Greenwich Night Pageant (1)

Roll up, roll up, for the most exciting night of your life! Thrills! Spills! Milkmaids! Jolly Jack Tars! Sea Shanties! Ballets! Admiral Lord Nelson and Good Queen Bess! In fact every good thing your imagination can dream up, all in nine spectacular nights of theatrical bliss. The Pageant is coming to town!

The year is 1933, the date – well June 16th, actually. Germany may be slipping into fascism but here in Britain the good burghers of Greenwich are slipping into tights. The curtain will go up at dusk on the One Am-Dram To Rule Them All, The Greenwich Night Pageant.

Exactly 75 years to the day, we mark the culmination of a dream dreamed by the frankly-rather-odd President of the Royal Naval College at the time, Vice-Admiral Barry Domville, C.B, C.M.G (about whom more later…) He decided that what Greenwich really needed was a giant gang show, to be performed by military and local people of Greenwich alike, depicting the history of the town, with all the rubbish bits cut out.

Everyone fell on the idea – especially the Lady Mayoress, who immediately cast herself in the role of Nelson’s chief mourner – but there were parts for all. An incredibly ambitious piece, it would involve 2,500 performers and the stage covered roughly the area that that marquee the Ark Charity built for their shindig last week. The stands (which seated 12,000) covered the bit of lawn where the statue of George II sits. Here’s a plan, in delightfully 1930s-style (as usual, click on the image to make it bigger)

Seats ranged from 1/6 through to a whopping 21/- (if you wanted to hob-nob with the nobs in the row next to the Royal Box) but with that many performers – and even more people behind the scenes – just the relatives of those involved must have put a fair few bums on seats.

The pageant was devised by Arthur Bryant – who you may have heard of if you’re a Pepys fan – he wrote several books about the diarist (mainly the naval aspects of his career.) He very wisely realised that sundry council officials, naval bigwigs and local ladies-who-lunch were unlikely to do anything in the way of actually learning lines. So he made sure it was 98% spectacle so that all the VIP actors had to do was shuffle on in costume and wave their arms around. Rousing music from the Blackheath Conservatoire’s String Orchestra and the Band of the Royal Marines, massive backdrops with coloured lights and exciting silhouettes would be co-ordinated from backstage and narrated by a fabulously pompous “announcer,” whose resonant voice would guide the audience through two hours (no interval) of sumptuous eye-feast.

So, as a tribute, 75 years on, let’s relive the event, blow-by-thrilling-blow. Pray, allow The Phantom to be your guide as we watch the spectacle unfold. The orchestra is tuning up, the Lady Mayoress is in her finery and the splendid ladies-of-the-town behind the scenes make the final preparations (see below).

Enjoy your whitebait supper provided by MacFisheries, and a cup of char supplied by sponsor Mazawattee, pick up a sixpenny cushion for the relief of your rapidly numbing backside, and wait with me for dusk to fall and the curtain to rise. Next instalment tomorrow…

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