If you have lived in the Wychwood villages for 20 years or so you may well remember the pantomime productions put on at the OLD Beaconsfield Hall by members of the Shipton Women’s Institute. What a treat they were. The tradition began in 1986 when Daphne Waugh wrote, produced and directed ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ as the entertainment for the WI Christmas meeting. The evening proved so successful that Rosemary Salter persuaded them to perform again, alongside the 1st Wychwood Guides production of ‘Cinderella’, to raise much-needed funds to maintain the old hall. Jack and Co. even went on tour and gave a third performance at Leafield.
From then on until the opening of the New Beaconsfield Hall and the formation of the Wychwood Players, the W.I. pantomime became the start of annual Christmas festivities. With the script written by Daphne, scenery was built by Peter Jessey, John Hartley, David Beaumont, Len Nicholson and anyone else handy with a hammer or saw. Daphne, her husband Duncan, Pat Bannister and Carolyn Innes-Wilson would work tirelessly to paint the most magical scenery while wardrobes were raided for clothes to be turned into imaginative costumes.
In 1990 it was the turn of Aladdin to take to the stage, which produced one small problem – how to make a magic, flying carpet. The answer was simple for Daphne; if he could not have a carpet Aladdin would have to take the train from Charlbury Station and so began the career of our team of Commuters. Daphne set about casting half a dozen eminent men of the village, complete with business suits, bowler hats and twirling umbrellas doubling as wheels. It was rumoured that she accosted any man who owned a bowler and cast them there and then. She even persuaded Ernie, the real life station master from Charlbury Station, to blow his whistle to signal Aladdin’s departure.
Daphne’s advice to those commuters was always ‘Don’t rehearse too much, you’ll spoil it if you are too good’. There was little chance of that but it was always just about alright on the night and to be honest the more mistakes made, the more the audience roared with laughter!
This being a W.I. performance we could not let the men have it all their own way so the Washing Dollies were formed with the slogan ‘By Golly We Dolly’. How did Daphne persuade the upper echelons of Shipton Society to high-kick across the stage (more in step than the Commuters it must be said)? From the vicar’s wife to the Clerk to the Parish Council they were all there.
Every year a new pantomime was written, rehearsed and performed and each had its memorable highlight. Aladdin had a cave twinkling with jewels where Abanazar tried to imprison him. Dick Whittington’s plague of rats was enough to scare even the bravest cat. Peter Hills driving a train of camels across the stage in Ali Baba had the laughter tears pouring down cheeks. Cinderella was joined by a gang of motorbike riding girls and the sight of Pat Canning and team in black leathers, mini-skirts and Doc Martin boots will never be forgotten.
Many characters became part of the tradition and were written into the script year after year. The Penguins were probably the best loved as they skipped across the stage in the very realistic costumes sewn by Joan Howard-Drake and Evelyn Dixon. How did they make their first appearance? I think it was something to do with Sinbad, but what he was doing in the Antarctic is beyond my recall. And Jane Hills was known to bounce around the stage in a bear or puppy costume; very hot work, even in December. Just to let the men have the last word (as they like to!), who can forget Jonathon Willson prancing about in a pink tutu as the Ring Fairy. He certainly showed his other side to the watching public of the Wychwoods.
On the ‘bigger and better’ stage at the NEW Beaconsfield Hall, production of the pantomimes was taken over by the Wychwood Players and became more lavish but the old pantomime formula still worked its magic.
The pantomimes were colourful, brilliant, original and completely politically incorrect but who cared?
Everyone involved, be they cast, back-stage, front-of-house or audience, had a ball.
………. Oh yes we did!
The memories live on.
December 2019-January 2020