Peter Edbrook: memories of The Royalty theatre and beyond

 

PETER
Peter Edbrook

 

Peter Edbrook, born 1949 is a Chester born actor.

“My dad was a pianist , a self taught pianist, his father was a magician and a ventriloquist. My dad used to accompany my Grandad’s act at the piano… That was when variety was live, and I was still a kid. I liked it , my mum and dad used to take me to Liverpool regularly, to all see the big variety acts. But variety was dying so my grandfather got a job in the blast furnaces at Shotton steelworks. My dad went to night school and became an electrical engineer, he didn’t go into the business proper

“My grandad and dad were both Choristers at Chester cathedral . I followed on, I did two years there, I didn’t really like it , but it put me in good stead for the theatre, with the timing .. it was just too much for me. I went back to school at Blacon junior school , and then we moved to Newton. While I was at school I auditioned for Babes in the Wood at the Royalty theatre City road. . I was 12, I didn’t get it. I went back a year later and asked for a part time job. They said no, you have to be a certain age…

 

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1960s Chester

 

I asked Peter about Chester in the 1960s “All the streets weren’t pedestrianised so you had full traffic parked up, you had buses.. there still weren’t that many cars around.. there were butchers shops in bridge street, down the bottom of Bridge st was a shop where they had a delicatessen and you could smell the coffee grinding in the morning, wafting up the road. There were no phone shops! There were none of the usual shops, lots of little tailors, upholsterers , dress shops. The rows were a bit shabby.. Chester wasn’t geared up for tourism. There was a place called the majestic cinema on Brook St.. the front of it is still there.. the road that cuts round the back , that was where the cinema was. They made it into a dance hall, and all us kids could do the Twist, the hully gully. We used to have groups there. The cinemas were fantastic, where Primark is, was the Classic cinema . ABC was a cinema, further down the road.. my dad used to play piano near The Bars at the bottom of city road. We had the Odeon, The Gaumont which is now the Bingo, and before that it was a bowling hall. In those days they used to dress the cinemas up, they had palm trees and coconuts and girls in Hula dress. Also the music hall theatre, where Charles Dickens used to orate, that was a cinema (now Superdrug) In those days you could see the film over and over again for 1/3.

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“Eventually I got a job on the spotlights at the Royalty  .There were two carbon rods, a short one and a long one with a mirror at the back and when you turned the rod, they came together and created an arc of light, which then became “limelight” The brightest light you can get, the most flattering.. I used to work on musicals, circuses, rock shows, variety shows, loads of animal acts. Pantomime’s especially. My first Panto in 1964-5 was with Herman’s Hermits in Dick Whittington… I had seen them on top of the pops. They were from Manchester, the local theatres got them first. He called me to his dressing room and said he had a new number, he wanted a spot on the drum kit which expanded into a sunrise.. to accompany his new song… (Sings)  “woke up this morning feeling fine..”

He then took to America and it became a number one, originating at the royalty theatre. The group broke up, he stayed in America and became big on broadway” Peter proudly showed me his scrapbook from the period featuring an ice cream scoop signed by Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits and Tom Jones’ abandoned comb. Vicars Cross youth Keith Harris was also in the panto playing a cat. “I think he was only about 15-16. He used to bring a monkey with him ,which I think his mum made. His mum wasnt in the business , but she was a big wardrobe lady, his dad was a comedian.. He became a pharmacist. A lot of people did move onto totally different occupations.

 

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1960s art of the theatre on city road

 

 

Keith Harris went onto massive success in partnership with talking duck Orville. He died in 2015.

“One of the top turns was Tom Jones. He came along with his wife, he had this little blonde wife, they were both in leather. He went into the number 10 dressing room, which was exactly at the edge of the stage, so he didnt have to do stairs, he just waited until his music came on. Russ Abbot was also on the same bill. He came back that Christmas with his group The Black Abbots. They played the crazy cops in Aladdin. Of course Russ is a local lad , he later split from the boys and became a solo act” Russ went on to be voted the funniest man in Britain five times and is still acting today

“I wanted to go into the theatre and didnt know how, they wouldnt let me go to drama or art school, I had to get a job. I did get a great job at the Chester Chronicle, a 3 year apprenticeship. I eventually worked my way up to operating the linotype machine. I was the last apprentice allowed in the Cheshire area. I was the junior apprentice for 3 years. I used to sweep the floors every morning, I used to have to put sawdust down every morning and clean it with disinfectant, and at the end of every day. I after 3 years I did get a bit pissed off being the junior apprentice. I used to go to art school in Liverpool to learn linotype.. its quite technical but its used to be how they made lines of type. Eventually they went into computerisation and I had to learn a qwerty keyboard which was totally different .. I got bored with it. I was doing amateur theatre at Birkenhead, Ellesmere Port, Chester operatic. I couldnt get enough.. I realised I needed to go into the theatre, I wanted to be an actor…” Peter was 28 at this point having worked at the Chronicle for 13 years

