BGS Upstagers

(advance to Schedule)

Records show that The Old Grammarians’ Dramatic Society had its origins in 1896 and flourished until the early years of the First World War. It then reformed in 1920 until a second pause during the Second World War. In 1947  productions recommenced each year and from 1959 until 1962 the OGDS and BGS Parents’ Association amalgamated performing under the name of The Abbotswood Players. There was then a decline in activities.

However, all that changed in 1968 when Ken Dobson, supported by Morris Hughes conceived the idea of a joint production between BGS staff, pupils, OGs and parents., After a small production of Trial by Jury this idea came to fruition in a production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver with a cast of sixty-six! The show was a resounding success and well received in the local press.

Stemming from that, the following year and driven by Ken, The Upstagers was formed involving BGS teachers, pupils, parents and OGs.  

Encouraged by the enthusiastic uptake of this new society, Ken suggested that, with the considerable talent to hand and the recent success of Oliver, similar musicals  might be exported if he could find a suitable venue. Having travelled many miles in pursuit of this idea, he agreed a deal with The Arts Theatre in Falmouth to perform a show during the first week of August 1970.

That show was Oh What A Lovely War produced by Laurie Austin-Olsen assisted by Morris as Musical Director.  It found instant success with both locals and holidaymakers receiving very complimentary reviews in both The Falmouth Packet and The Western Morning News to the extent that the theatre immediately agreed The Upstagers  could return.

There then followed in August of the following seventeen years, performances of major musicals in Falmouth (and one in Exmouth) which are detailed in the Schedule at the end of this piece. That schedule also includes all the other plays, comedies and revues in London which the society staged over a period of some thirty-one years. In all, some sixty-nine productions – quite an incredible record it has to be said.

The annual trips to Cornwall were often made by up to 100 people. Generally, the cast list was 50 or more plus backstage and lighting, front of house and a myriad of supporters. Whole families were involved e.g.  Families Allen, Austin-Olsen,  Bonner, Cure,  Garrard, Hicks,  Hughes, Joint, Knight and  Speller to name but a few. On top of that were visits from other supporting OGs on holiday plus invariably from the Austin-Olsen twins and their gang of Venture Scouts and rugby team members who always added unique entertainment.  All-in-all  a great, but expensive, week.

An advance party, always including Terry Foote and Howard Moore, was deployed each year transporting the scenery in the BGS three-ton ex-army lorry to Falmouth and to handle advance publicity including mounting a huge banner across Falmouth High Street announcing the forthcoming show. Indeed, Terry and Howard spent months and many hours getting  the  somewhat neglected lorry roadworthy and tested.

Much of the publicity and ticket sales was handled by Newell’s Travel Agency in Falmouth owned by Simon Newell who became a great friend and supporter of the society.

For some, the week started on Friday night at The County Arms in Wandsworth and then at closing time the long convoy drive through the night to Cornwall! Breakfast for those exhausted travellers was in Daisy May’s Café at opening time on Saturday. The remainder of that day was spent in Percy’s (below), recovering, moving in, set building and then a large gathering in the evening to ensure everyone had arrived. Sunday was rehearsal time and on Monday, dress rehearsal, scenery finishing and curtain-up that night.

Much of the socialising during the week took place in The Greyhound Pub (better known as Percy’s) , a short walk down an alleyway from the stage door. Every night after the show, most of the cast would congregate there for well-earned celebratory drinks and John Cure would generally bring those proceedings to an end with his customary and fine rendition of My Way accompanied by most of the pub.  From there  adjournment to The  Maenheere Hotel to carry on late into the night – much to the delight of Bernard, the hotelier who would happily sell large empty spirit bottles for 50p to supplement his income! Typical Cornish!

Apart from Percy’s, time spent during the week for many included golf, go-karting, fleets of motor cruisers up the River Fal, mass bathing at Porthtowan on the north coast and the annual ox-roast at Coverack.

Looking at the considerable talent involved, mention must be made of  the regular stars involved including Laurie Austin-Olsen, Dave Garrard, Colin Hicks, Ann Knight and John Speller but indeed, the whole cast, both young and old, were all very capable thespians. Tribute must also be paid to Morris Hughes, the brilliant accompanying pianist who was musical director throughout. When he was unavailable, an equally talented Kevin Joint stepped in.

Then there were the backstage stalwarts including Don Clarke, John Cure, Terry Foote, Bert Garrard, Stuart Knight and Howard Moore  who between them designed, built and lit the scenery to fit both the Cornwall stage and the London stage where the shows were also performed. Transportation of the huge scenery itself over some 600 miles round trip was a tremendous achievement – sometimes over two days in the lorry for each trip .

