1945 – 1955 Foundations
Hitchin in Hertfordshire is a small market town about 30 miles north of London. It has a population now of about 30,000 people with a catchment of a further 30,000 in the many surrounding villages. In 1945 the population was about 18,000, much expansion having taken place since the war. Like many small towns sufficiently far removed from centres of German attention, Hitchin suffered little the ravages of war. Its menfolk like many others went to the battlefield and sadly some failed to return. But the bombs, doodlebugs and V2 rockets left the town largely undisturbed. Indeed it is unlikely that anyone in Hitchin was killed by enemy action in the town. Like everyone else however it suffered the privations of rationing, power cuts and the blackout. To alleviate the gloom, the Urban District Council set up an Entertainments Committee with the objective of keeping as high as possible the morale of the civilian population which included many evacuees then living in the town. The way they saw to do this was to cause to be formed a group known as the Hitchin Entertainments Society, consisting of people with some interest in stage matters. This body came together in 1942 and decided to do a certain number of productions, any profits being given to charity. The Hitchin Thespians did not perform in the war years, since their members’ attention was directed elsewhere. The Society performed a number of plays and shows and succeeded in raising over £770 for charity. This sum must be seen in context. The annual expenditure of the Society was typically £50. With one stroke of the pen in May 1945, their raison d’etre disappeared. As if by that one instrument of surrender all the problems would evaporate, so the Entertainments Committee evaporated and with it the Hitchin Entertainments Society. Their remaining assets were made over to St Bridget’s Home in Radcliffe Road and the group ceased to be. The people however remained. There was a demonstrable support in the town for amateur stage as shown by the continued success of the Hitchin Thespians, formed in 1902 and customarily performing the large scale musical show. They staged their performances at the Hermitage Cinema in Hermitage Road, which could seat 1400 people; and this from a catchment of probably only 40,000 people. However, there seemed uncertainty about the town’s interest in drama as shown by a lengthy correspondence in the local press which started in 1944. The Society therefore met on 13 July 1945 in the Council Chamber, later to be renamed the Lucas Room, and having tidily disposed of itself promptly recreated itself as The Hitchin Drama Group. The Chairman was Major John Harland, a prominent local builder. There by invitation was Maurice Keeley who had recently arrived in the town to take up a teaching post. He, as will be seen, was to become a major driving force in the group. Lady Hermione Cobbold accepted the presidency of the society and Reginald Hine, the distinguished historian became vice-president. The subscription was set at 10/6 per annum (a guinea for patrons) and remained so for 25 years. The objectives of the Players were, inter alia, the study and production of plays and ultimately establishing a permanent home for drama in Hitchin. Within two weeks, the name had been reconsidered after objections by some on the grounds that Drama Group did not fully designate the aims and objects of the society, and was changed to The Bancroft Players. The Committee decided to hold play readings once a month and to test the water by putting on a play. Eventually and to everyone’s satisfaction it was decided to launch their stage career with a play in the Autumn and on 5 December 1945, Pygmalion opened in the Town Hall. This proved a great success with virtually a sell out for every performance. Hitchin had taken to the society and supported its efforts. Having given away all the assets of the Hitchin Entertainment Society the Bancroft Players started with no assets and no premises. The search for a home began. Blake’s Theatre in Ickleford Road, now converted for other uses, seemed ideal but they were unable to hire it. The Conservative Club in Sun Street offered a room, now the YC club room, as soon as the Army had de-requisitioned it from being the headquarters for the Hampshire regiment. This offer was accepted and the room transpired to be the right size for club functions. Public productions were performed in the Town Hall, then called the New Town Hall. The next production was The Importance of Being Earnest. Though less successful financially than Pygmalion it did prove that the first production was not a flash in the pan. People were interested in drama and would turn out. The first AGM was held in May 1946 and established the programme of 3 productions for the next season. Play-readings would continue to be held every month and indeed they were. In the next 20 years over 230 plays were read. Thepractice died out in the late 1960s. The Players adopted a policy of making their own scenery from the outset. Since they had no real fixed premises, apart from the single room in Sun Street, the problems of scenery making in conjunction with everything else must have been formidable. After much searching they managed to rent some disused stables at the rear of the Sun Hotel. Though far from the ideal surroundings in which to construct scenery, it was a tremendous relief for the one overcrowded room. The membership grew steadily from 62 in the first season to 82 by the summer of 1947. In December 1948 the first Members’ production was performed in the club room. This was an important innovation, offering new directors and performers the chance to stretch their wings away from the full glare of a public performamce. In 1951, apart from winning the Hertfordshire Cup at the Letchworth Drama Festival for their performance of The Frogs of Aristophanes and taking part in the town’s Festival of Britain pageant, one of the Players’ boldest enterprises came to fruition. The