Greenwich Theatre…The Early Years

Stephen Moreton-Prichard, 1998

Now here’s a book I’ve been searching for for a long, long time. I’d heard of it, I’d even seen it – at a distance. Unfortunately, I’d never actually had a chance to see its contents. And I was desperate to.

I knew it had an afterward by Neil Rhind, which was good enough for me, and in my mind I’d built it up to be an in-depth history of the theatre from Crowders days, all the way through to sad times, as drawn so poignantly by Geoffrey Fletcher in the 1960s. In my imagination, it logged the valiant fight in the 60s to save the building, covered the people who were active in the campaign, and the rebuild – all the way through to its glory days in the 1970s and 80s when pretty much every British actor who was to become anybody trod its hallowed boards.

And it is a handsome volume. However if I’d had a chance to even leaf through it before I bought it, I probably wouldn’t have lost sleep trying to get a copy for myself. For this is a book that although fascinating in itself, wasn’t written for me. Instead it is a (literal) snapshot of the those glory years for the people who were involved in the place’s saving – people who knew Stephen Moreton-Prichard and Ewan Hooper, and wanted a keepsake of their efforts 30 years on.

It’s essentially a book of photos of the productions, as Stephen Moreton-Prichard turns out to have been the theatre photographer. And they are rather wonderful pictures – from the days when Greenwich was a full producing house and clearly a serious force in British theatre. There are some truly heroic-looking productions – brave choices as well as the old favourites. I’m sure the pictures were chosen to show the breadth of famous actors who worked there, but virtually every photo has some household name in it – sometimes several. For a pure theatre lover, it’s gold.

For me, though, who had been hoping to read some history of the theatre, and its place within the town’s bigger story – and whose knowledge of its recent story is shaky to say the least – it felt a bit like peering through the Play School Arched Window at Derek Griffiths in jazzy dungarees or dressed as an Indian chief rather than seeing the whole picture. Neil Rhind, in just a hundred words or so, manages his best – I found out that Ewan Hooper seems to have been the driving force behind the regeneration of the theatre and that Stephen Moreton-Prichard, as photographer, was in the right place at the right time, turning out to be perfect for the job.

As I say, this book wasn’t created for us – it was made for people who knew first-hand the struggles the place went through, so I guess to reiterate what they’d achieved might have felt like boasting or something. But for me, who wasn’t around at the time, the context is a bit lost. Neil Rhind says that Moreton-Prichard was present at rehearsals, and I’m sure he took photos of the fabric of the building, the rebuild and the people, but this book is just polished production shots and only half the story – however very, very lovely they are.

The only picture of the building itself is on the cover. I’m suspecting it’s of one of the Old-Time Music Hall nights that were very popular in the 1970s, but it’s taken from behind the MC’s back, showing the audience – who are in themselves very fascinating. Whatever happened to dressing up like Margot and Jerry Leadbetter to go to the theatre?

Don’t get me wrong. This is a lovely book, especially if you’re a theatre fan/star spotter, and it’s very, very rare. You may be luckier than me, and find it in less than four years. Just don’t expect to know much more about what has to be an absolutely fascinating story after reading it than you did before.

I have a plea to make – perhaps to Neil. Please will you write us one of your specials about the history – both ancient and recent – of Greenwich Theatre? It seems to me to be important that it’s written by someone who knows first-hand. It’s especially timely now that the theatre is making its first tentative steps into producing again (Duchess of Malfi and Volpone are both on now.) I will order my copy today, if that helps….

In the meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a roll-call of just some of the people you could have expected to see if you visited Greenwich Theatre in the 1970s and 80s:

  • Max Wall
  • Susan Hampshire
  • Martin Shaw
  • Tom Conti
  • Barbara Windsor
  • Michele Dortrice
  • Derek Griffiths
  • Mia Farrow
  • Bernard Bresslaw
  • Andrew Sachs
  • Julia Mackenzie
  • Alfie Bass
  • Derek Jacobi
  • Nicholas Lyndhurst
  • Glenda Jackson
  • Pehelope Keith
  • Tom Courtney
  • Geraldine McEwan
  • Michael Gambon
  • Kenneth Branagh
  • Rupert Everett
  • Edward Woodward
  • Felicity Kendal
  • David Wood
  • Bill Kerr
  • Freddie Jones
  • Fenella Fielding
  • Nicola Pagett
  • Robert Stephens
  • Maria Aitken
  • Ian Ogilvy
  • Roy Hudd

