The West of England Theatre Company

Founded 1946 in Exmouth

by Peter Burdon 1919 - 2015

"
With heavy heart, I have to report that my father Peter passed away peacefully today 18th June 2015. - his son, Steve Burdon
 
This enterprise, set in motion by a small group of enthusiasts with their own money, has its base in Exmouth and plays a wide circuit of places in that region.   They are pioneers of the Theatre, waiting for the covered wagons.   It is a pleasure to record that so far their gallant little venture has succeeded."   (J.B.Priestley, in his book Theatre Outlook, 1947.)

  
   We didn't wait for our covered wagons, for we had bought a pair of rather worn ex-Service ambulances (a bargain offer) late in 1945.   One was fitted out with bench seats for the cast and the other was destined to carry the stage crew, scenery, lighting gear, props, etc.   Once on the road and loaded they broke down regularly.   Soon, every one of us knew how to jack up the wagon and change a wheel as well as any garage hand.   Clogged carburetters were trickier, but somehow we always managed  curtain-up on time.
 
So who thought up this crazy idea of three-weekly touring rep in the West Country theatrical desert?   It was the brainchild of actors John and Joyce Worsley, her brother Hugh Rigg and his wife Rae.   They had planned it years before Hitler stopped them in their tracks.   The "staff work" required before we had a calendar of  dates was daunting -- talks with local authorities and police, surveying what real theatres existed in the area, town halls, corn exchange buildings, cinemas, village halls.   In fact, anywhere there was room to put up a set, had a fuse box and a get-attable loo.   Imagination winces!
 
 We opened with Priestley's They Came To a City on Easter Monday 1946 in an Exmouth cinema to a full house, ran for the full week (full house every night) , struck the set and began our travels --  at first to a limited circuit.   In a few years' time we were playing to good houses in 30 towns all over Devon, Somerset, Dorset and Cornwall  and had two companies.   In those far off days most of our audiences had never seen a professional performance unless they travelled, quite expensively to one of the bigger towns such as Exeter, Bristol or Plymouth.
 
   Originally, we rehearsed in the Worsley's house on Exmouth's famous Beacon Hill.   Later we arranged the rental of a cricket pavilion where we could erect a stage and a working set with lighting.
In time, our circuit expanded to some 30 towns and villages within 40 miles of Exmouth.   Only Barnstaple, Exeter, Paignton, Plymouth, Sidmouth and Taunton offered "real" theatres.   The rest, scattered all over the West Country, was a mishmash of town halls, village halls and cinemas.   We played 'em all.
 
A typical daily schedule went something like this:   Rehearsal at 9.30:  Lunch at 1;  All aboard the van at 2;  Curtain up somewhere at 7.30.  Arrive back at base around midnight if the transport behaved itself.  En route we might hear each others' lines, or play quiz games, or snooze (we often needed to catch up on lost sleep).   Arrived at the venue everybody, male and female, helped offload the scenery and props, up the set, played the play, struck the set, loaded everything back into the van -- and collapsed until we got back to Exmouth.   On occasion, then a 13-hour day at least.   Monday to Saturday, but every third Sunday was Dress Rehearsal with all the usual frets, tempers and disasters. .
 
People often wondered how and when we learned our lines.   It was three-weekly rep, after all and we considered ourselves fortunate compared with those in weekly rep (the norm in those days) where the hardest worked member of the company was "Prompt" -- we all had had a taste of it and were glad to have escaped.
 
Somebody at the Arts Council heard of us, was impressed and decided we should be helped to invest in a resplendent pantechnicon.   At last, cast, stage crew and scenery could travel in comfort together.
 
The pace was too hot for some, of course, so we lost a few but gained a few.   Among the latter was a young, already super-gifted Fulton McKay, later of "Porridge"  fame,  the brilliant Edgar Wreford and, much later,a charismatic little thing who swept the great Laurence Olivier off his feet (read his autobiography to verify) and so became Lady Olivier, but still appears on stage and screen as Joan Plowright.
 
 The writer of this memoir was one of the pioneers and he stayed the course for four years.   Assured by friends who had "made it" that the West Country was no place wherein to make one's name, he took the long road to London, had small parts in some forgettable and duly forgotten films,  made a few broadcasts and faded from the  scene.  He became a journalist, a P.R. man, a magazine editor and retired as Communications Manager for Jaguar Cars before that great firm was swallowed by Ford. At 87 (2006) he is delighted to have the chance to make this record  of quite the most exciting time of his life.
 
He left the West of England Theatre Company in 1950, so there must be somebody around who can take up this tale.   It is worth the telling, for sure
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But Finally....

But finally, back to that first night of all our first nights--when the curtain went up on Easter Monday 1946 in Exmouth.   The cast of "They Came to a City" were: Peggy Batchelor (playing in her home town), Godfrey Bond, Peter Burdon, Elise Catlow, Mavis Edwards, Neil Gibson, Michael Kingsley and Joyce Worsley, who also produced the play.  Patricia Bowling was Stage Manager and the decor was by Joan Pemble.
 
