Around the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the Bishopsteignton Children’s Theatre, the founder, Sheila Robbins, nee Skinner, was interviewed by Luke Whitlock, an ex member of the company. This is a recording of that interview with the transcript.
Interviewer; Now, Mother Goose was in 1970, but also, I’ve got The Magic Pipe and Half-Term in the same year.
Sheila; Yes, that’s quite right. Mother Goose was for the little ones, Half-Term was for the teenagers.
Interviewer; And ’72 was Wizard of Oz.
Sheila; Wizard of Oz was quite a challenge, because everybody wanted to be in it so what we did, we got the Chorus which we had thirty, which was an awful lot for the village hall stage, so what we did, we had ten each night and we had some sort of scaffolding on the side so the ones that weren’t on that night would come and help with the singing and so everybody was enjoyed, but when it came to costume I had a friend, Dorothy Bernard, who made the dresses that you could put the shoulders – adjust it to the length of the child – which was a clever move.
Interviewer; OK Sheila, so we are recording. I’m just going to sit back and enjoy this now. So, Sheila, tell me when Bishopsteignton Children’s Theatre began.
Sheila; Well, it was an idea. At that time, I was responsible for the Cub Pack in Bishopsteignton and we had about thirty little boys from 7 to 10 years old and they had to pass a badge called The Entertainers badge so we put on a Gang Show. Well, it so happened that Bob and Jane Caldwell, who lived in the village, came to see it and they said, “Sheila – children – that’s remarkable, and boys in particular” and that’s how the idea grew, so Bob and Jane Caldwell and myself got together and the Children’s Theatre was born.
Interviewer; So, what do you mean by a Gang Show?
Sheila; Well, it was something that a chap called Ralph Reader, who was very high up in the Scout Association, and the Scouts in London and the London area used to put on a show to raise funds for the Scouts and so we did that in Bishopsteignton to raise funds for the Cubs and it was just an idea because people always thought that children couldn’t last for two and a half hours and they can and, well, I found they enjoyed it.
Interviewer; So, do you remember what year that was?
Sheila; Well, it must have been 1970-ish. Yes, it’s got to be. Well, we were 50 years a couple of years ago. Well, Corinne was around for that, bless her.
Interviewer; Well, the first shows I’ve got listed at the moment were Mother Goose 1970 and The Magic Pipe and Half-term 1970.
Sheila; Yes, I would say that would be about right but what we used to do, Luke, which people would think now is a crazy idea, we used to have what you would call a jumble sale and with the jumble sale money we would have enough money to put the show on, and when you’ve got to dress thirty children it takes a bit of doing.
Interviewer; And were they always in the village hall?
Sheila; Oh yes, all the performances were. Yes, just because it was the only place that had a stage.
Interviewer; From that early year, were you producing from the start?
Sheila; Yes. I had done a lot of pantomime. There’s a picture over there. Have a look at it. I brought it down. That was Cinderella, Newton Abbot I think, but I did lots of local pantomimes so I wasn’t completely new to the stage, but producing I loved. Particularly when you get children that, as I said earlier, have got a problem. They get up on that stage and they are Mother Goose or they are whatever.
Interviewer; So, tell me about those early days and the main people running it and how you achieved this wonderful thing.
Sheila; Well, we used to have a village carnival but you had to pay the band which would lead the procession £100 up front, so we used to put on a show to find £100 to bring the band back. When Children’s Theatre started, we used to have a Sheila’s Superstar evening to raise that money for the band and that was really how we progressed, because at one point we did two shows and a Nativity play, and the Nativity play was always in the Methodist Church.
Interviewer; So that was quite early on, I would have thought.
Sheila; Yes, it was, and Rosemary Harris, who was co-producer with me on Wizard of Oz, she was a terrific pianist and as she said, she could play the piano while children were going plonk plonk plonk on the end of the piano.
Interviewer; So, tell me how it’s gone on. You said it had its fiftieth anniversary. How did you go about selecting the shows, because presumably until you had those auditions which I remember we used to go to, you didn’t know who you were dealing with, did you?
Sheila; I had a rough idea, and of course I worked at the school so I had a good idea as to what they could do but you get mums that say “Oh, my child can dance, my child can sing”, but put them on the stage and brrrrh – you know, it doesn’t happen, but you get a little tot that likes standing up and singing. They will stand there all alone and be as big as they want to be. It’s just got to be in the child, and I was fortunate enough to be able to recognise that. We also had some with, perhaps, a problem and they would come along. I had one little boy who was very – I’m not quite sure what he suffered with – but he just could not mix. He just did not like people close to him and his mum came and she said, “Oh, Sheila, Adam would so love to be in it”, and I thought for ages and then I came up with he could be the conjuror, and he was, and he made a very good job of being the conjuror.
