Had it not been for amateur dramatics and music in small Lakeland towns, doubtless few local people would ever have seen a play performed on a stage, let alone enjoyed an opera or heard a concert. City theatres and music halls were too expensive and far away for a day's visit, and unless local people put on their own productions, there was no public entertainment widely available until the first silent films arrived at the new bioscopes.
This week, we recall the days when local opera and theatre could fill every seat in the hall for a week, before radio and television provided such strong competition that they all but destroyed live entertainment; and we remember in particular two forms of public entertainment peculiar to the Lakes which flourished especially in the 1920s and '30s.
Few people living outside Grasmere now would ever have heard of the Grasmere Dialect Plays; yet only fifty years ago, people came by the coachload to Grasmere to see the dialect play each year. Thought to have been written originally by a Miss Fletcher, they were taken over by the formidable Mrs Rawnsley, second wife of Canon Rawnsley, who wrote and produced them:
"They were famous in their day, and quite amusing; they're very simple, but they had fabulous settings, really beautiful settings...they were written about local characters, local situations, in local dialect.
"It was a bit like Oberammagau; they were all acted by local people in the village and Mrs Rawnsley told everybody who they were going to play and there was no argument, that's what you did and that's what you were."
After much rehearsal, the play was performed in February, with a story set usually in the present day: "They were village stories, really, a bit like The Archers, just stories of village life."
But despite the fame and popularity of the Westmorland dialect plays, they flourished only for a relatively short time between the two wars, and died out during the Second World War. However, complete copies of the plays are still preserved, along with photographs and press cuttings collected by Mrs Rawnsley and others.
Another very popular entertainment in Ambleside was the tableau; whether it was Christmas, coronation or jubilee, a suitable human teableau was constructed to mark the occasion. Some were extremely elaborate, with costumes hired specially for the occasion, and it was mainly due to the enthusiasm of just three or four ladies in Ambleside in the 1930s that tableaux became so popular:
"I'll tell you what was very good, and you miss it now,the White Craggs Christmas tableau, in the Assembly Rooms every Christmas for a full week. It was the Bethlehem tableau, the Nativity, the donkey, everything, it was marvellous - the stage was full."
Every May Day, a May Queen was crowned in Ambleside:
"Every May Day they'd a May Queen and there was a procession round the Assembly Rooms and they gathered primroses and it was beautiful; And they had all these different tableaux to go with it."
The May Day celebrations and dancing were inspired by Miss Blezard, and the children and young people loved the occasion:
"It was gorgeous, it was marvellous to take part."
One May Day, instead of the normal crowning festivities, there was a Miss Coronation tableau to mark the Coronation of the Duke and Duchess of York. Several girls, all to be aged 25 were sought and found to make up the crown, with rubies, sapphires and ermine all around. But the top part of the crown went missing at the last moment, when a gold lame dress failed to arrive on time from a Kendal dressmaker:
"It held up all the performance till I got there, and they couldn't get over it, I wasn't a bit bothered. And everybody was in a flat spin - of course, it would have spoiled it, it was the main piece of the crown. It never bothered me. And then when I got on top of this table I had to sing Land Of Hope And Glory. Eh, goodness, what I remember about those marvellous nights! They really were. There was another one, St George And The Dragon, and I sent to a firm in Liverpool for my outfit...it had a visor, a sword and everything."
The opera in Ambleside was enormously popular and for once it didn't matter who you were - gardener or governor often sang side by side on stage. The only criterion was a good solo voice. The operas were usually Gilbert and Sullivan and played to packed houses for a whole week. The public loved them and hummed all the familiar tunes - thanks to some cunning preparations by the town band:
"One old bandsmen told me that whatever the opera was going to do next, they would practise it all winter and the next summer, wherever they went to, galas, sports...whatever opera they were doing they played all that music and they plugged away at it into peoples' minds so by the time the Opera came round, they were all wanting to see it, they knew all the tunes inside out, and he said that this was part of the scheme, and that's why it was such a success for such a lot of years, the people revelled in it."
Producing such succcessful entertainments meant endless rehearsals and practices in the town band, the orchestra, or in the village choir.Practises were once a week, sometimes twice; it left little time for much else:
"I joined Mr Skelton's male voice choir, and then they roped me in for the Choral Society, and then they roped me in for bell ringing, then Hawkshead Male Voice Choir, I was in all three. Of course I wasn't married when I first joined the choir...but I got married while I was in the choir, and there was Male Voice Choir on Monday, bellringing Tuesday, Wednesday night was a free night, Thursday was Choral Society, Friday night was the church choir; and my wife said 'You want to take your bed there, you're never at home!'"