24 May 1943, John Charter's wartime journal | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

24 May 1943, John Charter's wartime journal

Date(s) of events described: 
Mon, 24 May 1943

Sheila and I, with some useful suggestions from Yvonne, eventually concocted the action (the whole thing was in mime) and then we had an awful game casting it. At first we gaily started off with the idea of introducing well know Victorians such as Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone etc., but we first found it was going to be difficult to evolve a suitably short and convincing action for them and then we found it was almost impossible to suitably cast them. Also, we felt that with no speaking and no compering, the audience would probably not gather who they were supposed to be. So in the end we contented ourselves with just the Duke of Wellington.

The young Queen (Jean Mathers, who looked the living image of the young Victoria) and Prince were discovered on the stage when the curtain went up. They were supposed to be on the terrace overlooking a walk in say St James Park or Hyde Park, and this was represented by a small draped platform. The Prince wore uniform something like that of the Artists Rifles dress uniform and the Queen wore white with a full skirt, the blue sash of the Garter and an order pinned upon it, with a tiara on her head. For this camp it really was amazing, the credit was largely due to Christine Corra who undertook the difficult costumes for the whole pageant though, for this particular pair, everyone seemed to have a suggestion. Any way, this curtain raiser always brought a round of applause from the audience.

These two chatted happily for a while (the whole action was set to music and accompanied by Betty Drown) and then the Iron Duke entered to ‘The British Grenadier’ and after being received, stood talking to the Royal pair. Then their first 3 children came on with their nurse; Sewell, as Prince Edward, was dressed in a sailor suit – he is about 5 and a most intelligent little boy. Ruth Sewell was Alexander and little Annette Brown (3) was simply charming as the next Princess – whoever that was. She was dressed in blue crinoline and her mother taught her to curtsie to the Queen. Her father was killed here during the war, poor kiddie.

To describe the action of all this will take too long, but the children (who are on their way for a walk) are approved by the Queen, and the little Prince, after much saluting of the Duke, toddles off with the others, only to return to point at the Duke and when the Queen laughs and nods he drags that smiling and aristocratic gentleman off with him. Mr Glass (of Cable and Wireless) made a grand silver haired Duke with a hawk like face. Then the Queen and Prince watch the procession. First an old flower woman; then two gallants evidently waiting for an appointment - they buy flowers; enter haughty chaperone and blushing ward and in the end one beau manages to ‘get off’ with the ward. They stand aside chatting while enter a Victorian family, Mother and Father (Eve Gray and bewhiskered Mr Moss) and 10 children, paired off according to size and followed by a pretty and buxom nursemaid (Isa) with pram containing two chubby and flaxen haired little boys – John Potter aged 2 ½ years ((probably Chris Potter - his father was named John)) and Nicholas Goodban aged 1 ½ years. This family practically filled the stage by the time they were all on and it was a pleasure to listen to the growing volume of laughter coming from the audience as pair after pair of them appeared!

The nursemaid, of course, was followed by two tall and handsome guardsmen who tried to engage her in conversation. A boy and a girl in the family started quarrelling and pandemonium raged (the children acted very well and thoroughly enjoyed it; Mama and Papa quelled the rebellion and two boys chased after the muffin man who walked across, bringing him back to distribute a muffin to each child. Exit family in close formation while the nursemaid lingers and flirts till the return of the indignant Mama hustles her off. Then enter a drunk who is held in check by one of the beau’s who beckons a peeler while the other beau escorts off the two ladies. That concluded scene 1 and the curtain was drawn.

In between, Sheila and Henry Heath danced the newly arrived waltz, and very effective it was. This Victorian scene took place on the stage and on the floor in front, the actors often entering onto the stage and walking down. The dance was on the floor. This enabled the old Queen to get into place (Mrs Graham-Barrow). She too looked very regal in black with her white widows’ cap and blue sash of the Garter. Again she was on the terrace, this time over looking a seaside esplanade. With her was Prince Edward. Then entered his son Prince George, with his little son Prince Edward. The small Prince was played by fair haired Harry Daubrowski (a native of Yorkshire!) aged about 5. He too proved a favourite with the audience. Then the four generations were photographed by the court photographer who with his assistant retired, followed by the younger Edward and George.

We then had a parade of English sporting people; first was Dr Grace (with beard) and young admiring friend demonstrating some cricket strokes; then two early lady tennis players; then a deer stalker and angler comparing notes and demonstrating; next, two croquet players, followed by a blushing tandem couple to the tune of ‘Daisy, Daisy, give us your answer do’, and finally a couple of very coy and skittish bathing belles and a pair of very playful bathing men. The costumes were simply grand! The bathers evoked shouts of mirth!  Christine Corra takes all the credit for that and she had about 60 people to dress! I never actually counted up our cast! The act ended with two couples dancing in to the polka and gradually all the others that are left join in while the poor old Queen, who has gradually been growing more and more shocked, raises her hands in holy horror. The whole action lasted about 15 minutes.