Interviewer; So just take me back, before Children’s Theatre, you were saying that you were in lots of theatre locally, so what did you perform and what sort of things were you involved in?
Sheila; Well, local pantomimes, they started rehearsals end of September and usually it was the first week in January and it was Newton Abbot in particular, I remember. It was in the building that is now the market, and they actually had the ponies for the coach in the market and you could slide the doors back in the Alexandra Theatre and then bring the ponies on, and that was really spectacular.
Interviewer; There’s the cinema there, isn’t there – The Alexandra?
Sheila; Yes, that was the theatre, but when I was a little girl which was a long, long time ago, we had a fellow called Mr Lascelles – he was connected to the Royal Family – well he lived at a house called Tapley. Well, the war came along and it was requisitioned but before the war started, he used to treat the village children – because the school only had about 52 children in it – to the pantomime at Exeter and we would set off in a coach and it was absolutely magical. We got to the Theatre Royal in Exeter and then we saw this wonderful thing which, for me – I would be about 5, perhaps knocking 6 – it was magic, and I think I got the bug from there, and I just loved it. I think of all the things I’ve ever done; Children’s Theatre was the one that really – well, I could achieve something with those children and that meant a lot.
Interviewer; So, what age do you think you were when you eventually got on to the stage yourself?
Sheila; Well, that’s a strange thing really because I went to Teignmouth Grammar School and there they used to have between the Houses, competitions called The Eisteddfod and each House was in competition with the other and they found that I could sing and dance and all the plays that we put on were adjudicated by Devon County Drama Adviser, and the one that collared me or said that I could do things, was a woman called Edna Bayliss and she wrote to Mum and Dad and said I ought to go into it, but when you are growing up and the war is on and everything else, it sort of got shifted but somewhere along the line I think she was the one that started the ball rolling as far as I was concerned and I was very lucky to meet some very good producers with Newton Abbot and all the way round and this producer was called Dorothy Harwood who was very well known in the Torbay area, and she produced a lot of things that I was in. You sort of learn as you go along, but as far as the children were concerned, I loved working with the children far more than the adults because children are like sponges. You give them an idea and they suddenly have got it and then you see it happening and it’s just magic.
Interviewer; So, I’m just getting a timeline. It was around 1970 that you were working with the Cubs and achieving these Entertainment badges – I remember having to get one myself – and that was the first time really that you started working with children towards a theatre goal.
Sheila; Yes, but I used to be involved at school – the Nativity things – and there was one little boy, he was supposed to be King Herod and he was 6, and we were going to do it in the afternoon, obviously, and the teacher said “Hey, I don’t know what we are going to do, he has just jibbed. He’s not going to do it”. At that time, I used to wear a necklace around my neck and I thought “I know”. Anyway, I said, “You can borrow my necklace if you are Herod”. So, he thought about it for a minute, and the whole of the Nativity was swinging it, but it didn’t matter. He did his bit, so you know there are ways that children will react. Yes, they are just strange little people, children, if you handle them the right way, they can do anything.
Interviewer; Well, I’ve got a list of some of those earlier shows, so there is Mother Goose and then you did The Wizard of Oz and then Snow White and I’ve got a few gaps then and then you did a Hallowe’en show at some stage as well.
Sheila; Yes, I’m not quite sure… There was a girl called Gwyneth White and I think it was Play School that she was connected with, and they came along and did a little thing with witches, but it was all connected. I think the parents came and we had turnips on the table and it was more of a get together, but again it was good fun.
Interviewer; And in those first few years in the 1970s I should imagine it was quite a learning curve for you, putting on all these shows and working with all these kids because you never knew precisely what you were going to get or indeed what help you were going to get.
Sheila; Ah, well, there you see again this village, Bishopsteignton, is truly remarkable because we didn’t have an awful lot. I mean, money was quite tight, so we appealed, and I know I wanted an outfit for what I called the Chorus Line which I worked from first of all, and I appealed for sheets and the mums all made pleated skirts out of sheets, but they were all donated, and they used to drop them in at the Paper Shop and we got there, but the whole village worked together and I think that’s why it was successful. You see, latterly – I mean most of the mums were at home in those days. Now, I think the mums all have to work, so they haven’t got the time to stand on a committee, which is a pity.
Interviewer; And were these shows – I mean, I presume you always had a pianist?
Sheila; Yes, we did. When we started there was Mavis Quantick. Then we went on to Rosemary Harris, then we had Ann Hatton and then of course we had lovely Gloria and also, we had a chap called Les Ellard and he used to play in a dance band, and for a while – I always remember him, everything was sort of jazzed up with Les which was lovely – until we came to the Nativity scene, and Away in a Manger never sounded the same after that, but he was a good pianist.
