Great Hippodrome Years - 1943

IT became a classic film noir starring a young Richard Attenborough, but, before that, Brighton Rock was a play that had its world premiere on a revolving stage at Bristol Hippodrome in 1943.


  Some of the film’s leading actors had featured in the play, including Attenborough, then still a teenager, William Hartnell (described as Billy Hartnell), who became the first Dr Who, Hermione Baddeley and Harcourt Williams.


  It was based on Graham Greene’s novel about an inter-war criminal gang in Brighton led by the ruthless Pinkie, played by Attenborough “with the pugnacious command it needed,” said the Bristol Evening World. But its critic added: “I feel that he will strengthen the performance with a little more variation. If he allows the part to become melodrama he is going to lose the essence of a most interesting character. And an actor with his skill can tip the balance in the other direction.”


Richard Attenborough and Dulcie Gray on stage in Brighton Rock.

  Dulcie Gray, playing a waitress blinded by love for him, gave a performance of real pathos, and Baddeley was praised by the Evening Post for “superb characterisation” of Ida Arnold, a woman of the world. Williams gave a “splendid performance” as a drink-sodden, self-degraded lawyer.

Hermione Baddeley in Brighton Rock.

  “This play isn’t everyone’s meat. It is hard and grim, and its race-gang jargon takes some following. But it is real and it has moments of fine tension, and some outstanding characterisations,” said the World. The Post’s view was: “It has everything the playgoer can desire - highly-dramatic action, suspense, laughter, tears, all woven into a real plot. It is modern, and some would say daring. It is life of a kind with which the average person is unacquainted, but it lives on the stage, and the play is one of the few seen in the city which has enough atmosphere to make one forget four walls.”


  The year 1943 had begun with “Prime Minister of Mirth” George Robey in pantomime Robinson Crusoe. Robey, as Mother Crusoe, “causes considerable merriment, especially in his ‘private cellar’ stunt.” He was joined by Kittie Prince as Robinson who “combined a very good voice with a fine figure.” “Chic” Elliott as the buxom Cannibal Queen did some “fine fooling”.


  This was followed by the farce Vintage Wine, which eight years earlier had been a film starring its co-author Seymour Hicks, but now saw Charles Heslop in the main role. His portrayal of a great-grandfather pretending to be a much younger man and secretly married to a 24-year-old unsuspecting girl was “brilliantly amusing”.

  After an International Circus with Coco the Clown, followed by Brighton Rock, Hippodrome audiences were in for a musical interlude, comprising Waltz without End, Rose Marie and The Desert Song.

  Waltz without End, presented by famous actor and singer Jack Buchanan (who would appear himself at the Hippodrome in 1944 and 1945), was a romance about, and to the music of, Chopin, in which the composer, played by tenor Patrick Hoey, falls in love with his student Countess Wanda, portrayed by Jane Carr, “who sang charmingly and acted well”. The Post said: “Costumes and scenery were colourful and artistic, and altogether it was a novel and sentimental show, rich in melody, mirth and human interest.”

A scene from the 17th century comedy Love for Love on the Hippodrome stage in 1943.

  With heavy bombing in London, great actors took to the provinces. In March, John Gielgud directed and appeared in William Congreve’s 1695 costume comedy Love for Love, which co-starred Yvonne Arnaud, Leslie Banks and Angela Baddeley, whose sister Hermione had appeared in Brighton Rock. “A cast of distinction,” the Post called it. Gielgud as hero Valentine was clever in the “mad” scene.


  A real treat for music fans followed with International Music Week, featuring Ukrainian pianist (Leff) Pouishnoff, Viennese pianist Peter Stadlen, famous keyboard pair Rawicz and Landauer, and conductor Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, among others.


  In April, in the last play of the season until September, and with World War Two at its height, Roger Livesey was an anti-Nazi agent in Watch on the Rhine, which also starred Zena Dare, Ursula Jeans and Geoffrey Toone. The Evening World called it a brilliant production of a stirring play. “It is true theatre without being theatrical. It is played by an almost perfect cast, with Ursula Jeans and Roger Livesey portraying all the grandeur of those men and women who fought Nazism undergound for so long.”

Pirates with skull-and-crossbones hats in Robinson Crusoe, the 1942-3 pantomime at the Hippodrome.

