On 24th November 1904, Brentwood’s Drill Hall in Ongar Road (sadly now no more) was the venue for a Programme of Dramatic and Musical Entertainment, comprising a farce called ‘My Lord in Livery’ and Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Trial by Jury’ (with orchestral selections from the ‘Mikado’ in between). By mutual agreement, the two groups formed into Brentwood Operatic Society and the Marlborough Dramatic Club in 1905 and BOS staged its first solo production (G&S’s ‘HMS Pinafore’) in 1906. Both groups continue to perform in Brentwood on a regular basis.
Records of the Society’s activities in the early years still exist, although why the Society was wound up in 1912 only to be re-formed six days later remains a mystery. Proceeds from shows up to the late 1920’s were donated to charity, mainly the Brentwood Cottage Hospital and then the District Hospital. Tickets cost 3s (15p), 2s (10p) and 1s (5p) in 1909; by 1931 they were 5s (25p), 3/6d (17.5p) and 1s (5p) where they remained until the late 1950’s. Annual subscriptions, though, doubled from 7/6d (37.5p) in 1910 to 15s (75p) by 1934.
The 1920 production of ‘Yeoman of the Guard’ cost £385 to mount, leaving the Society with a balance of just over £3! A further production of ‘Yeoman’ in 1928 won first prize in the London and South East section of a national operatic art competition, coming 4th overall out of 86 entries nationwide. Finances, though, started to cause concern from 1929 onwards, charity productions being abandoned and a finance sub-committee being formed to keep a tight reign on expenditure.
The Drill Hall continued to be used until 1932. Despite a magnificent stage, it had no dressing rooms which meant that the ladies had to change in the boiler room below stage. The men, meanwhile, used the former ‘Yorkshire Grey’ pub (not too grudgingly!) in the High Street and dashed to the hall in full costume. No records exist of the effect on the pub’s clientele or passing travellers on meeting a group of Pirates, Beefeaters or Peers in full robes and coronets dashing along the road!
Brentwood Town Hall (demolished in the early 1960’s) provided dressing rooms at last, but access to the stage was via a narrow staircase, further obstructed by a fire extinguisher, and excessive movement along the back wall made the backcloth billow alarmingly. It was not unknown for cast to become wedged on the staircase, especially if wearing period costume. There was also a considerable slope towards the orchestra pit that demanded care, even when the cast had reached the stage.
After using both Hutton Poplars and St Martin’s School, the Society moved to the newly-completed Teacher Training College in Sawyer’s Hall Lane in 1964. As part of Anglia Polytechnic University, the building survived until 2000 although the Society had not used it for almost 20 years before that. With good car parking, tiered seating, a foyer for refreshments and much better lighting facilities, the College represented a considerable advance although the stage was small, the wing space smaller still and the dressing room facilities easily outgrown by the Society’s increasingly ambitious choice of shows. Gilbert & Sullivan productions had predominated until the 1950’s, but in 1960 the first of many lavish musicals hit the stage in the form of ‘Oklahoma!’.
Separate G&S concerts became a feature from 1966 until 1988, together with an annual pantomime at the College from 1969 until ‘Babes in the Wood’ in 1989/90
In 1970, the start of the long association between the Society and its first professional producer, Ray Jeffery, saw another leap in BOS’s ambitions. For the next decade, starting with‘Annie Get Your Gun’, revolutionised Brentwood Operatic Society and worked its way from strength to strength.
BOS was amongst the first amateur companies to present ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in 1976 and, as a result of its growing reputation, was offered the chance to fill a vacancy at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch in 1980.
In less than eight weeks BOS rehearsed ‘Half a Sixpence’ under Ray Jeffery’s energetic and disciplined direction. The result was a huge success, the chance to perform in a full-sized professional theatre being a dream come true. Not only were the cast on a professional stage, but also the Society’s long-serving backstage staff had the chance to learn how to fly backcloths (operated with counterweight mechanisms) and put scenery on large trucks, all under the welcoming guidance of the Queen’s Theatre staff (in particular production manager Chris Faulkner).
The Society has continued to present a major musical at the Queen’s Theatre almost every year since 1980, although escalating costs and increasing fragmentation of both talent and audiences prompted a change of strategy in the 1990’s.
The opening of the Brentwood Theatre in 1994 offered the chance to stage a different range of shows in its own home town in a more intimate setting, and to encourage participation both on and off stage by a broader range of members.
Starting with a ‘Godspell’ in 1994, the Society has filled the Brentwood Theatre in January or February each year since with shows as diverse as ‘Chicago’, ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’, ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘The Boyfriend’.
The Society’s 90th anniversary in 1995 gave an opportunity for members old and new to meet up again for an afternoon of entertainment and reminiscences. Pictured here are Olive and Maurice Randall, together with our anniversary cake! Olive was our long-serving ticket secretary who had recently retired from the post; she started selling programme’s at the age of eight and took a chorus part in many shows and concerts. Maurice joined the Society in 1947, playing many chorus parts before becoming Hon Treasurer for 13 years and then our President from 1981 until his sad death in 2003 at the age of 90.
For 1999, BOS ambitiously reduced ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ to fit the smaller Brentwood Theatre venue despite a cast of over 50, whilst in the same year came another major adventure at Brentwood’s Courage Hall.
Under the direction of Patrick Tucker (a past performer with BOS), a hugely successful concert of modern musicals entitled ‘The Magnificent Seven’ was presented on a stage built largely by the Society’s own crew especially for the occasion.
A second such concert, entitled ‘A Bowl Full of Rice’, took place to further acclaim at the Queen’s Theatre in June 2000 while the year drew to a close with a very popular version of ‘South Pacific’ in Brentwood Theatre.
The Society started 2001 with another major concert at Brentwood’s Courage Hall before returning to the Queen’s Theatre with ‘Oliver!’.
Much of this brief history is based on the research of Society Vice President Pat Cook and the late Judy Adams (Musical Director), whose work is gratefully acknowledged.