Interviewer; And for a while, accompanying Margaret, of course you had Gloria as well.
Sheila; Margaret came in and she had just got this little organ and they used to get on so well together, Gloria and Margaret. Well, they were just a team; that’s the trick. In fact, I went to visit Gloria just before she died, and the nurse said, “I don’t think she will know you”. I sat there for a while and I thought, “I know” and I said “Gloria, it’s Sheila. We’ve got to play that song over again” and do you know she opened her eyes and smiled and said “Sheila”. The times bless their hearts, both she and Margaret they would go over and over again because a lot of it is repetition, if the kids are happy with it and hopefully, I never gave them anything they couldn’t feel comfortable with, Luke. That is very important. Don’t stretch them till they break because they won’t give their best.
Interviewer; So, you said earlier that you started first to work with the chorus line.
Sheila; Well, you see they are the foundation. If you’ve got a strong chorus line you can get the principals in the front and direct them but if the chorus line are solid, you’re in, and so I always chose a strong one on the right, a strong one on the left and then joined them up. I always worked from the chorus line. Principals are very important but they are doing their own thing as a character, but the chorus have got to be there, and let’s face it, the village hall isn’t exactly a big stage. They’ve got to get on and off and look good. I’ve enjoyed it so much, Luke.
Interviewer; Do you have any favourite stories or favourite memories?
Sheila; Oh, I’ve got lots but I think the things that will always stick in my mind are the finales when you can stand there and they all come in and they are smiling. Dave and I – my husband – we had a song and it was called Me And My Girl. I put it into the show and he came and that was the final song that we sang and I think if that was a moment, that would be it.
Interviewer; I wondered why we often sang that song. Now I know why, it was because of that. So, just to clarify, it wasn’t always pantomimes, was it?
Sheila; What, with the Children’s Theatre? Oh no. We used to call it a Revue, and I would get a theme – where they were all pearly kings and queens and then we would do, say, a Dutch one but the theme was carried through and I would dig out all the songs that I thought would be suitable.
Interviewer; Were the challenges of producing a Revue to a Pantomime different? Because you didn’t have main cast reading a script, did you?
Sheila; No, but the thing was you see, we used to have – before we started off – Gloria and Margaret would go usually to Margaret’s house because she had got the boys who would go to bed and we would run through the songs that I had chosen and I said “Well, it’s got to go from that one to that one. I want it to sort of fold in. I don’t want any break”. And then Margaret would chip in and say, “No Sheila, that wouldn’t work” or Gloria would say “No, the tempo is not right”, so we did a whole lot of work before we got to the children. But I think of all the songs that Margaret and Gloria loathed, was one that I loved, and that was a Rosalind Russell thing that she was a stripper. Whatever was it called? Gloria and Margaret used to say, “We’re not going to have that one, are we Sheila?” and I insisted. We sang it in Cinderella, Luke. It was Laura Comer and the girl who took the part of the prince. Oh, I know what it was (hums a tune)
Interviewer; Well, that’s Me and My Girl.
Sheila; Yes. No, it wasn’t that one but it followed on that one. Oh, I’ll have to ring Laura up and ask her what it was called. Everything’s Coming Up Roses – that’s it. Margaret and Gloria hated it (taps out a rhythm) because they had to get it together. Do you remember that song?
Interviewer; I know the song, yes. I never sang it myself, but I remember it.
Sheila; But they did as Dandini and Prince Charming and you were Baron Hardup.
Interviewer; Yes, which was my last
Sheila; Yes, and you sang If I Ruled the World
Interviewer; Yes, which Charlotte Bray continuously reminds me?
Sheila; Oh, does she? She was a nice kid. She was one of the Ugly Sisters and they were great.
Interviewer; Wasn’t it Charlotte and….
Sheila; Girl – I want to say Hanson – Katie, lived on Smith Hill.
Interviewer; It wasn’t Katie Hanson?
Sheila; Yes, Katie Hanson, I thought it was Hanson.
Interviewer; Oh, I remember
Sheila; She’s still about.
Interviewer; And Greig was Buttons.
Sheila; That’s right, and Emily Neal was Cinderella.
Interviewer; It was a lovely show.
Sheila; And Rough and Ready. Do you remember Sarah Robbins and Hannah Bowden? To get kids to do comedy is quite difficult but they’d got it, because they used to work one off the other.
Interviewer; I think the first line you ever gave me was as a sailor, and the ship was sinking, and I had to say to the Captain “What about the ladies?” or something like that, and I think I must have been five years old.
Sheila; Yes, you were only a diddy because when you were the soldier, you weren’t at school.
Interviewer; Was that a soldier? it was a soldier, you’re quite right. it was a soldier; it wasn’t a sailor. But something was happening – what about the ladies?