Only a few weeks earlier nearly all of us had been in uniform.   We didn't talk much about "Art" or "Drama" in those days.   Our fledgling careers had been on hold for five years; how wonderful it was to have this chance to start all over again.   We were offering such talents as we had to entertain people who for those grim years had suffered dim lights, drab clothes, utility and austerity.   For most, ordinary living had been suspended; they had waited, doggedly and monotonously for life to begin again.   There had been so many partings but not quite so many reunions.   The menu we offered was, in the beginning, light-hearted.   It was not a trivial aim, we believed.
 
All too often, only the actors get what applause (occasionally boos!) is going.   Few people bother to give any attention to the names of the stage crews  which appear on the programme (incidentally, our early programmes sold for 3 old pence).   But every actor  knows, particularly in travelling rep,  that he/she is utterly dependent on those sturdy souls.   So, for the record:   Our first Stage Manager, Pat Bowling left because of failing health.   She was followed by Charles Jarrott  (with the looks of a matinee idol --what a waste!).   So young, yet he brought a wholly professional discipline into our back-stage chaos.   Inevitably, he moved on and up.   He became a much respected film director in due course.  His successor was John Wyckham  who later crossed the Atlantic and became a much sought-after lighting specialist for many big musicals.   Just before this writer left the Company, Mark Lawton took over as Stage Director and he too was eventually lured by the lights of London and the TV studios.
 
What happened to the Company after I left in 1950?   I did many things and acting was one of the things undone;  I never kept in touch with any of those wonderful "pioneers" and I don't really know why.
 
My hope is that somebody who reads this too brief history will find the time to complete the tale. 
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Really finally...(from old letters to his son)

"I matriculated to St.Catherine’s College, Oxford but never “went up”, as they say.  Being absolutely stage-struck I got myself a job as ASM at the old Oxford Playhouse.  The pay was peanuts, of course, but I even got the occasional small part.  Of course, I was almost completely dependent upon my Dad.  He growled that it wasn’t a proper job and fixed it with his friend Dr. E.T.Leeds, Keeper of the great Ashmolean Museum of Art and Classical Archaeology and a one-time intimate friend of Lawrence of Arabia, to slip me into the Library of that institution as a trainee.  The pay there was not all that much better, but it was, you see, indeed “a proper job”.  And I even fetched books for Lawrence  before he was killed!  But I hated every stuffy minute of my interminable days there.

Came the war and I sped like a greyhound to the Recruiting Depot.  On the 10th September I began square-bashing in Aldershot.

On 5th January 1942 I married my Jeanne.  Four days later, I was recalled to my unit for embarkation to the Middle East.  I next saw her on January 6th 1946.

 

When I enlisted (during the first week after we declared war on Germany) I had no idea what the Forces might want me for! I was taken aback when I discovered that on that particular day the Medical Corps was getting the majority of enlistments and I protested that I knew nothing about medical matters. "Then you'll bloody soon learn, sonny boy!" roared the Regular who seemed to be in charge of everything (I soon discovered he was a Sergeant-Major.) "From now on you'll do as you're told no matter what. Get it? Take your hands out of your pockets and stand to attention." Not a likable man.

Medical inspections followed (very, very brief). And everybody passed A1! We were given rail warrants for Aldershot and some instructions about what personal kit we should take. The next day we all assembled at Oxford station at some ungodly hour of the morning. No absentees, because failure to turn up would be regarded as desertion in time of war!

At Aldershot, after the roll call, we marched (more likely straggled) to the RAMC depot known as Haig Lines. Quite a long way. No transport available, of course.

What a coincidence! My Dad's first few weeks in WW1 were also spent there. It struck me that very little had been done to smarten up those rackety huts since.

Then followed interminable weeks of square bashing. Not even a whisper about medical matters. You see, we were being taught to do as we were told, just as that horrible S-M at Oxford had warned me.

 

Haig Lines at Aldershot was sheer chaos (and so was everything else in the UK after our decision to mobilise!).

I don't remember how long I was there, but one day I found my name on Part One Orders board with a number of other recruits . We were to be posted to the great Royal Victoria Hospital at Netley near Southampton. ( I believe it is now utterly demolished). How we were transported there I have quite forgotten. It was an immense building and its immediate appeal as far as I was concerned was that our quarters would be an integral part of the hospital. No rackety old WW1 huts and, best of all, plenty of hot water ( shaving at Haig Lines in cold water had been agony!).

I was consigned to the Sister i/c Surgical Wards as a GDO (General Duties Orderly). In other words a Dogsbody. The Sister was, of course, a Regular of the Queen Victoria Imperial Military Service and so counted as an Officer).

 

The Sister i/c Surgical Wards was, more accurately, a member of the Queen Alexander Imperial Military Nursing Service and an officer. She was used to dealing with trained regular soldiers and was horrified by these slack civilian newcomers. She barked (literally!) at us. One day she called me into her ward office. "I've been watching you," she said. "You speak well and seem to be educated. We ought to make better use of you here, but don't you start thinking you are above the work you have been doing."

