What did we do before television?

By Pam Piercey

Photo:Jack Shepherd's theatre on the beach

Jack Shepherd's theatre on the beach

From the private collection of the famous and talented Gordon Dean

Photo:Gaslit interior of the Continental Cinema

Gaslit interior of the Continental Cinema

John Banks

If we had the money we went to the cinema, or perhaps the theatre, or even took part in amateur dramatics. In those days all could command a good audience. In the summer we could also get free entertainment by standing on the seafront beside the Lift and watching the Jack Sheppard Show below - a show in which Max Miller had performed in 1919, but we were always ready to move hastily on when the man, rattling his wooden box, came around for contributions.

Public entertainment was well catered for, from the tiny " Bug Hutch " Cinema in Sudeley Place and the Kemp Town Odeon, so tragically bombed in the war, to the much larger establishments in the town centre. Brighton was also well known for theatre and music hall. The Theatre Royal was the most important, in spite of its rather narrow stage, and was never overshadowed by the pre-war newly built Imperial Theatre in North Street, whose success was marred by a fault with the acoustics, which could never be really rectified. Thus, in spite of its wonderful interior décor, moving stage and wonderful and luxurious restaurant, it was later relegated to a cinema and later on a Bingo Hall.

Lighter entertainment was catered for by the Music halls, such as the Hippodrome in Middle Street and the somewhat dingy old Grand Theatre at the top of North Road. My mother told me that the Hippodrome had once been an indoor riding school, where at the age of ten in 1893 she had learned to ride - side saddle of course.

By 1952 Brighton & Hove had 5 theatres, 17 cinemas and 2 dance halls, with open air dancing in the summer at the Palace Pier, the West Pier and the Hove Bandstand.

One of the earliest forms of in-house entertainment was the radio. Those who could afford it had a proper set, but some enterprising fathers made their own crystal sets with a cat's whisker (a tiny wire that connected to the detector crystal), something that I could never understand.

There was also a local Relay Service called "Switchit" operated by a young man from his home in Portland Place. These were small wooden sets offering the choice of one or two radio stations. After the war I even came across them in the bedrooms of the Royal Hotel in Guernsey.

We had our first radio in 1936, in time for the Coronation of George VI and Queen Elizabeth. I felt I almost knew them for at the age of 5 I had received a very special smile and wave as they drove past my lone flag-waving figure perched up on the high wall of our Doctor's house, "Devonia" at the bottom of Carden Avenue. Then, as Duke and Duchess of York they had just opened the Pylons on the 30th May 1928.

Radio began to mean more to me than just unknown voices on the box. Most of the early BBC broadcasters had started in the Repertory Company at the Brighton Theatre Royal. Among these was Gordon Cryer, whose parents, with whom we became very friendly, lived in 30 Sussex Square (I lived at No. 34).  Gordon Cryer produced the comedy radio show "Band Wagon" which was responsible for the early introduction of Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch. Thus Sussex Square saw many famous broadcasting personalities down to stay with the Cryers for a week-end by the sea.

I grew up in the colourful but strictly disciplined world of dancing. At the age of five, while finances were still rosy, I attended the Doris Isaacs School of Dancing where my sister, who was eight years older than I, also attended. She was a wonderful dancer and could have been a ballerina had she not grown too tall. Instead she became the School's Head Teacher, choreographing many of the dancing shows and designing and making many of the costumes and ballet dresses.

To preserve authenticity, particularly for the Music Festivals, some of the costumes and accessories were hired. These came from the Theatrical Costumers, Drury's, who had a shop at the Church Street end of New Road. This was a magical place to visit, with its huge glass display cabinets full of wigs, masks, glittering tiaras and elaborately beaded costumes. The glass counter exhibited all the full range of LEICHNER stage make-up.