Sheila; Yes, but that was another one. I think that was Dick Whittington. When you were soldiers, you were in sentry boxes either side of the stage and it was you and I think the little boy Farleigh – Dean. But you were only a baby.
Interviewer; I was. Well Mum always says I was on stage with you from the age of three.
Sheila; Yes, and I think she’s right, because I can see your mum taking you in her arms when it was finished because it’s quite big to get you down the steps for a little one, but mum was always there, bless her.
Interviewer; Yes, there was also in one of the Revues – I remember you had me dressed as a chicken, singing Chick Chick Chick Chick Chicken
Sheila; Yes, well that was very early on because that was a Mother Goose.
Interviewer; That was Mother Goose, was it? Was it indeed? I’m just looking at this, because I was born in ’78 and I don’t know what was 1980 at the moment, but 1981 was something called Kaleidoscope, and then ’82 was Dick Whittington, ’83 was This and That, ’84 I’m not sure, ’85 was Robinson Crusoe so those were the earlier ones that I was in.
Sheila; I should have kept a diary, shouldn’t I?
Interviewer; Oh, don’t worry. I’m going to make sure I find out.
Sheila; Yes, I’m sure you will but you see if you are coming to the latter ones, Cinderella was taped by a chap Maurice who was a Trustee at the Methodist Church and he used to come along and record but Maggie was there latterly. Maggie did most of them, and Bill Dill took a wonderful recording of The Wizard of Oz but he borrowed the camera, I think, from Seale Hayne and so we did have a recording, but of course we haven’t got it now.
Interviewer; Tell me about the Carver Cup
Sheila; Ah, now that was Doris Carver. Now when we first started, I used to work in the Treasurer’s Department at Teignmouth so I was very money-conscious and I said to Bob and Jane “We have got to have a committee and we have got to have a treasurer. It’s got to be so that the public can see what’s going on. Fortunately, there was a bank manager retired to Bishops Avenue called Reg Carver and he was our Treasurer when we first started and did the books and everything laid on correctly. When he died – we were in about, I’d say, three or four years, then his wife offered to do it, and she gave the Carver Cup to the child which the Producer thought put the most effort in; not necessarily on the stage, it could be behind the scenes, could be clearing up afterwards – that was her idea. It’s now in the Museum at Bishopsteignton – the Carver Cup. It went on for ages but that was who started it and that’s why it’s called the Carver Cup.
Interviewer; And, of course, we all had our names printed on it.
Sheila; That’s right – absolutely, but where it is now, because of course the Museum is now all on computers, so where the Carver Cup is now…
Interviewer; I seem to recall, along with the Carver Cup there were a couple of secondary shields, weren’t there, or something? Something else was given to people along with the Carver Cup for a few years. Do you remember that?
Sheila; No, I don’t
Interviewer; Maybe I’ve made that up.
Sheila; I don’t know, Luke. Corinne would be the one, bless her heart. She would be the one to remember that, because she used to be absolutely on the ball when it came to committees. I was very, very fond of Corinne. She had a terrible accident and landed up in Plymouth. They didn’t think she was going to come out of it, but I know you went down to see her and I went down to see her. When I got there, she had turned a corner and she said, “Sheila, I’ve written you a letter because I thought that I was going to die”, and I said “Oh, Corinne”. Anyway, the day of her funeral her daughter handed me the letter. She was a great person and a great one to support the Children’s Theatre.
Interviewer; Well, she was with it for many years, wasn’t she?
Sheila; Oh yes. I’m not sure when they came but I remember anybody new at the school, she used to chat up the mums and say “Ooh, you ought to send them to Children’s Theatre.
Interviewer; And of course, I first remember meeting Corinne when I was a little boy coming to Children’s Theatre because she stood behind the counter of the kitchen selling sweets. Do you remember that? There was a tuck shop.
Sheila; No, well I was probably busy doing the other bit but Corinne was a great one for drinks for the children and “You’ve got to take your costume off before you have a drink” which was so wise, because if you’ve got lemonade or whatever, or even chocolate biscuit on it, and the mothers used to say “Why can’t the kids have a drink?” and “Why can’t the kids have a chocolate biscuit?” But you see their costume would be gone in less than a minute.
