Thursday, 31 December 2015

Local treasures of Bicton’s Countryside Museum

Continued from 

Visiting other museums as I sometimes do I realise how cramped we are for space at Fairlynch, considering that our museum is supposed to ‘exhibit artefacts and information about the history and development of Budleigh Salterton and the Lower Otter Valley.’

That’s a largish area, extending as far as the village of Newton Poppleford, and with so many aspects. Off-hand, I can’t think of too many items at Fairlynch which are to do with farming or agriculture, which play an important role in our area.

Bicton’s Countryside Museum is bursting with such items. Not all of them are local. This Fordson tractor, built by the Ford Motor Company at Dearborn, in Michigan, USA, dates from 1917 and is probably one of the oldest in the country.  It came from Mitchelstown, in Co Cork, Ireland.

But there are many items given by local donors, which reflect the support given to the Bicton museum’s founder, Colonel ‘Jimmy’ James, in his quest to preserve the local heritage.

Farming items include this advertisement for a sale held at Hill Farm, in East Budleigh, in 1911. It was presented by Mrs K. Turner of Pavers Farm, Otterton.

These are drenching horns, for dosing stock, used as a funnel to pour large quantities of medicine. They were given by a Mr W. Sanders of Fore Street, Otterton. 

A useful explanation comes from the Legendary Dartmoor website: ‘The very reason any oral treatment was called a “drench” was that many of the early medicines were basically lethal and had to be well diluted, this resulted in a massive dose which was literally poured or “drenched” down the animal’s throat. If you were to dose a lamb for worms today you would administer about 2.5ml/10kg of wormer, one hundred years ago you would probably pour about 560ml down through the horn.’

Among the various household items in the Countryside Museum is this acetylene lamp dating from around 1925 and presented by Mrs F.J. Harding of Hayes Lane in East Budleigh.  

Compared with modern cycle lights, this old lamp, which relied on the action of water dripping onto calcium carbide to produce inflammable acetylene gas, seems a clumsy affair.  But Wikipedia at  tells me that some cavers today still use acetylene lamps.

The oil bedside lamp also came from East Budleigh, given by Mr C. Palmer. No wonder house fires were a regular occurrence with all those thatched cottages in the village.

The fine brass sundial face is dated 1710 and was given by Mr A.J. Patch, of Colaton Raleigh.

A Budleigh Salterton donor was local magistrate J. Perriam who gave this Guinness stout bottle from the Perriams Stores grocery that he owned. 

He also gave this lemonade bottle, inscribed 'M.L. Perriam, Wine and Spirit Merchant Salterton.'

In my next posting about interesting stuff at the fascinating Bicton Countryside Museum I will present some artefacts  concerning cider-making in the Lower Otter Valley.

Object of the Month: January 2016 – the Joyce Dennys Mural

Budleigh artist and writer Joyce Dennys (1893-1991) was to have been featured in an exhibition planned for 2016.

Sadly, due to unforeseen circumstances, that plan has had to be abandoned. However, Fairlynch’s Costume Room will feature a scene from Joyce Dennys’ play Worlds Apart when the Museum opens in March.

The mural that she painted is sometimes used as a background for costume exhibitions.

The idea of a special exhibition to showcase the achievements of the talented artist and author of such literary gems as Henrietta’s War is something that the Museum will continue to bear in mind. Some of her paintings are on display at Fairlynch of course, and Budleigh Salterton Town Council has kindly consented to lend us others in its ownership.

The idea of an illustrated book about Joyce Dennys has also been discussed and this would certainly be a welcome project. There are still many of her paintings in private ownership about which the Museum would like to know more, and many people, friends and relatives, who have cherished memories of her. Just a few months ago I received an email from a resident of Philadelphia who told me that her mother had been ‘raised at Lion House by her Aunt Joyce.’ 

Before that, I was contacted out of the blue by someone who told me that she was the granddaughter of the old man portrayed in a painting by ‘Aunt Joyce’ currently in private ownership. Her mother, she told me, still has copies of her correspondence with the artist. 

Obviously there is a lot of valuable material out there which could be used in displays about Joyce Dennys, but which has not been recorded. Please contact the Museum if you think you can help.   

