Star spotting in the Blackpool wartime shows

By Barry Band

Saturday, 25th September 2021, 4:55 am

Don’t you just love the star photos that Claire is locating for this series of wartime flashbacks?

Mums and dads and grans may remember them from Picturegoer and other 194Os mags but I can’t recall ever seeing last week’s movie stills of Cicely Courtneidge in Under Your Hat, and of Arthur Askey with Richard Murdoch in Band Waggon.

The photo of Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock was also a cracker but fans of my generation were more likely to have remembered 1962’s TW3 pic of Millicent Martin a few weeks ago.

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Robert Helpmann and Margot Fonteyn in ‘The Quest’, performed by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. Photo: Getty Images

Now it’s back to star-spotting in the Blackpool wartime shows.

From my old books I see that Margot Fonteyn made two visits with the Sadlers Wells Ballet.

The first was to the Grand in December, 1940, on a tour caused by the government’s requisition of their London theatre as a relief centre for victims of the German bombing blitz.

The company had no scenery and no orchestra.

Noel Coward playing the piano at home. Photos above and below: Getty Images

All the music was played at two pianos by their musical director, Constant Lambert, and their rehearsal pianist.

When Margot Fonteyn and the ballet company returned to the resort for two weeks in May, 1943, it was to the Opera House and they had a full complement.

Ivor Novello was another artist who made more than one wartime visit.

After starring in his own comedy, Second Helping, at the Grand in November, 1939, he appeared in his musical success, The Dancing Years, at the Opera House in April, 1941, returning with the show in the November.

John Gielgud made his third Blackpool wartime visit, starring as Macbeth, at the Opera House for a week in April, 1942.

Noel Coward was another big name to come north during the war but although he only played a week at the Grand in September, 1942, he appeared in three of his works.

It was six nights and three matinees in his launch of a 28-week tour with premieres of This Happy Breed and Present Laughter and a reprise of his Charles in Blithe Spirit, which was having a big London success with Cecil Parker in the role.

A Gazette ad proclaimed his visit to be the resort’s outstanding theatrical event of the year and in an interview Noel said of Blackpool: “Enchanting place.

You read about it and don’t quite believe it. Then you come here and find it true.”

What a charmer!

Anna Neagle appeared only twice on the Blackpool stage.

Taking a break from her many screen triumphs, she came to the Grand for a week in June, 1944, playing the title role in Emma, by Jane Austen.

In 1959, as a young reporter, I interviewed Miss Neagle (we always had to be formal) at the Grand when she was touring in Ronald Miller’s comedy The More the Merrier.

“It was sent to me as a film script but was more obviously a play and brought me back to the stage for the first time in six years” she said.

A lady with a greater familiarity with the Grand was Evelyn Laye, who first appeared there in 1923, in a revival of The Merry Widow.

In November, 1944, she was there in another Viennese piece titled Three Waltzes.

But the lady appeared in Blackpool 18 times in a span of 40 years.

We’ll get them all in one article, next week.