I went to see Corinne because I wasn’t happy with the end of Mother Goose and she said, “Oh, I can type that Sheila”, so she and I made up the end of the version of Mother Goose and she did, she bashed it all out, but my fondest memory of Corinne was, of course, the letter that she wrote me. She rang me one evening. The show was the final show of Cinderella, and the phone went, and I said to Dave that It’s probably a mum saying – you know it was nothing for a mother to say “My little child’s been sick, Sheila, and it’s not going to come” and I used to send a little prayer, “Oh please don’t be one of the Principals” because you can fill in the little ones but not the chatters, and it wasn’t – it was Corinne. “Sheila, I’ve done the most awful thing”. I said, “Whatever have you done, Corinne?” She said, “Tom will be furious with me”. I thought, “Corinne, not like you to get in a flap”. What had happened, Bonnie Day had made this beautiful cake for a prize, which was a model of the coach of Cinderella, which was beautifully iced. Corinne had knocked it. She was looking after it prior to bringing it up to the hall, and she said, “Sheila, what are we going to do? I’ve sold tickets (she was another raffle lady) I’ve sold tickets all the way round”. I said, “Corinne, don’t worry about it. Just bring the cake up. We could get Bonnie to start again and we’ll get it sorted” and then I forgot all about it and went up to the show. When I got there Corinne was saying “Oh, Sheila, I feel awful”. You know, she was really in a stew. Anyway, fortunately, guess who won it? Andrea Bray. So, Andrea said, “Don’t worry, Bonnie. I will have it when it’s done”, but poor Corinne was in a real two and eight, which wasn’t like her.
Interviewer; It wasn’t. I remember it, because that’s when I was on the Committee as well and it’s the only time I saw Corinne in tears.
Interviewer; Absolutely, because I went down to the bungalow where they were and there was the cake. She had it in the spare bedroom on the bed and basically, I think what she said was that she had sat down on the bed, forgetting the cake was on there, and of course the springs …
Sheila; Well, it was so delicate anyway.
Interviewer; Yes exactly, so the cake bounced up and this carriage on top of the cake went flying.
Sheila; Oh, so you knew all about it. Well, that’s the only time that she lost it in my memory. She was as solid as a rock.
Interviewer; She was. Beautiful lady.
Sheila; I still miss her. She used to ring me up and say “Oh, Sheila”, and I would say, “Yes, Corinne”. She said, “I rang your number and I meant to ring somebody else”. She was just a character. I would say she was one of my dearest friends and I still miss her. We used to have our committee meetings there and she used to say things about Irene Hill. She said, “I used to say to Irene, “They’re not right for that part”. I think Corinne, in her own way, would have liked to have been a producer. She’d got it all there. The kids were her world, they really were.
Interviewer; Then at some stage, because I remember having this conversation with Corinne about this, she said, “Right, well what we’re going to do is, we’re going to make Sheila President so Sheila can oversee what we’re doing”.
Sheila; Ah, only when we formed Children’s Theatre, we made Bob Caldwell the President and then he died and his wife took over and then automatically I took over so I must have been already the President.
Interviewer; That’s interesting. Maybe Corinne didn’t know that.
Sheila; Well, that would have happened before Corinne even came, because they died within seven years of Children’s Theatre starting but that’s how that was because we were working out how long I had been President of the actual Children’s Theatre but that was the order of things and I presume it’s because we started it.
Interviewer; So, tell me; I’ve still got these questions for you. Tell me about your visit to Buckingham Palace.
Sheila; Oh, my goodness! Well, it was absolutely wonderful. You actually get presented – there’s the photograph – with the award by the Lord Lieutenant of Devon and that happens at County Hall in Exeter. Well, then you are given a letter afterwards to take you to Buckingham Palace. I actually went twice, so I was very fortunate but it’s just wonderful and the Queen is such a little person. I mean, I would be tall by the side of the Queen, and she’s got this most beautiful smile and she says, “Congratulations”, and then you go to the garden party. You go through Buckingham Palace and out into the garden and you are never going to believe this, but it was the Royal Engineers’ Band – they have two bands playing – the Royal Engineers of which my father was a Royal Engineer and what do you think they played when David and I came down the steps?
Interviewer; You are going to tell me it’s that song you both liked.
Sheila; Me and My Girl. It was almost as if Dave was there with me.
Interviewer; Was it an MBE, a CBE, what is this award?
Sheila; It’s the British Empire Medal
Interviewer; British Empire Medal. Isn’t that lovely.
Sheila; For services to the community of Bishopsteignton, especially the Children’s Theatre. That’s what I am so proud of.
Interviewer; But you said you went to Buckingham Palace twice?
Sheila; Yes. Well, I went once because of the work I’ve done within the village, and that was lovely, but Buckingham Palace is something special, it really is.
Interviewer; Let’s just go back to Children’s Theatre a minute. So, over the years – 50 years – of the Theatre running you’ve had lots of kids coming through your hands, including me and my brother and sister but you must have had experiences every now and again where you had to deal with, shall we say, a problematic child one rehearsal.
Sheila; Yes, but you see they’re only a problem if you make it a problem. The way I see it is that children come because they want to, and because they want to if you say, “No, we are all going to sit down and listen”, they will do just that but if you allow them to charge around and then you stop it – “Oh dear, we’re not so sure about that”. It’s what I call the quiet approach – children react.