Onstage in an amateur production at Ellesmere Port town hall: PORT

Peter applied for RADA and failed :” I dont do Shakespeare. I was terrible. The second one I went to was Birmingham school of speech and dramatic art. I got it and that was it basically. In my first week at drama school they were looking for a replacement for an actor .. I went along for an audition and I recognised the director from Chester gateway theatre”  (Peter had worked in the gateway as a barman during his time at the Chronicle)

“He didnt remember me. I got the part and went straight into Arnold Wesker’s “The merchant”. There was loads of names in it. I got my equity card which meant I could audition for TV and west end parts. While I was working at Birmingham rep I bought the Stage newspaper and they were advertising for people to do a tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. I got in through a guy called Johnny Worthing who I met at Chester royalty theatre. I was one of the disciples and understudy for King Herod. I went on as Herod many times. I went straight into “Annie” in the West End which was a brand new musical back then…They say you shouldnt work with children and animals… In Annie I was working with 5 animals and about 12 children. All the sets and motorcars were bought on pallets, they used to winch them on, on pulleys. At the end of a big open stage night .. The dog came across the stage and pooed , it went off, to much hilarity.. and then all the sliding bits came in and they spread the poo all over the stage. The lights were hot on stage and you can imagine what it was like

Peter showed me his CV taking in countless musicals and stage productions: “ I’ve done several roller skating shows. I did Fiddler on the Roof at the palladium I did 12 months with Topol, I played the fat butcher opposite him. I was in a dressing room once and in walked Liza Minnelli. I worked in Birmingham rep in a thing called the Pajama game with Anita Dobson. I played Ulrika Johnson’s dad in that ! It was directed by Simon Callow. They took it to Toronto for 12 weeks, which is where I met Russ Abbot again.. his show from the Palladium , Oliver was coming in to take over from us”

Peter has also worked in TV, initially as an extra. “I worked in Juliet Bravo, I was many times in the original Crossroads. I didnt have any dialogue. My TV things are things like the Bill, Touch of Frost, I was in Emmerdale for a month working with Lorraine Chase. I did a thing called Earthfast, recently Ive done a thing for Disney called Gallivant which was shown on ATV in America.

“Because of the way I look, I have my own Santa Claus business. You book me and I turn up at your house . I got cast as Santa Claus in a show called Dear Santa.. then I went to do a show called Santa Claus the musical..” He then got the prestigious role of Santa in last years Toys R US advert . “we filmed it in September and it went out all over Christmas

“I also did a year with David Walliams in a show called Mr Stink. I worked with David in rehearsal, we changed the script slightly to modernise it for a live show… He describes David as a lovely man , unassuming unlike his TV persona and great to work with. Mr Stink toured nationwide playing venues like the Hackney Empire.

Peter is sad about the demise of Chester’s theatre scene since the 1960s…

“The Royalty opened a club called the Warren , in competition with the cavern in Liverpool, it was a bit of a dive and a fire risk .. they took out all the seats at one time and made it a skateboarding park. They tried to do Bingo, I was a checker in the circle, I was terrified of shouting numbers out. They had wrestling in there, it changed into a club. That died a death and in the end it closed.. It was absolutely beautiful, it had an upper circle , stalls, two beautiful statues either side, muses, and it was only recently it became a premier inn. Happy memories, beautiful haunted old Victorian theatre, sadly gone.

warren

“I have often worked as a stage manager , being paid in my holidays at the Gateway theatre. I saw so many good productions, I wanted to be in.. Sadly the Gateway theatre is no more. We dont have another theatre. It was originally built as a lecture theatre for a hotel that was never built, it was a 440 seat rep theatre. David Suchet (of Poirot fame) started there… loads of famous actors started doing the circuits. All the Chester shows used to go to Crewe Alex and vice versa . Actors got lots of work.

“It was ages before Chester council woke up to the fact that we had tourist attractions. Sadly the biggest part of the amphitheatre is underneath that ugly building. The pedestrianisation. I will go with that ok, but its the lack of interesting shops, theres coffee shops, telephone shops everywhere. .. I like the busking aspect thats quite nice. But I hardly ever go into the city now for entertainment, theres nothing there. Be great when the Odeon opens up as a theatre, and we’ll see what happens.. You cant go and see a play unless its an amateur play, and some of them are very good. We’ve got no culture” he says sadly. “All we’ve got is ruins which we don’t appreciate. Chester people have lost interest because its never been there… They’ll go and see the big shows in Manchester and Liverpool…

“Ive had 35 years in the theatre… I’ve met so many lovely people and there is a time when you have to hang up your boots, mine hasnt come yet, because I’m still doing commercials, television and live theatre… It slows down when you get older unless you’re one of the big names … I’ve no complaints, but in between I’ve had to do all sorts of things, i’ve done bar work, I’ve learned a lot about food and wine and occasionally I’ll go in and specialise on products in stores. ..I’m old but I’m young at heart. I advise anybody who wants to do something, do it.. if you make a fuck up or a mess of it at least you tried.”

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