  A week of Hansel and Gretel by Covent Garden Opera Company signalled a change of mood at the Hippodrome, and preceded variety for the next five months.


  Such was the theatre’s character in those days: variety was offered for a season and was booked separately from drama, opera and ballet which filled the rest of the calendar. They simply shared the same building. After the war, variety show programmes were lower-priced than others’ and had their own distinctive cover design.


  The season began with Billy Cotton and his Band, accompanied by comics Ted Ray and Dick Henderson - father of Dickie Henderson, who later became better-known.


  This was followed by a magic show called Cavalcade of Mystery starring The Great Lyle, who baffled everyone with ingenious tricks. The most intriguing one featured a glass clock. Someone in the audience told him what hour he would like, Lyle spun the hands and they stopped at the chosen hour. He sawed a girl in half, made another walk through a sheet of plate glass and produced hats out of thin air, all with perfect stagecraft.

  Canadian talent-spotter Carroll Levis ran what might be considered the first X Factor, travelling the country seeking out gifted amateur performers and giving them the chance to shine on radio and the professional stage. During his week at the Hippodrome in May, budding singers, musicians and comedians responded to newspaper advertisements to attend 11am auditions, and the successful ones appeared in front of the paying public later that day in his BBC Discoveries show. The first night’s offerings were a Gracie Fields impersonator, a Welsh miner bird warbler and a blind trumpeter and singer. Aside from the amateurs, the show included a Badminton match on stage!

  The variety season continued with Bernard Delfont’s Clap Hands and Smile, featuring bandleader Charlie Kunz and 73-year-old music hall singer Nellie Wallace, who had first appeared at the Hippodrome in 1917. Oscar Rabin and his Band, Eric Winstone and his Swingtette, Henry Hall and his Orchestra and Joe Loss and his Band were seen in subsequent weeks.


  In June, comedian Duggie Wakefield, in the first of two appearances in 1943, starred in Here’s that Gang Again. The Evening World referred to his “stuttering inanities”, saying: “He needs only a simple thing like a stage broom to keep an audience in laughs. He has brought the art of being ridiculous to perfection.” Ronald Chesney played The Flight of the Bumble Bee on mouth-organ.


  The next week Norman Evans’ “dame” impersonations were first-rate and in July six audience members at each show were given the chance to conduct Harry Roy’s band.

The variety season continued with Jewish singer and comedian Issy Bonn, Bristol-born singer Randolph Sutton, and Dorothy Squires.


  Mostly it was dance bands, such as Harry Parry and his Radio Sextet, Carl Barriteau and his Orchestra and jazz violinist Stephane Grappelly and his Hot Club Sextette. It ended in mid-September.

  The Autumn heralded a return to musicals, including No, No Nanette, The Maid of the Mountains, Old Chelsea, Florodora, The Student Prince and The Desert Song (which mustered a capable chorus despite war-time difficulties), ballet with Margot Fonteyn and Mona Inglesby, a circus and more drama.

  The Man who Came to Dinner, with Robert Morley and Ambrosine Phillpotts, made the Evening World critic cry with laughter, while he recommended No Orchids for Miss Blandish “to lovers of blood and thunder and grisly stuff”. Full use was made of a revolving stage. The Wind and the Rain, a play which starred its author Merton Hodge, was “unusual, and, from the acting point of view, difficult; but it has strong human interest and some rare flashes of humour that atone for the occasional weakness in dialogue.”


  The second appearance in 1943 of Duggie Wakefield (pictured left) began on Christmas Eve with him as Buttons in Cinderella, the first time the pantomime had been seen at the Hippodrome.


  Said a critic: “Duggie Wakefield is an ideal Buttons. His grotesquely shy mannerisms, his pleasant rubber face, his popping eyes - they all suit the part as if whoever first devised the part did so with Duggie in view.” He was helped in his comedy by Billy Nelson and Chuck O’Neil, while Nancy Burne as Cinderella was full of charm. She was taken to the ball in a brightly-lit fairy coach pulled by four tiny cream and brown ponies.

  Miles Malleson made a big hit with a masterly character study of Foresight, a peevish and superstitious old man. Leslie Banks sported a long, golden curly-haired wig and played a foppish gossip with silly giggle. The play was a museum piece from which Gielgud’s direction had wiped every speck of dust, said the World.