At first glance that requirement seems simple; a performance space where an audience can watch actors and actresses. And at the Grange the defunct service building which once held the kitchen, scullery, laundry, and still room was ideal, if rather dusty and run down.
No actors or actresses though; indeed, no stage, no scenery, no seats, no public area, no public toilets, no scene store, no rehearsal room, no theatre lights, no sound equipment, no bottomless purse of gold (it may come as a surprise to you, dear reader, to learn that throughout the entire life of the theatre we never once had any external financial help in the form of grants etc – the enterprise was funded from private pockets and the slim profits from the shows; no monies whatsoever were taken by Fred or Val).
Enthusiasm? ah, plenty of that: dreams?, plenty of those, too. And word soon spread, principally through the good offices of those teachers connected with the Banbury Amateur Operatic Society (whose home was in Banbury, some twelve miles away in north Oxfordshire). BAOS produced two shows per year, timed to coincide with the main school holidays and staged at the Easington Secondary School’s purpose-built drama hall. By happy coincidence Fred taught metal-working and engineering there and so was able to tap into a rich source of theatre-minded colleagues.
He and Val wisely decided that the first production at the Grange should be a single set, small cast affair with little in the way of demanding technical input. As Val settled down to write Memory of Spring Fred and a band of helpers began assessing exactly what was needed to physically prepare what was to become the auditorium and stage areas, and how to create a smooth public transition from the public entrance through a bar and coffee bar area and thus into the auditorium. Just how to accommodate public toilets was one puzzle too far – let’s get on with the job! (Back in the late 1960s, official Planning Permission and its dreaded Officers was best left undisturbed – “What the eye didn’t see, the heart didn’t grieve over”!)
Luckily the house had two front doors opening on to the principal drive – one served the main house while the second was primarily for a first floor flat. Immediately to one’s right upon entering the flat’s front door was the entrance to what was originally the owner’s study/library and it was felt this could easily be converted into a fine bar area. What had been the housekeeper’s sitting room beyond lay between the library and the proposed auditorium. But there was a huge snag: a load-bearing wall separated the two rooms and a sizeable doorway would need to be inserted. As this wall supported three floors of solid Victorian masonry it needed treating with some respect.
And the aforementioned lack of a purse of gold meant no architect could be commissioned. But Fred was well-versed in maintaining this rambling building on a shoe string and thought (correctly as it turned out!) that the new door shouldn’t prove too much of a problem.
Living in the village at that time were Jack Beck and his wife Eileen (she, many years ago, was the Housekeeper to the then inhabitants of the Grange, the Sitwell family and rather stood upon her pride and so was always referred to as Mrs Beck). Jack was one of those rare men, a Jack of all Trades, whose encyclopaedic knowledge on many subjects was to prove invaluable to Fred. Mrs Beck became our first costume/dresser lady.
The moment Jack was introduced to that sturdy wall he immediately realised that a mere doorway would be much too narrow for comfortable usage especially as the floor levels between library (bar) and sitting room (coffee bar) differed by around eighteen inches, or three steps. We needed an archway but one with a flat top in order to simplify construction.
A suitable H-sectioned twelve-foot steel beam (known as a rolled steel joist, although those struggling with its length and weight referred to it differently) was purchased and six adjustable steel jacks (Acroprops) plus some sturdy scaffolding planks were borrowed. After checking no pipes or cabling runs passed along the top of the wall on both sides of the intended arch, three flat holes to accommodate the planks were chiselled through the stonework, one in the centre and one either side. Planks were then passed through, acroprops positioned just below their ends, lateral planks placed upon the props and their jacks wound upwards until they and all the planks were under tension – rather like the operators actually.
With what was fondly hoped to be sufficient support for the wall loading in place, the horizontal space intended for the steel joist was chiselled away. The joist was laboriously lifted up and laid along the planks and the far end plank carefully removed, allowing one end of the joist to be swung over and bedded into its wall cavity. With hearts in mouths, we removed the other two planks, swiftly swung the joist into position, and took the acroprops down.