society and the Hitchin Urban District Council had worked together to design and construct an open-air theatre in the dell at Woodside in Walsworth Road. The Bancroft Players were just 6 years old by this time. The dell is immediately adjacent to the Queen Mother Theatre. The opening performance on 24 July 1951 was A Midsummer Night’s Dream and what a success it was. The Council’s official opening leaflet stated “The Bancroft Players presentation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be in a setting which would surely have delighted the author’s heart”. The logistics of staging such a performance are staggering. Electricity was wired in from a junction at the top of Windmill Hill. Water was piped in and temporary closets were erected. Then all the scenery had to be carted there, tents erected for changing rooms and fires lit to drive away the insects. The birds were also a problem. The whole area, including most of the present car park area was wooded and was a rookery. The interval had to be precisely timed to coincide with the rooks coming in and settling down. No actor in the world could be heard over that din. The weather generally was kind to the Dell although one performance had to be abandoned and the audience asked to return another night. Despite all the difficulties 7 plays were put on there, the last being in 1963. A novel feature of this period, almost incomprehensible today was the presence of an orchestra to entertain the audience before and after a play and during the interval. One press report makes a point of singling out the orchestra for special mention. Continuing their search for a home, plans were drawn up for a new timber-framed and clad clubroom to be built on what is now the car park at the rear of the Conservative Club. However, terms could not be agreed with the Club and the idea was abandoned. In 1953 the society was beset by three blows. They lost the use of the Sun Hotel stables which were to be altered and incorporated into the hotel premises; they lost the use of their club room at the Conservative Club; and their founder chairman John Harland died. However, rumours that the Bancroft Players were to fold were smartly dispelled by the new chairman Philip Burton who stated ‘Whatever happens the Bancroft Players will go on. They will continue to strive to establish a theatre in Hitchin’. And so they did. Rehearsals were held in various rooms around the town and the scenery was temporarily stored in the basement of the Town Hall, nowconverted to dressing rooms. Scenery was built in old outbuildings belonging to Prime’s garage, later Mann Egerton in Queen Street. There was no visible deterioration in the quality of the productions. The decade drew to its close with the Players intact and healthy. The foundations had been laid.
1955 – 1965 A first home
Things began to look up when the Society acquired St Saviour’s Church parish hall, known as St Annes. This was at the end of St Annes Road opposite number 6. At one time there was a road through from Nightingale Road to Verulam Road, but it was sealed off to traffic in the 1980s. The building was a traditional parish hall with wooden and corrugated steel walls and a corrugated iron roof and it was bought for £800 on 24 February 1956. This was a most welcome move to all the members who, having been nomads in the town for 10 years, now had a place of their own where all their activities could be centred. One can imagine the state in which the building was handed over and so a working party was formed to clean and decorate the hall. Having a home gave a new impetus to the society and by the end of the 1955-56 season the membership was over 200. The building was officially opened on 12 September 1956 by Tom Brooker, the Chairman of the Council. Almost immediately, it became evident that the building was too small and the first of several changes at St. Annes was to build a workshop at the rear of the hall running about two thirds the length of the building. This was completed in 1957 and freed the main room of the scenery and the materials and tools for its construction. Productions began there in 1960. The Romantics (June 1960) was the first production in St Annes and the profit from this was used to purchase another 40 chairs to add to those bought out of the funds raised by an earlier appeal. The next change was in 1963. The society had long realised that the hall really was unable to support a public production. Not only was the stage too small but the hall lacked basic facilities such as dressing rooms. John Coxall therefore drew up a plan to widen the stage, convert the kitchen and toilet behind the stage into dressing rooms and add an extension to the workshop, to the full length of the building, containing a kitchen, wardrobe and toilets. The plans were approved and a Building Fund was launched at the annual dinner and dance. Because of the high cost of the extension, it was decided to ask the members to do the work themselves. As expected, only a few turned up and the work was completed by the end of 1964. It had been largely carried out by Frank Charman, John Coxall, Eric Sharp and Wally Smeeth. St Annes hall to the Bancroft Players became the Players Theatre, licensed for public performances. The first public production was performed in 1965. The only major change subsequently made to the hall was in 1974 when a part of the workshop was converted into a small but very intimate bar. A brief history of the Society written in 1965 said ‘By continual striving for twenty years the society had achieved one of its aims – the establishment of a little theatre in Hitchin’. Clearly some felt that the Players Theatre met the original objective laid down in 1945. Others, no doubt, had their minds set on a more ambitious plan for the future in which the construction of the tiny theatre in St Annes Road was merely a test of the fortitude of the Society and of its ability to see through an idea which starts off by being insurmountably difficult.
