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Programmed to Receive: Part Two

by on 17 May 2020

Programming Language

Programmed to Receive

(Part Two)

by Eleanor Lewis

8FBBC25F-6BA8-4B31-BE34-AFE69DD1B926_1_201_aWhere was I?   Reeling, I think, from discovering Sheila Sim and Richard Attenborough’s signatures on the front of a programme for The Mousetrap in 1952 on its pre-West End tour. Well OK, if these are the kind of people we’re collecting, I’m unsurprised to find a 1960 Cambridge Theatre programme for Billy Liar which tells me that Albert Finney has just completed his first starring role in the film version of Ala1FCF5D0D-2A93-4955-9139-5AA8FCD27EA6n Sillitoe’s Saturday Night And Sunday Morning. I am also unfazed by a beautiful headshot of Eileen Atkins, aged 31, in a 1965 programme for The Killing of Sister George, in which she appeared with Beryl Reid and Lally Bowers (no autographs on this one unfortunately). The biography tells me that Ms Atkins has “appeared on television” and furthermore that she has “gone blonde” for her role as Childie.

Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, (deep breath) signed the front page of Manchester Opera House’s programme for Antony and Cleopatra. They were married to each other at the time (1951), and the production was a Festival of Britain production by arrangement with The Arts Council. The cast list inside the programme has numerous other autographs including the fabulous Wilfred Hyde White who was playing Lemprius Euphronius at the time.

Antony-and-Cleopatra-laurence-olivier-Bettman Corbis

In 1956 Vivien Leigh also appeared in South Sea Bubble, “a new, light comedy by Noël Coward”. Joyce Carey was in this too. Joyce Carey was the formidable Myrtle Bagot, manageress of the station café in Brief Encounter. Ms Carey also appeared in a few ‘70s sitcoms for those of us old enough to remember Father Dear Father etc. Her signature appears not on this programme but another in the collection.

Brief Encounter

A 1977 programme for Privates on Parade reminds me that it was the RSC that first produced this show and also of those weird little moments at the end of TV drama in the ‘70s when the announcer would tell you solemnly over the credits that such and such an actor was “a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company”. I was never sure what I was supposed to do with that information other than behave with due reverence for a moment. This programme also contains and interview with Terry Gilliam who was then about to direct his first film Jabberwocky.


I was enthralled by the adverts in these programmes too. The flimsy 1948 programme firmly autographed by Gertrude Lawrence when she was appearing in September Tide, “a new play by Daphne du Maurier”, at Manchester Opera House, has an advert for Kendals department store picturing an elegantly dressed woman on the front: “Evening Grace for the Small Woman”, it offers discretely, whilst leaving it unclear what an average-sized woman is supposed to do vis-à-vis evening grace.

Rachel Kempson and Peggy Ashcroft appeared in Hedda Gabler at the Lyric Hammersmith, probably in 1954 (the programme is undated). There is an advert for The Clarendon Restaurant on Hammersmith Broadway. The Clarendon had also featured in the programme for The Lyric Revue in 1951 autographed by Dora Bryan and others. You could dine on American oysters amongst other things and there was a large ballroom for use when required. When I was a student in the ‘80s, I remember going to The Clarendon with my heavy metal friend for it was a heavy metal venue then: rock music, plastic glasses, headbanging and a lot of ‘tired and emotional’ people. Quite a journey the Clarendon Restaurant has been on.

In 1952 Alec Guinness (clear underlined signature) was in Under the Sycamore Tree by Sam Spewack at the Opera House Manchester. Kendals had moved on to extolling the virtues of Furleen (a fake fur) – “No, of course it’s not real, it does not pretend or wish to be.” Later on that year in a programme for Bet Your Life (a musical comedy) signed by nearly everyone but its star, Arthur Askey, Kendals was promoting a fetching velvet suit which I am really quite keen on, leaving aside the fact that I do not have a nipped in waist and it’s nearly 70 years since the suit was available.

Prog Never Can TellAn advert in the 1959 programme for Look After Lulu starring Vivien Leigh depicts a woman in long gloves, adjusting her hat. “You never can tell …” the advert teases, “who she might be… career girl, housewife, a young modern with time on her hands. Who can say?” Turns out she’s an avid reader of the Daily Mirror and “nearly one in two under 35s” reads it every day.