Interviewer; Did you find quite a change over the years with the children coming in and their attention span and willingness to sit there and listen and rehearse?
Sheila; No, because you have to plan your rehearsal. I always planned a rehearsal. I just didn’t go up and think, “What are we going to do now?” I would work out before I got up there, so that every bunch of children in whichever section they were, would have a certain amount of time and when they seemed tired you bring the next lot on but you all sat and watched, so that nobody was charging around, for the simple reason you must respect the people on the stage because they are going to respect you when you are up on the stage. That was the policy and it worked.
Interviewer; And did you have any children that surprised you?
Sheila; Oh yes, all the time. I think that was part of the fun that I got out of it, but every child has got something to give, Luke. That was a lesson I learnt a long time ago. It’s just in there waiting to come out and it’s up to you to try and help that out. Oh no, they are wonderful little creatures.
Interviewer; And what about the music, Sheila? Because even when I was in it in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we were singing songs that were from the ‘50s or the ‘40s you know, but great tunes – wonderful tunes.
Sheila; That’s one of my top things, and again, Margaret and Gloria would tell you. I only chose songs that I knew the children would love. That’s the point, and that’s the secret. If you can teach a child a song that they hate, you’re a clever person, because it just doesn’t gel, but if you want to raise the roof, which is what I was trying to do, give them something they love.
Interviewer; I remember I used to love it, coming down the hill from where we lived on Teign View Road during the winter, because I remember the pantomimes being November / December time?
Sheila; Yes, it was usually the last few before Christmas.
Interviewer; It was and coming down the hill and putting on these pantomimes, but I remember it being three nights in a row. Was it always three nights?
Sheila; Yes, because people used to say, “Sheila, put it on for a week”. I said, “No, it’s too much for the children” because they are excited to go to bed then they’ve got to get up in the morning. You know, you can’t wear them out. I mean, when I used to do it, I used to have full dress rehearsal all day on a Sunday, performance Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday matinee and evening, Thursday, Friday, Saturday matinee and evening. Sunday I would be bushed and I was a grown up so no, you never do more.
Interviewer; That was the schedule when you were on the stage?
Sheila; Absolutely, but I do appreciate how tired you get; that’s the point, but I would like to think, when I am not here anymore, that children will say, “Yes, I was in the Children’s Theatre”.
Interviewer; Well, they do, don’t they? You sometimes meet people as you wander around?
Sheila; I do, and they’ll sort of say, “Hello Sheila”, and I think “Now, who are you?” They usually say, “Do you remember me?” But I’ve got a trick of looking at their eyes, because even when they grow up, the eyes are the same. I can usually come up with it.
Interviewer; And, of course, at some stage you and the Committee had to make the painful decision that it was time to close.
Sheila; Well, that was really because we couldn’t form a committee. We appealed for the last three years for fresh people to come and people moving to the village– and again, Corinne would sort of say – she would see them, where she lived, she could see them picking their children up from school and she would say, “Come along to the Committee”, but they’d come but when it came to a job to do or spending the time…. You know I was very fortunate with the mums that I had because they were a hundred per cent, like your mum and dad – a hundred per cent behind you, but they’ve all got such busy things these days, and even the children have got several things on in the week. There were big families in the village, and of course we never charged anybody to belong, so it was a lovely thing to belong to, and we would have the jumble sales to get money for the costumes, but then the mums would make them. Those days have gone unfortunately, and so we had a committee meeting. We couldn’t form a committee other than the one that was going and going, and they all said, “Well, Sheila, what do you think?” And I said, “Well, if we can’t get a committee well then, we have to accept it because it’s got to be run on a committee, Luke. So then, I came home – I felt very said about it – and then I thought, well we’ve got the money in the bank which we had saved over the years and I thought, well, the fathers and mothers that earned that – it’s their children – so let’s give it back to the children organisations within the village, and that’s what we did.
Interviewer; So, no regrets.
Sheila; Yes of course. I’ve no regrets for the lovely time that I had with the kids – oh no, that’ll always be top notch with me – but I regret that there is nobody who will carry it on, and that’s what we needed.
Interviewer; The village hall has its own limitations, doesn’t it? I mean, it is of an era, it’s of its time. Do you think that’s also part of the problem as well? Maybe where we were?
Sheila; I don’t think so, because when you are working with children – I’ve seen in bigger theatres a dancing school move in to perhaps do the fairy ballet or whatever – and they are overawed by the size. I think the village hall was perfect for the Bishopsteignton Children’s Theatre. I think if we had gone any bigger, certainly the kids would have come across a problem.
Interviewer; I remember being in those changing rooms at the back and they weren’t exactly large, were they?
