned a bar in the High Street. Roger was a short stocky lad with dark hair, and I remember him well, mainly because I spent some time helping him to rehearse at his home, which was above the bar they owned. The highlight of his performance was a rendition of an operatic piece: from the opera called ‘The Barber of Seville’ during which Roger mimed to a recording made by the famous Gigli. After some practice it was amazing how realistic it looked, and his performance was received with great approval every time.

Later I went to the Foulkes tavern a number of times as a customer, but at the time I thought it a very sophisticated place. On the ground floor there was a bar which followed the usual sort of pattern, but upstairs there was a lounge bar which was set up like the lounge in a large house with big soft easy chairs and settees. On the mantelpiece above a large fireplace was a chiming clock, which chimed melodiously at the appropriate times. This clock was well known around town because it had within it a microphone which was attached to large speakers mounted on the outside of the building. When it chimed the melodious Westminster chimes would echo all about the high street, and it was a popular innovation enjoyed by both the holiday makers, and the locals. Also in every panto there is an elderly dame, (usually called ‘Widow Twanky’) played traditionally by a man. This part went to our professional leader Jack, who I must say knew his stuff, and played the part to perfection. For myself I had three roles to play, Firstly I was the Cannibal King dressed in a leopard skin and painted black with a fuzzy black wig. I also played the part of Santa Claus at which time some children dressed as reindeer pulled me onto the stage sitting on a sledge. Waving to all the children in the audience, I would distribute presents from my sack to the junior chorus, who handed them back when we got off the stage, to be used again in the next show. This was an easy part to play, though there was one show when the sledge, which ran on small rollers, stuck on an electric cable and I found myself half on and half off the stage unable to go any further. Everyone was paralyzed by this sudden unexpected mishap, but before the audience became aware that anything was amiss, I climbed out of the sledge and walked to the centre of the stage with my sack on my shoulder, waving and ‘Yo Ho- ing’ to the delight of the children who were roaring their welcome. The reindeer were able to remove the offending vehicle, and after handing out the usual gifts, I strolled majestically from the stage. Afterwards I was greatly amused when one of the juniors from the chorus came up to me and said “You did well, you were so professional.”

The third and most important role I had was to play my piano accordion before the main curtain while the scenery was changed for the grand finale. For this it had been decided that I would appear as a toreador complete with a black wig and long black sideboards. Describing it now it sounds funny, but I must have looked quite dashing on the stage, because a couple of times when I left the theatre as my ordinary self, I found young ladies waiting at the stage door for the dark haired fellow who had played the accordion. On one of these occasions the girls actually asked me when this other chap was coming out, and I told them I had no idea. I have to confess that this incident gave me no end of amusement, and it boosted my self confidence greatly. Over the years my musical ability proved invaluable on many occasions, and this was one of them. As a result of appearing on stage two things happened that hinted at a possible future in show business had I possessed the confidence and determination to take advantage of the opportunities.

At one show someone from the BBC decided that some of the caste would do well entertaining on the Welsh Regional Children’s Hour, which was broadcast from their studios in Bangor. They chose who they wanted, and I was one of those selected. Taking part in a radio broadcast was a real learning experience, and something I found much easier that performing in front of a live audience. Amongst other things I played the part of a fish in a story about three fish which last about 10/15 minutes, during which time we had to sing. We had a rehearsal and I can recall that the director addressed me from the control room, telling me to stand perfectly still as any movement would vary the volume of the sound. Another thing I remember was watching a pianist play a complicated solo on a grand piano, but he did not play alone. They had two identical pianos facing each other and two musicians who played a duet sometimes playing one on the bass and one on the treble. At times they played solo with one taking over from the other, but always it sounded as though there was only one player performing. So I thought to myself, this is how they broadcast a perfect performance with nothing ever going wrong.

The other thing that resulted from my appearance on stage was the offer of a job. The man who ran the ‘Quaintesques’, which was a seaside concert party that produced a variety of shows in a small theatre situated as entrance to the pier, attended one of our performances. He must have decided that I could do a little of everything, which would be useful in the sort of shows he produced, so he sent back stage with the offer of a job. The offer was a wage of £7 per week during the season, and the possibility of some maintenance work during the winter. Naturally, I felt flattered by the offer but did not see myself as an artiste, anyway the job I had with my Uncle sounded much more secure. I did not accept thinking that I could entertain when I felt like it if I did it for free, and no one could demand anything of me if I gave my services as a favour. I retained this point of view all my life, thus I was paid only once, which was a spontaneous thing I could do nothing about at the time.

I shall never know if I did the right thing, but you do what you think is right at the time. I went to see this group perform once or twice, and I was not sure I was happy when I discovered that the man who ran the show usually performed dressed as a female. He was a very large portly fellow, and he would appear on stage in long flowing evening gowns looking like an elderly dowager. I also discovered that dressing as a female was a popular way to entertain in this party, and one man in particular was famous for his impersonations of a young woman. His name was Mickey Renton and it has to be said that he was the most attractive woman you could imagine. A short time later he offered to collect money for the Life Boat Association, and I saw him strolling on the promenade with his collecting box. It came as quite a shock to me when I realised who he was, and it was most disturbing to realise just how physically attractive he appeared as a woman. I can see him now, a slim feminine figure dressed in a smart pin stripe suit with a very short skirt, which showed off his lovely legs to perfection. He was wearing a wig of long wavy auburn hair, and of course he had on a load of makeup, with vivid lipstick and eye shadow, the whole works. Thinking back, maybe I made the right decision, but when I remind myself what happened in the following year or two, it is possible I did not.

