• frleetaylor

The Fascinating Story of The Players' Theatre

Updated: 6 days ago

The Players' Theatre was founded as a club in 1929 but it wasn’t until 1936 that it adopted the persona of Victorian Music Hall under Peter Ridgeway and Leonard Sachs. The Players soon became a theatrical institution and recognised as a showcase for many a future star.

This revival of the Song & Supper Room began on the top floor of 43 King Street in Covent Garden. This very building was an original music hall dating back to 1870’s and known as Evans’s Late Joys as the previous venue was known as Joys Hotel. When The Players was formed, the company became known as ‘The Late Joys’ or ‘Ridgeways Late Joys’. The first 'Late Joys' night was held on 6th December 1937 and two particular names, who were to become associated with The Players for many years, appeared on the programme: Patricia Hayes and Megs Jenkins as 'The Boys of the Savoy Chapel Choir.'

The Daily Telegraph reported:

Peter Ridgeway's inspiration of producing nineteenth century cabaret entertainment at The Players' Theatre has captured the public in quite a sensational way.

The Company on stage at our 85th Anniversary Show in 2021

In November 2021, The Players’ Theatre Club celebrated eighty-five years with a spectacular music hall show ‘under the arches’ at the Charing Cross Theatre; environs which had been home to The Players for many years. As Chairman of the club, I gave a short address on stage and reminded many of our habitués of the illustrious history of The Joys. I quoted Paul Sheridan who wrote a book about The Late Joys/Players’ Theatre. In the final chapter he wrote:

It remains to be seen what will happen in the future. One thing is quite certain: experiments and variations will come and go but The Joys will go on forever.

The auditorium resounded with a storm of approbation.

Well, seventy years since that book was published and eighty-five years since The Players was founded, The Players is still alive and keeping the tradition of The Joys going strong!

We were delighted to receive a video message on our 85th anniversary from our Co-Founders’ son, Toby Sachs, who now lives in Chicago. He was thrilled to hear that his Father’s legacy lives on. You can see this video on our social media pages.

It is interesting to note here that even back in 1996, when we celebrated our Diamond Jubilee (with installation of Sir Peter Ustinov as President), Dominic Le Foe (Chairman) and Geoffrey Brawn (Musical Director) wrote:

For the Club to have survived for six decades is indeed a remarkable tribute both to the longevity of the art of Music Hall and the affectionate support accorded us, through good years and bad, by the Members. For the Players' is indeed a Member's club in the fullest sense - we survived because the Members willed us to survive.

These words still ring true today!

Oldest Theatre Club with Regular TV Appearances The Players' Theatre is the oldest theatre club in the country and, as I've mentioned already, was co-founded by Leonard Sachs, the tongue-twisting, gavel-wielding compere of smash-hit TV series The Good Old Days. Every week between 1953 - 1983, 10 million viewers tuned in to The Good Old Days which always began with an opening routine by The Players’ Theatre Company.

There is a short clip of a Players' show back in 1967 on the DVD, 'A Little of What You Fancy’ where you can see Barry Cryer taking up the gavel as chairman.

There is also a clip of Peter John (regular music hall performer) performing at The Players in the 2001 film ‘The Fourth Angel’ directed by John Irvin and starring Jeremy Irons.

A Theatre Club on the move For many years, the site of The Charing Cross Theatre (under the arches at Charing Cross station) was home to the Players’ Theatre which was dedicated to the revival of Victorian Music Hall entertainment. Sadly, in 2002, due to financial misfortunes, The Players’ Theatre Club had to leave the premises off Villers Street. However, as a club, our company continue to travel around the capital putting on shows at various venues to keep the traditional of Music Hall – a valuable part of British social history – alive and well. Although we no longer have our own physical building (HQ), the spirit of The Players is kept well and truly alive by the performers, enthusiastic audiences, our committee members and our wonderful Producer & Director, Jan Hunt who is pictured below (‘Why am I always the bridesmaid’ at our 85th).

Legendary Entertainers Over the years, The Players has attracted legendary entertainers such as Hattie Jacques, Ian Carmichael, Clive Dunn, Maggie Smith, Margaret Burton and Sir Peter Ustinov. Jean Anderson began her career as a soup and sandwich maker in the snack bar at The Players' Theatre! There's quite an amusing story about Jean when she became war-time director of The Players. At that time the Head Quarters of The Players was on Albermarle Street. Leonard Sachs was suddenly called up to serve in the Second World War and he asked Jean to take care of the business side of The Players’ Theatre. However, at the ‘eleventh hour’ (as Jean put it) she realised Leonard hadn’t given her Power of Attorney. So, in haste, Jean got a taxi into the city of London to collect the legal documents and made her way straight to Chelsea Barracks. To her horror, she discovered that Leonard’s regiment were embarking to Victoria station to ‘destinations unknown.' However, Leonard got permission to enter the taxi with Jean (this was during strict blackout) and sign the documents (balanced on suitcases) with the aid of the light of a 'temperamental cigarette lighter.'

