Amateur Dramatics, School Productions and Pantomime

Alongside the Dartmoor literary figures who wrote for the London stage in the early part of the 20th century, a tradition of local amateur dramatics existed, and continues to the present day. Amateur dramatics, which is defined for the purposes of this history as the presentation of plays from the professional stage by amateurs, has thrived in the small towns on Dartmoor’s fringes, often driven by the energy of a single individual with some kind of professional performing background.

South Brent, for example, had two theatrical groups by the beginning of the First World War, the Magpie Minstrels and the Oh Joy Concert Party. The archivist of the South Brent Amateur Dramatic Society, Maggie Taylor, writes:

 Through all the years between 1907 and the end of World War Two, the village showbiz scene was dominated by one particular person. He was Mr Arthur Manning, a professional pianist and later the leader of his own dance band, as well as the organist and choirmaster of St Petroc’s Church. He was involved in almost all the village entertainments, produced and devised most of the concerts, was a co-founder of the Pierrot Troupe and was responsible for both the Quadrille Band (formed I think in 1919) and the Brent Brass Band which he founded and trained in 1924. It was also Arthur Manning who founded and ran the village’s first amateur drama group of which, in spite of being nearly blind, he was also the resident producer.1

This group went on to perform Eden Phillpotts’ comedy Devonshire Cream in the 1930s, and is still in existence. In 1993 their production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller won three awards at the South Devon Drama Federation Festival.

 Also dating back to the first half of the 20th century is the Buckfastleigh Drama Group, which was founded in 1939 by a garage proprietor named Frank George. He produced Tilly of Bloomsbury which ‘took the town by storm’. The group produced entertainment for Buckfastleigh throughout the war years and like SBADS is still going. Marian Hoff, their archivist, writes:

With regard to the kind of material which was performed, we have a very varied list of plays and authors. People seemed to like a thriller and so we have had several plays by Agatha Christie. We also varied things by having comedies, farces and dramas. If I list a few authors, you can see what I mean..Phillip King and Falkland Gary, Maurice McLoughlin,Tennessee Williams, N.G. Hunter, J.M. Barrie, Henrik Ibsen, J.B. Priestly, Noel Coward, Arthur Miller, Oscar Wilde, Charlotte Bronte, W. Somerset Maugham, William Douglas Home, Alan Ayckbourn. In the earlier years our audiences loved to have Devonshire plays such as Yellow Sands and Devonshire Cream [both by Eden Phillpotts, the second with his daughter Adelaide], but now that there are so many newcomers in the town I am afraid that these would not be so appreciated as they wouldn’t understand the language.We find that Alan Ayckbourn is popular now and we have already performed one of his Norman Conquest plays – namely Table Manners – and this was our first production in the round.2

Bovey Tracey is another town on the edge of the Moor with a vigorous amateur dramatics group, whose roots certainly stretch back before the Second World War, but which was founded in its present incarnation as the Bovey Tracey Players in 1971, beginning with an Easter play. The group has performed pantomimes and musicals as well as plays. In 1983 they put on Buzz Off – We’re British, a play written for them by a local author, Michael North, and set in Antarctica. But this was an exception – as a rule, the material has been from the mainstream of British and international drama.3 Other amateur dramatics groups include the Tavonians in Tavistock, the Teignbridge Theatre Company in the Buckfatleigh/Ashburton area, and the Teign Valley Players based at Christow.

The suggestion implicit in these examples is that the tradition of amateur dramatics in the Dartmoor fringe towns, with an audience, a large part of which has not grown up on Dartmoor or even in Devon, and who often commute to the cities to work, has moved away from performing work which is related to Dartmoor. This is not the whole picture – for instance, SBADS produced a humorous historical piece for the Ashburton Tinners Festival in 1994 entitled Snap Shots of South Brent by Peter Brown and Bovey Tracey Players in 1998 produced a community play – but essentially the amateur dramatic tradition has increasingly looked towards the cultural centre for its material.

