Street Life: The Queen and I

We were not fortunate enough to have a television for the coronation, but we knew a family who did.

On the morning of the day itself, the wireless broadcast the news that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had ‘conquered’ Everest.

With my baby sister in her lemon matinee jacket, matching leggings and bonnet, mum, dad and I set off with the pram to walk through the flag- and bunting-bedecked streets towards Rochdale Road.

The friends of my parents who had the television kept a greengrocers shop. Not only was this my first experience of a television set, but also the first time I had been ‘behind the scenes’ of a shop.

It’s estimated that an average of 17 people watched each set on the day. That number certainly accords with my memory of the crowd of people squeezed into the shop’s little back parlour.

On the Queen’s insistence, cameras had been allowed into Westminster Abbey to film the ceremony. 200 microphones were set up in the Abbey and it’s said 3 million people lined the streets along the route. With all that build up, we were anticipating something very special.

We kids sat around on the floor for what seemed like an age while the set was ‘warming up’. The tiny screen showed people standing in the rain, or perhaps it was the ‘interference’ we later came to associate with Outside Broadcasts.

To fill the gaps when not much was happening, the plummy-voiced BBC commentators interviewed members of the public who thought it worth a night sleeping on the pavement to secure a good place for the procession. They also went on at great length about the headgear and robes of state we could expect the different ranks of nobility to be wearing.

It’s hardly surprising we youngsters (as well as some of the grown-ups) got a bit restive. Mary, the daughter of the house, was directed to ‘take us off somewhere’ to play. As it was raining outside, we ended up on the staircase, amusing ourselves as best we could, until mum announced it was time to get my sister home.

If it hadn’t been for the cinema newsreels, I might have gone through life with only the grainy grey images of a day which cost an estimated £157 million.

Of all the dignitaries attending the Abbey, it was Queen Salote of Tonga who stole the show. She rode in an open-topped carriage with the Sultan of Kelantan. The Queen was as large and imposing as the Sultan was diminutive. Someone asked “who is that man sitting opposite her?” – the answer (wrongly attributed to Noel Coward) came back as “her lunch”.

At the luncheon, what Queen Salote and the other guests were actually served was Coronation Chicken, a dish specially devised for the occasion.

More than 20 million viewers around the world were able to watch the coronation. With 750 commentators, broadcasting in 39 languages, it was truly an international spectacle.

RAF Canberras flew BBC film recordings across the Atlantic so CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) could put it out on 2nd June. The Canadian servicemen, fighting in Korea, might have missed out on the coronation, but they had an improvised celebration by sending up red, white and blue flares.

Australia didn’t then have a full-time TV service, but a Qantas airliner flew film of the coronation to Australia in a record-breaking time of 53 hours 28 minutes.

In London there was a fireworks display on Victoria Embankment, but because of the inclement weather many street parties were either called off or moved to church halls.

I’m wondering if the elaborate Britannia costume my mother made me was intended for a fancy dress competition at a party that never happened? I can’t think of any reason for the time and expense that went into it otherwise.

In coronation year, the GPO issued special edition postage stamps to satisfy the philatelists. For the ordinary souvenir hunter, there were commemorative crown (5 shillings or 25p) coins and medals which are probably still knocking around in their thousands.

Of all the coronation memorabilia, the one thing best forgotten is Dickie Valentine’s recording of ‘In a Golden Coach, There’s a Heart of Gold’, which reached number 7 in the charts. Those lyrics probably stripped the nation’s teeth of more enamel than all the sweets consumed since rationing ceased in February of that year.

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Street Life: Coronation Fever

One dinner time in 1952, I was going home from school down Bordale Avenue when I noticed all the houses had their curtains shut. Nana explained that it was because the king had died, and we had a new queen.

By the time Coronation fever really hit, I had moved up from reception to the middle infant class.

From that Easter, we spent many hours learning the significance of the arms on the royal standard, and exactly how the flags of the Saints George, Andrew and Patrick had been combined to make up the Union Jack flag. The rest of each afternoon was spent colouring in flags on pre-printed sheets of paper that were destined to decorate the school. Woe betide the child whose crayon strayed over any of the lines.

Each year on Empire Day (24th May) we paraded around the school yard singing ‘What is the meaning of Empire Day? Why do the cannons roar?’ – the answer still eludes me 70 years later.

For Coronation year, this Empire Day was decreed to be special, and we were instructed to wear fancy dress, or at least something red, white and blue. Sometime between Empire Day and 2nd June must have been when our school’s Coronation party took place.

Sugar came off ration in February 1953, so at last parties could include the cakes and jellies the nation’s children had been craving since 1939.

Growing up in the post war austerity years, I was unprepared for the lavish spread set out on trestle tables in the Infant’s hall. The most amazing thing of all was that every place had a bottle of what we called mineral, with a straw bobbing about in it. Fizzy drinks were so rare a treat in those days that I didn’t even realise they came in individual bottles.

Within two minutes of sitting down, there were a hundred or so kids, red in the face from sucking on the totally collapsed and useless paper straws. The daily school milk routine included straws, so could a teacher really have been ignorant of the fact that, if immersed in liquid for more than a couple of minutes, the paper turned into a flaccid soggy strip, unfit for purpose? I can think of one teacher who would have been highly amused that so many kids could be disappointed in one fell swoop.