Alongside reading the Daily Mirror, the back page of the previously mentioned 1965 programme for The Killing of Sister George urges readers to try a slice of “mixed fruit cake” during the interval. Yes indeed, if you’re at the London theatre you are clearly living in the fast lane in your fake fur, clutching your tabloid and slice of cake? And then, acceptable taste in fashion, cake and newspapers having been established, theatregoers might set their sights on more fundamental things. A programme for The Brass Butterfly by William Golding at the Strand Theatre 1958 starring my favourite, Alistair Sim, appearing with George Cole, quietly informs readers, about the Marriage Bureau in New Bond Street (all enquiries strictly confidential).

By the by, there is some lovely handwriting on show. Up to around about the mid-60s, you can read almost all the signatures. Irene Handle appeared with Richard Wattis and others in First Person Singular at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool. Richard Wattis was another personal favourite, he had cornered the comedy market in stressed civil servants and was a regular in St Trinian’s films. Mervyn Johns in The Mortimer Touch (Manchester Opera House, April 1952), Flora Robson in The Innocents (1952), Virginia McKenna and Paul Scofield in The River Line (1952), all of them had great handwriting! They taught handwriting in those days, though before we start a chorus of ‘in my day…’ the amount of time today’s children are going to spend on keyboards, the handwriting thing is at least arguable!

E2F3A9B6-10FF-42D1-ACF6-1AC8C3655194_1_201_aI’m now spoilt and resenting the absence of at least a couple of signatures. Kenneth Williams appeared in something called The Platinum Cat (Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, November ’65) but there’s no autograph and I would love to have Alistair Sim’s signature. There are also two Beyond the Fringe programmes, one for the Fortune Theatre 1961 which I think might have been the first performance, and another for the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham in 1964. Neither is autographed. Nor is the 1968 Apollo Theatre programme for 40 Years On with Alan Bennett, Dorothy Reynolds, Paul Eddington and Nora Nicholson, directed by Patrick Garland. But you can’t have everything, can you?

There is however, Donald Wolfit. Donald Wolfit was almost undoubtedly the inspiration for Sir, in Ronald Harwood’s play The Dresser, (he had a strong, clear signature too, unsurprisingly). In November 1950 Mr Wolfit (as he was then) was appearing with his wife Rosalind Iden in A New Way to Pay Old Debts by Philip Massinger, and according to the programme he would go on to appear in “Plays of Shakespeare” for a further two weeks. This was just two years before Ronald Harwood joined Wolfit’s company, becoming his assistant and eventually his dresser, which gave him the inspiration for his 1983 play, The Dresser about an actor-manager touring the country in Shakespearean rep. The play became a highly successful film which received several Oscar nominations and won a Golden Globe for Tom Courtney.

IMG_1451I could go on and on, this is quite a collection. In a 1952 Manchester Opera House programme for Gay’s The Word, (Ivor Novello), signed by three cast members with large, confident but unusually illegible autographs, someone has neatly written “This is an example” over the top of a Moss Bros advert inside featuring three men in tail coats. I wonder whether that was advice or an instruction.

More recently, a 1987 programme for Follies at the Shaftesbury Theatre with Leonard Sachs, Linda Baron, Pearl Carr, Julia McKenzie and Diana Rigg, to name but a few, contains a slip letting the audience know that Ms Dolores Gray is “injured” but has agreed to perform I’m Still Here in Act 2, which seems both appropriate and very decent of her, and I notice in passing that “Ms” is now being used and that merchandise is now advertised for sale in the front of the programme.

I haven’t got to the Broadway playbills for Follies “a new musical” in 1971 and Pippin at the Imperial in 1972, or “The Rank Organisation Presents Miss Judy Garland” at the Dominion Theatre in 1957, but I’m not worried about keeping programmes any more. Autographed or not, programmes are a great record of what you saw, when, with whom and what was going on at the time so I’ll stop now and occupy some lockdown time clearing more shelf space.

Eleanor Lewis
May 2020

Photography by Bateman Corbis, Peter Scarfe, and Frederick Prince

From → Drama, Fringe, Musicals, Revue

One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    I have so enjoyed reading these two articles, takes me back down memory lane and what an innovative idea to organise this trip through theatre programmes. Thank you.

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