Looking back on it now, it seemed fun and quite worth doing – the audiences certainly seemed to like it – but neither Sheila nor I enjoyed producing it, and actually it could have been much better than it was. James had a peculiar idea about rehearsals, he had the whole cast up at the hall for 3 hours and we would run through the whole programme, starting with the country dancing – going right through to the cries of London. This meant that most of us spent the mornings or evenings hanging about and when it came to our turn Sheila and I did not like to hold up the proceedings too much by individually rehearsing the characters. It would have been better all round if James had given each act a definite time or day to use the hall, then we could have been on our own and got down to things. James was taking the part of Nelson in the one act play and that made things a little difficult because he wanted it to come at the end of the programme and the rest of us thought it was not suitable for that. This seemed to be the general consensus of opinion after the show, but that did not help matters.

The final programme was: 1. Country dancing, 2. A tavern scene with songs  from different parts of England (these two were performed together more or less, at least, the country dancing on the floor in front of the open tavern scene and it was very good. The dancing was a very bright and happy affair), 3. Some choral items and, a very amusing men’s quartet (in Victorian costume) 4. The Victorian Pageant, 5. Cries of old London (produced by Wendy Whittaker, and very affective too – beautifully dressed), 5. ‘Before Trafalgar’.

The original idea of a grand finale was cut out. That really would have been too much of a good thing. As it was there were over 100 performers and there were 35 in Betty Drown’s choir and all the 100 actors and actresses were in costume! Tail coats were miraculously converted into morning coats, trousers were turned over at the side and stitched to make them look like Victorian tights; evening dresses were transformed into crinolines etc. The tandem was a triumph, it was made from the mere triangle parts of two old bicycle frames that had long since been dismantled of all else. These were wired together by Tony Sauh who then fixed on two large pram wheels, wooden seats cut out of Red X boxes (which I covered with bits of a rush bag) pedals and cord (for chain) fixed on audience side only. It really looked prehistoric!

Viv Garton, Mrs Corra, Christine and Betty Tebutt made people up. I kept out of the way as it was stiflingly hot in the small room. ‘Before Trafalgar’ was superbly dressed, but frankly, for the rest I was disappointed. James Norman was not a suitable Nelson and Mrs G. Jenner had not come up to expectation in her producing. However, in her defence I should say that she and James did not see eye to eye about the portrayal of the character and she is probably not to blame. James sounded a little too pompous and public school for the part, which by the by is no affectation of his, but an impression that he conveys. I cannot think of a man in the camp who would have made a convincing Nelson. Richard Mills as Hardy and Jim Moody as one of the admirals were both very good.

The greatest thrill, which electrified everyone on the first night, was the playing and singing of the National Anthem, at the conclusion of the show. It was the first time we had heard it in camp and it brought tears to not a few eyes. James had asked Gimson early on if we could play it and Gimson said he would not prohibit it. James had kept it a complete secret and only he, Betty and the two drummers knew anything about it. Yamashita had come to the concert on the first night (this was unexpected) and we wondered if it would mean trouble. He was sitting next to one of the Chinese supervisors and evidently did not recognize the tune for, according to those sitting near him, he did not rise until the Chinese supervisor, who knew the tune and had stood up, prodded him in the back, whereupon he hastily scrambled to his feet!  Rather a nice story. He was in no way put out and said he had enjoyed the concert and allowed us to sing the Anthem at the other two performances. Now we have the National Anthem on special occasions – National anniversaries etc. Now Y and I are sitting back and doing no more in the entertainment line until next autumn (if we are still here).

A few evenings ago, when Y and I were out for a walk round the camp, we met Dinnie Dodwell who passed on the tragic news that the Pritchard’s had just received news of Hugh’s death. She could not give us any details but this morning we heard it was in a tank accident near London. Apparently the tank in which he was travelling was overturned and though the members of the crew were extricated in time, poor Hugh was dead before he could be rescued. What a tragedy; not even killed in action against the enemy. I feel so terribly sorry for Mr & Mrs Pritchard and Pam. Hugh had been such a favourite with the family and they were all so proud of him. These days one becomes hardened to reports of bereavements among acquaintances and then, suddenly, one gets a horrid jolt like this. I remember Hugh so well on the ship coming out, so very full of life. He was coming out for the long vac having completed his first year at Oxford. It was thanks to him and his family that I had such a marvellous entre into Hong Kong. And I remember going to the ship with his family to see him off again, after war had been declared – how keen he had been to get back and join up. To receive news like this in this awful camp is really too painful. 

The Lammert’s received a letter from Australia a week or two ago, definitely confirming Ernest’s death here in HK. His name had been on the official list of those killed. Fancy having to get the official news that way round. They have taken it very bravely, he like Hugh, is the only son.