Apart from talent both on and off stage, the society was also lucky in many other respects. It had Terry Foote, a professional lighting engineer at BBC and  Simon Lee’s father who was in charge of props at ATV. In earlier years Dave McHenry helped in stage design and later became a West End professional in that. Mark Meylan (the singing barber in Man of La Mancha) became a West End singing coach, Jersey Boys being one of his.   In addition, many of the costumes were provided by The Carshalton Pantomime Company at little or no cost.

To boost income over the years, regular jumble sales were held at Streatham Baths which were an experience for most but occasionally provided a few props. On one occasion Phyllis Muirhead left her top too close to the table and it got sold!

Generally, everything involved went without hitch. All parties arrived safely in Falmouth (eventually! – see below ) and there were no typical am-dram catastrophes on stage. That said, there was one instance during The Sound of Music in 1980 when leading lady, Ann Knight was taken ill and Cerys Hughes had to stand in as Maria which she did magnificently. One other amusing incident involved the Cure Family. Their Hillman Avenger broke down three miles from home on Kingston Bridge and, over a period of some twelve hours, the AA ferried them in several stages to Falmouth where the car was repaired.

After the final show at the end of the week, there was always a celebration and boisterous party at which rewritten lyrics of a number of the songs were performed focusing on humorous and sometimes embarrassing events that had occurred during the week. The party always went on late into the night which inevitably caused many problems vacating digs by 10.00 the following morning! 

Before ending the Falmouth story and  to underline the standard of The Upstagers’ performances, here is the following letter regarding Camelot received in 1981 from a local family:

Dear Upstagers,

“Congratulations” on a wonderful show! It was the first time we had seen one of your productions but we certainly hope it won’t be the last.  You all looked as if you really enjoyed putting on the show as much as we enjoyed watching!

It was smooth running and professional in appearance, which only goes to show how much hard work had been done behind the scenes.  Congratulations to the Musical Director who highlighted each scene with his magic touch.  Congratulations to the Producer who fired such a glowing performance – to the Choreographer for seeming to increase the size of a rather small (but nevertheless precious) Arts Theatre stage.

The chorus and supporting performers were extremely enthusiastic and versatile and the children delightful.

Each of the Principals seemed so right for their part but a special word of praise must go to the exceptional acting ability of Colin Hicks as King Arthur. The closing scenes of the show epitomised what art is all about – to evoke response from your audience, and he certainly did that!

Once again, congratulations to each and every one of you,  and our good wishes for your continued success”

Then there was the time when The Upstagers appeared in a movie. A parent asked Ken if he could arrange for 100 extras to appear in a Dutch war film called Soldaat van Oranje (Soldiers of Orange). During WWII the Dutch Royal Family resided in Lincolns’ Inn Fields Land Registry. The setting was a Dutch resistance fighter being chased from Lincolns’ Inn through the archway into New Square. Supplemented by Bec Old Boys the number of required extras was supplied for the street scenes, filming one Sunday for over some ten hours. The time element was partly due to the fact  that the morning shoots were in the dry but rain during lunch break caused delays in afternoon shooting until New Square had dried out!  In the film the chase lasted 20 seconds and payment to the society was the princely sum of £100!

However, things do not go on forever and it goes without saying that, after some seventeen years and for many different reasons, numbers of the cast found the annual pilgrimage to Cornwall and the preceding months of rehearsals difficult or impossible to continue. So, 1986 was the final curtain for the shows in Falmouth.

That though was not the end. The society continued with remaining members and new recruits to stage many more productions in London as detailed in the Schedule. This carried on until eventually there were too few members to continue and The Upstagers was finally wound up in 2000. Quite understandably though, it did not expire without a last hurrah and in 2003 ninety-eight ex-participants attended The Final Curtain, a tremendous celebration dinner at Shirley Park Golf Club demonstrating without question what a lasting affection the society had for so many.

Taking all as described above, with such an impressive track record in terms of unforgettable memories, longevity, teamwork and quality of results, it can surely be boasted that The Upstagers was right up there with the best of the various OGA sections’ achievements ever.

Finally, it would certainly be remiss to ignore first, the unstinting work, enthusiasm and support of founding-father Ken Dobson from the outset until his untimely death in 1976 and secondly,  the incredible and outstanding work and effort over all those many  years by Don and Kathy Clarke. Don and Kathy’s unrelenting time and support were so very important to the success and longevity of The Upstagers. Indeed, this could be said of both of them in relation to most other sections of the OGA which, as a whole, owes them a huge degree of gratitude.


VENUES:  BGS Battersea Grammar School, Furzedown Secondary School, Streatham,    Graveney School, Tooting,   Secombe Centre/ Theatre, Sutton,  Seeley Hall, Tooting,   CCST = Charles Cryer Studio Theatre, Carshalton,  All Saints School, Carshalton and  Harlow Hall, Norbury

PRODUCERS THROUGHOUT: Ken Dobson, Paul Chown, Dave McHenry,  Laurie Austin-Olsen, Ann Knight, Ted Tunna, Kathy Clarke, Mick Allen, Edna Merecki and Peter Davis