Occasionally, though, a group with an amateur structure can produce something which is not merely a reflection of what has been done first elsewhere. The Goliards was founded by Mary Morton in 1967 and run by her from her home in Chagford for the next three decades, though most of the performances were given outdoors at nearby Shilston. Much of the material performed over thirty years were classic plays (often Shakespeare). But in 1991 the group performed Mary Morton’s own original musical play Mary Whiddon, based on a local legend, which in its scope and seriousness constituted a genuine contribution to Dartmoor’s dramatic literature. This was toured to the Octagon Theatre at Okehampton Community College. In 1995 The Brown Paper Bag Theatre Company from Crediton, amateur but under the direction of professional free-lance director Peter Hamilton, produced a compendium of Dartmoor legends in a show called The Hairy Hands. Likewise, recently there have been three original school musicals at South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, two by professional writer/composer team Nick Stimson and Chris Williams and one by Phil Randall and Ralph Wickenden, all men living and working locally. The Hot Rock (1995) by Nick Stimson and Chris Williams was set partly on Dartmoor. Before working with South Dartmoor, Nick Stimson and Chris Williams had also collaborated on two youth theatre pieces with Dartmoor connections: Frère Jacques, first performed at Exeter School and later at the Plymouth Theatre Royal (1989), which featured Dartmoor Prison at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and Whistman’s Drum, performed at the Plymouth Theatre Royal (1990) and subsequently toured to Poland, which ended in Whistman’s Wood.4

Amateur dramatics, of the people as it may seem, still belongs to a culture from which many Dartmoor people felt alienated, for geographical, social or perhaps even religious reasons. In the first half of the 20th century Dartmoor people tended to go out to dances or social evenings rather than to any sort of staged entertainment. According to Walter Pearse, who grew up at Bowden Farm near Buckfastleigh in the 1920s and 30s, young men and women from the farms used to walk miles over the moor to reach a dance held in a remote hall or barn. Curiously, the dances he attended were mainly ballroom, rather than country. As a boy, Walter attended Ashburton Grammar School between 1930 and 1936, and he remembers that the pupils performed plays by Shakespeare at that time. But on the high moor he never encountered any theatre, although people would stand up and sing or recite poetry at Methodist social evenings in Scorriton. Much later, well after the Second World War, Walter acted with Buckfastleigh Drama Group and played the blacksmith of Marazion in a mystery play.5

Tony Beard, who grew up in the parish of Widecombe, remembers social evenings with music in the church house in the 1940s, at one of which Sylvia Sayer’s sons played. There were special events on Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, with a midnight church service after the latter, instigated by Colonel and Mrs Olive to raise money for parcels to be sent to soldiers serving abroad. A local man made a present for every child, and Tony remembers receiving a wooden tank. At these events Perce Prouse played drums, Rose Prouse played piano-accordion and Lily Hambley piano, providing the music for dancing. Tony’s grandfather played the violin at Watergate Methodist Chapel, along with other members of the Chapel band. At Dunstone Chapel the Misses Bellhouse played viola and cello This mixture of social events, music and dancing connected with church and chapel echoes the memories of Walter Pearse at Scorriton. But Tony Beard also recalls performances of plays in the Widecombe church house just after the war, with themes such as ‘Cowboys and Indians’. Things were beginning to change. During the 1940s Wilfred Beard, Tony’s uncle, began taking coach-loads of people from Widecombe to see pantomimes at the Palace Theatre, Plymouth, and the Theatre Royal, Exeter. In 1950 a pantomime – Dick Whittington – was performed in Widecombe itself at the Church House.6

cast performance amateur dramatics school productions pantomime

Play with the theme of ‘Cowboys and Indians’, Widecombe-in-the Moor, circa 1949.

There seems to have been little or no pantomime in the moorland villages in the first half of the 20th century. For many people on Dartmoor in the second half of the 20th century, however, pantomime was their main or only experience of live theatre. An example is The Moorland Merrymakers based at the remote Leusdon Memorial Hall. They have been going since 1965 when a group of young women attending keep-fit classes persuaded their husbands to join them in putting together a show, which turned into a pantomime. Tony’s cousin David Beard was joint-author with Bob Bates (head teacher at Widecombe School) of the first pantomime, based on Aladdin. The production cost £30 to stage. In 1966 this group also put together the first of many spring reviews, with sketches written by themselves, which toured to venues such as Manaton and Postbridge. Costumes in the early days were often made from brocade curtains procured at jumble sales, and each producer used to spend £20-£30 on building up equipment which would be available for the next production.7 The fact that this Widecombe-based group performs at the only village hall in Widecombe parish indicates the importance of the village hall – many not built until after the First World War, and some much more recently – in the resurgence of theatre on Dartmoor. Other moorland small towns and villages with pantomime groups performing in their village halls include Chagford, Moretonhampstead, Dunsford and Postbridge.

1 Maggie Taylor, Letter to Mark Beeson, 2/10/1997.

2 Marian Hoff, Letter to Mark Beeson, 12/11/1997.

3 Ann Broom, personal communication 2 /11/97.

4 Heather Stimson, personal communication, 4/5/1999.

5 Walter Pearse, personal communication, 24/6/1998.

6 Tony Beard, personal communication, 16/2/1999 and 28/5/1999.

7 Tony Beard, personal communication, 16/2/1999 and 28/5/1999.