What’s the School Play this year? (4)

Just one year before the outbreak of war, 1938 saw what must surely be one of Nottingham High School Dramatic Society’s greatest triumphs. It was the English version of the iconic play of the inter-war years, “Knock ou le Triomphe de la médecine” (“Knock or The Triumph of Medicine”) by Jules Romains. This was the school play where, according to the “Nottinghamian”:

“…the Car, with all its rattles, its backfiring and trick number plates very nearly stole the performance.”

Perhaps you had to be there. The car with all those rattles, loud backfiring and laugh-a-minute number plates” was supplied by Mr Norris, whose greatest special effects triumph was now a mere two years in the future.

The play was produced by the Chief English Master at this time, Mr John Ward Roche, who had both an MA in English and a BSc in Economics from University College, London. He was nicknamed “Fishy” and he was a man of extraordinary energy. In School Drama, he instituted the Christmas form-play competitions, the best three plays going forward to be performed before the parents. This idea, slightly adapted to fit the circumstances, has been used throughout the High School ever since.

With “Knock”, Mr Roche was assisted by Mr Gregg, Mrs Roche, Mr Hubbuck the caretaker and his staff and the popular woodwork teacher, Mr Jack Mells. The School Magazine was suitably impressed:

“It is largely due to their efforts that the cast were able to give so satisfactory an account of themselves.”

Here is the full cast:

Overall, the play was stunning, despite Mr Roche having to get through a horrendous setback which occurred completely unexpectedly. One of the main actors had what is now, eighty years later, an unknown but extremely serious problem, most probably that of stage fright. Mr Roche decided to take the rôle himself. With only three days’ notice he had to learn all the lines and then play the part of Dr Parpalaid in addition to all of his many other commitments as the producer of the play. The review in the School Magazine said:

“He imparted to Dr Parpalaid, the rather vague, fussy and ineffectual country GP, the right air of admiration for, mingled with bewilderment at, his more successful, but doubtfully honest successor, Dr Knock.”

Here is Mr Roche:

All of the female parts were still, of course, filled by boys, so Mr Roche was in the rather uncomfortable position of being married, for the duration of the play at least, to sixteen year old Eric Richard Gale, who was “excellent” throughout. Much of this was because of his extremely elegant high heels. Eric was the probably mortified son of a civil servant from 19 North Road in West Bridgford. Here is Eric, looking both extremely pretty and rather seductive:

And here are what the Nottinghamian thought were high heels (bottom right):

Here is fourteen year old Philip Blackburn, looking every inch Knock’s beautiful nurse:

And here’s Anthony Oscroft from 7, Mount Hooton, playing the part of the hall porter:

Two of the cast were marked for death in the Second World War. Does it show in their eyes? This young man played the part of Madame Remy. He had only six years left of his tragically short life:

And this young man had one year fewer:

That terror, that anguish, it is there, isn’t it?



Filed under Film & TV, France, History, Humour, Literature, Nottingham, Personal, The High School, Writing

20 responses to “What’s the School Play this year? (4)

    • You’re right there, Derrick! I hadn’t noticed the eyes in particular, just the overall expression.
      None of the rest of the cast has anything approaching the facial expressions of these two young men, so I doubt if it is stage fright.

  1. Whenever I see a picture – I look at the eyes. It is amazing and sometimes eerie what you see there.
    Excellent post, John!

    • Thank you very much for those kind words.
      You are absolutely right about the eyes, especially as regards the latter of the two photographs. This is 15 year old Lionel West who would lose his life in “Operation Husky”, the invasion of Sicily from North Africa. He was one of the British glider troops in 147 gliders. Over the Mediterranean, they encountered sporadic, and rather random, anti-aircraft fire and searchlights from German and Italian ships. Some of the pilots of the towing aircraft forgot they had a glider and tried to take violent evasive action by corkscrewing. Other pilots panicked and released their gliders, despite being well short of Sicily. An absolute bare minimum of 250 men were drowned by these actions and the likelihood is that Lionel was one of them. He was only 21 years old. Sadly, his body was never found.

  2. Chris Waller

    Looking like that, young Eric could have probably have done quite a it of business on Derby Road near Southampton docks.

    One has to admire the inventiveness and initiative of these budding thespians in putting together a performance on what one imagines was a tight budget. What a tragedy that so many lives were foreshortened by the war. All that potential and promise lost. I wonder if they really did sense that the world was spiralling inexorably towards war?

    • Hi Chris! All I can offer as a primary source is my Dad, who said that in the latter part of the 1930s people were well aware that there would be a war. They heard Herr Hitler on the radio, they saw what happened to Austria and Czechoslovakia and they felt a great deal of sympathy with the latter country. Added to that was Churchill, apparently the only politician to speak out against the Germans, continually calling for preparations to be made for war…..which started to happen round about 1936 with the arrival of the Spitfire and the Hurricane.

  3. How wonderful of Mr. Roche to fill in and learn all those lines. The show must always go on! We’ve had occurrences where we’ve been minutes from opening and star parts haven’t yet turned up. We’ve even been round to collect them before now, I certainly couldn’t fill the part in that short time my hat goes off to Mr Roche for that. The last two characters certainly have something about them that stands them out form the rest, whether it’s knowing or not, I guess we’ll never know.

    • Yes, he was quite a character. “Fishy” left in 1939 to become Headmaster of Barnsley Grammar School. The books of what I presume to be the same JW Roche are still being sold in the second hand market. They include books on Economics called “Getting and Spending” and “Elements of Economics”, a series of English textbooks entitled “Background English Book” and two travelogues called “Antarctic Adventures” and “Antarctic Adventurers”. All that and a School Play to produce every year, not to mention the School Exchange with Denmark, the first time the Vikings had been back in Nottingham in almost a thousand years. This time though, they all brought their bikes so they could rampage around the Peak District, presumably the first time that they had ever seen a mountain!

  4. It still amazes me that some of these actors were boys playing women. The last two lines punched me in the stomach. Gulp.

    • As far as I know, women were very rare occurrences in plays until fairly recently. I don’t think, for example, that in the late sixteenth century, Shakespeare would ever have seen women act on stage in any of his plays.
      You are right to point out how quickly some of the boys in that play were asked to grow up, take their rifle and fight. What an awful waste of highly educated people it was!

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