After the war, The Players HQ moved to Villiers Street (what was Gatti's Under the Arches) and made a triumphant return with a rousing chorus of 'Slap, bang, here we are again.'

Barry Cryer was often stage chairman and he fondly remembers being coached and tutored by Maurice Browning one day and then being on stage that same evening. Barry summed up the role of music hall chairman as being ‘the thread that ran through the bill…linking, thinking and drinking your way through.’

British actor, Jame Robertson Justice (1907-1975) worked behind the bar at The Players.

New Faces On 1st May this year, our New Faces show at The Museum of Comedy introduced and showcased new, young talented performers in the genre of Music Hall. These new faces follow in the footsteps of Hattie Jacques who, at the age of 19 years old, was one of the original 'new faces', making her stage debut in the early days of the Players' Theatre. At The Players, we are the only club to continue to seek out, train and provide performance opportunities for new music hall artistes.

New Faces show at The Museum of Comedy 2022

New Faces from Laine Theatre Arts appearing at our 85th Anniversary Show

World Famous Theatrical Institution Over the years, people from all over the globe became associated with the club having experienced our shows while on holiday in London. It became a world-wide family united in song and good, wholesome humour. The club particularly attracted Australians and Americans and so, at the hands of the stage chairman, two particular catchphrases/refrains were born and were anticipated by the audience at every performance: 'Anyone from Australia in tonight?' And all the regulars responding in full-throated unison: 'How does it feel to be the right way up?' To any visitors from the USA: 'Just think, if it hadn't been for that little altercation in Boston Harbour, all this could have been yours.' The audience continue to relish such catchphrases and refrains today.

Quirky and Unique Form of British Entertainment The Players was well-known for its quirky style of uniquely British entertainment. It is a well-established tradition to begin our shows by establishing the allegiance of the house to the Sovereign: the audience stand, charge their glasses as the stage chairman announces, ‘To Her Great and Glorious Majesty, Queen Victoria’, and all respond, ‘God Bless Her!’

Right: Backstage at The Players' Theatre in the late 1970's. HRH Prince Philip alongside Jan Hunt, Johnny Dennis and Henry Cooper.

Other Interesting Facts Our Theatre Club was endorsed as one of the few clubs to which the subalterns of the Household Brigade were permitted to belong.

The Churchill family were great supporters, with Sarah Churchill helping as a programme seller.

Award-winning novelist, Christopher Fowler, described the Players’ Theatre as ‘a microcosm of British theatrical history.'

Peter Ustinov also made his stage début in 1938 at the Players' Theatre and later became our Honorary President.

As someone who regularly swaps pulpit for music hall chairman's desk, I particularly like the story of The Players company on tour towards the end of the war performing in camps and hospitals. One memorable performance was given in a hospital chapel with the chairman ensconced in the pulpit! Now, there's an idea!

The Players' Theatre Anthem

Those that attend our shows today will note that we begin proceedings by singing two particular choruses: Covent Garden in the morning & Oh, the fairies. In 1938, co-founder Peter Ridgeway made his last appearance at The Players. He had been very ill and was struggling to sing the songs and remember the words so he was helped along by the audience. These two pieces soon became The Players' Theatre anthems in which the audience would heartily join in.

Oh, the fairies, Whoa, the fairies, Nothing but splendour and feminine gender. Oh, the fairies, Whoa, the fairies, Oh for the wing of a fairy Queen.

This rather charming paean to the mythical creatures (written and composed in 1878 and later performed by George Leybourne) was, and still is, introduced by the chairman in this way, with habitués joining in:

This is not just a chorus, Ladies and Gentlemen, this is The Players’ Theatre Anthem! So, let us make our nightly attempt to raise the roof and to hell with the London, Chatham and Dover Railway - Sleepers Awake!

Snugly situated beneath the arches of Charing Cross station, you need to imagine the rumble of the trains overhead!

I feel very privileged to be the chairman of The Players' Theatre Club and to be carrying on with this wonderful tradition of music hall.

Yes, The Players‘ Theatre Club is alive and well! I have challenged a few people over the years who believe that it’s a case of RIP for The Players since the closure of our HQ in 2002. Au contraire! The Last Rites have not been administered yet!

The recent pandemic has reminded Christians that the Church is more about the people than the physical building. The lockdown periods have encouraged church communities to think differently and creativity about offering worship outside of church buildings. We are not simply defined by our buildings! This principle applies to all human institutions.

The Players may not have a HQ but the spirit of The Joys lives on and is reaching out to new young performers in the genre of music hall and the venerable tradition of The Players!

If you would like to become a member (only £10 a year) then please get in touch! Membership entitles you to discounts for shows, drinks at the bar (depending on location), invitations to members evenings and a regular newsletter.

As Dominic Le Foe said back in 1996, 'Here's to the next ten years and all the years after that - and the eternal friendship of Dear Old Pals.'

The picture below is of me with Sheila Bernette at our 85th birthday show.

Sheila performed at The Players for many years.

Here is a clip of Hattie Jacques at The Players' Theatre:

Check out our website for future shows and events 👇 http://www.playerstheatre.co.uk/

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