When I was asked to write an appreciation of Roy and his association with Scoutabout and the 8th Chester Group, I realised that the result would be virtually my own autobiography, because I have known Roy as a scoutmaster and then as a friend since 1950. After much deliberation, I feel that the best tribute that can be paid is for me to tell the story in such a way as to give an insight into some of the events of the last 50 years, which demonstrate the fun and satisfaction generated by being associated with Roy Fisher. He always enjoyed a joke and always appreciated the finer points of a ludicrous situation.
Roy, though born in Wales, has always been based in Chester. He lived at 13 Louise Street with his family and went to Chester City Grammar School (now Queens Park High). He kept himself fit and once admitted to me that he often went for a swim in the river Dee before school. (A short cut to Queens Park from Sealand Road?) The new school was built in 1937 and the old ‘City and County School for Boys’ moved in. The City High School for Girls remained in the original 1911 building, where Roy met Marjorie Jonas (Madge), who he eventually married.
Meanwhile, back on the scouting trail: Roy joined the 8th Chester Cubs in 1936 and they met at ‘The Loft’ in Eversley Park, probably part of one of the out-buildings of the big houses in that road, or one of those fronting Liverpool Road. Eventually, all sections of the Group came together in the schoolroom of Northgate Congregational Church, with the founding Scout Master, George Williams (‘Skip’) in charge. After leaving school in 1947, Roy went to Liverpool University, then into the Navy on National Service, leaving in 1951 to take up a teachers’ training course at Chester Diocesan College in Parkgate Road. It was at about this time that Roy became Senior Scout Leader at the 8th Chester and this was where our paths first crossed.
Senior Scouting at the 8th operated out of a small room (‘The Crow’s Nest’) on the first floor of the schoolroom annexe. This room was on the same landing as the Church Minister’s office, whether that was of any significance, I cannot tell, but we were soon relegated to the cellars below. Roy ran things along navy lines and was designated ‘Bo’sun’. All invested members eventually aspired to a lanyard and a bos’un’s whistle which was purchased, along with the rest of our finery, at ‘Sqibb’ Bounds’ shop in Grosvenor Street. At one stage, Roy had a yearning for the unit to have a summer expedition up the canal, but his suggestion that we could hire a barge and take turns in hauling it along the towpath didn’t seem to go down too well.
Be that as it may, time passed and we cleaned up our new home in the cellar, eventually cladding and papering the walls, followed by digging out other cellars to play-in, eying the structure warily for subsidence. (Anyone familiar with the film ‘The Great Escape’ will get the message). This was my first experience of Roy as the consummate DIY enthusiast/frustrated civil engineer. It was at about this time that Roy invested in a pre-war, (well pre-war, possibly 1930 vintage), Armstrong- Siddeley coach built tourer.
This enormous vehicle, (with solid pressed steel wheels and a set of drop-down steps to reach the cab), had been used by a bus company to tow in broken down buses. (Pete Slater would have been proud of it and even I of tender years felt a touch of envy.) However, its age and previous misuse must have taken their toll, because having stalled at some traffic lights in the middle of Chester, on pressing the starter, the starter motor fell out onto the road along with a load of nuts and bolts. The traffic was stopped while Roy swept up the bits, threw them into the cab and cranked with the handle to get things going. This leviathan was eventually sold to Brian Kershaw, one of the originators (along with David King and Eric Wilson) of the Cheshire Hike, who pulled it all to pieces, put them in boxes and defeated, finally headed for the tip. (Could the experience explain his preference for walking?
The scene now shifts to Thespis. As a result of an expedition to the first post-war London Gang Show by a party of leaders from the 8th and 13th Chester (College) Groups, they were inspired to produce a show in Chester. Rehearsals began in the hall of the College School with Leslie (‘Basher’) Brooks, the Headmaster as producer. The show was presented in the Cathedral Refectory on Friday 16th and Saturday 17th January 1953. The corridors were freezing and the Gang was pursued up the steps onto the stage by winds coming directly from the Arctic. Music was played on two pianos by Richard Jones the Northgate Church Organist and Robert Lewis, my old teacher at Newton school.
