Auntie May
August, 2013

We all have at least one. The elderly relative, crotchety, poor mobility and virtually deaf. The one you have to invite to Christmas Day lunch, with no great hope of either her/him or you enjoying it.
Ours was Auntie May. Needing constant physical support and profoundly deaf, Auntie May was the sort you could only deposit in a corner of the lounge, and turn up the TV volume. And that was what we tended to do. It was easier to ignore her that way. But woe betide us if we weren't there to help her stand for the Queen's Speech at 3pm. She was the staunchest Royalist I had ever known and the Speech was the highlight of her year. Well into her nineties, she made it perfectly clear that her remaining ambition was to receive the telegramme from the Queen on her 100th birthday. She still sent them in those days.
Hindle Wakes
Then one Christmas Day, one of the TV channels included a screening of the film Hindle Wakes, with one of the parts played by Sybil Thorndike. The rest of the family chattered, leaving Auntie May to make what she could of the half-heard film.
Later that day, I took what I languidly thought of as my obligatory turn to have a few words with her, and asked how she liked the film. 'It was a play, you know,' she said. I nodded, having advocated a revival of Stanley Houghton's play when I was involved in running an amateur theatre.
'I was at the first night', she stated.
I started at the words. 'Sorry, what do you mean?'
Matter-of-factly, she repeated 'I was at the first night of that play. At the Gaiety'.
I was what could only be described as gobsmacked.
Stanley Houghton, who wrote the play,
Hindle Wakes, was one of the so-called Manchester School, encouraged and promoted by Annie Horniman,
who bought the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester in 1908. Miss Horniman, as she seems to have been universally known, was the granddaughter of the founder of Horniman's tea. Previously, in 1904, she had developed the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where both there and in London she championed the work of W. B. Yeats and G.B Shaw, at least until she fell out with Lady Gregory, one of her associates in Dublin.
Back in England, she used the Gaiety to promote the work of Houghton and Harold Brighouse (author of Hobson's Choice). It was at the Gaiety that she introduced the first repertory theatre in Britain, strongly supported by Shaw, who became patron of what was probably the first 'Little Theatre' in Britain, Stockport Garrick.
Actually, Auntie May got it wrong. Hindle Wakes had its première in London in June, 1912, and transferred to the Gaiety on October 28th, 1912. I assume she was present at the first night in Manchester. Even though she was only sixteen at the time, she would have been at work for two years by then and was known to have been working in a factory in Manchester.
Delving further, it seemed she and a group of girls used to congregate outside Miss Horniman's flat on Oxford Street almost every evening, and they would all walk, arm-in-arm, to the Gaiety for that night's performance. Their theatre-going became such a ritual that they formed the Manchester Playgoer's Club, in which our Auntie May seems to have held some sort of office.
At this time, one of the most successful light comedy and musical partnerships in the British theatre was that between Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge. They married in 1916, and, by the time Jack Hulbert died in 1978, they had been a double act for over 65 years. Although I can't find it recorded anywhere, Auntie May insisted that they announced their engagement from the stage of the Palace Theatre in Manchester in 1914, at which she was deputed by the Playgoers to present them onstage with a bouquet of flowers.
To add a personal touch of my own to this story, many, many years later, I was working for a publisher called Edward Arnold (publisher of Animal Rhymes or Tales With a Twist, referred to in my post Dancing with the Prince of Wales), whose offices were on Maddox Street in Mayfair. In those days (the 1970s), that part of Mayfair was a haven of peace in the summer evenings, and I was strolling along a nearby street, Chesterfield Hill, when I saw an elderly lady on a first floor balcony enjoying a newspaper in the evening sunlight. It was Cicely Courtneidge, who died the next year. And, sadly, Auntie May never got her telegramme from the Queen, either.
So, the next time you might be wondering who you know with an interesting past, take a look at the corner armchair, and think what you might have been missing.