For fittings you had to visit their storage building in Jew Street, a little cul-de-sac four streets higher up the hill. This was an old three-storey building with a rickety open slatted wooden staircase and each floor was crammed with every imaginable type of costume. YOU NAME IT THEY SEEMED TO BE ABLE TO SUPPLY IT - FROM A CORONET TO A PANTOMIME COW. They also had a huge scenery store in Coalbrook Road, opposite Kemp Town Station.

Once a year The Isaacs School held its big dancing display for parents to see the ability and progress of their little darlings. At the end of these shows the leading lights were always presented with elaborate boxes of chocolates or bouquets of flowers, no doubt good training for the day when some of them might make it to the big time! My sister was always presented with the same huge beautifully be-ribboned box, which was never opened and certainly never produced any chocolates. Eventually I was told there were no chocolates, just little pieces of coal wrapped in newspaper. This attempt to keep up with the Joneses was the first indication that money was no longer plentiful.

One of the things I hated about these dancing displays was the heavy stage make-up. A professional was always hired and she seemed to put it on with a trowel. First one stick of grease-paint followed by a second. Thick lipstick, heavy blue eyelid coverage and black eye-liner, even a red spot on the inside corner of your eyelids. This mask-like feeling for a six year old was horrible, though perhaps I should have been grateful for there was one occasion when it saved me being facially scarred for life.

After the show I had been invited to visit an elderly couple who lived in the flat above ours. They wanted to see me in costume and full stage make-up. They had no children, only a very precious fox terrier called Spot, with whom I was very friendly. I was to be given the choice of two presents - one a glass bead necklace making kit or a very pretty little doll with real hair. We all sat round the large polished dining room table while I made the difficult choice. Spot also sat on the table, giving me a rather odd look. I heard the old man say "Oh look at Spot doesn't he look silly" then the dog leapt at my face and savaged my left cheek. I had enough sense not to pull away in case he took a huge chunk out, so kept moving close to him as his nose repeatedly hit my face. It seemed ages before they pulled him off, but his teeth never penetrated my skin for they slipped harmlessly on the grease-paint. I got both presents! and was taken next morning to the large toy shop in Preston Street to be bought a third, much to my mother's horror as she saw me depart in the back of their big car, with Spot sitting beside me - once again I was the friend he knew so well.

It soon became abundantly clear that I would never develop my sister's star quality. Yes, I could tap dance and my legs grew long enough for high-kicking in the chorus line, but I had no ambition whatsoever to join the then badly-paid, painful, hard-working world of dancing. Thus I became a stand-in for emergency appearances and was pushed, somewhat reluctantly, on to most of the stages in Brighton.

OH HOW I DREADED THOSE WORDS ....... "Come on, you've got to learn this dance"

Shortage of time meant you were the one person terribly under-rehearsed. A nerve racking experience, particularly when dancing the Maypole Dance in the ballroom of The Grand Hotel at a charity performance in front of the old PRINCESS ALICE (Princess Alice lived at Brantridge Park in Sussex). One false move could have scuppered the whole thing.

It was on one such emergency occasion that I found myself in the ballet chorus at the old Grand Theatre. The DancingSchool pupils were part of an old fashioned scene amid scenery depicting dark oak panelling. Scenery, in those days, was anchored by huge lead weights, guy ropes and struts of wood, of which we were told to be very careful. Having just done my meagre leaps across the stage, I was sitting with my mother in one of the Side Boxes watching the rest of the dress rehearsal as Esme Wilson, the tiny star-turn of the DancingSchool performed her solo. Suddenly I saw the scenery move and start to rock forward, then I saw my sister dash onto the stage to grab Esme, just as the whole lot came crashing down in a great cloud of dust, splintering wood and pieces of canvas obliterating anything that might  have been underneath.

"Stay there and don't move" commanded my mother as she dashed back-stage. Oh what a relief it was to see her a few moments later with my sister quite unharmed. My sister's bravery and quick thinking probably saved the little girl's life.