The next year, the experiment was repeated at the Refectory for one week commencing 22nd February 1954, but this time with an eight-piece band in the pit, under the direction of Billy Brickland. Roy was in the Gang and was also a press and publicity manager, together with Alfred Evans, the father of Gwyn Evans who now prints the show programme. It was during this show that Tom Bateman, recently retired as Head of Highfield School Blacon, completed a display of gymnastics by landing in the orchestra pit. (There was said to be no lasting damage!)
The final show at the Refectory was in 1955, again running for one week from the 14th February. After this, the decision was made to throw caution to the winds, become a District show and move to the Royalty Theatre (recently demolished) in City Road. The move to the Royalty in 1956 heralded what the ‘old lags’ now regard as the ‘Halcyon Days’. Roy was in the team, along with Madge (as she became known) as prompter; Leslie Brookes was the producer, Bill Cooper was Hall Manager and Billy Brickland was still in the pit. The team which emerged at this time, was to become the one which would (with a few changes) run the show for about the next ten years.
There was no show in 1957 as the theatre was being refurbished. The ornamental plaster bow-front was removed from the dress circle, allowing the pillars to be removed from the stalls below. This modification did affect the historic quality of the building, leading Dennis Critchley, (the last theatre manager), to speculate that these changes might have prejudiced its restoration and preservation as a theatre. However, be that as it may, the next show in 1958 went ahead with Roy as producer, assisted by Ernie Boyer, plus Jack Campbell and Colin Cresswell. Bill Cooper was by now Business and publicity manager, a position that he held for many years.
For whatever reason, operating in the Royalty was different. The stage manager was Sid Jones, supported by his son Ron as electrician. Sid’s wife had started as an usherette in the theatre just after the first world war. Sid and Ron quite often used to agree to disagree and the results could sometimes be detected above the action on stage; but being used to running two variety shows a night, Monday to Saturday, they knew what they were about. Alderman Keyes and his Manager Dennis Critchley could not have been more helpful. We went on just prior to the Christmas Panto, which opened on Boxing Day, the Panto rehearsed in the day and our show went on each night. Then as time went on, some of the Gang were asked to help shift scenery for the Panto.
The place was old, the fly gallery was original, being reached through a trap door off a beer crate on the top corridor. The fly rigging itself was similar to the tackle used on an old sailing ship, all ropes, sandbags, pulley blocks, rough wooden beams and iron cleats. The sound system comprised of two speakers either side of the proscenium arch, fed via an old valve amplifier connected to a single microphone centre stage. As and when required, this mic. could be driven into view by a cycle chain rig and appeared as if by magic, like a ferret out of a rabbit hole.
The lamp board was at the prompt side of the stage, the faders were wire wound, each fader being controlled by an iron lever. The whole lot was ganged together on long axles driven by iron hand wheels. Sid used to stiffen up the fuses with copper cable to take the load and had to keep checking how things were going on, by feeling the pot fuse holders with his hand to see if they were overheating. (It was not unknown for an overload in the theatre to put the lights out in City Road.) A fast blackout was not only seen but heard, as Ron operated his ‘signal box’. The wheels all turned together and all the little iron levers crashed against the stop bar to a round of applause; hence the name ‘crash-board’. (That little vignette has been included because I found the experience inspiring, and still do after nearly fifty years. Without people like Roy around, there would have been no opportunity to be inspired, whether we wanted to be or not!)
Well, once more back to the personalities: Ernie Boyer was asked to become an assistant producer by Roy, personally. Ernie was at that time in his late fifties, having been with Chester Operatic society in the 1930s; his stage- craft was second to none and his contribution to sketches could turn the mediocre into brilliance. At the after- the- show party which used to take place at Roy’s house, Ernie, (who was the organist at St. Peter’s Church and was noted for being able to ‘sing down’ the organ), would give an impromptu version of his fund of ‘acts’ from material for concerts and smoking parties. (Smoking party: Best described as a semi formal Edwardian Karaoki night, with piano, intelligible lyrics, no drums and rounded off with clouds of ‘St. Bruno’ and ‘Rough Plug’ clinging to the very fabric of the room.)
