Bitter Sweet and Camelot

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    David Lock

    I was alerted to the presence of this fascinating commemoration of The Grange Theatre by an old friend and colleague, David Hoad, who is now living in blissful retirement in Norfolk. His period of involvement with the theatre was later than mine. My most significant involvement was in the musicals Bitter Sweet and Camelot in 1979 and 1981. I wondered if starting a topic on them would jog a few memories from others – both productions had huge casts – and I hope that they will add to the recollections I have. The programmes are both on the “Productions’ section of the website, and I hope that some photos and newspaper reviews will follow.

    I moved from Buckinghamshire to what I saw as a plum job in a desirable Oxfordshire comprehensive school in 1977. Among my colleagues, apart from the previously mentioned agricultural guru, was Fred Cross, the Head of Drama. After our first school production together, he asked me if I was interested in taking on the musical side of a production in what he described as ‘the Glyndebourne of Oxfordshire’. Being curious, I agreed to go and meet Val and Fred, and, of course, I was blown away by the setting and ambiance of the theatre – and by their uncanny sense of vision.

    Before I knew what was happening, I was involved in rehearsals for Bitter Sweet. The usual period of intensive rehearsals followed and somehow the production came together. Noel Coward’s musical style was slightly unusual: the newspaper review in The Banbury Guardian made rude comments about several of the singers, whereas it is the part-writing, particularly the duets between the major characters, which is odd. There were some memorable moments; Fred Cross, in full Hungarian army uniform, suddenly taking control of the stage with his song, ‘Tokay’, is one I remember well; not to mention the dramatic ageing of Jenny Tustian, as her character is seen as an older lady.

    Camelot followed two years later. Many of the same cast returned, but with some exceptional additions. The one which drew the most favourable comments was Paul Lacoux, singing Lancelot. I had seen Paul in his last year at Banbury School singing The Mikado in the G and S opera. His voice and stage presence were stunning and I guess that Fred Temlett remembered that when they began casting Camelot. No-one was surprised when Paul went on the have a successful acting career; his part as one of the doctors in ‘The Singing Detective’ must come from one of the most iconic scenes from television drama of that time.

    As usual with Val, we did the complete production. Someone has referred to it somewhere on the forum as “Val’s adaptation”. No chance! Val insisted on every single note from the original stage production, with absolutely no cuts; it was a long evening! Some effects were difficult to achieve. The last scene, with only two characters on stage, requires the full chorus to reprise the main “Camelot’ theme off-stage. Those with long memories will realise that ‘off-stage’ meant ‘in the kitchen’, where there would be no visual contact between the singers and me at the piano. The answer in this and several other scenes was to record the music. The ever-resouceful Graham in the control box spent hours getting every last detail right – and pressing the ‘Play’ button at the right time.

    Both shows were hugely successful and, looking through the list of other productions staged at the theatre, it is surprising that large-scale musicals were rarely performed in later years. I would occasionally meet Val and Fred (often in Sainsbury’s) and they would enthuse about a possible production in the future, but, as far as I know, nothing on this scale materialised. Both shows were certainly memorable for all involved though.

    Val and Fred’s enthusisam were quite exceptional. So many times Val would come up with and idea and we would all think “great idea, but it could never happen”- but, of course, somehow it did. Often I remember that I would be near the door, coat and scarf on, at the end of a long evening, when she would sidle up, beaming broadly with the words, “perhaps we could just run through that one section again”. It was a good thing that we were (mostly!) young enough to be able to do without sleep.

    I hope others can add to my memories. (And best wishes to anyone who remembers me – and not just the back of my head as I sat at the piano.)

    Martin Jacques

    Hello David,

    Of course we all remember you and your contribution to Bitter Sweet and Camelot. Thanks for your post, I read it out to mum over the phone this evening and she was very interested to reminisce about both plays having been involved in both of them as I was with Camelot – it being the first Grange play I was ever involved in aged 13. I still remember being horrified at having to wear those red tights on stage as the page – you’re very self-conscious at that age!

    Camelot was a terrific experience to be involved with, and I remember watching my mother in Bitter Sweet and thinking how good it was as a young lad.

    I remember the after show parties at the Grange as lively affairs. At the Camelot one, Cliff who played Mordred, rewrote the theme tune lyrics for us to sing to Fred and Val and they went something like this if I recall them:

    Come a lot. To The Grange a lot.
    You know they do it rather well.

    and then later:

    In short there’s simply not.
    Much time to learn the plot.
    So it must be the magic that our Val and Fred have got!

    Crikey, I can still recall these remnants after all those years, and I’m nearly fifty now!

    I hope you’re keeping well David. Mother, father and Lindsay also send their regards.

    All good wishes.

    Martin Jacques

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