PS. For those who don't know the mural at Fairlynch Museum, the object in the background is a hot air balloon. The two figures with their archery stuff were part of a museum exhibition on the theme of local sporting personalities a few years ago. 

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Shakespeare and On the Buses?


This image that I posted on Fairlynch’s Facebook page got a fair bit of interest recently. Yes, ‘there is a connection’ I wrote, but I left it at that.

So here’s  a bit of what I’ve found during the research for my forthcoming booklet about Reg Varney which will accompany the 2016 exhibition ‘Our Little Clown’ at Fairlynch Museum. 

Yes, Reg did indeed play Shakespeare. Here he is as the clown or ‘wise fool’ Touchstone, a performance for which he won praise in a 1953 production of  As You Like It at the celebrated Mermaid Theatre. 

The above booklet, published in 1951 and found among Reg's papers, tells the story of the 20th-century Mermaid Theatre, the life's work of actor Bernard Miles with his wife, Josephine Wilson. His original Mermaid Theatre was a large barn at his house in the St. John's Wood area of London. This seated 200 people, and during 1951 and 1952 was used for concerts, plays and a celebrated opera production of Dido and Aeneas. For the third season in 1953 the Mermaid Theatre was moved to the Royal Exchange in London  

Of course he’s not the only comic actor who’s played Shakespeare. Ten years later, Benny Hill would win plaudits for his own portrayal of Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Thanks to Reg’s daughter Jeanne I’ve been able to go through some of his papers and photos, including the scrapbook that he kept of reviews of his early shows.

One of these which brought him stardom was called The Boltons Revue. It opened on 26 December 1947 at the Boltons Theatre Club. The Revue’s success allowed Reg to move to the West End stage after years of performing in East End working men’s clubs and entertaining troops during WW2.  He obviously thought it was a breakthrough in his career as he kept just about every review of the show, marking all the glowing references to his own performance in the margin.

A scene from one of Reg's wartime REME Revels reminiscent of one of the It ain't half hot Mum TV shows. Reg is second from the left 

The Boltons Theatre, which had opened on 15 Jan 1947, had a reputation for staging avant-garde or daring productions. The building in Drayton Gardens, South Kensington, had started life in 1911 as the Boltons Picture Playhouse. It was taken over after WW2 by a couple of ex-servicemen, Gunner John Wyse, a former Shakespearean actor and director, and 2nd Lt. Denis Blanckensee. Like Reg they had provided wartime entertainment for troops, and in the post-war period the Boltons Theatre policy was to cast ex-servicemen and women to help revive their careers.

A second important aim was to present only new plays, as opposed to revivals. Inevitably such a policy would mean that it would be in constant conflict with the system of censorship imposed by the Lord Chamberlain. For that reason it had to exist as a theatre club, the advantage being that it was not subject to the archaic licensing laws of the time. 

The theatre opened with what was described as a comedy with a musical background entitled The Lake of the Swans. That was followed by the premiere of William Douglas Home’s Now Barrabas, described in retrospect as ‘powerful stuff for the West End in 1947.’ The play was based on the author’s experience in gaol following his court-martial and sentencing to a year’s imprisonment with hard labour in October 1944. He was punished for refusing to carry out military orders during the Allied attack on the French town of Le Havre, orders which in his view would have resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians.  Among the cast of the 1949 film version was a young Richard Burton. 

A few months before The Boltons Revue opened, the theatre had staged The Hidden Years by Travers Otway, a pseudonym for Edward J. Miller.  The play dealt with the theme of homosexuality in public schools.  A later production in August 1948 was Leslie and Sewell Stokes’ play Oscar Wilde which had been banned from public release by the Lord Chamberlain because of its sympathetic portrayal of the central character.

This cartoon by Arthur Ferrier, showing three members of the cast of the Boltons Revue was published in the weekly magazine Everybody’s, on 7 February 1948

The Revue itself, though praised for its wit and lightheartedness, was notable for its lampooning of topical targets, including the Edwardian stuffiness which still prevailed in the 1940s.  

What struck audiences and reviewers about Reg’s performance was his clever use of facial gestures for comic effect. They recognised the impish quality that he brought to the stage, characteristic of the wise clowning seen in Shakespeare’s work. Equipped with a face that had, as one reviewer put it in 1948, ‘the malleability of rubber and the Puckishness of Puck’, Reg was ideally suited to play the role of a witty observer of human folly, encouraging audiences to reflect again and again: ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be!’

