By Margery Hookings
WITH rehearsals in full swing for Bridport’s latest foray into community theatre, the spectacular, circus-themed UkuleleOpera FLEA!, Looking Back returns to 1981 when The Poor Man’s Friend was the talk of Bridport.
The Poor Man’s Friend, the Bridport community play performed over ten days in December 1981 at Colfox School, is still held in great affection by those who remember it.
Howard Barker’s play was the subject of a programme for Alan Yentob’s BBC television series, Arena. Watching that grainy programme now, it’s fascinating to see all those familiar faces some 36 years later.
The play was directed by playwright, actor and theatre director Ann Jellicoe, who founded The Colway Theatre Trust in 1978 to stage community plays.
The music was composed and directed by Andrew Dickson, the award-winning musician who is the writer of UkuleleOpera’s FLEA!, which is being staged in Bridport from May 23 to 27.
The play’s title was taken from the name of a ‘cure-all’ medicine invented by Dr Giles Roberts, who opened his chemist shop at 9 East Street, Bridport, in 1805. The building was once an inn where Charles II was almost captured by troops in 1651. Today, it’s home to the Cancer Research charity shop.
The storyline involved 15-year-old Silvester Wilkins, a Bridport boy hanged in 1833 for arson. As well as being the name of Dr Roberts’ ointment, ‘The Poor Man’s Friend’ also referred to the hangman who used a noose made from Bridport rope. The Poor Man’s Friend, Howard Barker said, could also be the revolutionary (played by Chris Waters), who gave hope to the poor man.
Interestingly, that multiple meaning has resonance with FLEA! as the word ‘ukulele’ means ‘jumping flea ' and ‘the gift from over there’. Maybe it’s this ambiguity of definition that makes for the richness in a script, allowing so many threads to develop in a story which, in turn, leads to so many people being able to be included.
Dr Roberts is buried in the graveyard at St Mary’s Church. His grave on the northern side of the building is marked by a large obelisk. It’s not far from the home of Jim Hoskins who took the lead role in The Poor Man’s Friend.
“We didn’t realise it was going to be so big, at first,” he recalls. “I saw it as something for the school children to do. But it was so much more than that.”
The community play took over people’s lives.
“You were working all day and then you had rehearsals at six, so in the evening you hardly had time to have tea. It took up an awful lot of time for everyone. And you had to be there, otherwise Ann Jellicoe would go mad. She was very sympathetic but she ruled, she laid it down.
“I spent hours at rehearsals, sometimes just sitting and watching. She wouldn’t let us leave.
“Ann Jellicoe was the first professional I ever met. I thought she was incredible. Everybody learned a lot from her. You couldn’t fail to, even the kiddies playing the crowd scenes.”
Back then, Jim’s acting partner was Terry Lunt. They’re still great friends, having known each other since 1971 when they were both in The Chalk Garden by Enid Bagnold, which was produced by Elsa Taylor at Church House.
“We did a lot of plays after that,” says Terry. “We became a double act and were lucky enough to get main parts. We formed a rapport in 1971 and it still continues today.”
Back then, Jim and Terry were referred to locally by Bridport News reporter Maureen Hymas as the Laurel and Hardy of Bridport.
Says Terry: “Ann Jellicoe talked to me about being Roberts. Jim mainly does comedy and I do straight. And then she suddenly changed her mind and said I’m going to put Jim Hoskins as Roberts and you the comedy part, which worked.”
Terry played Gurney, described by Terry as ‘a buffoon who represented all the fears of the age, with stupid ideas like the wind bringing in disease from France.’
Jim says: “It brought the community together. I’d never met so many people. They still know me and Terry from that. It did a great deal for the community. It was an eye opening experience for someone like me.”
Jenny Rockett still has the programme from The Poor Man’s Friend. It’s a work of art in itself, designed to look like an old parchment document complete with seal. Printed by Creeds, it was designed by Norman Saunders-White and Hilary Juster.
“I remember the play very well,” Jenny says. “The reason I thought it was so good was because it was about Bridport and a character most of us had heard of. It involved so many local people and it was done in the round, which was really interesting. The audience were involved and you really felt part of it. It was very well done.”
Ken Bodycombe, who had been a stalwart of the Bridport Operatic Society, took the part of Bass. Early on in the Arena programme, Ken sings as the ropewalkers make the rope on an authentic ropemaking machine.
“It was a very important scene because that was the rope that was going to hang the boy. I always remember the scene in which the hangman had to lift poor Silvester to see what weights he needed to put on his ankles when the boy was hung. It was very moving.”
“The whole production was so professional,” Ken recalls. “When it was rehearsal time, if Ann Jellicoe said you had to be there at a certain time, you had to be there and if you weren’t, you had to have a good explanation.
“It was like a big family – that was lovely. It was magical, it really was. It was a real privilege to be part of it.”
Ken wishes now that he had auditioned for FLEA! Instead, he will have to make do with being part of the audience.
“I remember being at the Friends Meeting House and Andrew Dickson came along, wearing his green boots and green jumper. But he just slotted in and he got us singing and the sound was incredible. He could make people sing who thought they couldn’t sing. He was a breath of fresh air when he breezed into Bridport.”
Christine Prideaux has been busy these past few months in rehearsals for FLEA!. In The Poor Man’s Friend, she played a townswoman and also a Scottish ghost. The latter role was part of a group of larger-than-life characters who had been wrongly hanged.
“What I remember most is working with Ann Jellicoe,” Christine said. “She told us we had to get rid of our inhibitions and we would be lying on the floor, rolling over each other. There was all this incredible preparation and we worked as a team.
“Andrew Dickson’s songs were incredible - I still sing them now. The music he has written for FLEA! is so different – still incredible, but very difficult harmonies It’s been such an opportunity to sing some fantastic songs by this fantastic chap.”
Christine is also full of praise for the FLEA! team of creatives.
“It’s really impressive this time, their ability to work with the 100 or so people in the cast - there is such enthusiasm.
“It’s very interesting that 35 years after The Poor Man’s Friend, the community spirit in FLEA! is even stronger. It just shows what Bridport can do.”
• There will be six performances of UkuleleOpera’s FLEA! at Bridport Electric Palace from May 23- 27. Hester Goodman from the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain plays Madame Celine, in a circus-themed show written by award-winning composer Andrew Dickson and directed by Niki McCretton, from an original idea by Sally Vaughan.
Tickets are available from the Box Office, Bridport Tourist Information Centre or online at electricpalace.org.uk