It was at this time that Roy’s now notorious phrase, “I have just the part for you,” was coined. He had been waiting for some time to stage “Good-bye Mr. Chips”, but the principal role could not be filled, at least not until Ernie came along. (“Ernie, I have just the part for you!”) This phrase could strike terror into the stoutest heart, for whatever plans you might have had for Scoutabout week or Christmas, these were all cast to the four winds when an oracular voice intoned—–“I have just the part for you”. Geoff Taylor, having arrived back for Christmas 1960 from Teachers’ Training College, heard a rattling at the letter box early the next morning. The Dame (Stan Davies?) in the potted pantomime (“Red Hot Cinders”) in that year’s show, had fallen ill mid-week. There on the mat was the script and a message, “Try and learn this for tonight, it’s just the part for you”.
On December 12th 1960 a great fog descended on Chester and persisted for the whole week of the show. On the Monday night, at 7.00pm curtain-up, hardly any of the audience had been able to get to the theatre and only Billy Brickland was in the pit, playing the overture in splendid isolation on his now famous piano with the “real ivory keys”. As the first half proceeded, the fog within the theatre thickened as the doors were opened to admit more and more of the audience. Meanwhile, down in the pit, the sound gradually increased as numbers grew. Every now and then, a patch of light would emerge through the hatch and the familiar figure of Roy could be seen passing band parts to the latest arrival. By half time, everything was in full working order. And so we battled on for the rest of the week.
In 1963 Norman Couch, a friend of David King, made an 8mm sound film of that year’s show. He started filming at the first production meetings and then carried on at auditions, rehearsals, costume making and scenery building. Scenes from different items were filmed at the dress rehearsal, as was activity front of house, on stage and back stage, during one of the performances. This film has now been transferred onto video tape and as far as we know, is the only such record showing the Royalty when it was a live working theatre. A copy is now held in Chester City Archives and extracts have also been inserted into a video about Chester.
While all these events (or something similar) took place each Christmas, Roy had another job as GSL of the 8th Chester, having taken this on in1954. As the 1960s moved on, it became apparent that the group could not stay much longer at Northgate Street because the Church was soon to be closed down. The search for a site began in earnest; Geoff Brown the ADC (Ventures) at the time, was also involved in the quest. On the practical front, the situation provided a useful outlet for Roy’s engineering aspirations. This, together with his generosity in allowing me in 1961 to billet a recently purchased 1933 Riley (cost £7.50) in his stable, pending refurbishment, provided endless diversion and entertainment for the Group, my Rover/Senior Scout sections and anyone who else might have been passing.
First, an apocryphal episode in reaching ‘concours’ condition for the Riley: The stable in Roy’s drive was brick built, two-storey and whitewashed in the area where the car stood in all its faded glory. The fact that the cacophony from the engine had to be heard to be believed and the previous owner had driven round followed by clouds of blue smoke, suggested that the engine had to come out. In true pioneering fashion we set up ropes and block and tackle, fixed to a beam in the roof. The engine was big, it weighed about 4 hundred weight (a pre-war engine, not metric). Manual pulling on the rope produced little effect, so sterner measures were suggested. An engineering apprentice friend (Mike North) owned an old Standard 10 soft-topped tourer with grass growing on the roof plus a stout chassis to tie a rope to. The car was backed into the drive and with Roy looking on indulgently; the free end of the rope was duly attached to the bumper. Mike then drove off towards the gate, heading for the road. As those gathered in the stable clustered round to see what happened, suddenly the weight of the engine transferred to the roof timbers. Ominous noises were heard and the planks forming the upper floor leaped to attention. The stress in the timbers caused a storm of whitewash to descend onto the assembled spectators. As the whole structure seemed about to curtsey at the knees, a strangled shout went up as Roy cottoned-on to the impending tragedy. “Me Roo—–f!” came the cry, and a whitewash covered detachment of Keystone Cops rushed out into the road to pursue and halt the rapidly disappearing tow, before disaster struck. All credit to Roy, he entered into the spirit of things and allowed us to try again with better tackle, but not before we had shored up the shed.