Sheila; No, well that was another thing that I had to work out when I was producing the show. We used to try and organise, if we could, boys in that one, the girls and the Principals down here but if there was a change you had to make one mother responsible to help that child to do a change. We had to work that all out when you were doing the scenes and the songs. It was just another thing for the producer.
Interviewer; And then of course you had people to come along and help out with scenery and create props.
Sheila; Again, you see, somebody like Nobby Bray. He came and painted the scenery while we were rehearsing on the stage. You wouldn’t get a dad to do that today, but he did it for Charlotte.
Interviewer; I remember them. I remember Nobby there painting the scenery.
Sheila; Yes, he did, because he used to say, “Sheila, I haven’t dripped anywhere?” because he had to hang it, and that was for Cinderella. It was good fun, and of course I’m not saying the parents today haven’t got the same feelings to back their children. It’s just the way that life has got so fast now, the mums have to work so they’ve no time to do all these things – serve on a committee and serve refreshments on all the shows – that was Corinne with the raffle.
Interviewer; The other thing I remember, of course, which is a thing unheard of now is that at the start of every show – do you remember what we did?
Sheila; Yes, I do and every show that I produced – God Save The Queen.
Interviewer; We played the National Anthem.
Interviewer; And we all had to stop.
Sheila; But you see, again, it was the way I was brought up. Now, I’ll tell you a story of my Dad. He was a regular soldier and when Mum died, he had three strokes, he was very handicapped but when God Save The Queen was on the television the dear old boy would stand up, and I think that’s where I got it from. It’s respect, but I think children should still respect the Queen. It’s strange you should mention that, but it was always one of my things. It was quieten down and that’s it, and then we’re off.
Interviewer; Well, I remember it and I remember it going to other shows when I was young in Torquay or wherever. Every now and again someone would play the National Anthem and you were all quiet and you stood up.
Sheila; The Queen, in my book, does a very, very good job. They broke the mould when the Queen has gone. Maybe you can say it’s old-fashioned, but I think everybody has to respect and if you haven’t got respect, that’s it. I mean all the little ones that I’ve ever had, you know, in the Children’s Theatre, I think they look at me with respect and that is what you achieve, but the Queen certainly – well, she’s just great in my book.
Interviewer; One thing which always reminds me of Children’s Theatre is if I suddenly get a whiff of the grease makeup. Was that from your experience before on the stage itself?
Sheila; Yes. Even at the Carlton Theatre – which is no more – and again in all the other theatres, they have one room where you have all the bulbs and they stand you (if you like to do your own makeup) but it was always checked with the same lighting round the screen as lighting on the stage. It’s a very good dodge, but of course you couldn’t do that in the village hall. You’re quite right, it is the smell of the makeup.
Interviewer; You had us all sat on the front of the stage in lines, in queues, and whoever was next come and sit on the front of the stage and there would be about two or three mothers all doing your rouge and whatever else you may have had.
Sheila; The girls just loved to get hold of the lipstick so by the end of the show you would have lips coming up like this because they had got at the lipstick, but Corinne used to collar it so that no one went on with more than they should but that was just fun of the games.
Interviewer; And of course, the other thing I remember is that we actually often had the stage extended.
Sheila; Yes, now that was a clever dodge because, again, I was very, very conscious that children can push forward, particularly when they see mum and they are waving or whatever so we had that bit built which we used to store in the village hall, but that was very useful.
Interviewer; And then Gloria and Margaret would be at the side.
Sheila; That’s right. When we did The Wizard of Oz, we had an organ which was the other side because I had scaffolding with two layers of seating for the twenty children that weren’t going to be on the stage, you see. When I look at it now, I think, “Gosh, how that worked?”, but it did work.
Interviewer; Were there any pantos or revues which really stick in your mind from a scenery, a technical point of view?
Sheila; Well, I remember when we did Dick Whittington, we had an archway which you’ve got in those photographs. I remember it coming down and the girl who was sitting underneath it just got up and stood up with it.
Interviewer; It fell over during a performance, did it?
Sheila; Yes, but she was cool as a cucumber. She was called Leanda – they lived over by the shop – Leanda Willey. She was all dressed up in the – we used to call it the sultana – baggy trousers and the lot. She had presence of mind but they had to quick change and they hadn’t fastened the top bit. Because again, you see, the village hall stage is really made for curtains, not for scenery.
Interviewer; I was also going to say, that I remember, and it’s a story that I think I told at Corinne’s funeral. I can’t remember who I was speaking to but one female, so she would have been a girl at the time who took part in Children’s Theatre, she contacted me the day before Corinne’s funeral and she reminded me of a show. She didn’t think she would be well enough to go on but she did, and she was doing some dance, and Corinne was literally stood at the side in the wings, and she was holding a bucket for whatever reason – I don’t think for this little girl – but what actually happened was this little girl did her dance, came off and then vomited into this bucket and then went back on again.
