Methodist Church Pantomimes – A brief account
Many non-conformist churches and chapels held Sunday School anniversaries during the month of May. Congregation, children and pupils, headed by a small brass band, all suitably dressed but often out of tune, paraded the streets with collection boxes. This was followed by both an afternoon and an evening service when the children would be paraded out, boys in their newly-pressed grey short trousers and white shirts, and girls in pretty white party frocks, many purchased by the use of a ‘divi’ received from the Co-op. No coloured fabrics, trousers or jeans in those days! Additional chairs would be gathered from all available nearby houses to pack gangways, with total disregard to safety, while staging, in tiers, rose steadily (and un-firmly) to the ceiling. Here would sit row upon row of young, bright faces, smiles beaming almost doll-like across to parents and relatives sitting cramped almost two to a seat, to hear their beloved-ones sing and recite Bible passages and pass along the collection plate with the largest denomination being a very generous six pence, or a shilling at the most.
The anniversary was the highlight of the year, the most important date in the calendar when the whole village would somehow get involved. In addition to this there was the Sunday School Queen effort, organised each year from 1953 by Mrs Marjorie Prophett. Under her leadership many thousands of pounds for the chapel was raised.
However, one activity that changed everything for the Chapel and indeed the village of Penkhull was the commencement of the Methodist Church Pantomime that became almost an institution. It was the idea of Mrs Ethel Buxton who started this series of shows that lasted for nearly twenty-five years as a fund-raising effort for the church.
The first production entitled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was staged in 1958 and was presented almost in a makeshift theatre in the upper schoolroom of the Sunday School. Because of its huge success and public praise, it was decided to present the following panto in what was then called Penkhull Senior School the following year. The new venue had a large stage and many schoolrooms that could be used for dressing and props. The next production, Cinderella, surpassed all expectations and the mould was cast for an annual pantomime to be presented the week after Christmas every year. Mrs Buxton continued to produce for three years and was followed in that important role in 1962 by Mrs Betty Powell, by which time the organisation drew in many helpers to build the props, install the lighting and paint the scenery from both chapel members and the local community. My mother-in-law, Meg Palmer, took charge of the costumes; Dennis Cotterill the lighting and electrics. Other helpers in those early days were Mrs Marjorie Prophett; Mr and Mrs Tom Rowley; Frank Adams; and Jim Powell who helped to produce the props plus a massive volunteer group.
After a few years at the Senior School, it became necessary for the company to move to the old infant school which became available to them. Once more the building had to be adapted for the production, the sides of the stage being built up to form wings and storage space. Electrics had to be added and school classrooms adapted to accommodate a huge cast in addition to what appeared to be hundreds of mums as dressers. Rehearsals for the children commenced early in September and often the dress rehearsal would be held on Boxing Day ready for the opening performance the following day. I became involved in 1963, when asked to take charge of the theatrical make-up to produce Aladdin.
For a short period, the production was taken over by Mrs Grace Roberts. The leading role of Aladdin in 1963 was played by Susan Palmer, who was, several years later to become my wife. For many years Susan, with a beautiful contralto voice, would play the lead whilst her father, local grocer Cyril, would play the part of Dame, a part which he played for nearly all the pantomimes. After finishing her education at Manchester Royal College of Music, Susan took over the important roles of both producer, musical director and choreographer, positions that she held until 1991/2 when illness stopped all her activities.
The Methodists Women’s Fellowship were the backbone of the refreshments, bringing trays of tea or orange juice to over two hundred patrons seated either on benches, chairs or even window ledges to get a better view. After the last performance many of the parents would assist in carrying most of the chairs back across the village square to the chapel at the top of Newcastle Lane.
At its height, the company would consist of nearly a hundred. Around forty to fifty children from 4 years upwards both from the Sunday School and the wider area of Penkhull would be trained to perfection, whilst teenagers took smaller roles and adults took the senior parts. In addition, there were around twenty back-stage crew to ensure the show went on without a hitch. Coach loads of parents and children would travel from all over North Staffordshire to see the annual show, which would run for a full week, or even eight performances.
Over a period of thirty four probably more than £50,000 was raised for the benefit of chapel funds, a remarkable achievement. Unfortunately, Susan was struck down with glandular fever in 1992 and was unwell for some time and unable to carry out any activities. As a result, the following pantomime was cancelled, and like so many other things it never gathered the momentum to commence again.
If you were one of the many hundreds who took part over the years and would live a permanent record of the Pantomimes to retain for the family, well Christmas is the perfect time to purchase a copy. A full account of the pantos fills one whole chapter in my book The Royal Manor of Penkhull which is still available at a reduced price of just £20 including UK postage. Just email me and I will send full details on how to order etc. firstname.lastname@example.org
or contact me to the address on the contact page.
This material is © Richard Talbot.
Here are a number of photographs taken over the years – can you identify anyone? If you have any and wish to share please send to the site em address on ciontact page
Dick Whittington 1980