Initially the Maidenhead Operatic and Dramatic Society (1909-1930) and since 1950 Maidenhead Operatic Society we have long tradition of bringing high quality theatrical productions to stages in Berkshire and Maidenhead.
Before We Started (1909-34)
The old Maidenhead Operatic and Dramatic Society (known as MODS) first took to the boards in February 1909 and continued until the middle 1930s.
In the Edwardian era the shows of Gilbert and Sullivan were still relatively new and a complete change from previous melodramas, so it was not surprising that the first MODS production was The Mikado, which ran for five performances at the Old Maidenhead Guildhall. At the time it was pronounced “best amateur show ever seen in Maidenhead” and was greeted with much enthusiasm by the public. The show was directed by Walter Mead and H.J. Johnson, with Frank Willett as the musical director. Mr P. A Murphy took the role of the Mikado and Walter Read was Nanki-Poo.
The subsequent repertoire of the MODS included four further Gilbert and Sullivan shows (The Yeomen of the Guard, Trial by Jury, The Pirates of Penzance and The Gondoliers) as well as now long forgotten dramas such as Jim Penman together with musical successes of the day including Tilly of Bloomsbury, Miss Hook of Holland, The Country Girl and The Geisha. This last show was performed at the Maidenhead Hippodrome in late March 1925 and is remembered together with MODS by Stanley Woolf in his memoirs of Maidenhead “The Lumies Tree”.
“Maidenhead had its Hippodrome: a somewhat obscure and unassuming building, tucked away down by Chapel Arches on the floodplain. Performances were sporadic. In the winter season, when the Maidenhead Operatic and Dramatic Society gave its annual show, the star of them all was the mother of particular pals, Harold and Bubbles Breakspear. Mrs Breakspear had formerly been an operatic singer of considerable note before her marriage and we had a real cult for her, especially in her role of the Geisha.”
Information on the society’s productions after 1925 are sparse and it is known the MODS stopped performing in 1934.
MOS is Born (February 1950)
The Society was formed in February 1950, and came about as a result of a casual encounter between the Reverend Stanley Spencer, at that time Vicar of St. Mary’s parish church, Mr Frank Hammersley, the then Organist and Choirmaster of St Mary’s and Mr A. H. Smallwood from the North Country, who had lately taken up residence in Maidenhead. This providential trio felt that there was a need in the town for an operatic society and they decided to hold a public meeting in order to test local reactions and perhaps to attract a large enough nucleus, sufficiently interested, to enable a start to be made. This memorable meeting was duly publicised and held at St Mary’s Church Hall on February 9th, 1950. The attendance numbered about thirty, but the enthusiasm of those present more than made up for the lack of numbers.
Frank Hammersley was in the Chair and the meeting formally minuted the formation of “The Maidenhead Amateur Operatic Society”. The society officials appointed were Mr H. Manby-Colegrave as Chairman, Mrs Vera Deller as Hon. Secretary and Mr Ralph Deller as Hon. Treasurer. The other committee members were Mrs Dorothy Harmsworth, Miss Sylvia Smith, Mr Ralph Gathergood and Mr Frank Hammersley. Mr A.H. Smallwood was installed as the first Musical Director and Mrs Eileen Stacey as the first Producer. Such was the enthusiasm and confidence of those present that they also selected as the Society’s first production The Pirates of Penzance, which was staged in the following November.
The presence of Mr A. H. Smallwood in Maidenhead at that time was fortuitous indeed for “Fred”, as he was later to be so affectionately known, had had considerable experience as Musical Director with societies in the North. He was a very talented musician with the great gift of being able to interpret and teach with profound feeling and perfection, a gift that has passed down through a long line of Musical Directors to our present incumbent John Timewell.
“Fred” recalled that Rev. Stanley Spencer had told him that he would back the venture and let the society have the use of St Mary’s Church Hall for free, on the condition that any profit made would be given to the Church. The three original promoters of the society had each contributed 2/6d for the initial announcement in The Advertiser and the show made a final profit of £100. Fred was very keen to point out the orchestra supplied their services free!