Now came the act of faith – and removal of the wall itself was surprisingly quickly completed. The big blocks of stone came away quite easily although manhandling them out of the house took a little while. With the arch thus roughly opened it was time to put the strength of that steel joist to the ultimate test. A vertical timber some two inches square was wedged upright beneath the centre of the joist and left for a couple of days.
“How do we know the house hasn’t settled?” Fred asked Jack.
“Simple,” he said, “start sawing through that vertical post – if the saw doesn’t jam, there’s no load upon it and the post can be removed.”
“And if the saw jams?”
“Leave it where it is and block up the arch again – quickly!” came the encouraging reply.
Happily there was no settlement; three broad steps were cast and pine wooden panelling made to conceal the raw edges of the archway. Even so, for years afterwards, this writer would not linger underneath the arch, being so aware of the vast load of masonry poised above his head.
With that job completed we had to create a doorway from the coffee bar passage into the auditorium. This was considerably easier: in earlier days a double Aga range lived against the wall and its chimney flue rose above it. The Aga was long gone and it was a simple job to fit suitably thick lintels at a point in its flue such that the space below could be broken through to make a door. As this wall was only carrying the wall plate for the single-storey roof there was very little downward thrust on our new lintels and we quickly had a lovely doorway. Once again the raw edges finished, this time with plaster rather than panelling.
Meanwhile work was progressing on digging out the drains for the ladies toilet (the chaps would just have to walk around the end of the house and make use of the existing “gardeners’ loo”) which was created just a few steps across a patio door from the auditorium. What had previously been a coke store was transformed into a fairly utilitarian toilet with wash basin. A light was installed and of course an immersion heated hot water tank in the space above. A vase of fresh flowers made the place a little more like home.
The first walk-through from front door to the toilets’ patio was an exciting “first” for us; at last we had the basic working layout of the theatre in place, and from then on it was just a case of adding embellishments. Or so we thought…
The auditorium floor needed digging out in order to create a raised stage. So the old concrete floor was broken up and skipped, and tons of clay manually dug up and wheelbarrowed round the house and dumped in a quiet corner of the grounds in a small wood. Then, of course, that floor was lower than the passageway beyond our new doorway, so two steps were cast to allow comfortable access while at the same time a new concrete floor was laid in the auditorium itself.
While the stage was being fitted out, we needed to source theatre seats. New ones were horrendously expensive but Val refused point-blank to have anything other than red plush seats. By good luck we heard of a cinema being demolished in the Wiltshire town of Chippenham and thence two men and a friend’s old van hurried with cash in our pockets and hope in our hearts. Thowing ourselves at the mercy of the foreman we explained our wishes. To that unnamed hero goes all credit – the cash disappeared into his pocket and he allowed us into the demolition site. The roof was already off above the cinema screen and work was rapidly moving towards the balcony end of the auditorium. No time to lose – and, mercifully, no Health & Safely laws to get in the way – and we began unbolting the cast iron stanchions separating each swing-up seat squab. We quickly discovered that 40 of them, plus their seats, was a heavy load for our old Bedford van. It was agreed with the foreman that we’d take this first load back to Little Tew and return asap for a second load.
That plan worked, but for one snag. The seats previously rescued came from straight rows down near the screen area. All that was rubble by the time we returned and our next scavenging was perforce concentrated on seats below the balcony – but these were set in a gentle curve and their stanchions were cast to allow the rows to bend. Beggars, however, couldn’t be choosers and eventually the dust-covered pair had a second, final load of seats in the van.
Back at Little Tew we erected the seats, which had to stand in straight rows due to the relative narrowness of the auditorium. Each stanchion had four locating holes for the anchoring bolts – 70 seats x 4 = 280 holes to be drilled, plugged and screwed. Took an age but eventually there was our very own little theatre with its red plush seats. And then the horrible truth dawned on us – the sight lines for the back few rows were unacceptable; those seats should be raised. So out came half the seats, timber staging erected and planked over, and the seats re-erected. And what a difference! Every member of the audience now had an unobstructed view of the stage and the visual appearance much improved. Took well over a month but it was worth it.