9 Comments to “Greenwich Theatre…The Early Years”

  1. scared of chives says:

    A night out with Fenella Fielding, Michele Dotrice and Felicity Kendal – who could ask for more…oh, and Bernard Bresslaw

  2. Robert No 16 says:

    Dear Phantom
    This really takes me back.I remember going for an audition with Ewan Hooper (the then artistic director)in the house attached to the theatre in Navada st. I recall him being very kind and encouraging. The house in those days was the office and so forth for the theatre.I understand that the council took the building in exchange for funding the reopening of the theatre after many years of being dark.It was not till many years later that I finally trod the boards of the Greenwich theatre.I had been very ill with a break down and would tear tickets as an usher to get me out of of the house.One evening I was called to Hillary Strong`s office (the current director) She said. "she had been let down by an actor and I wanted me to take on the part"I said "I had`nt acted for ages and various other excuses"She paused handed me the script and said " well ten o clock Monday.don`t be late ,do you good" I did the show Guys and Dolls. Hillary came to the dressing room on the first night and said." you got me out of a spot and as a thank you I have asked Roy Hudd to write you into the Panto Jack and the Beanstalk"which I did. The theatre has a good feel to play in unlike some theatres.Looking down your list of great actors I have worked with several. I was Babs Windsor`s Mother. Widow Twanky to BW Alladin.( at the Alhamba Bradford)During rehearsals Barbara said "your so bleeding posh and I`m so common we will have to change the script and say that Widow Twanky went down to Postmouth docks ,had a bit of rough hence Alladin`s Cockney accent" Long live Greenwich theatre

  3. Anonymous says:

    This is a chance to thank Ewan Hooper not just for all the work on the Greenwich Theatre, but for never failing to wave at a shy (and very young) neighbour whenever he saw her.

  4. Latelygay says:

    You only have to look at the production stills in the theatre's stairwells to appreciate what good stuff had gone on here.

    One knew the Greenwich Theatre in the same terms as the likes of the Hampstead Theatre and it was a regularly exporter of productions to the West End. One such was John Mortimer's A Voyage Around My Father.

    My father, the actor T.P.McKenna, appeared there just once c.1977 along with his namesake Siobhan McKenna in a collection of short Irish plays. They thoroughly enjoyed their brief run and a feature of that appearance was the audiences; quality theatre going Greenwich folk they were and genuinely appreciated as such by the artists.

    ** Btw, Robert No.16, Love the Babs anecdote!

  5. Anonymous says:

    As a nine year old living in Blackheath in 1979 I appeared in a production of Six Characters in Search of an Author at Greenwich Theatre. I was paid £5 per peformance (and I did 13) which felt like a fortune for me. It was a formative experience and the theatre has always held a special place in my heart. In April I am taking my own 9 year old (plus 7 and 3 year old) to a show there as part of the children's theatre festival. We should all support this place as much as possible.

  6. The Greenwich Phantom says:

    Aha. I've just been told there IS a book about it – by Neil, and Hilary Evans. So – a new quest for the Phantom…

  7. pat says:

    And not forgetting the late and very great Leonard Rossiter.
    Was Timothy Spall on that list also?

  8. Latelygay says:

    Begob! I don't half love the internet. Here are brief detail's for mon pere's one appearance at the Greenwich Theatre.

    1978: THE GOLDEN CRADLE: The Rising of The Moon – Lady Gregory, The Cat and The Moon – W.B.Yeats, Purgatory – W.B.Yeats, The Pot of Broth – W.B.Yeats, Riders To The Sea – J.M.Synge (Greenwich Theatre) Kevin Flood, T.P.McKenna, Patrick Waldron, Niall Buggy, James Healey, Kate Binchy, Roisin Donaghy; dir:Siobhan McKenna [24pp; articles, photos, biographies; VG] £4

  9. Latelygay says:

    Where I got the above information from is on a site where a theatre fan is selling programmes. Don't know who they is, but they seem to have been regulars at the Greenwich. For example, there's a listing for Leonard Rossiter who Pat enquired about:

    1979: SEMI-DETACHED – David Turner (Greenwich) Leonard Rossiter, Gillian Raine, Joan Sanderson, Peter Schofield; dir:Leonard Rossiter and Alan Strachan [24pp; photos, cartoons, articles etc.; VG] £2

    Not that long before he died, alas. He also seem's to have been the co-director.

    Love seeing the name of the marvellous Joan Sanderson, late of Please Sir, Fawlty Towers and After Henry. Wonderful actress.