The extreme wisdom of the choice of Eileen Stacey as Producer was well borne out over successive productions. Eileen, throughout her childhood, had lived in an atmosphere of Gilbert & Sullivan’s music and had played many of the leading soprano roles in local amateur productions.
The Society was particularly fortunate in having as its first President Alderman J. B. Maudsley C. B. E. who, despite many public duties, served with much personal interest and assistance, as have all our subsequent Presidents.
Of those who participated in that first performance Win Law, remembers The Pirates of Penzance and the shows that immediately followed.
“I came to Maidenhead in September 1949 to teach music at the then County Girls’ School, now Newlands. In January 1950 my opposite number at the County Boys’ School, Frank Hammersley, persuaded me, without much difficulty, to join the newly formed Maidenhead Operatic society for their first production – The Pirates of Penzance. I had little or no idea of all that this would involve but was quickly welcomed as a member of the chorus.
I had only seen one G. & S. opera before, (Patience), and I remember the delight of hearing Gilbert’s wonderfully witty words and Sullivan’s brilliant settings of them for the first time.
Rehearsals in the tiny hall in Brock Lane were fun, with Eileen Stacey producing and Fred Smallwood directing the music. My main memory of the principals is of Frank as the splendid Pirate King!
During the course of rehearsals someone realised that I could play the piano so for the next three shows – The Mikado, Gondoliers and Yeomen of the Guard I was the rehearsal pianist and joined the chorus at the last minute. I used to take my knitting to occupy me during the dialogues and got it down to a fine art as to at exactly which words to exchange knitting needles for the keyboard.
I was surprised and delighted to be given the small part of Kate in Yeomen of the Guard. This was to be my last show with the Operatic as schoolwork and other interests made it impossible to fit in the twice-weekly rehearsals and the full week of performances.
Those four years of G. & S. were a great experience. Now, when I go to see one of the Operatic’s shows I fully appreciate what dedication and hard work goes on before we, the audience, sit back and enjoy ourselves.”
The First Non G. & S. (1963)
The first production that Maidenhead Amateur Operatic Society put on that was not from the comic pen of W.S. Gilbert and the musical score of A. Sullivan (apart from San Marino in 1958 about which little is known) was another wonderfully funny and entertaining show. The Merry Widow was originally Die Lustige Witwe with the original book by V. Leon and L. Stein with music by the ever popular Franz Lehár. The original show was premiered in Vienna on the 30th of December 1905 and was played more than 400 times in the first sixteen months in the repitoire. The amateur version that was performed in Maidenhead was only five years old having been re-written in English by Phil Park and Lehár’s glorious music adapted and arranged for the amateur stage by Ron Hanmer.
The musical director for The Merry Widow was Norman Austin who recalls the adventure into the new style of show:
“I was 24 when I first conducted with MOS and their illustrious producer Eileen Stacey, just one year before the New Town Hall opened. This was at the tail end of the Gilbert and Sullivan period and one that broke new ground in 1963 with outstanding performances of “The Merry Widow”. This cast I have not been able to better over the years in any of the shows I have conducted.
Lehár’s nephew visited the show over from Austria, who enthused that it was a better production than many he had seen in the fatherland.
During my years at Maidenhead, Eileen Stacey taught me much about theatre craft that has aided me considerably in dealing with artists, both amateur and professional, and I gained a reputation when producing classical records for being able to handle the most temperamental performers around.”
Grand Opera (1970)
Having expanded the Society’s repertoire from Gilbert & Sullivan to include operetta, 1970 saw the next foray into new territory. The Magic Flute is a wonderful mix of Mozart’s spell binding music with romance and Masonic ritualism. This production also marked the first arrival of two current members, the first being Valerie Barnes (NODA Silver medallist). Val has, since her debut, performed many roles in the society’s shows and has also served on the committee for many years. The second debutante with the Society in 1970 was Jenny Warren who has also subsequently served on the committee and now runs a highly successful costume business that regularly adds immeasurably to the look and feel of our current productions. One of the founder members of the society, Mike Braxton took on the role of Papageno and remembers the production of the Magic Flute.
By the completion of the Magic Flute the society had performed 23 shows, played to 32,000 people and had donated many hundreds of pounds to local charities.