1965 – 1975 Enter Music
At this point, in their moment of triumph, having an established home for which they had all worked so hard, there began a steady decline in the membership of the Bancroft Players which continued over the decade. Indeed there are signs that it may have started much earlier.
Opinions vary as to why this happened, but many feel that the reason was the sudden departure of some key people. Of the 30 directors up to 1985, just 4 directed more than one third of the productions. They were Barbara Burton, Philip Burton, Maurice Keeley and Geoffrey Oxley; and they all left in the space of 12 months in 1967-1968. This is seen most markedly by comparing the block of productions prior to October 1968 and the subsequent productions. This apparently simple explanation fails on two counts. First, the decline is evident from at least two years earlier and, if figures are to be believed, from even earlier than that. It is said that membership was over 200 in 1956 but accurate records before 1964 have not come to light. Secondly, the decline is quite steady with no nose-dive in 1967-8. Another explanation suggested is the ascendancy at this time of the Hitchin Thespians which perhaps took away some members disillusioned with the acting programme of the society. Analysing the productions so far, the newsletter of April 1968 states ‘It is in the modern plays, however, that the greatest gaps occur. The names of Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter and Robert Bolt are missing from the list. Are we not now in a financial position where we can afford to run the risk of a small audience at the Players’ Theatre in order to try something out of the ordinary?’. The departure of these people certainly left the Players almost destitute of anyone who could produce plays. New directors like Jim Harvey stepped into the breech, but the learning curve is quite long and this could not have helped the Players’ reputation, in the sense that a Society’s reputation encourages not only the audiences to attend but new members to join. Every society like this passes through peaks and troughs of performance, in terms of membership and enthusiasm. Perhaps it is academic to work out why. They usually survive as indeed the Players did; but not without considerable concern on the part of the Committee who even considered winding up the Society. Interestingly, the crisis though very real to those in the Bancroft Players was totally invisible to those outside, like me. The performances seemed to be consistent, varied and interesting. There was no sign of any attenuation of the Society’s skills, nor a constant repetition of the same performers. In retrospect, one realises that a lot of the members who left were non-doers anyway. The core of active members remained, as they always seem to, so that the Society actually kept running. However, the income from subs fell not only because of the reduced membership but because of inflation, slowly taking its toll of a subscription which was unchanged from 1945 until decimalisation in 1971, when it increased from 10/6 to 75p. There is no doubt that a very important character in the formation and maintenance of the Society was Maurice Keeley, whose contribution was recognised by the membership making him the first Honorary Member of the Bancroft Players.
KEELEY Maurice Martin, born 1906 Nottingham. Married Kathleen (Billie) Tyson in 1931. Two children, Martin and Carolyn. Prior to moving to Hitchin, was involved in drama in Retford and formed a small theatre there. Moved to Hitchin in 1945 to take a teaching post. First Business Manager of the Society. Directed 35 plays and performed in 2. Single-minded, determined even stubborn, a hard taskmaster. Known to rehearse until 3 a.m. on occasions. Moved to Lowdham on 6 April 1968.
In the early 1970s the Civic Hall project was launched. The Bancroft Players, the Hitchin Thespians, the North Herts College and some Local Councillors joined together to plan a project for a l,000-seat Concert Hall with an associated small Theatre to be built on the site of the College in Walsworth Road. With the late Vera Mallett, the Musical Director of the Thespians taking a leading role in promoting the idea, the project was discussed for about two years. Eventually it was dropped because of a lack of grants to fund it and a lack of interest from the Urban District Council. Many of the participants also began to get cold feet about the whole idea. It may well be that the Bancroft Players’ Theatre Project was stimulated by this abortive scheme. A slight digression is now entered. In the 1960s there was an annual Carnival in Hitchin and Letchworth aimed at raising money for the local hospitals. This was run by a group known as the Local Yokels Association. It consisted inter alia of a Beauty Queen competition, a Carnival Ball and a grand procession on the Saturday. In 1966 the Yokels approached John Gardiner with the idea of staging some kind of show in the Carnival week. John had recently arrived in the town to take up a teaching post and was fast becoming recognised as someone with unusual talents in stage activities. The deal, from a director’s point of view was excellent. Any profits would go to the Local Yokels but in return they would underwrite any loss which might be incurred. It was too good an opportunity to turn down. John therefore approached various people and assembled a group of 12 plusGeoff Oxley as pianist. The show was a revue, at that time a popular form of entertainment with a wide range of material to choose from. It was very successful although not well attended due to lack of publicity. The audience sat at tables and drinks were served throughout the evening. The table show had arrived. The request was repeated the following year and it became clear