As the Coronation drew nearer, every street vied to be the cleanest and best decorated. There was a street in Moston that had a mural depicting a large crown painted on the gable end of the terrace, I wish I could recall where it was located.

Flags, that hadn’t seen the light since VJ day, were dusted off and hung out along with miles of bunting. After a couple of fruitless searches, grandad located our large union jack, and set it up poking out of the transom in the box-room where I slept.

Judging by the amounts produced, the whole country must have been whipped up to fever pitch over Coronation memorabilia. 200 products out of the 750 submitted were chosen as official souvenirs. That didn’t deter manufacturers from turning out unofficial souvenirs by the million.

Some products were more tasteful than others, but only one merited a mention in the House of Commons. An MP asked why the nation’s sensibilities were being offended by red, white and blue pencils stamped ‘Made in Germany’.

My Coronation mug from the school party disappeared long since, but I still have a couple of commemorative crown (5 shilling) pieces. I have also kept a Sharp’s (the word for toffee) tin. Printed on the lid is a picture of the queen on horseback dressed in military uniform.

George VI’s untimely death meant his Silver Jubilee never took place. Amongst a host of souvenirs already created were toy replicas of a coach with figures of the king and queen. Undaunted by the setback, the manufacturers sold the coaches (minus the male figure) for £1 as a souvenir of the Coronation. The few that escaped the hacksaw now command a king’s ransom. Toy makers such as Dinky, Corgi and Britain’s also made models of the famous Windsor greys with the Coronation coach in tow.

It was inevitable the Platinum Jubilee would generate a rash of souvenirs. But never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that a Queen Elizabeth Barbie doll would be amongst them.

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Street Life: Oh no it isn’t!

Pantomime has proved to be one of the most enduring forms of entertainment for all classes and every age group. There must be something innate about it, because within minutes of the curtain rising on their first theatre visit, the tiniest tot will be calling out “it’s behind you”, like a veteran.

Over the years, small innovations may have crept in, but woe betide companies who ignore sacred panto traditions. One is that the (good) fairy comes on stage from the right, while the (evil) villain always enters from the left. Other conventions are that cross-dressing is mandatory, the dame’s voluminous union jack bloomers must be exhibited at every possible opportunity, and topical or local jokes get the biggest laughs.

Even the wardrobe department has traditions to maintain. Costumes for the finale must be so outrageously fabulous they command rapturous applause when, two by two, the cast enters. Goodies take their bows, hand in hand with baddies, to show that all ill will has been put aside for another year.

Oldham Coliseum pantomime Cinderella 2018.

Panto has proved to be a money spinner, so companies are prepared to push the boat out with costumes, scenery and special effects.

Live animals and local dance troupes go down well, but perhaps the real favourite are the ‘skin roles’ which don’t really exist outside pantomime. An actor named George Conquest built a career around playing animals in panto. The most ambitious of his costumes was an octopus 28 foot wide. Skin roles didn’t seem to do an actor’s career any harm either. Henry Irving once played the wolf in Red Riding Hood, while Charlie Chaplin was the front of a pantomime horse in Stockport.

Panto has enriched the language with words and phrases everyone recognises. Cinderella is shorthand for a drudge, or something unvalued. And we are warned not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. The name of an inferior brand of green tea called Widow Twankey would no doubt have disappeared unremarked if it hadn’t been immortalised by Pantomime.

I never went to a lavishly produced extravaganza at a large theatre. I regret not seeing Norman Evans, the ultimate dame in my opinion, when he appeared at the Palace theatre, Manchester in 1952. But that year, without being aware of it, I was taking a tiny part in local panto history.

Queen’s Park Hippodrome on Turkey Lane was our nearest theatre. By the time I was old enough to go, saucy French variety acts had become its normal bill of fare. However, in 1952, there was one last pantomime before the theatre closed altogether, and I was there.

Buttons had us singing along to ‘you push the damper in and pull the damper out and the smoke goes up the chimney just the same’, so I guess it was Cinderella. I was only 5, and my clearest memory is of the long, cold walk home up Church Lane afterwards.

With the exception of that one visit to the Hippodrome, all my childhood pantomime recollections are of amateur productions at St. John’s church hall. What we really loved about it was that, with the exception of the name, nothing ever seemed to change.

Year after year, the pianist’s ‘victory roll’ hair style stayed the same, the Sunday school superintendent played the dame, and the kids you went to school with, were the ‘village folk’.

Sunday school benches formed the front three rows, and they were exclusively for children. Adults were accommodated on chairs behind them.

Our move to New Moston meant I left St. John’s Sunday school when I was nine. That was the minimum age to audition, so 1956’s panto would have been my first.

As a painfully shy, ungainly child, any part I got would have been entirely due to regular Sunday attendance rather than talent.

Despite being devastated at missing my chance to participate, I still looked forward to going to the pantomime as usual. When the curtains opened on the ‘village square’, I was horrified to see that amongst the ‘villagers’, there was a girl from my class at Lily Lane.

She didn’t go to Sunday school in my time, so must have joined just before the audition. How was it that a part, that should rightfully have been mine, went to this interloper?

It might be over sixty years, VH, but don’t think I’ve forgiven you yet…

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