Panto family from Dunmow look back at 50 years on the stage
- Credit: Archant
Those were the days. 1965 and Idle Jack had to be fetched back from the boozer during the interval, so he could go on for the second half. The show had to go on - and during the 1950s it did once, during a power cut.
There were no lights on the stage and the pianist had to play in the dark.
In professional pantomimes, the ‘accidents’ are meticulously rehearsed.
Everything in a panto is orchestrated down to the last flutter of an eyelash on Daisy the Cow - but on the amateur stage what you see is likely to be real.
Belinda Savill, who has been involved with the Dunmow Pantomime Group for 56 years, says: “Last year, the dame fell over and his wig fell off.
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“The audience thought it was an absolute hoot so we kept it in, but he found it was not as easy to do it for every performance on purpose.”
Belinda started young. Her first pantomime was in 1963. She was six and she went on as a robin.
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Her dad, Norman Baker, was “dragged along” that year by his wife, Hazel, but he has seen every show since.
In those days, the shows were directed by professional dancer, Lilian Judges, principal of Dunmow’s Marcelle School of Dancing. She had been one of three dancing sisters, called The Marcelles.
Miss Judges’ dancers would have been well-drilled but sometimes the backstage crew played tricks. Like the time they deliberately put a tree on stage up-side-down.
Then there was the time when a rope slipped on a pulley as a backdrop was being lowered and the stage hand (who later became Belinda’s husband) managed to hold it and stop it hitting one of the cast on the head.
Belinda remembers: “That was my best friend Martha. There was a huge metal bar in the bottom so it could have been fatal.”
Belinda took over from Lillian in the 1980s as director of the Dunmow Pantomime Group’s show.
By then, Norman, was already hooked.
Norman, now 94, says: “I like the laughter and to see people enjoying themselves.”
This year, it’s Dick Whittington, and on-stage will be Belinda’s daughter, her son-in-law and her three-year-old grandson, on to the fourth generation of the family.
Norman was born in Great Bardfield and learned engineering in India, serving in the Royal Tank Regiment in the Second World War.
After being demobbed, he worked for 49 years as manager of J L Smiths Cars in Dunmow. He met Hazel at a dance at Foakes Hall. After decades of happy marriage, Hazel died just a few years ago.
Norman bought Belinda’s first sewing machine on which she has made hundreds of panto costumes down the decades.
In 1974, it was a state-of-the-art Swedish machine, which cost £800, at a time when a decent annual wage was £3,000. Belinda recycles costumes when she can but there are still some 200 plastic boxes of costumes in storage in Norman’s loft.
And her dad made the pantomime props. Among his pieces de resistance, a mangle big enough for an adult to be rolled through (for the gag in Aladdin where someone shrinks in the wash - a grown-up actor goes in and a little child runs out). He made a steel coach for Cinderella, and a pair of huge giant’s boots for Jack and the Beanstalk.
Norman, a founder member and former chairman of Dunmow Round Table, has always said he is too busy to perform himself but Belinda says he never worries about standing on a stage to give a speech.
Like at his surprise retirement party, when he had to speak off the cuff. It was arranged with his old friend Peter Baines whose relative George Baines has his name on the Dunmow War Memorial having gone down in the first ship to be sunk during the Second World War.
Belinda said: “It was November and Peter told dad he was coming down from Scotland to see the memorial and he would take him to dinner at the Saracen’s Head.
“When they passed Foakes Hall, Peter said he just had to call in to pick up a mic and said to dad, ‘I won’t be long, you come in with me’.”
When he realised he had been set up, Norman said: “I thought to myself, what a lousy trick.”
Norman has been going to pantos for 56 years but his favourite is Cinderella, for which he made the glamorous coach. Dunmow Pantomime Group’s Dick Whittington at Foakes Hall is on December 29, 30 and 31 and January 1.