that some identity was needed, purely for convenience. John chose the name ‘Externals’ since all the players belonged also to some other stage group, so that this splinter group was external to them all. The Externals performed only one show a year, in July, in the Town Hall; four revues (1966, 1968, 1970 and 1974) and five musicals –Oh What a Lovely War 1967, Irma la Douce 1969, Lock Up Your Daughters 1971 Sapristi Scapino 1972 written by John Gardiner and Cabaret 1973. Cabaret was directed by Michael Everitt and the others by John Gardiner. The shows were extremely popular. In 1974 the committee of the Bancroft Players approached John Gardiner to see if he would consider deploying the efforts of the Externals towards the ailing society. Most of the Externals were by now members anyway. They had raised some £5000 for the hospitals in those 8 years. So the Externals evaporated as quickly and as painlessly as they had arrived, but they did two important things from the point of view of the Bancroft Players. First, the table show had been established as a viable form of audience accommodation for shows other than the conventional Old Tyme Music Hall such as the Lytton Players of Stevenage had staged for many years. The audience preferred the casual and more intimate atmosphere created and the performers benefited in purely money terms from the additional revenue over the bar. Secondly, they had created a small group of people who were experienced in the small cast musical and in revue. Each in its own way presents a different theatrical challenge and both were very novel to the Bancroft Players whose stage history until 1974 was entirely dramatic and non-musical. The first table show performed by the Bancroft Players was Put That Light Out. The first musical was The Boy Friend. Despite the decline in membership there were seven public productions in the 1974-5 season. This decade was noticeable also for its Youth Membership. The society has tended to be very ambivalent about its treatment of the young actor. A youth group was established which grew to sizeable numbers and ran for some years. However, it eventually displeased either the membership or the Committee or both and was dissolved. It is difficult to obtain a consistent view of what brought about its demise John Gardiner’s earlier introduction to the Society was in a Welwyn Drama Festival performance of The Devil among the Skinsdirected by Geoff Oxley and Barbara Burton. The play won the first prize, the audience appreciation award, the best actor award for John Gardiner and runner-up to the best actress award for Babs Bradley. The play swept the board and it was nearly 20 years before the Society dared to return to Welwyn as it was unlikely that we could hope to improve on that performance.
1975 – 1985 A final home
The decline in membership continued until 1977. The programme continued unabated and the financial position improved markedly as table shows began to return profits of £1,000 or more. We often forget the extent to which a society like the Bancroft Players depends on its unseen members. These people undertake vital tasks ranging from props, lighting, set construction, backstage and make-up to selling programmes and making tea for the cast. A society only survives so long as there are as many people to back up as there are out front. Bob Adams and a regular team made scenery for many years under the most trying of circumstances in impossible buildings and without the proper materials. He was followed by Frank Charman who continued for many more years. Something’s Afoot (1979), a spoof thriller, required a set of great technical complexity, brilliantly conceived and constructed by Ron Parrett. Some think that it is the most complex set in the history of the Society. It was an occasion when the director invited the audience to acknowledge this demonstration of skill. Chris Lane appears constantly in more recent programmes in the role of Lighting and Sound. In addition, he took total responsibility with Len Seymour for wiring the Theatre; a huge task. The society has always been fortunate not only in having people skilled in these non-acting roles but also having enough of them. As the financial position improved, the idea of building a larger theatre seemed to be worth pursuing. In 1974 Richard Whitmore wrote to Michael Kelly, the Chief Executive of North Herts District Council enquiring about the possibility of building a theatre in Woodside. Mr Kelly passed the letter to Brian Hull (then the Planning Officer for the Council) to deal with. From then on Richard, Brian, John Coxall and Roger Hawkins held many meetings setting out the first stage. It was Brian Hull who suggested building on the present site, rather than converting and extending the old coach house at the other end of the car park. In 1977, plans were drawn up, little different from the finished result and an appeal was launched for £80,000. After one major fund-raising event in 1978 the fund failed to move on. Collecting tins were not going to raise such sums. The idea was sterile to many people who suggested putting the money raised into refurbishing St Annes. However these temptations were resisted and by 1981 enough reserves had built up to enable the society to start work on the building. 