Archive for March, 2009

Drama in Pontypool

March 31, 2009



You might have seen the recent TV series where the question is asked: “What have we done to our kids?” I suppose the answers to this question are many and varied, but I think one answer we can give is that we have robbed them of their sense of imagination. Today, with TV and excellent computer graphics, we supply them with the pictures; they don’t need to use their own imaginations to create pictures in their minds.

I cut my reading teeth on magazines such as the Wizard, Hotspur etc. which I’ve written about previously. They usually had stories with one graphic incorporated in the title; the rest was reading material, and I remember being shocked later on to discover that some of those magazines had turned into picture strip comics. Now we wonder why one in five seven-year-olds cannot read!

When I was a young boy, I never needed to be called in to tea twice when I knew Uncle Mac would be reading another instalment of the Coot Club in Children’s Hour. I loved those stories by Arthur Ransome and, in my imagination, I witnessed every adventure of the Coot Club on the Norfolk Broads.

Although I think I must have been last in the queue when the acting talent was given out, I always seemed to be one of the children chosen for any play being performed in Town School. It started even in the Infants’ section when I was dragooned into being a herald. I had to stand at the side of the stage and shout out the names of the various characters as they came on stage. I didn’t get an Oscar for my performance but that didn’t stop me being picked as one of the characters in “The Pearl of Great Price” when I was in the Junior section. My enduring memory of that performance was not any of the acting but the action of one of the backstage hands. She was Joan, a girl in my class who was given the task of playing “In a Turkish Market” on a gramophone at a given spot in the performance in order to create an Eastern atmosphere.

The gramophone was one of those old wind-up affairs with a handle on the side. When fully wound it lasted long enough to play a 12 inch record. I was offstage during this part of the performance and was standing in the wings near Joan as she operated the gramophone. Sure enough, right at the appointed time, she wound up the gramophone, put the record on and the Eastern music floated out into Miss Brooks’ classroom. But for some reason I’ve never been able to fathom, Joan decided that, as soon as she’d wound up the gramophone and put the music on, it was also her duty to take the handle out. I saw her starting to struggle with the handle but all to no avail. It stubbornly refused to move. So she decided to turn it the opposite way in order to remove it. Unfortunately this had the effect of unwinding the gramophone, and several seconds later the Eastern music entered a very minor key getting flatter and flatter, and sadder and sadder as she, in desperation tried to remove the handle. The effect of all this was to cause a titter amongst those of us standing in the wings which developed into raucous laughter from the audience, who, fortunately, were mainly sympathetic parents.

At Park Terrace Methodist Sunday School I was invariably required to take part in the annual Nativity Play. For some reason unknown to me, I always seemed to be cast as one of the shepherds. I started off as a shepherd boy but did eventually get promoted to a full-blown adult shepherd when I was older. But I always cast envious eyes on the glamorous wise men in their very colourful costumes. I always wondered why shepherds only wore potato sacks which, as far as I was concerned, definitely lacked both colour and glamour. However, when I was a little older, I did manage to graduate to become a wise man.

My brothers and I had an Aunt Gwen, Uncle John and cousin John Plumley who lived at 13 Club Row up the Tranch. Often on Sunday, after Sunday School, we were invited there to tea. Aunt Gwen always provided generous helpings of food and we loved going there. After tea we went into the front room to play games. Sometimes a young lad named Billy Challoner was also invited to tea and he was very keen on drama. As there was a bay window at the front of the house with curtains to draw across to keep out the draught, Billy would often organise some sort of dramatic performance using the bay window and curtains as the “stage”. He was a real hoot but was so enthusiastic, with a vivid imagination, that we all went along with his dramatic exploits. Often our audience of two were doubled up with uncontrollable laughter. 

Despite my less-than-enthusiastic forays into the world of drama, my friend Eric Smith and I, together with his cousin, Royce Pritchard, decided to let our imaginations run riot and build our own mini-theatre in Eric’s backyard. By using a combination of a clothes horse, a few blankets, a few lengths of wood and some rope we managed to construct two curtains to pull across and a concealed passage across the back of the stage which gave us access to Eric’s kitchen and entry to the far side wings.

We managed to get hold of a small book of dramatic sketches, some of which were humorous, which appealed to us. We persuaded our mothers to let us borrow some clothes to use as costumes. One of the items was a woman’s dress and we bullied Royce into playing this part. Then we needed an audience so we went to call on other boys we knew whom we played with from time to time. We knew they would most certainly not be prepared to part with any cash to see our show so we decided to let them pay in cigarette cards. This display of generosity gave us an audience of five or six.

All went well as we kept the audience interested in our jokes and sketches. Then came the main item, our sketch with Royce playing the part of a woman. It was meant to be funny and when Royce appeared in his dress there were huge guffaws all round. Then came the part when he had to sit on a chair, and the boys in the audience erupted into uncontrollable mirth. Eric and I were rather puzzled by this as it wasn’t meant to be a funny part of the sketch. However, we afterwards discovered that when Royce put on the dress he omitted to wear his underpants.

So I suppose our real claim to dramatic fame was to introduce X certificate drama ten years before the rest of the country.