It was not until 1942 that my stand-in dance services were once again required. Time in between had been occupied by a very strict education at the Blessed Sacrament Convent at Walpole Lodge in Eastern Road (now the BrightonCollegeJuniorSchool). It was a French Convent that expected not just exam passes but credits. School leaving and the end of my SecretarialCollege training once more left me, like a sitting duck, for dancing emergencies. This time it was the war-time Troop Concert Party in which my sister performed several nights a week touring Sussex. Permission for my attendance was on my mother's strict conditions that I did not consume any alcohol whilst being entertained in the Officers Mess afterwards. (In those days 18 year olds didn't drink)!

I only did four shows - one at Tangmere, one at Ford Aerodrome, one at Crawley and one at Crowborough, but it was great fun! Secrecy was paramount in those days and the threat of invasion meant that all signposts had been removed. We never knew where we were going, not even the driver of the 42-seater Southdown coach knew his destination, his instructions were to go to a certain cross roads and wait. So we sat in the dark in a blacked-out coach until dispatch riders arrived to escort us, mysteriously, for the remainder of the journey.

The Concert Party consisted of a very good conjurer, a comic, solo singers, musicians and dancers. My sister also performed solo Scottish dancing which was very popular with the troops from north of the border. The stage usually consisted of tables roped together, not the easiest basis for tap dancing. It was long before the days of mini skirts so our very short pleated ones were very popular, particularly when I had forgetfully only pinned my borrowed one at waist and my whole left leg was emerging every time I did a high kick.

My sister's participation in the dancing world (and consequently mine) came to an end in very happy circumstances. A few months later she married a First Officer in the Merchant Navy. He had been recently torpedoed twice and been awarded the MBE for bravery for saving the Captain's life, so the Shell Oil Company decided he should be given a rest from Oil Tankers and appointed him Crew Superintendent in New York, where he and my sister spent three happy years away from our wartime austerity.

December 1942 was not the best time to cross the Atlantic. They went in a banana boat from Milford Haven, but the sea was so rough that there was no sign of any U-Boats. My brother-in-law - a silent hero - travelled in civvies. He didn't want it known that he was in the Merchant Navy and be asked a lot of questions that security forbade him from answering. Having been caught twice in his pyjamas by the Germans he didn't want it to happen a third time, so he prepared their cabin on the first night - life jackets at the ready, warm clothing to hand with any valuables pinned securely thereon. When the stewardess came into their cabin, she looked round with a knowing smile and said:

"It smells of the sea in here".

Wartime regulations forbade any requests for gifts from America. The censoring of correspondence was so strict that if you did so, the letter would simply not get through, so I wrote amusing poems about searching for certain commodities and sure enough, mysterious parcels would arrive, always with the same blue bordered labels but never with any indication of the sender. My sister used the visiting Captains entertained by she and her husband to act as her courier, thus I got many parcels of goodies posted in various ports in England and Scotland where their ships had docked.

They returned home in October 1945 in a flour cargo ship. My brother-in-law had to sign on as an assistant First Officer and my sister as a seamstress, though the only task she ever performed was to sew a button on the Captain's uniform jacket. They brought back with them 21 packing cases containing a variety of things from a bedroom suite to time-saving kitchen gadgets that we had never seen before. Once home she designed and had built an American styled fitted kitchen, unheard of in those days. All this gave us a glimpse of a different world from our wartime utility Britain.

Now all the time-saving equipment has become common place and we have moved on into the press button age of in-house entertainment and rapid world-wide communication - way beyond anything ever imagined years ago.

This page was added on 09/09/2006.
Comments about this page

Re Doris Isaacs dance school.
My sister Pamela Grant was there at about the same time as you were. Would you believe it, although now well over 70, as well as teaching ice dance, she still runs her own children's dancing school in Nova Scotia Canada.

Some 50 years later, her nephew (my son Stephen) also attended the school, but having proved he had an obvious lack of talent as far as dancing was concerned, became a Brighton comedian with his own weekly radio show on BBC Southern Counties Radio.

Roy Grant

By Roy Grant
On 10/12/2007