“Let me take you back to Elmslie School hall, because it was there that MAOS used to rehearse. On a dark mid-January evening auditions for this production were held. It was, without doubt, the most musically challenging thing we had yet undertaken and, as always there were a few Jonahs about!
However, we had the late Eileen Stacey as producer and John Groom as MD who had the requisite enthusiasm to make it a success. And as so often happens, the work itself attracted a large number of welcome new faces. By the way, the score cost 17/6d (87½p) from Boosey & Hawkes Ltd.
I was very fortunate to have been cast as Papageno and I have to confess that I saw the whole production through rose tinted spectacles. Such was my enthusiasm that I made my own set of pan pipes which are still in tune today!
We had a galaxy of delightful and very accomplished singers who made this a memorable production for all participants. They included John Crayford – still in good voice I hear, as is Sallie Brooks when not directing, my wife Jill, the late Jill Maggs (a superb multi-talented Papagena), Sonia Redway, David Owen, Jenny Warren and the late Richard Perrett. On the Wednesday of the week of the show Richard auditioned for ENO and they asked if he could start the next Monday! Things went wrong of course and I do remember being thrown on the Thursday night when Jill Maggs – at the end of the ‘Papapa’ song in the finale, produced a white painted rugby ball. That ‘stayed in’ for the last two nights; with Eileen’s consent, of course.
Nearly 25 years on stage with the MOS were some of the happiest in Jill’s and my life and never more so than during this production. It was a grand team and perhaps, even deserved “Operatic Triumph” on the news-vendors’ billboards in the town.”
Gypsy Baron (November 1982)
The Gypsy Baron is an amateur adaptation of Johann Strauss last successful operetta Die Ziegeunerbaron with the original’s premiere being in Vienna in 1885. The story centres around the goings on when Barinkay returns to claim his inheritance from the pig farming mayor Zsupan. Needless to say the show includes some great tunes and the gypsy theme is very strong in both the original and the Park and Hanmer version first published in 1956. Add in some hidden treasure and the show becomes a gold mine of entertainment.
The gypsy Baron was the third show that was put on by the production team of Maggie Uttley and Christopher Grant. It was also the second year that the society had performed two full shows a year, previously fund raising concerts were performed in the summer. The show saw performances by some of the faces that have been very familiar to recent productions of the Society. These include Chris Wells as Czipra, Alan Forrester as Zsupan and Sheila Gregory as Arletta. The show’s lead was played by Dennis Osment who at the time of the show was living in a caravan (though not of the gypsy variety!). The director Maggie Uttley has fond memories of the production:
“Maidenhead was the first company I directed when we moved south from Scotland and there began many happy years full of fun, laughter and hard work by everyone involved in the productions.
The gypsy Baron had superb singing as always but the scene with Safii and the gypsy Queen weaving their enchantment and bewitchment was breathtaking. The singing, lighting and costumes all created an atmosphere of magic , witchery and spells.
Dennis Osment who had played a magnificent Haj in Kismet was chosen to be the gypsy Baron. His hair always appeared white under the lights so we decided he should dye his hair blond!. Pru Neale produced the dye and Dennis duly went through the procedure – but with no results. He must have tried 6 different.dyes (it’s a wonder his hair didn’t fall out!) but still the beautiful shock of white hair remained. Since it was totally resistant to the treatment it was given we gave in. Despite these problems his portrayal of the part was excellent and I’m sure the audience wasn’t a bit concerned at the colour of his hair!”
Our Very Own Show (November 1992)
Ivor was a show specially created for MOS to enable us to perform a show using Ivor Novello’s great music and show style. John Timewell was the creative force behind the show as well as producing and directing the music. He recalls the show from it’s inception to it’s successful performances.
“It all started in 1991. The committee had talked for a number of years about the suitability of Ivor Novello’s shows for the Society but, as ever, the difficulties seemed insuperable: little work for the chorus; massive sets; no singing role for a leading man; large orchestra, and so on. Three options were considered and the committee was unanimous – it would be a full show and it would occupy the main November slot in 1992. ‘Ivor’ had been conceived.
