Memories of the Heathcote Players

Barbara Clegg and the Heathcote Players

The Clegg family arrived in Shawford in 1937, to live in Downlea for over 25 years. Major John A. Clegg was Adjutant at The Hampshire Regiment’s depot in Winchester: later he was a lieutenant-colonel in The Royal Hampshire Regiment, as it had become.

As far as we remember, Barbara Clegg was almost immediately introduced to the Heathcote Players, probably by Winifred Judd (whose husband Ted Judd farmed at New Barn and was Chairman of the Parish Council) and by Helen and Norcliffe Thompson who lived in Southdown. We can find no written material concerning the Heathcote Players during the war years but remember various happenings:- a Children’s Pageant and scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the garden of what was then called The New Rectory in Compton; a children’s play, “Fat King Melon”, performed in the garden of the Gullicks’ house which was almost at the end of Station Alley, with a lovely long garden going down to the river.

There were also summer plays, performed in the Thompsons’ garden where they had built themselves a “natural theatre” – a grassy mound, surrounded by thick shrubbery and trees, forming the wings and backdrop. There was a flat lawn in front for the audience could theatre enthusiasm go further? We remember that one of the summer performances included the “Rude Mechanicals” scene from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” complete with “What hempen homespuns have we here?” as one very young, near naked Puck recalls. Acted readings were popular, and probably performed at least once a year. Hilary Tudor (née Blake) remembers being Abishag and washing the feet of Norcliffe Thompson when he was King David. Another play (not a reading) which was put on about then was that wonderful old sentimental Victorian drama “It’s Autumn Now”.

There had been one pantomime in 1938, and then, after the war, they were revived. From 1947 into the late 1970s the annual Heathcote Players’ pantomime was famous in the district, all of the shows were written by Barbara Clegg. All the old favourites appeared (often more than once!):- Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Jack and the Beanstalk, but there were also some more unusual ones, like Red Riding Hood and Puss in Boots, and four complete originals, The Farmer’s Boy (1953), Rumpelstiltskin (1962), Beauty and the Beast (1963) and Faladdin (1971). Barbara Clegg also wrote an original pantomime, “Cinderama’, for Northaw School, West Tytherley, which was first performed in 1975 and in it she realised her ambition to include as characters King Wenceslas and his Page.

It was subsequently also performed at St. Neot’s School, Eversley. Twenty of these pantomimes were directed by Barbara Clegg, only vacating her director’s chair in 1966, although she continued to write (and sometimes adviser) until 1975. In the early years, the lyrics were new words to old tunes! These were mostly composed by Mrs Edith Naime who lived at Plover Hill, Compton Down. From the very beginning, Mrs Anita Blake accompanied all the musical numbers and was Musical Director until 1966, assisted by various other musicians (see programmes).

In 1953, Professor James (Jim) Ellis became involved, not only acting in the pantomimes but writing all the music and lyrics for every show from then on. (Interesting musical note:- Jim always composed in the key of E flat!) Jim Ellis was kind enough to allow his music to be performed by the Heathcote Players even after he himself had retired.

These Heathcote Players’ pantomimes were hugely popular and successful. So many people from Compton and Shawford (and even some from Twyford) could become involved, not only in acting on the stage but in constructing scenery, doing the lighting, properties, costumes and so on. They were real village events and anyone who wanted to take part could do so. Reviews in The Hampshire Chronicle, The Hampshire Observer and the Southern Echo were always excellent and seats were booked up as soon as tickets went on sale.

Wider recognition

The Players also did plenty of straight acting, usually putting on a play once a year. In 1948, Barbara Clegg wrote a one-act play, “The Dark Horse”. This won the prize for the Best Original Play in the Southampton Theatre Guild Drama Festival that year. It was performed (by the Heathcote Players) in the following year in the Women’s Institute Drama Competition, coming a close second with 90 marks out of 100. It was performed again at the University Hall, Southampton.

In 1950, the Players performed another of Barbara Clegg’s plays, called “The Apple Tree, the Singing and the Gold”. This tells the story of Caedmon at Whitby, giving Norcliffe Thompson a wonderful part and his best performance. It was one of three plays put on as a triple bill in November, 1950, in Shawford Parish Hall – the usual venue.