Pontypool’s Secret Society

March 6, 2009


Few people know that, in 1945, there was set up in Pontypool a secret society which operated clandestinely under the name of the “Q.O. Secret Society”. Its meetings were held regularly, well away from the public gaze and its meeting place could only be accessed by using the secret password. The society also published a monthly document which contained details of its operations and also of its finances. The document was passed around and read by members of the society only.

Visitors to this blog will know that, in order to protect national security, cabinet papers and a host of other documents were not released to the public for 30 years after they were written. The Freedom of Information Act subsequently amended this arrangement and anyone can now make an application to all manner of bodies to acquire information under the Act. Therefore, before I get masses of applications from members of the public, Scotland Yard and the Security Services demanding that, after over 50 years of secrecy, I release all I know about the Q.O. Secret Society, I thought I’d better come clean in this post. 

The Q.O. Secret Society was founded in August 1945 by Eric Smith, Elgar Counsell and I and several other boys we knew. Our ages ranged from about 12 to 14 at the time. The original idea of the society was the brainchild of the manufacturers of Quaker Oats – hence the Q.O. bit. Doubtless in an attempt to sell more of their Quaker Oats, the company engaged in a campaign to interest children. You will all have seen the small oval frame on their boxes of oats with the head of the Quaker man inside it. By cutting out these little ovals, all sorts of benefits could accrue such as choosing free toys from their list, or, if not free, then obtainable at a very nominal price. They also published several books: “The Master Book of Secrets”, “Detection and Disguise” and a book on how to run a Q.O. Secret Society.

 picture-1Two of the books published by Quaker Oats Ltd

My brother Garyth, who was four years older than I, really got organised on this matter and went around all the members of our family asking them to save their Quaker Oats ovals for him. They readily obliged and soon he was able to send in an order for no less than eight  model aeroplanes that flew, and they flew well. He kept one himself, gave one to me and shared the rest amongst his friends. The aeroplanes were powered by a wound up elastic band but they stayed up for quite a while and when they ran out of power they glided quite well. One of our favourite places for flying these were up the Tumps – but more of the Tumps and the Tranch in a future post.

At the backs of the books mentioned above were several pages with illustrations of the goods on offer. Here are two of them:

gun-etcGun and disguise outfit advertised in the books

I bought both the above items. The gun could be obtained free for 12 Quaker figures or for 2 Quaker figures and 1/6 (one shilling and six pence). The disguise outfit was 6 Quaker figures or 2 Quaker figures and 6d (sixpence) in stamps. The gun was wonderful. It came with a roll of ammunition which was merely a roll of thin paper. This was led over a hole and when the gun was fired, air was forced through the paper making a hole and a realistic bang. I manufactured my own ammunition by cutting up strips of newspaper of the required size.

Our meeting place was my father’s shed at the rear of our house in School Lane. It was reasonably large so that housing six or eight of us was no problem as long as we didn’t mind the strong smell of stored onions and other garden produce. In the colder weather we lit the valor paraffin oil stove to provide warmth, but it added another ambient smell rather more unpleasant than the onions.

The monthly document I refer to above was our own magazine. Fortunately, my oldest brother, John, when he left West Mon went to work in the chemistry laboratories at County Hall, Newport and was anxious to learn to type which would have been a big help to him; so my father bought a second-hand Imperial typewriter from someone in Griffithstown and, one evening, he and John carried it all the way to Wainfelin. Those old typewriters were very heavy, so it was no mean feat.

I was eleven when the typewriter was purchased, so after three years of practice, I could type reasonably well – with two fingers. This was the reason that I was able to edit and produce just one copy of “The Q.O. Secret Society Magazine”. It consisted of ten 8×10 one-sided pages of very off-white and very thin wartime paper and was passed around from member to member. I still have these magazines and I note that the December Christmas issue was a bumper 25 page effort. This experience sparked off my interest in magazine editing and writing which is something I’ve been doing ever since in an honorary capacity.

The contents of the magazine were very varied and members were asked to contribute as they were able. There was some information about the society itself and also things like a crossword puzzle, jokes, poems written by members, a science section, competitions,general knowledge items and even a serial story. It also carried some adverts where members were able to advertise for sale things like model aircraft kits etc.

The Christmas number, unlike the other issues, also contained illustrations. Eric and I were very keen at that time on pen and ink drawing and below are a few of our original works which were used. When Eric sees these I hope he won’t be too embarrassed. I am!

christmas-greetingsEric’s Christmas greetings to all members.
The verse is part of the hymn, “Now the day is over”. 

autumnMy rendering of autumn. I think I can claim to have improved since doing this.

camelEric’s rendering of “The Mysterious East”.

Also in the Christmas number was our balance sheet after five months in operation. Our total income was £1:4:0 (one pound four shillings), our expenditure was 8/- (eight shillings) leaving a balance in hand of 16/- (sixteen shillings). This was most pleasing and meant we’d been running on just one-third of our income. What financial skill! If the Chancellor of the Exchequer needs someone to sort out the current financial crisis, we might possibly be persuaded to help. But, naturally we’d expect a fee of at least £5:7:6. Now – what’s that in this new fangled money?