It transpired that she mentioned me to Lieut.Col.Churchill Davidson head of the Surgical Division and I was quickly "re-mustered" (a word I had never come across before) to Clerical Duties within his Division. At the time of the Dunkirk debacle we were overwhelmed with Allied wounded and my fairly good grasp of French, typing and self-taught Gregg shorthand all came in useful and I was promoted to Corporal , so filling a gap in the Division's"establishment".

And so on to 1942. Then, out of the blue, I was posted again (I often wondered how and who arranged these matters) to the nearby Medical Mobilisation Depot whose job was to devise an and "man" forthcoming overseas units. My new unit was to be No.1 Egypt Ambulance Train and I would be Chief Clerk as Acting Sergeant (without a Sergeant's pay because "Establishment" did not permit full pay. I never did solve that and was eventually demobbed back in my War Substantive rank of Corporal in January 1946.)

 

The personnel of No.1 Train amounted to about 30 all told. Two Officers (both doctors) Major and Captain; Two QAIMNS sisters; one pharmacist sergeant, one chief clerk (acting sergeant unpaid), two male cooks and the remainder made up of various Army and Hospital trained male nurses and orderlies. All were accommodated within the train. One carriage contained medical equipment and could be converted at short notice into an operating theatre (the train had to be halted for such an operation (rare, but could happen occasionally on the long trip from,say Mersah Matruh to base at Cairo).

Beds, such as were, for our patients consisted of the stretchers on which they were brought to us and hoisted onto wooden racks. Stretchers were gold up here in, say, the Libyan desert forward hospitals so for every stretcher we accepted we had to hand one back from our own stock

The rolling stock itself were ex-Egyptian Railway carriages and locomotives or, later when we were in Italy, equivalents from Ferrovia del Stato. I have no idea if we hired or confiscated them.

...

Only rarely did any of us spend more than a few snatched hours off-train for weeks on end.

Inevitably, we ended up each journey with a quota of those who who never saw England, Home, Wife, Children and Lovers again. Each occasion was particularly painful for me. It was my job to check any papers or letters they had. A photo of a pretty girl bearing the words "always my love, darling". (but no signature) or in Italian "Ricordi mi". I would destroy it. No point in possibly spreading even greater heartbreak, was there?

I realise I have never explained how we got out to the middle east and Italy.

All our equipment was waiting for us at Greenock (Glasgow's port). Then a long westery course out to the Atlantic (no subs there, we hoped), a long voyage to and a short stop at Freetown, followed the African coast, round the Cape and up to CapeTown., A couple of days there and up to Durban, where nobody at all knew anything about us! So we were encamped at nearby Clarewood for a month until we were rediscovered. Back on ship to and norh up the east coast to the Red Sea and at last to our new base at Cairo. When the Middle East fighting ceased we were moved again . This time to Italy and yet another base at Taranto. There were to be two more bases -- Naples and Rome before I packed my kitbag for England Home and Beauty where I arrived almost exactly 4 years after marrying my Jeanne.

 

 

On Easter Monday, 1946 I stepped on stage as Cudworth in “They Came to a City”.  I later played at Colchester and Nottingham reps, did a radio broadcast or two, had a daughter, had a son,

Ah, Happy Days! I used to serve in the cocktail bar in that pub at the bottom of the Beacon in Exmouth when each season ended (it was then called "The Vaults") The Landlord was an ex-pro, Noel Somebody-or-other. The WoE couldn't afford to pay me out of season and that flat on the Beacon didn't come cheap. I knew damn-all about cocktails but kept The Hotel and Landlord's useful guide to hundreds of recipes under the bar. I found that few people really knew one cocktail from another in those days and I got by with generous slurges of gin and Martini and a cherry if a woman was in the group. The tips were very good and I certainly was not too proud to accept them.

At the bottom of the Beacon was a tobacconist shop run by a truly modest hero of the Long Range Desert Group. Only a very few knew of his many decorations . The shop now seems to be a sort of cafe. Neither Ron Chorley nor his Dad are with us these days..

Many years later, when I freelanced the edting of Symonds Brewery quarterly magazine, we thought about going into the trade, but lacked the necessary money for a "get in". It would also entail yet another move, this time to Symonds HQ in Reading, and would have messed up the continuity of my children's education.

We found it almost impossible to find somewhere to live as a family… and faded from that particular scene of life.  By then the marriage was in tatters.

So I tried something else.  We went back to Oxford.  I got a job on the Oxford Mail (“Hatches, Matches and Dispatches, mainly) answered an ad. for a Press Relations Officer at the local car industry – and got it (the gift of the gab sometimes works).  In time I was moved from Oxford to Coventry and then to Birmingham where, almost unbelievably, I eventually became Managing Editor of BMC (later British Leyland) magazines, maps, touring guides.

When British Leyland crashed I went back again to Coventry and ended up a mishmash of a career as Communications Manager, Jaguar Cars.  Now, I’m sure you know, Jaguar is owned by the Indian Ratan Tata Group.

If you strain to listen, you will hear a rumbling sound.  It is Sir William Lyons, founder of Jaguar Cars, turning in his grave."

View my Brother-in-Laws website "The Dyers of Lympstone"

Here is a website linking another member of my family from Lympstone, Devon.

http://www.freewebs.com/dyersoflympstone

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