This Dunkirk spirit was to appear yet again, when having found a site for a new hut down in South View Road, we were strapped for cash to provide doors and fittings for the projected new building. This problem was still unresolved, when Roy arrived at a Friday night Scout meeting to announce that he had an idea. On travelling down St Anne Street, he had noticed that demolition of houses preparatory to building the now familiar flats was well advanced. Furthermore, there were skips piled high with old doors, and if we were so minded, outside toilets with pans all there for the taking! After some discussion, since we could not recruit a night raiding party, we had to resort to a more conventional solution down at the Bank. The hut was duly finished and opened by Geoff Brown (then D.C for Stratford-on-Avon) on Friday 28th April 1972.
Meanwhile, back at the Gang Show: After nine happy years of pre-Christmas shows at the Royalty, the theatre became a victim of television and competing Bingo at the converted Gaumont Cinema in Brook Street, so we moved to the ABC Cinema in Love Street to produce a show in January 1967. We ran for five nights from Tuesday 2nd January, the dress rehearsal being on the Monday. The capacity of the ABC was 2000; the stage was 45 feet wide, but only 14 feet deep. There was no fly gallery and only one backcloth rail; dressing room space was limited and sound amplification was a problem. Moving from one side of the stage to the other was done by running outside into the alley at the rear of the stage, since the large ‘Westrex’ Cinema sound speakers filled most of the area which would have been behind a cyclorama. In spite of these problems we coped. Dressing rooms were hired in the old Love Street School and seat sales were good.
The stage manager was Charles Jones, (Charley when out of earshot), backed up by his dad (the original Gaffer from 1937), plus three henchmen from the projection box who were augmented by our then usual backstage team. Flushed with success, we decided that we should book the ABC for another week the following year in January 1968. Ticket sales were poor and we lost £300, (about £6000 today!). In spite of this, the District decided to support another show and a small sub-committee, including Roy, Bill Brickland and other members of the production team looked at alternative venues. In 1969, having viewed a selection of local school halls, (what’s new?), it was decided to try a show at the newly opened Gateway Theatre, (capacity nominally 500 seats).
Before moving on to relate events at the Gateway, there is yet another tale to lighten the proceedings. On the way home from the ABC following one of the performances, a visit to ‘The Swan’, (now demolished but which was on the site now occupied by Woolworth’s), we encountered George White easing his wait for a bus home, by a sojourn at the bar. George, (for those at a loss), had been GSL of the 32nd Chester Group and was a sometime backstage steward of the show, prior to Les Harding. George was delighted to see us, but was having problems lighting his pipe. He also had about his person a few plastic bags, one of which he confided, had his tea in it. The ‘tea’ consisted of two raw chickens, complete with feathers. As the problems of unpacking/packing the pipe intensified, so did the hail of spent matches onto the floor. Suddenly success! Smoke rose to the ceiling, but on investigation it was found to be coming from George’s tea. The feathers were well alight and the assembled company was treated to the blaze being beaten out on the top of the bar. (Chicken Vindaloo?) So ended that night’s performance.
The move to the Gateway was breaking new ground in more ways than one. Girls (in scouting) joined the show for the first time. Dave King has just confided that he and Eric Wilson voted against, but 12 girls joined a gang totalling 143. Although the auditorium could hold only about 450 comfortably, the stage was not much different in size from the old Royalty which seated 960. As things turned out, the facilities were quite acceptable, especially as the theatre had started out as a ‘stretched’ conference centre. Everything was new and freshly painted in black. The fly gallery had pristine walkways and metal weights; alas the captain Hornblower rig across town was not available, but was not forgotten. The good news was that many of the original Royalty cloths would fit and were carted through town for use as necessary.
The Director at that time was Julian Oldfield and it was with his support and encouragement that our first show went up in early 1969. In 1971 two shows were produced, one in the January and the other in December, our favourite option. This was possible at the time, because following tradition, the Gateway Christmas show opened on Boxing Day, a situation which persisted until 1988. After this it became common practice for Christmas shows to open in early December and the Gateway followed suit. Since then we have had to fit in where we could, sometimes in January, February, March, April, even October, but lately we seem to have been able to land consistently at the end of January.