It was a huge project. The company had to be persuaded to accept this somewhat unusual project as the main show for the year, some form of budget had to be set, permission had to be obtained from the publishers, and a script written. Also there was an additional problem in that some numbers would have to be orchestrated.
We were fortunate that of the eight musical shows written by Ivor Novello, six were published by Samuel French, and of the other two we only planned to use a single number from one of them and nothing at all from the last. We were even luckier that John Beddows from Samuel French was extremely helpful and supportive of the idea. Permission was granted to perform extracts from the shows within the context of the story of Ivor Novello’s life.
The show needed a shape, a theme, something to hold it together, and it was decided to structure the show around Ivor’s final performance on stage, the evening before he died. A narrator would be used to tell some of the story and to provide a link between some of the scenes. The narrator would also be an integral part of the show, since it was to be a drama not a concert.
The choice of narrator was crucial and David Stares was asked to take on the role. Once he had agreed, the narrative could be written. The script was planned over many months, but the final version written in a few weeks.
Rehearsals were interesting. We had to beg or borrow sufficient scores for the whole company of 42. There were also manuscript versions of some special chorus arrangements needed. Joyce Burton agreed to choreograph some of the more sophisticated musical numbers and the show gradually began to take shape.
The opening of the show needed a treble soloist to sing the part of young Ivor. We found two, and Stephen Gibson and Jonathan Weait took the role on alternate nights.
Utopia Costumes in Worthing were able to provide us with costumes that were in keeping with the period and looked most glamorous on stage. Scenery was more of a problem, but Rod Coombs and Peter Piper were persuaded to build what we needed, a large multi-level truck to which could be fixed a variety of structures such as lampposts, thrones, and altars. Backdrops were too expensive but a new company, Border Studios, was hiring out cloths at a very much reduced rate. We were able to hire one for each act giving us the variety we needed. The stage was to be dressed by Joy Piper and Doreen Sambrook so we were confident that the sets would sparkle.
Our biggest problem was finding the right piano. This was needed in a number of scenes and at other times was to be stored in the wings. What we eventually found was the largest, heaviest monster of a piano imaginable, with a manoeuvrability that was several stages worse than a ten-year-old Tesco trolley. The stage crew loathed, but it was all we could find. So we polished it, put an elegant cloth on the top and, in its own way, it became a star. The orchestra was encouraged to play loudly whenever it was being moved, and the cast learned to position themselves in front of its less attractive features while the curtains were open. But its best trick was to lose a castor and the audience was greeted by the piano standing on two legs and a stage weight!
Ticket sales were encouraging, but we were surprised and delighted to find that we needed to sell tickets for the dress rehearsal to satisfy demand.
Did ‘Ivor’ succeed? The audience certainly liked it and we played to packed and enthusiastic houses. But perhaps the true measure of the show’s success was the eagerness with which the audience joined the Company when singing ‘Rose of England at the end of the show. It was stirring, moving and intensely gratifying.”
Ivor was a real milestone in the Society’s history since very few such groups could claim to have a show specially created for them. John’s energy and drive combined with the the enthusiasm of the cast are the real core of what makes MOS the special group that it has been for all of it’s 50 years.
The Anniversary Year (2000)
So we’ve finally come to the 50th year of the society. It started off with a real celebration for the members with a special Anniversary Annual Dinner Dance, held at the Maidenhead Golf Club House with a live Jazz Band. As ever at the core of the events of this milestone year are the shows themselves. Around these have been several other events to mark the birthday including a revival of the summer walk in Burnham Beeches, which was a lovely morning’s exercise crowned with a stop in one of the many local pubs.
The May show was one of the Societies recent triumphs with a splendid rendition of My Fair Lady. Not the least contribution to the success of this show were the wonderful key principals headed by Sián Marshall as Elisa Doolitle. Sue Price created the wonderful cockney feel of London and the formality and poise of Ascot with her superb direction, which was matched by the reliable musical interpretation lead by John Timewell. One of the key elements of the show’s success was the cast’s sheer enjoyment and sense of fun in the performances.
by Kit Hobson & Jerry Tong
Recent History & The Present
We are currently updating our recent history to bring you more information about MOS. Stay tuned for more very soon….