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Strange Tales of Old Sussex: Thespians

As far as we know, none of Chaucer’s pilgrims strayed into our county of Sussex (it was a bit difficult to stray back then due to the appalling state of the roads – where there were any). So, we had to produce our own entertainment, playwrights, actors and managers. And we did!

The Bon Ton

No doubt in the intervening years our burgeoning thespians had to go to London to get on to the “right stage” but once the Prince Regent made his home and mark in Brighton in 1783, he brought a lot of the then “Bon Ton” (which roughly translates into “Top People”). This spurred the development of theatres, music halls and the Palais de Dance.

Move forward a hundred years and Brighton had its Theatre Royal and Hippodrome. Worthing too later developed its Connaught Theatre and the Devonshire family promoted a cultural atmosphere for the Arts in Eastbourne.

Royal Pavillions Sussex

Not a lot of people know that

Today there are theatres and other venues for the performing arts throughout Sussex, from the celebrated Festival Theatre Complex in Chichester to the internationally renowned Glyndebourne, with many smaller theatres in towns and villages such as Crawley, Horsham, Hurstpierpoint and Lewes. Indeed, Michael Caine first trod the boards in a small repertory theatre off the Carfax in Horsham.

So while this culture developed, how did the actors fare in our county? After the coming of the railways in 1840 it was much easier for them to live in Sussex and Surrey and work on the London stage.

A handbag?

By the early part of the 20th century, Ellen Terry lived on the border of East Sussex and Oscar Wilde had visited Worthing before naming one of his key characters after it and then having him found in the famous handbag in left luggage at Victoria station. Sir Laurence Olivier settled in Brighton and later in Ashurst, before becoming the Director of the Chichester Festival Theatre.  He was also influential in trying to preserve the breakfast kippers in the Pullman cars of the Brighton Belle!

Some of our greatest thespians were native born and bred. Sir Donald Sinden was born in Ditchling and Paul Schofield was born in Hurstpierpoint, went to school in Brighton and from the 1950s, lived in Balcombe. Down the road, the Fox dynasty of actors grew up in Cuckfield where Spike Milligan was also a soldier (at Cuckfield Park) in WWII.

Royal Shakespeare Company actor Alan Howard, and the less Shakespearian actor Terry Thomas, both went to school at Ardingly, as did Frank Williams, who played the vicar in Dad’s Army.

Who do you think you’re kidding?

At perhaps the other end of the dramatic scale, Brighton and district became popular with Max Miller and with various members of the “Crazy Gang”, who held sway in the forties and fifties at the Victoria Palace in London. On one occasion, on the last, and very popular train from Victoria to Brighton Bud Flanagan (the voice of “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler”) kidnapped the guard (perhaps with others), tied him up in his van, pinched his hat and went through the train collecting tickets.  When the weary travellers got to the barrier in Brighton, the real collector wouldn’t let them out. All was eventually forgiven when Bud came jogging up the platform with a bag full of tickets and a five pound note.

Jimmy Edwards often used to be seen commuting to and from Haywards Heath, travelling to his home in Fletching, where Dirk Bogarde’s family also lived. Dirk in fact grew up near Alfriston and Chailey and made his stage debut with the Newick Players.

And it’s goodnight from him

Whilst Valentine Dyall lived in Burgess Hill, Oliver Reed used to make regular and sometimes dramatic visits to licensed premises in the Horsham area. And in and around Crawley, for many years lived my good old friend Peter Vaughan, remembered for his role as Harry Grout in Porridge and who was still performing in Game of Thrones into his nineties.

Peter’s co-star in Porridge, Ronnie Barker was very fond of his home in Littlehampton, whilst one of his co-stars, David Jason, lived in Crowborough for a while, perhaps in the shadow of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who lived there at the end of his life (and claimed to have seen fairies there).

Last, but no means least, you used to be able to spy “She who must be obeyed” (the governing alter-ego of Rumpole of the Bailey), presiding over her antiques shop in Petworth, West Sussex.

All in all, quite a few boards have been well trodden by both the natives of and migrants to Sussex and our lives have been richer for their presence.

Contributed by Peter Benner 

If you like this, you may also be interested in:

Strange Tales of Old Sussex: Famous Folk 

Strange Tales of Old Sussex: Place Names

Strange Tales of Old Sussex: Sussex Dialect 

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