1981-2 was a very important season. The AGM at the start of the season discussed at great length the Theatre, its funding and its future financing. As might be expected there was a wide variety of views from the very pessimistic to the opposite. Eventually it was decided to give the Committee the authority to proceed as seen fit, and to register the Society as a charity. This was achieved some months later and was to have a powerful effect on both the funding of the Theatre and its ongoing costs. A Building Committee was formed under the leadership of Roger Hawkins. The season dramatically was excellent. This was important at a time when we were seeking the maximum public support. Lark Rise to Candleford, Company and Barefoot in the Park were all very successful. The last production of the season was to be Oh what a Lovely War but insufficient men turned up to the audition and it was dropped in favour of Cabaret. In the event this was probably the most important piece of good fortune which fell our way because, between selecting the show and its performance the Falkland Islands were invaded by Argentina and Britain went to war. Under the circumstances the Bancroft Players would have gained visibility by proclaiming ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ all over the town, but not perhaps the sort it wanted! The latent row which had lain dormant for so many years at last surfaced at the AGM in 1982. For many seasons the programme had contained two plays and two musicals but rather unexpectedly, the programme for 1982-3 was three plays and one musical. The decision provoked a discussion of some length which simply showed that the Players were totally divided precisely down the middle. The programme remained, but the discussion went on as it will do probably forever. The year was financially outstanding and some £8,000 was handed over to the Theatre Fund. Additionally many hundred of pounds were raised by members’ own initiatives ranging from jumble sales to cabaret turns and a touring version of Put That Light Out. Even so, it was realised that the cost of building the Theatre was likely to be beyond the Society so Roger Hawkins approached three major companies who agreed to do the work with no profit to themselves. They were Hunting Gate, John Willmott (Herts) Ltd. and Daniels Bros (Shefford) Ltd. There is no doubt that without this initiative, the project would have been stillborn. The first tree on the Theatre site was felled on 4 May 1982. Work proceeded extremely rapidly with the footings and groundwork. This work was committed from the Players’ own funds. This was important as we now had something to show people while asking for their money. The Theatre Appeal for £60,000 was launched on 5 July. How few years ago it seemed that we had made a major appeal for £80 for chairs! It was in the hands of a professional appeal director Mr Christopher Mann. This turned out to be a very wise decision since, along the way it became evident that had we done things our way, they would almost certainly have been wrong. When the appeal was launched the Theatre itself was more than just a hole in the ground. Hunting Gate then donated £10,000! The bar, which they also donated and installed, was named after them to remind members how their magnificent generosity paved the way for the Theatre. By 5 August the walls were up to the first lift and the Theatre was past the point of no return. By 9 September the walls were finished and the roof trusses were in place. On 11 September 1982 about 200 people turned up at the Theatre site in Woodside for the ceremony of laying the Foundation Stone. As Chairman of the Appeal Committee, Richard Whitmore opened the proceedings by welcoming everybody and introducing Roger Hawkins. Roger took the opportunity to thank publicly all those businesses who had contributed significantly to the theatre project. He continued with the three principle contributors who, by doing the work at cost had made the project at all possible; Hunting Gate who had laid the foundations and the drainage, the Daniels brothers for their work to come on roofing the building and the John Willmott Group who had built the shell. Mr Peter Willmott, the Chief Executive of the John Willmott Group made generous comments about the talent of the Bancroft Players and congratulated them on having brought the project this far. He felt that it was now incumbent upon the people and industry of Hitchin to support the Theatre with funds. Mr Jimmy Hill, the President of the Appeal mentioned his own contribution in establishing the Open Air Theatre in 1951 when he was a member of the Council and expressed a wish that, with the facilites so near for servicing a production, perhaps the Dell might come to life again. He thanked the Bancroft Players on behalf of the town for their contribution to Hitchin. Amid some mirth he then formally laid the Foundation Stone by cementing in the lower edge of the stone. Richard then spoke about the naming of the theatre. When the Working Party was considering ideas for names for the theatre, it was realised that there was no building bearing the Queen Mother’s name in the district. Richard continued: ‘Anyway, we wondered – would the Queen Mother consider allowing us to commemorate her name with our theatre? I suppose most of us imagined that, if consent were given, we would call it the Queen Elizabeth theatre. That has been the tradition in the past. So you can imagine our delight when, during correspondence with Her Majesty’s Private Secretary we learned that the Queen Mother herself had made the unique and I think very charming suggestion that we call our building The Queen Mother Theatre. As a result it is my pleasure today to announce that the Bancroft Players and the town of Hitchin will have the honour of possessing the only theatre in the country that will bear Her Majesty’s name in this form’. He then read a letter from Her Majesty The Queen Mother offering “her warmest good wishes to all those involved in this exciting venture.’ He continued: ‘Because of this singular honour, the Hitchin Theatre Appeal has assumed a new importance. The Bancroft Players stated at the outset that they are building this theatre not just for themselves but as a community project for Hitchin and for future generations. Now, the Queen Mother has chosen it as the building by which these future generations will remember her long and happy association with North Hertfordshire and its people. So I urge you – if you haven’t done so already to give as generously as you can and, equally important, to go forth and encourage others to do the same. Once the roof is on we can all breathe a sigh of relief before thinking about the interior, but that roof must be on and paid for by the end of the year’ With evident pleasure he welcomed Maurice Keeley who thanked the Bancroft Players for the honour of Honorary Life Membership. He went on: ‘It was as long ago as 1948 as a guest writer to a local drama column that I spoke of the need for a living playhouse in Hitchin. It was a dream for which many of us worked for many years, for to make a dream come true involves imagination and a great deal of hard work and perseverance over a long period. Today we have been privileged to witness a solid step to the realisation of that dream and we know how much imagination, hard work and perseverance have gone into changing the dream to reality’. All then adjourned to the interior of the theatre where a reception was held. Members of the Building Committee spent much time taking visitors on a conducted tour of the theatre. The function was organised by Christopher Mann assisted by Rita Chapple. Their attention to detail in ensuring that everyone could see and hear the proceedings, and the preparation which had gone into every aspect of it made it a most fitting ceremony. By Christmas the roof was on and the building was substantially waterproof. This latter part of the work had been undertaken during one of the longest and wettest spells on record. The roof fitters really earned their money. The topping out ceremony was on February 19 1983 with a small attendance of local dignitaries, the architect, the Daniels brothers and a few other people. Another item brought forward was the extension at the rear, originally planned for ‘phase 2’. The slab had been laid along with the main building. The walls were erected, members fitted the roof and by early March the extension was usable as a store. On April 9 1983 St. Annes Hall was emptied and the contents moved to the Theatre. The property was sold shortly afterwards for £26,000. St Annes had been the Players home for nearly 28 years and the nostalgia of leaving was balanced by the excitement of the new venture in the Theatre. At the beginning of 1983 the management of the Bancroft Players was altered to cope with the new responsibilities so different from those required to run St Annes. The Appeal had now reached £72,000 and it was likely that the last £15,000 needed to finish it off might be a little elusive. Then an anonymous donor gave £20,000 and the financial problem was over. The Theatre was almost completely paid for, with no capital liability carried forward to future generations of the Players. The shell was substantially finished by early April. There were just five months to turn a hulk into a home. In the event this was done and perhaps the most surprising thing was the huge difference between one’s perception of what a job might take and what it actually took. So the work proceeded at a pace which was largely unexpected. In that period the building was decorated, wired, tiled, carpeted, landscaped and finished except for the stage lighting, which was installed later in the summer. Much of the work including all the electrical work was done by the members. The week leading to the opening was frantic. The bar was installed on the Friday and stocked on the Saturday morning of the event. The ceremony with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother officially opening the Theatre was a splendid event. Details are given in ‘This Exciting Venture’, a booklet by Richard Whitmore produced on the day. The celebrations continued into the evening with a party in the auditorium. Unanimous applause was given to Roger Hawkins who had managed the whole project and the naming of the Green Room after him is to perpetuate that recognition. It passed almost unnoticed that, during the construction of the Theatre the Society had continued with its normal programme of four major productions. Other societies we heard had ceased operations on much lesser grounds – such as a mere extension. The first production in the Theatre was A Man For all Seasons. A major concern throughout had been the acoustics, largely because they are so unpredictable, despite the best efforts of science. It was a relief to hear how excellent they were on that first night. During the following two years slight alterations were made and many little jobs finished off. A revolving stage was constructed for Equus. The rehearsal studio was built in 1985. It would be wrong to omit from the Bancroft Players’ history the name of John Coxall whose long and distinguished membership has undoubtedly been a steadying influence in troubled times.
COXALL, John Cameron born 1932, educated Hitchin Grammar School. Married 1957 Margaret Leonard. Two children Anna and Simon. Uninterrupted membership of the Society since 1947. Chairman for 13 years intermittently. Acted in 25 productions.
Future Committees would do well to avoid a repetition of the lean period in the 1960s and 1970s. The moral is simple. If members start to leave steadily, find out why! One only has to ask people. There is a fascinating conflict of interest now between the Bancroft Players and the Theatre. They have yet to learn to live together harmoniously. Whether or not they succeed will be for the next writer to tell but, judging by past experience and depending always on that solid core of members, the Bancroft Players really need have no fear of facing the challenges which This Exciting Venture offers.