I ask forgiveness for detailing such mundane work as the above, but I hope it gives a glimpse into the hard physical work us volunteers undertook to transform the place, especially when I add that as well as that work, the auditorium needed wallpapering, doors painted, and a million-and-one other things attended to. But it was all worth while when the small cast could eventually venture onto their stage to continue rehearsals there rather than in the drawing room.
In quiet moments (eh?) built a bar in what he imagined would be its final position; with earnest application from us drinkers he quickly realised it was much too small to cope and so, nothing daunted, he simply built a bigger one!
He also built a wonderfully detailed set, learning sight-lines and perspectives as he went. Programmes and tickets were printed, posters posted around the locality, our local (and very historic) Hook Norton Brewery very generously agreed to sell us alcohol at tenants’ rates.
A posh sign was painted and nailed to the stone entrance pillar by the road (so patrons could find us!), windows were cleaned, the aforementioned flowers installed in the ladies’ and – wow – we were ready for the opening night!
All that took place over a period of just over a year and simply couldn’t have been done without the wonderful help of volunteers like Steven Jakeman, Andrew Jenner, Roger Moon, Robin Watts and others whose names now sadly elude me. If you were one of that passionate band and happen to be reading this, do please get in touch so that your name too can be recorded for posterity.
As well as the major works undertaken, the more mundane – but very useful – notices had to be created. Part of the theatre’s appeal was their amateurish hand-written appearance (we couldn’t afford printed ones and, remember, this was way before personal computers came along!)
During the next few years the theatre settled down and other improvements were added. Fred’s bright idea of carrying sets upstairs for storage in a large sunny room was quickly squashed by Val who, perhaps understandably, objected to her house being knocked about by stage scenery. A purpose-built timber building was erected just off the end of the patio in which Fred could work away in peace.
We acquired eight fluorescent light fittings which, once the building was erected, we hung in the ceiling with every intention of wiring through to the house. They were still there, still waiting, all those years later when the scene store was being emptied in preparation for the house sale!
And a room next to the ladies’ was converted into a proper gents’ toilet (more trench digging!).
A few years passed and on one show’s interval a patron approached Fred, commenting on the rather bare aspect of the floors throughout the theatre area. Wouldn’t red carpeting rather improve the tone? Fred later admitted that his reply was a little brusque – after all, getting the theatre to that present condition had cost him personally several thousands of pounds and carpets were quite low on the future agenda.
But the small gods were smiling; the patron owned a company which purchased carpeting from cruise liners being renovated – could he provide enough for the theatre for just the cost of laying? Such generosity pervaded the air in those early days – the “Hooky” brewery continued their discounted support, a painter & decorator gave freely of his time to freshen up the house, local ladies happily supplied the coffee bar with their own crockery until funds allowed purchase of our own and another patron funded two hot water urns for the coffee. Some beautiful main stage curtains were donated by Roger Jenner (one-time stage manager at the White Rock Pavilion in Hastings) and their rather complex pulley-feeds installed at cost by Hoods of Banbury, a long-established ironmongers. Other acts of kindness soon created a unique family atmosphere – we were all so proud of “our” little theatre which continued to go from strength to strength.
As the years passed, so our collection of costumes grew. Many we hired but, failing all else, we threw ourselves on the mercies of several local skilled seamstresses (I’ll remember their names in time!) and so various rooms and attics were pressed into use. Here are a few photos to give a flavour . . .
The saddest part in this story of our early days is a paucity of photographs – we were all so very busy and intent on overcoming problems and fitting-out the theatre that we just didn’t have time to step back to record the work. And perhaps – just perhaps – in the backs of our minds lurked the unimaginable thought that the place might not actually succeed. All us volunteers could go home at the end of the day but of course Fred and Val would be left with a total white elephant. That this eventuality never arose is due in great part to the merry band who devoted much time and love to create . . . the Grange Theatre.