This play was entered in the British Drama League Competition in March, 1951, when the adjudicator, John Warrington, recommended that it should be entered in the Hampshire Drama Festival in June of that year.  It came first, and Barbara Clegg was awarded the Geoffrey cup at the Scala Theatre, London, in July, 1951. John Warrington, who was a producer for BBC TV, moved heaven and earth to get “The Apple Tree” put on television as an Easter play, and very nearly succeeded. Maybe he should have raised hell as well!

“The Apple Tree, the Singing and The Gold” had its title shortened to “The Apple Tree” when it was published in 1953 for the Religious Drama Society of Great Britain by the SPCK. Another of Barbara’s plays, “Sister Martha’s Miracles”, was published, also by the SPCK, in 1959. This play, along with a new production of “The Apple Tree”, went through into the second round of the British Drama League’s National Festival of Community Drama, having been seen by adjudicator Stanley Hildebrandt at The Avenue Hall, Southampton. Barbara Clegg wrote plays all her life; we have a “programme” which, judging by the handwriting, must have been when she was very small: subject “Little Red Riding Hood” – guess who played the Wolf. The scripts of all these plays are held by her family.

In 1951, the Heathcote Players put on a three-act play, “Bonaventure”, by Charlotte Hastings, a thriller set in a convent in a village near Norwich. The Hampshire Chronicle wrote an enthusiastic review, “…..new ground for the Heathcote Players….. the best ever….”, etc., etc.

Certainly the Heathcote Players in the 40’s and 50’s were distinguished by their attitude of enthusiasm for plays and theatre of all kinds, exemplified by Norcliffe and Helen Thompson, Barbara Clegg and many more, amateurs in the true meaning of the word, i.e. acting for the pure joy of doing so.

At least two of the company of those years became professional actors: Paul Bacon, who had a successful career in Australia, and the U.K., and may be remembered as a striking Danny in “Night Must Fall” which was a Heathcote Players production in the 1940’s; and John Clegg (Barbara and John’s son), Gunner Graham in the long run of “It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum”‘ for BBC TV, films, radio and theatre, including two one-man shows on Rudyard Kipling.

Barbara Clegg was by profession and inclination an historian and that, combined with her love of theatre of all kinds, naturally led on to more writing: a pageant for The Pilgrims’ School, Winchester, called “In Quires and Places where they Sing’ which was performed in the open air in the summer of 1969; “The Uttermost Parts of the Earth”, a pageant for the churches of Winchester and district (probably performed in the 50’s); the Compton Pageant for All Saints’ Church, Compton (1955) and “The Tree of Life”, a missionary play cycle.

Lasting memories

One of the greatest joys of belonging to the Heathcote Players was the fun we all had! We met so many people we would otherwise never have come across. It was real entertainment for so many of us in Compton and Shawford.

In the Clegg/Blake families, we have many panto quotes and “in” jokes; many photographs and happy memories: going to The Bridge (hotel), where for years the costumes were stored (thanks to Mrs Dear) to be assailed by the smell of warm beer; the panto rehearsals, when we all brought our thermos and sandwiches the awful decisions for the younger members at Christmas time . Can we go to so-and-so’s dance or the Blue Bird Ball?

Speaking as one who grew up with the Heathcote Players, I can only say what a wonderful part they played in my childhood and in that, I’m sure, of so many others. Thank you, Heathcote Players!

Anne Blake (née Clegg), John Clegg and Mary Trevill (née Clegg)

The above article first appeared in the Compton & Shawford Parish Magazine, March 2000


Austin Whitaker wrote in Compton & Shawford, 1985

One of the longest-standing and most popular institutions has been the dramatic club, the Heathcote players, founded in 1936 and named after Mr. Arthur Heathcote, a talented amateur actor who had long encouraged productions in the village. For many years the Shawford Pantomime, written and produced by Mrs. B.M. Clegg, was a well-known and very popular attraction at Christmas time.