Barry Band: The fabulous ‘40s were Grand on-stage in resort

Actor-playwright Emlyn Williams
Actor-playwright Emlyn Williams

Continuing the series of highlights from the Grand Theatre’s 125 years, a dip into the programme archives of 1946 reveals the best drama in the West End and the best comedy on Broadway.

The drama was The Winslow Boy, by Terence Rattigan, seen at the Grand for the week of April 29 – three weeks before opening at London’s Lyric Theatre and winning the Ellen Terry Award for Best Play of 1946.

Dorothy Squires

Dorothy Squires

Two previous Rattigan plays each had runs of more than 1,000 London performances – French Without Tears and While the Sun Shines – but it was The Winslow Boy that sealed his reputation as a serious dramatist.

The play was based on a true story from 1912, when a young naval rating was falsely accused of stealing a postal order worth 15 shillings. The commanding role of barrister Sir Robert Morton was played by Welsh actor Emlyn Williams.

(Local playgoers can see The Winslow Boy performed by the Fylde Coast Players at the Lowther Pavilion, Lytham, from Wednesday to Saturday next week).

From great drama to a classic American comedy, Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday, which gave Judy Holliday the Oscar for Best Actress in 1951.

Actress and comedienne Yvonne Arnaud pinning the William Hammond Hodgson gold medal for 1947 on the uniform of nurse D A Longworth at Blackpool Victoria Hospital. In the centre is the Matron Miss E H MacLean.

Actress and comedienne Yvonne Arnaud pinning the William Hammond Hodgson gold medal for 1947 on the uniform of nurse D A Longworth at Blackpool Victoria Hospital. In the centre is the Matron Miss E H MacLean.

She had opened in the play in February 1946, at New York’s Lyceum Theatre and caused what the tabloids would call a sensation, as the naive Billie Dawn.

The play was seen by actor and sometime director Laurence Olivier, who promptly bought the British stage rights.

He needed an American actress for the role and signed the star of the American touring show, Yolande Donlan.

She came to the Grand Theatre for the week of December 16, 1946, prior to the play’s London opening at the Garrick on January 23, 1947, for a run of 338 performances.

Yolande Donlan had a long stage and screen career in Britain and married film director Val Guest.

Among the 15 plays that came to the Grand in 1946, prior to London, was a world premiere – but why had members of the New York Stage Guild come north to see it on a cold winter’s night?

The answer was that the play – Jane, a comedy adapted by SN Behrman from a story by Somerset Maugham – was the launch of a deal between the Guild and the leading London production house, HM Tennent.

The American author was also present at the premiere on Monday, December 30, 1946. We can only wonder which hotel had the job of pleasing the American party at a time of acute shortages.

The play did two weeks at the Grand, with a cast headed by Yvonne Arnaud, Ronald Squire and Charles Victor, before it opened on January 29 at London’s Aldwich Theatre for a respectable run of 274 performances.

The Grand’s 1946 summer season was split between a six week residency of Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years (he wasn’t in it) and nine weeks of a London Prince of Wales Theatre revue, Fine Feathers, produced by Robert Nesbitt and starring Billy Reid and Dorothy Squires, Duggie Wakefield, and Derek Roy.