1985 – 1995 Settling in
As noted in the previous chapter, there were some early teething problems in the Theatre. These mainly centred around the use of the premises for outside users and the members. The money raised from hiring the Theatre was sorely needed to clear the overdraft but it was earned at the expense of alienating some members who, having helped to build the Theatre, began to ask who it was built for. The balance is very fine and it was some years before it was achieved satisfactorily. The number of productions continued to increase steadily from 32 in 1945-1955, 35 in 1955-1965, 36 in 1965-1975, 53 in 1975-1985 and 68 in 1985-1995. A contributor to this growth was the introduction of a Fringe theatre in 1990. This was introduced in order to give new directors a chance to get started with less exposure and to perform pieces that would not be good box office as main productions. The same idea had been introduced in 1948 for exactly the same reasons. Plus ca change! Financially the Society did very well and, over this decade, made something in the region of £120,000. When the Theatre opened there was no large capital debt but there was some. Subsequently the studio was built and the overdraft grew. The five years from 1983 to 1988 took very skilful financial management by the Treasurer, Len Seymour to keep the Society within its credit limits. A small but very significant event happened in November 1988 when the bank account went from overdraft into credit; and never went back into overdraft again. This transition was largely caused by a massive cash inflow of something like £16000 in 3 months much of which arose from ticket sales for Jesus Christ Superstar which ran for 12 performances. By the end of that season the Society was completely free of debt in that it was in a position to redeem the few low-interest loans outstanding but chose not to. Cash reserves then grew steadily over the next few years until in 1994 it was decided to build a new workshop at the rear of the building and to improve the studio. This work was expedited within a very narrow window over the summer of 1994 in order to be ready for the new season. The lifting of the studio roof,, which had been somewhat contentious when proposed, transformed it into a superb working room. Within the next few years, we may improve the front of the Theatre in order to provide a larger audience space in the entrance area. Looking back, the profile of St Annes and the Theatre seem almost identical; just 30 years later and somewhat larger in scale. The Theatre keeps up with technology fairly well. A computer was installed in the box office in 1988 and improved the accuracy of ticket sales as well as reducing the management effort. A technical computer was acquired in 1991 to control the stage lighting. The Dell, which was last used as a theatre setting in 1963 and which had fallen into disuse thereafter, was renovated in 1990 and used for open air theatre as part of the Hitchin Festival. The area was extremely difficult to keep clean due to the large amounts of broken glass which accumulate in the grass; nevertheless, several productions were put on there. These events were serviced from the Theatre which provided electricity, changing and toilet facilities and an interval bar. Eventually a separate electrical supply was provided; the future of the Dell is under review. In 1985 a Youth Theatre (14 to 18 years) was formed under the leadership of Rory Reynolds. They developed considerable skills and their productions were staged at the Theatre. Many went on to earn substantial sums professionally, though not necessarily in full-time theatre. In 1991 they performed at the Edinburgh Festival and have done so ever since. There appears to be no conflict between them and the seniors as was apparent in earlier times. In 1983 Barbara Gardiner formed the Junior Bancroft Players for children up to 14 and for many years ran it single-handed. From the demand to join these groups, it is clear that they are extremely popular; numbers have to be restricted sadly on the grounds of sheer practicality but both groups provide a wonderful opportunity for young people to get started in drama; and some of the Youth Theatre performances have been quite stunning. A wide range of dramatic challenges were taken on. Jesus Christ Superstar was undoubtedly the most ambitious musical that we ever attempted. Little Shop of Horrors required again the skills of Ron Parrett with Roger Smith to create the Audrey plants. The largest took 160 man-hours to construct and was truly magnificent. It was later sold to the Bob Hope Theatre in Eltham; nobody had the heart (or the strength) to put it into the skip! Underneath the Arches (the story of Flanagan and Allen), an incredibly long show was very popular and gave many members a chance to take part; sadly there are not too many shows around like it. Throughout this period, the average age of the membership and, particularly the management has risen almost inexorably. This cannot be good for the future of the Society. There are, however, some encouraging signs of a greater interest by younger people, not just in performing but in helping to run the Bancroft Players. Long may it last!
