February 25, 2024

Walpoles bow out after 50 years of service as theatre presidents

They are Sheringham Little Theatre’s longest-running double act.

But Lady Walpole and her late husband Lord Robin have taken their bows after completing 50 years of service as the charity-run community arts venue’s presidents. His Lordship reigned for 48 years until his death in March 2021, before his wife took over to complete the half century partnership. She will continue her involvement as an honorary patron.

At the recent annual general meeting theatre director Debbie Thompson reminded people that “without Lord Walpole, and others, setting up this charity in 1973 when the council decided it could no longer run the theatre, we would not be here.“

She reflected on how he was her “rock” for 20 years using his “calmness, smooth tones, style, wisdom and empathy” to deal with trickier times.

Looking back on their joint half century Lady Walpole said: “We did it, not out of a sense of duty, but because we enjoyed it. It has been a pleasure not a chore. “We must have been to more than 500 productions including taking our children to all kinds of shows from serious dramas and thrillers to comedies and pantos. “

She also recalled staging her husband’s 70th birthday in the theatre in 2008 when the family and friends did their own concert.

Lady Walpole also took part in one of the town quizzes run by Savoyards leading light Alan Stables, which she recalled was won by the Robin Hood team, while other celebrity quizzers included broadcaster John Timpson, EDP arts editor Charles Roberts, UEA lecturer and TV producer Malcolm Freegard and writer-radio presenter Keith Skipper.

Other early memories include annual meetings run by former chairman – and town crier – Tony Nelson which were “shows in themselves.”

Lady Walpole, who has had a lifelong love of the theatre, has been visiting the Little Theatre since the 1980s when she remembered “the front door was next to a video shop and you went straight in up the stairs to the balcony where we normally sat.”

In those early days the theatre had no bar of its own – so patrons opted over the road to the pub for their interval drinks before being summoned back by a theatre helper ringing a bell.

“Things have changed over 50 years – for the better. The programme is much busier with more professional acts and appealing to a broader audience – while still promoting local amateur groups,” said Lady Walpole.

Tough times included building repairs that required a major public appeal which included a fundraising dinner hosted by Lord Walpole’s friend and West End farce star Brian Rix, who also stayed at the couple’s home in Mannington Hall. “I think he must have stayed at similar places in the past, because he brought his own hot water bottle,” she smiled. Over the years the Walpoles have used their status, contacts and home to help promote and fundraise for the theatre. “We used to have charity days at Mannington, visited by stars from the summer rep. They included a 1990s Spectacular with a James Bond car, history parade and music. And we have hosted outdoor concerts which we have revived recently and continue today.”

This year her “front garden” lawns will host a dance party to the music of the Lee Vasey band (July 12), and the walled garden a more sedate Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera HMS Pinafore the following day.

Lady Walpole added: “I have been to many G and S productions, amateur and professional, in many guises in over 40 years at Sheringham as enjoyed them as much as any seen I’ve seen in the West End!”

The Walpoles are regular pantomime visitors – and son Roger worked backstage in his student days before going on to a theatre career. She has particularly fond memories of Tony Nelson’s wife Hilary as Mother Goose, and TV presenters Helen McDermott and Julie Reinger as star fairies. This year Lady Walpole hopes to visit the panto with a new generation of the family, her great granddaughter Violet, aged three.

Other theatre highlights include Alan Ayckbourn comedies, with Ten Times Table her favourite as the committee scenes reminded her of some of her voluntary work in Norfolk.

And she recalls when the WI Market was evited from the theatre foyer n 1997 for being too noisy – which “made the local headlines and required plenty of presidential tact” from her husband to resolve.

Lady Walpole added: “We will continue to support the theatre by visiting productions and hosting events and hope it continues to grow by attracting new audiences and volunteers.

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