Influx of stars came to Blackpool as stage producers sought safe havens for wartime theatre

By Barry Band

Saturday, 11th September 2021, 4:55 am
Dame Edith Evans searches through an old tin trunk in a scene from ‘Crime and Punishment’ at the New Theatre, 1946. Pic: Getty Images
Dame Edith Evans searches through an old tin trunk in a scene from ‘Crime and Punishment’ at the New Theatre, 1946. Pic: Getty Images

Sorting through a heap of old Memory Lane pages, a chunky headline caught the eye.

It asked the question: “Was this the starriest play at the Grand.”

We’ve been short of stars these last two years because of the pandemic so I had a closer look.

Richard Attenborough played Pinkie in the stage version of Graham Greene's book 'Brighton Rock'. He played the same role in the subsequent film version. (Photo by Tunbridge-Sedgwick Pictorial Press/Getty Images)

That intriguing headline referred to another national emergency - the outbreak of war - when stage producers were looking for safe havens for their plays.

Blackpool was top of their list. It had several theatres and had a population boosted by civil servants and RAF personnel in training.

And in late September, 1939, the Grand Theatre had the play referred to in the first paragraph. Probably the most star-studded ever seen here.

It was John Gielgud’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest starring Gielgud as John Worthing, Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, Peggy Ashcroft as Cecily Cardew, Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Gwendolen Fairfax and Margaret Rutherford as Miss Prism.

English actor and producer John Gielgud (1904 - 2000). (Photo by Gordon Anthony/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Time would bring accolades to all five artists. It was Dame Edith from 1946, Sir John from ‘53, Dame Peggy from ‘56, Dame Margaret from ‘67 and Dame Gwen in ‘91, the year of her 100th birthday. She died a year later.

The play was reviewed by the Gazette’s Eric Littler shortly before he left on military service. He thought Gielgud had turned the usual interpretation of the 1895 play upside down.

Eric wrote that in several 20th Century revivals the Victorian characters had been mocked but Gielgud had shown audiences had been laughing at the verbose and unreal productions.

Under Gielgud’s direction the audience could laugh with the play and not at its Victorian quirks.

Gielgud gave a gem of comedy acting, said the reviewer, but it was Edith Evans who collected the kudos. She was a formidable Lady Bracknell, swathed in voluminous feather boas, whose presence struck terror into the hearts of all.

“It is a performance that must be seen to be believed,” the reviewer added.

Later generations were able to see it when Dame Edith repeated her Lady Bracknell in Anthony Asquith’s 1952 film.

Who could forget her stretched delivery of the phrase “A handbag?” on hearing that Worthing, as a baby, had been left in a handbag, on a doorstep?

The Oscar Wilde play had followed another West End production into the Grand. This was Noel Coward’s menage-a-trois play Design For Living, which starred Rex Harrison, Diana Wynyard and Anton Walbrook.

And a few weeks later another great name of theatre, Ivor Novello, came to the Grand in his comedy Second Helping, with Dorothy Dickson, Ursula Jeans and Martin Walker.

In the next two years the Grand Theatre had the 1940 Oscar winners, Vivien Leigh and Robert Donat, in different plays, John Gielgud made a further visit, Noel Coward premiered two of his plays and Richard Attenborough was in a pre-London week of Brighton Rock, the play that made him a star.

The net result was that the influx of newcomers gave Blackpool theatres better business in the winter months.

Next week: Music, music, music at the Opera House in the war years.