1995 – 2005 Adding on
The Dell, last used by the Society in 1963, had fallen into disuse but was renovated in 1990. In 1997 the Society returned there with The Mill on the Floss. The weather was not bad although one performance was drizzled on for the entire evening. To mark its 250th performance the Society presented A Midsummer Night’s Dream the following year. The performances of Romeo and Juliet and Fair Maid of the Westwere severely hit by bad weather, very different from the 1950s and 60s. In 1996 Richard Whitmore was successful in obtaining a grant of £25000 from the Sports and Arts foundation. This was used to buy retractable seating for the auditorium. The original seats were disposed of apart from those needed for the floor rows; these were covered in fabric to match the raked seats and thus entered their third lease of life, having already done many years of service in Rickmansworth before they were bought for the Theatre in 1983. They were originally covered in a tan-coloured plastic. Also in 1996 it emerged that, due to an oversight on the part of Customs and Excise, many sports clubs had been incorrectly charging VAT since 1989. Refunds amounting to hundreds of millions of pounds were made to these clubs. The oversight also applied to ’cultural activities’ but that took longer to sort out, largely because nobody could agree what the phrase covered. Eventually, and after a long tussle between C&E and Keith Crook, the Society recovered all the VAT it had incorrectly charged on tickets for 7 years, a sum in the region of £28000. In 1997 a working party led by Brian Hull considered what enhancements might be made to the Theatre if funding could be obtained from the National Lottery. All options were considered and eventually an application was made to extend the front of the theatre in order to provide more audience space, a more spacious box office and better facilities for serving refreshments. Plans were drawn up and the dossier submitted was 2 inches thick, resulting in a grant of £90000. The work was done over the summer, tucked in very neatly between a hiring in July and the production of Gasping which opened on September 22. For the record, the original entrance to the Theatre was where the folding doors are now. Apart from the obvious improvement in space and facilities, the Theatre is much warmer as the extended foyer acts as an airlock. Thus in just 2 years, the Society improved its wealth by £143,000. In the late 1990s it was decided to enhance the Studio to provide a proper performing area. Proper lighting, sound and curtaining was fitted. In 2004 the lobby was rearranged, raked seating was fitted for 40 people and a throughway to the theatre was re-established. It became known as the Studio Theatre. However, the theatre and the studio give only two rehearsal areas. With the increase in Studio (fringe) productions, two Youth Theatre productions and a Juniors production, rehearsal space was getting very fraught. In 2004 it was planned that we would put on 6 productions a year starting in 2005 and a proposal to build more rehearsal space was approved by the members.
2005 – 2015
Plans for the extension for more rehearsal space were drawn up during 2005/6 and the necessary permissions were obtained.
In 2007 the bar was substantially altered by removing the original box office to create an unobstructed bar/foyer area. Although the justification for this had been somewhat contentious it was generally agreed that it made a tremendous improvement to the audience facilities and to members’ club nights held in the bar. Smoking was banned in July 2007. The appeal for the Youth Wing extension to the theatre was launched in 2008. By November 2009 over £138,000 had been raised during a harsh economic period. Work on the extension started in November and proceeded apace until a harsh cold snap in December brought everything to a grinding halt. The theatre was then finished fairly rapidly and few of the audience were aware of the major changes that were happening at the back. The new workshop was occupied during the autumn of 2010 then the old workshop was converted into the Youth Wing. The alterations to the front of the studio started in July 2010. The appeal finally closed in October 2010 having raised the amazing sum of over £250,000. The final event was a Sunday lunch with celebrity entertainers held in the marquee at the Priory – a magnificent way to end the appeal. The studio work took longer than expected as there was much electrical work to do but eventually it was finished and the raked seating transformed it into a proper theatre. Close on 200 people attended the opening ceremony on 3 September 2011and many favourable comments were made by visitors. The theatre, having been thoroughly prepared throughout looked magnificent. Over the next few years enhancements were made to bring the theatre up to date. A major problem had been sound leakage between the studio and the auditorium which effectively ruled out concurrent use of both spaces. This was rectified in 2013 by building a soundwall on the theatre side, in the wings and the paintstore. At the same time the paintstore was rearranged to provide a clearer wing area. Many other tasks including air extraction, new fire alarms and rewiring the studio were finished during 2013. The major refurbishment of the toilets early in 2014 completed the 30-year update. At this time, due to closure of many other venues in the area, the theatre made a large income from daytime letting of the theatre. Financially the Society was making an annual surplus in the region of £20-25,000 which was important to fund these enhancements. Roger Hawkins who had managed in large part the building of the theatre and supervised the rear and front extensions sadly passed away in February 2015; his contribution to the creation and running of the theatre is immeasurable.
2015 – 2025
In 1988 the ticketing which had been entirely manual was changed to a computerised system based on the Amstrad PCW512, the first really affordable PC at the time. Not only did this save money on pre-printed tickets but reduced the workload of accounting ticket sales and providing useful statistics about how tickets sold. In 1998 this was upgraded to a DOS-based Intel 386 computer. Apparently more modern in appearance, it was actually the same vintage as the Amstrad. By 2014 it was clear that audiences expected to be able to book tickets online. Although a simple version using Paypal had been in place for some years, clients could not select their seats. It was decided to install a totally new system. This was introduced in July 2015 and was immediately successful, resulting in large sales for Noises Off, the first production of the season. The external digital display was installed at the same time. Sadly in October 2016 John Coxall died. John was the longest-serving member of the society and was a key figure in the success of the Bancroft Players. Another first was achieved in 2017 when, following the tragic fire in North Kensington, the theatre was used as a collection point for donations; some 700 bags and boxes were collected and taken to London. Over the summer of 2017 the stage which had not materially changed since 1983 was completely rebuilt to provide greater flexibility in staging productions. The Christmas production in 2019 was Cinderella, the first proper pantomime since the theatre opened.