When we moved into the new theatre, there was a gradual change in members of the team who had taken us that far. Stan Travers was still with us but Ernie Boyer and Colin Creswell had moved on. Eric Wilson became Roy’s assistant, along with many others, too numerous to mention. Geoff Morris and Malcolm Proffitt arrived to lead the Stage team, followed by Des Southwell as District Chairman, and later Eric Plenderleath joined, taking on various roles as the years went by. Similar changes took place in the theatre staff; Julian Oldfield left, but the fastest turnover seemed to be in stage technicians, the longest serving being the notorious Bill Innes. One of this rapidly changing band was Jim Woodley, who has now jumped the fence and joined us semi long-term.
In 1979, Bill Brickland played his last show, (his 26th and final Scoutabout), retiring due to ill health. He was well known in local dance-band circles. Roy did relate that Billy had been offered first-rate jobs in London, but had preferred to remain in Chester. However, he did become Musical Director of Coventry Gang Show in 1965 and this led on to work with many other Gang Shows, in addition to Chester. (Strange to relate, Ralph Reader was also regarded as a rising star in the London theatre of the 1920/30s, but he preferred to remain with Gang show, ultimately leading to his involvement with services shows during the Second World War.)
It was in 1979 that Roy retired as producer (for the first time). He had often said, “When Billy goes, I go,” and that was that, at least for a year or two. The 1980 show was produced by a tri-partite group consisting of Keith Musselle, (leading hand), Derek Jackson and Eric Wilson, (with Roy still in support). (Two D.Cs and Eric as modest as ever.) There was of course the problem of a new Musical Director. The baton passed to Colin Parfitt, who is still in harness. (Thinks: “We have just the part for you,”——– and we did!)
Keith and Derek retired after the 1986 show and Roy, supported by Eric Wilson and Eric Plenderleath, was back as producer in 1987. In 1991, Richard Clarke and George Marshall joined the team, followed in 1992 by Alison Hough and Matt Davies. In Roy’s last three years as producer, (1993/5) he decided to include some of his favourite items, as his trip down memory lane. One was “The Black Knight” (1993) and the other was “Pagliarchie’s the Boy” (1995).
I had been involved with both of these, Pagliarchie having been acquired via Colin Cresswell from Godfrey Shipp in 1960. Roy had been doubtful, but we read it through at his house and were accused of, “Putting bits in”. We weren’t though, and Roy included it in the 1960 show. Then, in 1995, for the last time came those familiar words borne on the evening breeze, “Hey, I have just the part for you”. So it was.
Roy did finally retire in 1995 aged 67, having served as producer for 32 years, (as coincidently had Ralph Reader). He had earlier returned his warrant with the 8th Chester Group on 4th February 1993, just after his 65th birthday. Even after his official departure, he was still involved, to a greater or lesser extent, digging through the archives and setting up his own gallery of pictures and posters in the District Headquarters.
All the music, scripts and sketches, collected over the years have now been passed to Richard Clarke, via Matt Davies, with the exception of one sketch, of which we only have half left. “The Dullditch Diamonds”, item two, second half in December 1961. This was written by Martyn Herbert and came via Ernie Boyer. Whether distance lends enchantment, I am not sure, but the sketch went over very well. Has anyone out there still got a copy?
Well, “That”, as they say, “Is that”. Believe it or not, all those events did actually take place, plus others, which it might be too rash to mention. If I have left anyone out who should have been included, I can only apologise. I have tried to tell the tale in such a way as to give an appreciation of not only what Roy did, but of the characters he recruited, together with the fun arising from the way he did it. As a Celt, he was not a conformist. He kept going when others would have given up, and he certainly put in his time in support of the cause.
Roy was a product of Scouting from a forgotten, (some might say), a golden age. When we saw what needed doing, we just got it done. Looking back from the present, a time of litigation, licensing and Warrants for all occasions, I sometimes wonder, (taking account of all the things we got up to), why there was never a warrant issued for our arrest!
Gerald Roose (Chairman, Chester Gang Show.)