Sheila; Aah, bless her heart.
Interviewer; Well, exactly. Bless her, but you were dealing with kids so you must have been dealing with a number of things rather like that over the years.
Sheila; I don’t remember that. I remember wet pants, and that was the angels in the Nativity scene and they were the first on and standing like this and I thought, “What’s going on?”. It’s on a film, and they are all looking like this and I think, “What are they up to?” and of course, it was “I haven’t done it, have you done it?”. It was all this sort of thing but it came over on the tape. My sister, who was in the audience, said, “No, we didn’t twig that, Sheila”. It really happened. There are loos but you can’t actually flush them because the sound is going to come over the stage.
Interviewer; Yes, there were two loos at the back of the theatre behind the stage, but you couldn’t flush them during the show because the noise would be heard out front.
Sheila; It would carry over, oh yes, and we always used to have Audrey Dilke and she was a great standby. She used to call it ‘The Penny Call’ and everybody had to go to the loo whether they wanted to or not before we started. That was a grand set of mothers, and Dorothy Bernard, she was another great one. She used to stand with a hairbrush and nobody went on unless their hair was brushed and their socks pulled up.
Interviewer; You really relied upon a lot of mothers’ goodwill.
Sheila; Oh yes. That’s why we couldn’t go on, Luke, because the ones that we had on the committee had already served four if not five terms so I regret that it’s not being handed on but I think, you are right, the world has changed a bit so what was a good thing then – well, it was time to finish.
Interviewer; I’ve just remembered that of course we had those sessions which were dedicated to auditions. We had auditions where you would ask whoever to just read a part and then give that part to someone else and they could read it. How was that process for you, trying to really nail down who you thought would be good in those different roles?
Sheila; Well, you’ve got to be very sure of what you are going to do. The way that I worked, and it’s the only way that I know and I was taught by Dorothy Harwood, you’ve got to know your script backwards, forwards, sideways. She never dealt with children. She said, “No way”. She only did adults, but what I did with children, I knew that you could be Baron Hardup because you’ve got the build, you got on well with the Ugly Sisters, you were a good mixer, and no matter how you treated the Ugly Sisters there was no animosity, it was all friendly, and you were acting – that was the point.
Interviewer; Were there any times where you were not sure that someone would be right for the part?
Sheila; No, I don’t think so because you’ve got to know your child. That’s the point. I had never worked with Emily, who was Cinderella, before but I knew her as a child then and I knew she had got what it was to be able to handle it, but I don’t think she had done anything before that.
Interviewer; Well, she had been in Children’s Theatre for a few years, I think, but I don’t think she had had a major part.
Sheila; But an awful lot that I worked on was instinct. You can tell and if you observe children, you’re pretty sure how they’re going to react.
Interviewer; Sheila, I’m going to round this up. Anything else you want to tell me about Children’s Theatre?
Sheila; Only that I loved it, will always love it and I would love to know some time how many hundreds of children over the years have actually been in the Children’s Theatre. When I look back, we used to do a Spring production, and then a sort of Autumny one and then a Nativity, all with children, they were a pretty remarkable bunch of kids.
Interviewer; As we said earlier, it wasn’t always a pantomime, so some years there were various productions. So sometimes you did a Spring production and Autumn, and then you did Nativities. All of this was in the village hall?
Sheila; Well, the Nativity was in the Methodist Hall and then we sort of put the Nativity bit into the end of the Christmas shows. We did a thing called London’s Calling which was all Cockney songs, and then when we got to the last bit we had what I call the Finale bit and then the children came down and danced with their parents, and then while that was happening Father Christmas arrived on the stage and he would call their name and they got up and all had a present but that was latterly but it was all involving I don’t know how many children. You would have, say, forty or forty-five in the show and so it was forty-five presents but we were working on a committee that you had got the money to be able to do it. When we started, I think we had seven and sixpence in the committee. That’s why it was very necessary to have a committee, and one that worked.
Interviewer; Some years, then, you were involved in producing and running three performances within a year?
Sheila;Yes, but you see you would do one, and then you would gear up. You would finish one, say, at Easter, and then you planned the next one, start rehearsals in September to put on the end of December. In the meantime, you would line up your Nativity for over there. Oh yes, it was all go then, put it like that, but I learnt a long time ago Luke, you have to plan ahead, you have to know. Well, it’s like teaching. You can’t go into a classroom and say, “We’re going to do this today”. You’ve got to plan it and it worked for me. I don’t know that I’m the best producer in the world but I do understand children and I do know that you’ve got to have a plan and know your kids. That’s very important.
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References and credits
This interview is reproduced by permission of Luke Whitlock and Sheila Robbins, with thanks.