The stars of the pantomime we discovered were not members of the club, though they were designated members for the duration. The leading boy, (who is always a girl) was a tall handsome young woman named Thelma Griffiths; she had the necessary long legs, and dark striking features which indicated she was Welsh. She sang well, and her acting ability suggested considerable previous experience on the stage. The same air of experience surrounded the leading lady, and also a very talented dancer named, if I remember correctly, Nina Peg. This young lady danced a special solo performance of ‘The Ritual Fire Dance’ and very good she was in every show we did. There were people in the show who I had never seen before, and never saw again after it was over. For example a mature man played the part of Neptune, and he could not have been a member of the Children’s Theatre Club. I can see him now, when he suddenly appeared on the poop which was at one side of the stage. The boys who had turned from cabin boys and crew into pirates were enjoying a vigorous sword fight with the loyal cabin boys and crew on the main deck of the ship, when there was a flash of lightening, a roll of thunder and out of a cloud of smoke appeared Neptune. With the spotlights upon him he raised his trident and shouted his lines at the top of his voice:

“Stop foolish mortals lay your weapons down,

Let all men tremble at King Neptune’s frown.

Down from your masthead that black emblem strip,

Strike your colours or I’ll sink your ship.

(Strike our colours – never.)

Then come wind and waves, and all the elements I enslave,

Blow wind blow.

Neptune his powers he now unlocks,

To dash this ship to pieces on the rocks

There is little doubt our show was a great success, playing to full houses every night, and the club must have made a good sum of money. How much it was we were never told, and it may have not have been all that much when you consider that our leader would have been paying himself a good salary, and maybe one or two of the professional actors were paid. Then there would have been the cost of production and the hire of the theatre, not to mention the amount it would have taken to pay the professional orchestra that played superbly at every performance. None of this was of any interest to the young people like me at the time; we were just having a good time.

My family came from the Midlands to see the show, and I often wondered how it was that my little brother Douglas was amazingly fortunate to win the nightly prize, which was a large teddy bear. My aunt and uncle were also bathing in a little of the reflected glory that was mine for a limited time. On Christmas Eve they were invited to a swanky party at one of the best hotels in town. The hotel was the ‘Rendezvous’, which was owned by some of their posh friends, a Jewish family who were rumoured to be the wealthiest people in town. Hearing that I was the nephew of the Slater’s, I was also invited to the party on the understanding that I took along my accordion and entertained them. This I was quite happy to do and this sort of invitation became quite a regular thing for me in the future.

clip_image002On into 1950 I went and on my 17th birthday I really felt that at long last I knew where I was going, and that the future was no longer a mysterious void into which I was going to disappear. Little did I know what was in store for me, and how my life was suddenly going to fall a-part. It was about the time of my birthday that Aunt and Uncle suggested a day out in the car to visit my parents in the Potteries. I was more than happy to do this as I wanted to tell them all about the things I was learning and the happy time I was having.

It was on the fateful day that I was abandoned by my Aunt and Uncle that someone took my picture in the front garden of my parent’s house. I include it here to add to the scene so to speak, and to show that I was not a child but a young man who was entitled to know what his future held.

We had a pleasant visit and in the afternoon my mother called me into the kitchen and told me the visit was over and aunt and uncle were about to depart. Strange I thought they never told me it was time to leave, so I went into the living room in time to see them getting into the car. A moment later they drove off and I stood and watched them go in stunned amazement. That was how I found out that my services were no longer required. It was a shock I never recovered from fully, and to this day it is an action that I have never fully understood or was able to forgive.

Even today I still do not know why I was dumped with such little ceremony. We have spoken little about it, because both my parents and my aunt and uncle have refused to talk about it. I believe that uncle’s business finally sank with trace, and he was left with nothing, and without the means of having me live with them. My clothes must have been packed for me, and my other items such as my bicycle and rifle remained at Rhyl, to be disposed of ultimately by those who had bought them in the first place. Once again I was out on my own with no advice, no assistance and no idea what I was going to do next. The only thing I had to offer in the work place was a little knowledge of engineering and the ability to use a number of machines. No qualifications and nothing on paper to prove what I could do.

The answer to my dilemma now was would someone be prepared to give me a chance to prove what I could do? The answer proved to be ‘Yes’ when an engineering works at Longton offered me a job without asking for qualifications. The Eagle Engineering Company needed lathe operators, so I went along for an interview during which they agreed to try me out. When I proved capable I found myself working as a fully qualified machinist, which was a little embarrassing when I discovered that there were a number of apprentices older than myself. These young fellows did not have a machine of their own and could only work on one with someone supervising. They were not very well treated, most of the time, having to fetch and carry, and do things like make tea, and clean up around the workshops. It was understandable that few of them welcomed my arrival with any enthusiasm, and when you added the determination of the older experienced staff to ignore the young interloper, there was little pleasure in working at this big dark dirty establishment.

