The West Bromwich Operatic Society, now reduced to WBOS, was a significant part of my childhood. My grandfather had been a founder member and I believe played the lead in the society’s first production, “Maid of the Mountains” in 1939. Such was his impact that the society didn’t perform again until 1947, though I admit that might not be solely down to the leading man. Mum and her sister both subsequently joined the cast and my uncle was the society’s treasurer for many years.
I have vivid memories of Mum learning her words in her bedroom when she was part of the chorus and a school holiday treat for me in the 1970s was to be allowed to go along to Monday night rehearsal. Watching the show come together, under the direction of the redoubtable producer Kath Hoggins, was an experience. By now, Mum was a prompt and in the unlikely event of anyone freezing, I loved to hear her voice offering a gentle reminder from the wings. My first memory of a production was “Annie Get Your Gun” in 1969. How grown up it felt to go to the theatre on the Saturday night for the final performance of the run. It might not have been the West End but truly, for me, there really was no business like showbusiness. “Hello Dolly” with the wonderful Sheila Clift as Dolly was another highlight as was “Showboat” in 1975. Before you ask, I was never tempted to emulate my grandfather. An early performance in a school nativity play in which I delivered both my lines at top speed with my back to the audience convinced me, and more importantly others, that I was never going to be a leading or even a supporting man. These experiences did, though, give me an enduring love of musical theatre.
All these memories were stirred last week when I went to see the society’s latest production “Crazy for You” at the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton. I told Mum there would be a family contingent there on the last night but “The Operatic”, a staple of her life for so long, means nothing to her now. 40 years ago, I remember her buying the Evening Mail and the Express and Star for the critics’ verdict on the day after the opening night. Mum, like her father before her, invested so much in the society and it’s so sad that not even a trace of a memory remains today. She’s still a Vice President, as am I and as is her brother, so the family link still holds.
The standard of production now is much higher than in my childhood. Back in the 60s, I’m told that the West Bromwich Albion score was announced at the interval during the Saturday matinee performance. Quite how an audience in a Wolverhampton theatre would receive that in 2013 is one to ponder. The cast seems much younger today, though that might have something to do with my advancing years, and the energy of Saturday’s performance was marvellous to behold. I’m proud to extend my family’s links but again, the overwhelming sensation is of Mum missing out. She would have loved “Crazy for You” as she loved the 2008 revival of “Showboat” one of the last productions she saw. I’ll tell her all about this year’s show, as much for me as for her, when I visit her tomorrow. Perhaps, deep down, it will mean something. It certainly means a lot to me.