IT was coming up to Christmas 1964. I was in India, in the Army in Lucknow and billeted in 'Sandes Soldiers' Home.
This was a hostel for leave-takers run by two people with a small staff: Mr Perrit and Miss Simms, missionaries who also ran a hostel in the Himalayas at Naini Tal, used when they moved from the plains because of the heat.
I was there in order to take an audition for a concert party. I took a chance while serving in the Artillery in Dehra Dun in what used to be the United Provinces after seeing an appeal on the regimental notice board for 'anyone interested in joining a theatrical party' and to 'put your name down in the office.'
I jumped at the chance, having done a fair amount of singing over the years in my home town Halesowen.
A few days later I was told to fill a small pack for an overnight stay in Lucknow where I and other nominees would be billeted with the Lancashire Fusiliers. I thought this was an opportunity to get away from the artillery regime and to do what I enjoyed doing.
Soon I was in Lucknow, famed for its siege in the 1857 Uprising, and the Central Gym was a long walk away from the Fusiliers' depot. There were 16 applicants.
Three decided to return to their regiments (which I thought was foolish) and the rest of us were accepted. We had to return to our various camps to be officially posted to Lucknow.
A couple of days later we arrived back with the Lancashire Fusiliers, and the moment we stepped into the orderly room we were in trouble with Regimental Sergeant-Major 'Kitna' Price (mentioned in an article a few months ago in The Bugle). The 'Kitna' was Urdu for "how much?"
He and his sergeants pronounced that we were 'improperly dressed.' Admittedly, we weren't on a par with the spick-and-span Fusiliers, but from that moment they made our lives miserable, so much that we complained to our organising officer Major Abernethy who, with permission of his General (whose idea the concert party was), had us transferred to the Sandes Soldiers' Home, which really was like being on leave. It turned out to be more than just rehearsing.
The old Central Gym that housed us was being transformed into a genuine theatre, with part of the springy wooden floor being raised up to a stage-height, a proscenium arch erected, a back cloth and main curtains (tabs) raised together with curtained wings and front orchestra pit with dressing-rooms underneath the stage. A room on either side of the auditorium was to house (1) a bar and (2) a lounge area.
Major Abernethy (christened 'Ab'') said we were to begin straightaway as soon as a troop of Indian labourers and their ox-carts began to remove a few tons of rolled barbed wire that were being stored in the gym and a great pile of furniture being stored in a side room.
The builders were Indians and we would do the painting and putting up the back-cloth and wing-curtains. As soon as we started rehearsing we discovered that we'd have to act (and write) the whole show ourselves because Abe had no experience of putting a show together, so whatever we did he okayed it.
It was to be called 'The U.P. Area Players' – the 'U.P.' stood for 'United Provinces.' Indian tailors made all the costumes and the show was taking shape. R.S.M. Price seemed to look down on us but we did get to know him outside of his duties and we found him a likeable person, so much so that he asked us if we could entertain at the sergeants' mess on Christmas Day.
We agreed to, and the main performers in the group mapped out a concert using bits from the current show plus other items. A problem that would haunt us all through our short life as the U.P. Area Players was a serious lack of piano accompanists – Abe had to 'borrow' a Lieutenant whom we called "Andy" (when he was available) and I doubt whether or not he enjoyed the job.
Anyway, Christmas was around the corner and the hostel would be putting on a Christmas spread. The accommodation was small rooms holding two persons, and together with my mate Freddy we decided to nip down to the nearby bazaar and buy some trimmings and make the room Christmassy while Mr Perrit (we called him 'ferret,' and Miss Simms (we called her 'Ginny' after a Ginny Simms the singer with Kay Kyser's Band) did the same complete with tree and hanging baubles.
We weren't the only soldiers at the home and we all pulled crackers and blew up balloons, and sang hymns and carols. The home had a missionary feel and every Sunday we couldn't play records on a gramophone we'd hired.
I remember Ginny giving us an old-fashioned lantern lecture when Tom (one of our crew) was designated to operate the lantern and to change the slides whenever Ginny banged her staff.
While at the bazaar Freddy and me bought a length of shirt material to get the dherzi (tailor) at Sandes to run up a couple of shirts, plus a bottle of what was supposed to be Canadian whisky which, when we drank it tasted awful.
We also acquired a full box of Mars bars – why a full box I'll never know, and the only dampener was Mr Perrit and him not playing any swing music on the gramophone.
I quote from my diary: "Christmas Eve the two of us went round the other rooms and sang carols, whether they wanted them or not. Christmas Day morning at 10.30am we all went to the hospital and entertained for an hour. It went well and they plied us with ale when we finished.
"After dinner there was a pipe band, a conjuror and a choir and a good time was had by all."
A couple of the lads went over to the Fusiliers' Admin Company and (in defiance of Abe's orders I might add) did a few items from the coming show. The R.S.M. was also there.
The performance itself in the Sergeants' Mess began an 11pm and "it went very well – I even got an encore!" Again I quote: "We didn't really know how the show went, after all there was so much booze being drunk, Donald Duck would have been encored. Some of these mess dos were an experience but only after the officers had left."
The show itself helped a lot and I was glad we'd seen the more human (even humorous) side of 'Kitna' Price, but even decorations lose their sparkle when outside, it didn't have the real feel of the season. Nothing could take the place of home – and we almost made ourselves sick trying to eat all those Mars bars. A couple of days afterwards, it was just India again."
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