Nearest and Dearest was met with gales of laughter but actors detested each other

By Barry Band

Saturday, 20th June 2020, 3:45 pm

Fifty years ago last night saw the opening of the best remembered of the Grand Theatre’s summer season plays.

It was Nearest and Dearest, the stage version of a Granada Television sitcom that ran for several series between 1968 and 73, with a peak viewing figure of 8.1 million homes in February, 1971.

So, when the play came to the Grand, the characters and funny situations were well known. Ticket sales were strong from the start and the season was extended by one week, finishing in mid-October.

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Hylda Baker PHOTO: Getty Images

But it wasn’t “all smiles” off stage because the stars, long-time Blackpool favourites Hylda Baker and Jimmy Jewel, detested each other, a fact that was later impressed on me by Bernard Crabtree, who was the entertainments manager of the Grand and Blackpool Tower Company theatres.

He said the bombastic Miss Baker was first to arrive, pre-season, and grabbed the number one “star” dressing room.

“Jimmy wasn’t having it. He pointed out he had joint top billing,” said Bernard.

“To resolve the dispute we removed the star from what we called the number one dressing room and then created two identical rooms for the two stars.”

Jimmy Jewell

In the play and the TV series, argumentative Hylda Baker and droll Jimmy Jewel (former comic partner of Ben Warriss) played Nellie and Eli Pledge, the brother and sister owners of a pickle factory in Colne.

She was a dynamic go-getter; he was more concerned with supping and betting.

The Gazette review noted that the ribald humour got gales of laughter as the unlovely Miss Baker vamped it up as a bride-to-be and the were plenty of her Malapropisms.

“I’ll have you know that no-one has ever trifled with my afflictions . . . and I can say that without fear of contraception.”

She kept a bottle of brandy for medieval purposes and the vicar had to be called to circumcise the ghost!

Jimmy topped his performance as the shiftless Eli by doing a striptease.

The play was by the series creators Vince Powell and Harry Driver and the cast included the TV show’s Joe Gladwin, as Stan the factory foreman, and Madge Hindle as Nellie’s sister.

After such a successful season at the Grand a sequel was called for but Jimmy Jewel refused to spend another summer in a theatre, two shows each night, with “that woman” - Bernard Crabtree’s words.

Apparently the filming of scenes for 25-minute TV episodes was tolerable and the two stars managed to make a Nearest and Dearest feature film in 1972.

For the 1971 summer season at the Grand Bernard Delfont’s production team signed Hylda Baker for a new play called Not On Your Nelly.

She became Nelly Plunkett, the pickle factory became a black pudding factory, Joe Gladwin was again the foreman and Blackpool’s Ken Platt came in as Josh Plunkett, a cousin trying to cheat her.

There was more “honest vulgarity” and grimacing by Hylda and even an appearance by Cynthia from Hylda’s days on the variety stage.