To begin with I was given a small universal lathe to work on, and all sorts of little jobs to do, I suppose to test my ability. The company made mostly machinery for the pottery industry, so I was given parts to make and can recall that one of the first of them was a consignment of plugs, which fitted the lubrication tanks on some of these machines. Using heavy steel bar I turned the plugs to the required dimensions, and then finished them with a knurled surface on the knob. Other jobs followed some of which I found quite a challenge because I had no advice on how to do them. After a couple of weeks I was considered good enough to move up to bigger and better things, which meant a move onto a very large German lathe which was something I had never seen before. The first thing that threw me off balance about this machine was that all the controls on it moved when they were not in use. When you engaged them the remained stationery, which for a while had me confused I have to admit. Again the management decided to start me on smaller less complicated jobs, and the first thing I had to do on my new machine was to prepare steel bars for manufacture into screws which were part of clay mixing machines destined for the pottery industry. The heavy steel bar, which was about 12 inches in diameter, was fed into my lathe and I had to cut it into lengths of something like three or four feet. The ends had to be faced, and an indented centre cut into them.

My work experience was growing fast, after only a few weeks of working for my uncle and then in this new job, I was rapidly becoming quite a good lathe operator. The work was tolerable but the conditions and atmosphere hateful, add to that the pressure of dealing with complicated work that I did not have the experience for, and it was clear that I was not going to last. The management were not only unhelpful they were downright unpleasant. Total control of activity on the shop floor came from a foreman who was the nastiest and most unpleasant individual I had ever come across. He was a small elderly man decked out in a brown coat and a cap, and he left the skilled people alone for the most part, so being considered in that category I did not suffer from his attentions very much. Watching this man’s behaviour from a distance was more than enough for me; his influence over the workshops was the final straw that led me to the conclusion that I could not get out of that place soon enough.

This despicable little man would shout and bully the apprentices without any apparent reason, and his permanent appearance of bad temper soured the atmosphere where ever he appeared. In particular I disliked his treatment of a young man who was employed as a sweeper and general clean up man. This young fellow was pleasant to look at and had a very inoffensive manner, was always willing and eager to please, but was obviously not very intelligent. In fact, I would guess that he was possibly retarded, though this was not apparent most of the time. Why the foreman was permanently angry I never discovered, he seemed to delight in taking out his anger on the poor odd job man. One day the unfortunate sweeper did something that earned additional disapproval from the foreman, and walking up to the unfortunate chap he proceeded to hit and punch him. To me this was totally unacceptable behaviour, but no one went to remonstrate with him, and I would imagine that this sort of thing had happened before.

When the foreman was not around the men used to lighten up and even lark about, I suppose they were letting off steam and venting their frustrations. The apprentices were still a target but at least it was not bad tempered, and usually they took it in good spirit. There was the day for example when they offered to show one youngster how he could win half a crown. All he had to do was balance it on his forehead, and then with his hands clasped behind his back, he had to drop the coin into a large funnel that they stuck in his trousers. While he was attempting to do this with his head held back, one of the men produced a pour can with a pint of paraffin in it, and in a trice he poured it into the funnel. This caused great hilarity with much laughter from all who were present, but if I remember correctly, they gave the coin to the victim if he took his misfortune in good part.

Another attempt to lighten the dismal environment was the antics of one young man who operated an old lathe in an adjacent workshop. This additional workshop was very old indeed and so were the lathes that resided there. They were belt driven from a shaft that ran along the wall up near the ceiling, the belts were not tight, but would flap about as they turned. Our young joker worked the machine nearest the big double doors to the workshop which were usually closed to keep a little heat within. To allow people to come and go there was a small eyehole door in the big doors. The funny man had discovered that if he threw a ball of cotton waste soaked in dirty oil against a certain spot on his drive belt, it would fire it off like a catapult, causing it to strike the centre of the small door. Knowing this he marked the wall at the correct height, and placed a small mirror on his machine which allowed him to see the door when it opened. Many were his victims who caught the oily missile square on the chest, but there were no repercussions until the day when, seeing the door beginning to open, he fired his missile without checking properly who his victim was going to be. This time it was the malevolent little foreman, and his reaction can be imagined.

One thing I had no doubt about and that was I was going to leave this dark satanic mill suited only for the pages of a Dickensian novel. What I was doubtful about was what I would do next, my rosy future had disappeared in the most unexpected manner, and there was no signpost to direct me. How I came to the conclusion that I should join the army escapes me now, though as usual my parents offered no guidance one way or the other. I suppose family history had something to do with it, plus the feeling that I was already part of the military due to my previous involvement as an army brat. It is certain that I considered my father had been a success as a soldier, so I assumed I could emulate him. The minimum age to join the army was 17½ years, the age I was just about to reach this age at the end of September 1950, so early in October I presented myself at the recruiting office in Hanley and took the Queens shilling, as they say.

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