For several decades now the Pantomime, and the Finedon Church Sunday School Entertainment Committee, have been significant in keeping the Star Hall in existence in its present form. But how far back does this type of entertainment go?
Pantomime like productions go back to the very early days of the current Star Hall building. Indeed within months of the Hall opening a “fairy drama” entitled “Cinderella and the Glass Slipper” was performed on two occasions in January and February 1898. This may well have become an annual production fairly quickly, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the instigator was the Vicar’s daughter Miss Lena Paul, her aim being to provide a Christmas entertainment by Church people for Church people.
In the early days it was a one day production accompanied by the Sunday School prize giving. The Sunday School teachers entertaining the pupils, and each child was given a gift of an orange and a bun, a tradition that ceased during the Second World War. The performances were known by one and all as the Sunday School Plays. In 1912, following the death of her father, Miss Paul left Finedon and responsibility for organising the productions was taken over by Miss Sykes and Mrs Mary Ozier, who lived and taught at the Girls School for many years.
In the parish magazine of January 1973 “D. M.D” wrote about the fairy plays of her youth. She spoke with authority as she had played Cinderella 50 years earlier. She recalled that in the early years of the century the productions had always been referred to as the Sunday School Plays. All productions members were active members of the Church, either as scholars, teachers or choristers. Over time the productions increased in number. The first performance on the Tuesday evening was given to up to 400 Sunday school pupils. Additionally performances for the Sunday School parents were given on the Wednesday and Thursday evenings following on from a parent’s tea.
In the early 1920s the fairy plays were sometimes pantomime- like with titles such as “Maid Marion and Robin Hood” (1921). But on other occasions the plays were titled “Seaside Lodgings” (1922), “The adventures of Princess Felice” (1923) “Princess and the Peasant” (1924) and “Zurika” (1926). These plays had a supporting programme comprised of a selection of farces, sketches, dancing and musical items. Dancing to Hurst Cuttell’s orchestra was also introduced after the show on the parents’ evenings. This expansion of the evening’s entertainment meant that the Sunday School prize giving was moved to another day. By the end of the decade the performance had morphed into a single full length pantomime with music, dance and drama combined within the one story. Hurst Cuttell had formed his orchestra after his return from the Great War, and their musical talent became a large element of the performances until at least the 1960s.
These changes in the performance side coincided with changes in the composition of the audiences, as by the middle of the decade the show was no longer confined solely to Church children and parents. A Saturday evening performance was introduced, that was opened to the general public and for the first time the performers were seen by a paying audience. The performances must have been of a good standard as in subsequent years it was so popular it was often reported in the newspapers that many had to be turned away.
As early as 1926 there were suggestions in the newspapers that the productions were so good that they had the nucleus of what could be an amateur operatic company in the town. Although their aspirations did not stretch so high as that this may have been the idea for the establishment of a more formal arrangement for the production of the annual entertainment. By the early 1930s pantomimes, as we would recognise them, were the done thing. In 1932 “Aladdin” was the production and this would be the final time that the company was referred to as “the Church Players”.
Sometime during 1932 the Finedon Sunday School Entertainment Society was officially formed and since the 1933 production of “Ali Baba” has been responsible for an annual pantomime, except during the war years, that has entertained generations of Finedon youngsters. Many participants performed year after year in the same roles. In the early days Frank Cooper was the funny man, renowned for never following the script and telling funny tales of what went on “up the new estate”. In those days that was the Milner and Cromer Rd district. Mind you I would think being able to ad lib is a pre-requisite of being in pantomime. In more recent times Dave Bradshaw was well known for either not learning or forgetting his lines, but he always managed to produce the required laughters from the audience. I would imagine Jose Minney could tell many a tale of the delights of being panto prompter!
Memorable dames have included Pross Cooper, Father Scorrer, Phil Smith, Joe Farey and Jonathan Reynolds to name but a few. Numerous principal boys and girls, dames, good fairies, wicked witches, choruses and young dancers have trooped across the Star Hall stage with its proscenium arch decorated by Noel Pearson’s wonderful artwork. May you and all the back room staff continue to delight future generations of Finedonians.
The pantomime now runs for a full week of performances including matinee and evening performances on the first and last Saturday. If any of you have not seen a Finedon panto please go along next time. I am sure it will delight especially if you have some youngsters in tow. OH NO IT WON’T, OH YES IT WILL!!