He had after all been specially chosen by the Revue’s director Billy Milton who  spotted the future On the Buses star one night while performing at the Nuffield Club, a centre for ex-servicemen in London.  According to an article in the Evening News, Reg ‘nearly missed discovery.’ Milton was sitting on the side, just before the Centre closed, when Reg turned his way and grinned. ‘That grin got him an invitation to join this revue,’ explained Milton. ‘Fate works strangely in show business.’   

Director Bernard Miles — later to be honoured as Baron Miles of Blackfriars CBE —  who invited Reg to take the part of Touchstone in his production of As You Like It  was in no doubt of his ability.

Another shot of Reg as Shakespeare's clown Touchstone

Reg was, he told the audience of Eamonn Andrews’ This Is Your Life on 20 May 1970, ‘in my opinion one of the very finest Shakespearean clowns in living memory... He’s got a funny face, a marvellous ear for dialogue and he’s a great technician… He really should be at the National Theatre, but the box has claimed him. It’s their loss…’

On 9 March 1948 the Revue transferred from The Boltons to St James’s, a grand 1,200-seat theatre at the heart of the West End. Reg had most definitely arrived!  

Friday, 18 December 2015

The 2015 Christmas Stewards' Social

For a small museum like Fairlynch, volunteers are vital and none more so than the stewards who give up their time to welcome visitors.  

It doesn't happen by magic. Sometimes there's a mini-crisis when a steward phones up to say that he or she is ill and a replacement has to be found. But generally things run pretty smoothly and some visitors find that our stewards are the best feature of the museum for their friendly and informative approach. 

So the trustees regularly organise a stewards' party and here are some pics from this year's Christmas social on Friday 11 December. 

It was a happy occasion and I even won a prize in the raffle. 

Monday, 7 December 2015

A Reg Varney story you won't know

Young Reg Varney - a musician before he became an actor, and an artist, and a writer!  

The fascinating story of Reg Varney’s life – from East End to West End, and then from TV stardom to a quiet retirement in Budleigh Salterton – is only partly told in his autobiography The Little Clown

The book was supposed to have a sequel, but somehow that never happened, and the reader is left just as the star of The Rag Trade and On the Buses is called up to serve in World War Two.

So I find myself absorbed in completing the story of his life for visitors to Fairlynch Museum’s 2016 exhibition. It will be called Our Little Clown and will be published in the New Year.

Like many other well known names from the world of entertainment – Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan and Benny Hill – to name just a few, Reg Varney honed his skills as a comedian by entertaining the troops. 

A young Benny in 1947. He looks quite nice after all 

For a time in the post-war period, Benny Hill was his comedy partner but was clearly ill at ease with live theatre. That was cruelly demonstrated with a disastrous episode at the Sunderland Empire Theatre in 1951 when Hill was slow handclapped off stage. ‘I could have cried for him,’ Varney said.   

Hill is generally thought to have been more far-sighted than most entertainers of his generation in spotting the potential of television, in which he was highly successful.

Reg’s letter may not have gained him an audition but it was kept by the BBC

But the ‘cheeky chappie’ from Canning Town, who went on to become one of the world’s best known bus drivers, had his own ambitions to get ‘on the air’ as early as 1935. Nowhere in his autobiography does Reg Varney mention his appeal for an audition that he addressed to the BBC from his home on 21 March 1935, at the age of 18.

Varney mentioned in his letter to the BBC that he had played with the Jan Ralfini band, one of the top bands of the 1930s, but that 'owing to expences it did not pay me.' 

'I don't think you will regret it after you hear my act', he wrote. ‘I can see by my own eyes that its cheek you want, to get on in this world. It has been my only wish to be on the air so that I can make a name for myself.’  

Varney explained that his act was ‘songs at piano & songs at accordian — also hot syncopated selection of Tiger Rag.’  He mentioned also in his letter that he worked ‘cinamars’, but that, he boldly stated, ‘is not big enough for me.’

For a boy who’d left school four years earlier, it’s a remarkably cocky and confident piece of writing. It’s interesting to consider whether the stuffy BBC clerk who received it would have passed the letter to his superiors had it not been for those misspellings and grammatical errors.