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The tradition of acting in Blakeney dates back to the Victorian era, when there were no bicycles, cars or busses. The nearest railway station was at Dereham, and the only means of transport was on horseback or a horse-drawn vehicle. Visits to the theatre or to concerts were very few and far between.
The merchant and farming families of Blakeney, the Pages, Turners, Hills (a family who lived in the Red House at the end of the Quay and died out), Templelines, Hudsons and the Woods of Morston met in one another’s homes for musical evenings. Anyone who could play an instrument did so, others sang or recited, but the most popular activity was charades. A lot of the musical items came from a magazine of the time called the “Musical Budget” and was largely based on the politics of the day and means nothing to us today.
In the 1930’s a Dramatic society was formed in Blakeney, which met monthly for play readings, lectures, debates and mock trials. As is the case now, the membership was drawn from all the villages around, two gentlemen coming from as far away as Sheringham. For a short time a group called the “Gay Cabaleros” performed short plays etc. for the public mostly under the guidance of Eric Burrows, who at the time performed as a professional. This group had the honour of once performing in London.
In the late 1920’s early 1930’s, Miss Irene Johnson, or “Johnnie” as she was generally known, and Miss Velda Sprott moved into Blakeney and had a great influence on the drama scene, both being excellent actresses and splendid producers.
With the formation of the Women’s Institute in Blakeney there were further opportunities for dramas, both at the meetings and at the annual drama festival held in Norwich. Blakeney regularly entered the Mime and Shakespeare classes and frequently won cups. Margaret Loose won the medal for best actress of the year for her portrayal of the dim maid in a play called “Meet Mrs Beeton”.
The Second World War put an end to dramatic activities and it was not until 1945 that Velda Sprott started evening classes in Blakeney School with performances in the British Legion Hall.
In 1956 it was decided to name the group “The Blakeney Players”, and this has continued to the present day.
In the early days the players would put on Muscial Hall Shows and sketches if requested for dinners, parties, club functions and many charitable events, and the regular shows toured other villages, but lack of things such as a stage, curtains, adequate dressing rooms, and out of tune pianos eventually ended this.
Looking back, Eric Burrows, Irene Johnson and Velda Sprott were the main producers, but John Ropes, William Blackwell, and for one show John Coleridge (and recently John Smart) also lent a hand.
In 1968 another talented actress and producer moved to Blakeney, named Josie Eaton. She and Margaret Loose wrote and produced a show called “Out of the Red”, which literally took the players finances into the black. This was the first of many successful collaborations over the years, often assisted by Mike Curtis. In the last few years, Mike Curtis, Peter Franklin, Sue and Mike Andrews and Ralph Wiggins have written and produced shows for us.
Periodically larger productions were put on in the Church, the core of performers being Blakeney Players, under the name of the “St Nicholas Players”. These were Nativity and Passion Plays, “Everyman Pilgrims Progress”, “John of Blakeney” and most recently “Blakeney Bulldogs”, the latter written and produced by Jim Woodhouse under our own name.
In1963 the Players gave entertainment after the Blakeney Twelve Annual Christmas Dinner for the elderly of the parish, a custom which has continued every year since. At first this show was not performed for the general public, Players’ productions being staged at Whitsun and the August Bank Holiday for three nights in succession. Often parts of the Twelve supper show were incorporated into the later shows. For a time all, or part, of the Christmas production was taken to Blakeney Hotel as part of their Christmas festivities, the fee paid by the Hotel being donated to the Twelve. More ambitious scenery for pantomimes which could not be taken to the Hotel ended this custom.
The Whitsun performances were often under-rehearsed and it was eventually decided to put the show on later, starting in July, weekly, for six performances, this enabled more visitors to see the show. The effort required to put on the show was not so concentrated and taxing to the performers. Latterly the Christmas show has spread into January for similar reasons.
Over the years the Blakeney Players have given a great many people pleasure and entertainment and they have also contributed to good causes and charities of many kinds.
Johnny and Velda made the Players unique in that there has never been a membership subscription or auditions so that they did not feel obliged to give everyone equal parts and they could choose a cast according to talent and ability.
John Radcliffe has, over the years, designed sets and made scenery of an exceptionally high standard passing this on to John Seymour and the current crew.
The Players’ costumes were mostly provided by the Blakeney Wardrobe, which is another story, and the huge costume demands have been met by Janet Harcourt who handed over the reins of power to Barbara Franklin and the current team.