Some of us had the sneaky feeling that the ‘Seekers would be the final show, and so considerably more photos were made than would usually be the case on any other production. Of necessity they were taken from the control room through two panes of glass and with no flash, hence the rather grainy appearance. Click on the first thumbnail to view them; the first dozen or so show all the cast but, apart from the will-reading set, there’s no chronology.
With luck the images will automatically change every ten seconds but the simple controls at the bottom of the black screen allow you to pause and continue, and to hide the small captions which appear above the images. To exit the slideshow please click the small white X in the top right-hand corner.
The following article, like the very large numbers of photographs for this show, is of necessity very long. If you have the patience to read it through to the end, you’ll see why.
By 2011 both Fred and Val were becoming very tired. Fred was 91, Val 93 and they were starting to rely more and more on friends for help. It’s an inevitable progression as age becomes a burden and, of course, living in that great house really didn’t help. Difficult to keep warm plus a continual battle with its degeneration was compounded by trying to bring The Shell Seekers to life. Val had spent a considerable time adapting (with permission) Rosamund Pilcher‘s classic tale of a family torn by events while Fred worked on the sets and, as with any other show, he needed to clean the theatre and its environs and prepare for the influx of patrons; make visits to Hook Norton brewery for our usual car loads of drinks to stock the bar, answer the phone and handle the booking enquiries, chase the spiders out of the public loos (!) and give the lawns adjacent to the house several cuts to tidy them – these tasks and more would tire much younger people.
But old habits die hard and rehearsals progressed, albeit slowly. We had several new members of cast who were delighted to be at the Grange, but longer-established cast and crew could see the increasing struggles facing Fred and Val. We all pitched in to help, and it was a measure of how weary Fred especially had become that he didn’t have the energy to object.
An old friend of the theatre, Gordon Bowen, was at that time very ill with cancer but from his home in Oregon he insisted that he be kept in the loop as to how this show was progressing. What follows is an edited version of a diary which was sent to him by me, Keith Bennett. As we’d been on sound and lights during the early history of the theatre, we’d kept in touch since he returned to the USA. Because Gordon was, as it were, one of the family, no punches were pulled in letting him assess the situation and I hope you, dear reader, will understand the incredible achievement that, finally, was The Shell Seekers. Gordon himself was very grateful for the diary but was naturally also very distressed to learn of the situation. What follows is really an historical document detailing, as it does, the heroic final struggles necessary to bring the show to the patrons for what transpired to be the very last production at the Grange Theatre. Here, in my words, is the story…
“Dear Gordon… Friday already, and I’ve just about recovered from the show last week. As you know, it ran for only five nights – none of us had the energy to cope with a second week and luckily the decision had been made at an early juncture by F&V that we’d keep it short and sweet. But talk about a rollercoaster of an experience – we’ve pretty much had it all. It started, I suppose, with having two unknowns join us in the cast and coming under the intense pressure of a badly mistimed rehearsal run – the script was sixty pages long (always a bad sign: it usually takes around three acting minutes per page, which promises three hours’ worth of show: short, as it transpired…) – and they lacked Val’s usual skilful guiding hand, so tired was she.
“Combined with that, several cast members had long-standing commitments (holidays etc) which took them out of the loop for a week at a time, thus really disrupting the rehearsals. Realistically we could only manage one (out of three) acts per evening, and even then it was a 7.15 pm start and an 11 pm finish with no coffee break. Val rapidly went downhill stress-wise as continuity errors in the story were pointed out to her and, as the opening night approached, the cast were in open revolt at her refusal to cut what really were unimportant elements of the script.
“Fred of course valiantly tried to protect Val but, being so chronically deaf, he missed out on the heated discussions going on and got up everyone’s back by stubbornly arguing in favour of Val and never in favour of the cast. Sadly, in Stamford, Lincolnshire the father of one cast member (Mark Brown) was seriously weakening with his terminal illness and wasn’t expected to last more than a few days.
“The tickets sold out in a snap, as we knew they would. And, as was also feared, Fred had to spend ages on the phone explaining to disappointed supporters just why they couldn’t come – a singularly one-sided conversation, I’m afraid to say.
“We entered the final week of rehearsal and it was becoming clear that both Fred and Val were dreadfully tired (the rest of us were pretty weary by then, too) and Val would sometimes lose the thread of a conversation and mutter to herself. The action would grind to a halt, the cast would stand patiently waiting on-stage for direction out of yet another muddle until, again, it became clear that Val simply wasn’t up to running a rehearsal. (To save power, after five minutes or so I would fade out the set stage lights and leave just the two lower-wattage “working lights”.)
“Fred by now was limping heavily and getting really frustrated at his deafness. He tried increasing the gain on his hearing aid, which meant any conversation was accompanied by whistling and crackling. The climax came after the most disastrous rehearsal (we were there every evening for almost a fortnight) on the Thursday before the show week. Fred rang me to say that Val was in bed and could not run any more rehearsals, so the next day he was going to do it…
“Friday evening came, and it descended into utter chaos. F was trying to read from V’s notes but, as he couldn’t converse with the cast, his deafness proved too much for him and he just about gave up. That evening ended heavily: first dress was Sunday and as the cast foregathered for it I had a quick word with them, saying that Val was still in bed with complete nervous exhaustion and that we really were on our own now. To everyone’s amazement the rehearsal went superbly. No squabbling, many self-prompts, no tiresome interjections by Val over tiny and relatively unimportant elements of the business, not even any lights or sound cock-ups. We all brought our own Sunday tea and after the rehearsal everyone tidied up their own properties and put them away where they themselves could confidently find them the following evening (Monday, last dress).
“I could tell that Fred was very relieved that everything had been taken out of his hands, especially as by that time he could hardly stand, never mind walk. I’d contacted Ian Bushrod and explained the desperate situation: could he come and do stage manager and be on the book? The cast helped with the set changes. I was spending most of my days there getting the bars and toilets ready, stapling programmes and sorting out the things that Fred was directing me to do. But he was obviously bitterly disappointed at being – as he saw it – sidelined, even though he quite understood the determining factors.
“I was there early on the Monday evening ready for the final dress. The front door was locked and, although I’ve got a key, it was firmly bolted on the inside. I telephoned Fred on my mobile and, to my relief, he answered. He was in the kitchen: it took him almost seven minutes to walk through the house to the front door . . . he looked dreadful. It transpired that once he’d closed the front door on the last of the departing actors at around midnight Sunday he turned, tripped up a step and fell heavily, breaking a front tooth out, badly bruising his face and his right wrist. When I asked him how long he’d lain there he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say. Val was still in bed. I insisted he go to the dining room (by the conservatory) and rest while we got the show going. That was the last time we saw either of them front-of-house until Friday night. They were both completely wiped out. The rehearsal went very well.
“The following night, Tuesday 13th October was first night. Again, I’d been there some while before and we were as ready as could be. Fred admitted he simply couldn’t face coming f.o.h. and – ironically – things went smoothly. The show was a resounding success even though it came down at 11.10 pm.
“Wednesday Val got up, looking exceptionally frail and washed-out. They both remained in the dining room. When I popped in to check them during the first interval Fred looked very ill indeed. He was shivering (in front of the electric fire), hiccoughing continually, and had almost no colour. Later on he was sick. He refused a doctor, admitting he’d perhaps overdosed “a little” on his painkillers in an attempt at regaining some mobility. Val was almost catatonic. At the end of the performance – another good one – the cast usually gather around the bar for an hour’s drinking but this evening I could tell that F&V simply wanted the house emptied, so I gently chucked everyone out, reported the place secure, everything was shut down safely, and bade them goodnight.
“Thursday morning I approached the house with great trepidation, but was mightily relieved to find that F was feeling a little better. He’d left off taking any painkillers and his system was returning to what passes for normal with him. The show that evening went very well and we did stay for a short drink even though neither F nor V were there.
“Friday saw both of them looking much more chirpy. By the afternoon F was feeling well enough to fulminate about two tickets returned for that evening’s performance at an hour too late for redistribution. I said that rather than them sitting in the dining room all on their own, why not actually watch the show from the warm auditorium? To my astonishment they agreed. They had two end seats on the aisle, one behind the other and witnessed yet another miraculous performance. As Act 3 drew to a close I had a bright idea and slipped round to the SM desk during a quiet couple of pages with no light cues. I asked Ian to hold the main tabs after the second bows so I could enter the auditorium.
“Putting the closing cue up, I arrived at the auditorium door and signalled my arrival to Ian. He ran the bows, then stuck a thumb up for my cue. I opened the door and stepped inside. The cast looked (understandably) astonished and, as the applause died down, I simply thanked the audience for expressing their appreciation to the cast and told them that the performance that evening was unique in our thirty-seven year history in that, for the first time ever, the founders had watched one of their own shows from the front-of-house. Would the audience care to join with the cast in showing our appreciation for Fred and Val allowing us all to share their dream for so many years?
“With that, the place erupted. I walked round, knelt down and kissed Val; stood up and shook Fred’s hand, then exited through the foyer doors. The audience was still applauding when I resumed my seat in the control room, so I gently lowered the stage lights, cued Ian for the curtains, and brought up the houselights. I think that did F&V a power of good.
“Sadly though, Mark’s father had died that evening while Mark was on-stage. He’d seen him a day or two earlier and then faithfully driven back to Little Tew to take part in the play, a decision which moved us all.
“Saturday was the last night, and F&V elected to remain in the dining room, both still looking very frail. Indeed, they took no part in the evening at all; the cast had asked me if an after-show party would be acceptable and F&V gave their blessings but declined to take any part although Fred did make a short appearance just after midnight. As before, the show ran smoothly but at the final curtain as I faded the stage lights and brought up the houselights for what I knew would be the very last time, I was weeping.
“The party ended around 1.30 am and Bar & I were back there at 10 am along with four others to completely strip the set out and return it to the scene-store, the idea being that F would have no worry whatsoever about tidying up the house. Val was up and slowly making coffee: all the bar glasses were rounded up by the girls, washed and returned to the bar. Us chaps did the heavy work, then vacuumed all through. By 3 pm you wouldn’t have guessed a show had existed 24 hours previously, so thorough was our sweep.
“Well there you are, Gordon. It’s a story that we all knew would break at some time in the theatre’s existence and I’m proud to say that everyone connected with the show really pulled their weight when the chips were down. F&V continue to make a steady recovery from their respective troubles (apart from Fred’s deafness, of course) but they are adamant that there will be no more shows. Nonetheless they received many congratulatory letters and phone calls, get-well cards and bunches of flowers – even a bottle of champagne! So, a relatively happy ending to a very traumatic time.”
It’s with great sadness we have to report the death of Rosamund Pilcher.
“Rosamunde Pilcher, authoress of The Shell Seekers, had died at the age of 94 following a short illness, her agent has confirmed.
The novelist penned nearly 30 romance and women’s fiction books between 1949 and 2000 when she retired from writing.
Born on the north coast of Cornwall, Pilcher began writing at the age of seven and published first her first short story at 18.
She once described her books as “frightfully wet little novels” BBC News, 7th February 2019