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15 October 2014
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Entertaining the Sheffield Troops — the beginning of the Denys Edwards Players

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

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BBC Southern Counties Radio
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Peggy Overin, Mannie Levy, Bernard Brailsford, Lorna Beard, Ella Atkinson, Myra Grey, Greta Waterhouse, Fred Holdsworth, Franke Cooke, Bob Daykin, Millie Hill, Fred Corbridge, Denys Edwards, John Jackson, Nan Whale.
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12 December 2005

Peggy Overin, with a banjo, entertaining the troops circa 1943.

This is Peggy Fell’s wartime story and how she became part of a wonderful wartime entertainment group which is still going today, over 60 years later! Her story has been added to the BBC People’s War archive by her grand-daughter Eleanor Fell with Peggy’s permission.

In 1941, Mannie Levy, who was in charge of the Northern Command Volunteers Entertainment Services (Sheffield Area) set in motion a movement to put on plays to the Troops station in Sheffield during the 2nd World War. He enlisted the help of Denys Edwards, a well known amateur player, who although rather sceptical of the idea, was persuaded by Mannie to undertake the project.

I saw an article in the local paper calling for people involved in entertainment to come forward to entertain the troops. I looked at the call to action in the paper and thought “Well I could do that”. So I went along to the inaugural meeting and before I knew where I was I was in, along with quite a few others from the entertainment business that I knew! So we formed this little group of amateur thespians in Sheffield with Mannie in charge. The amateur troupers group consisted of myself (Peggy Overin as I was then known) Bernard Brailsford, Lorna Beard, Ella Atkinson, Myra Grey, Greta Waterhouse, Fred Holdsworth, Franke Cooke, Bob Daykin, Millie Hill, Fred Corbridge and of course Denys Edwards.

We hadn’t yet decided on a name for the group, so we went by the title 'Sheffield Wartime Entertainments Committee Players', and we decided to test the water with a One Act play, called ‘Amazons on Broadway’. It had an all female cast and was about American girl gangsters in New York. We performed at the Croft House Garrison in Garden Street, where the troops went to relax, have a meal and play games. It also had a concert hall that was used for putting on plays, and so was ideal for us. I played the part of ‘Hellcat Hettie’ who was the real villain of the play, and despite the fact that I tripped up the first time I went on stage, and uttered an obscenity (which actually raised a laugh!) we didn’t ‘get the bird’ from the audience! So encouraged by the absence of any active hostility, we went onto present a full length play, a comedy called ‘Yes and No’ in June 1941, which had an alternative endings. The play ran for seven performances but it was the start of a snowball which rolled onto great success during the wartime years, with our last play running for 40 performances!

In spite of the diffidence of the Army Entertainment Officers, our little company’s efforts were so successful that each subsequent play showed a steady increase in the number of performances and by the time of our last play under wartime auspices in 1945, we had performed a total of 200 shows at military sites within a wide radius of Sheffield.

During these 4 years of entertainment we played on all sorts of stages — large and small, such as Nissen Huts, Army Canteens, converted farm buildings, Aerodromes and even stately homes, many of which are now National Trust properties. At one grand home in particular I remember coming down the stairs at the back, and in the corner on the stairs there was an erotic statue which was very much unclothed. As I descended the stairs I stumbled in my long skirt, and managed to rescue myself by grabbing hold of part of the statue on a very sensitive body part — much to the audience’s delight!

We particularly loved playing at the Aerodromes because we would always get a good meal such as sausage and chips, or egg and chips, which was a wonderful treat, as at that time things were a bit difficult with rationing of course. I also remember performing at a Prisoner of War camp, where we were entertaining the guards, during our show we heard the prisoners joining in with the singing in the background.

It wasn’t always easy to perform at some of the places, at the anti-aircraft gun sites, for example, if the alarm went everyone would leave and we would be left performing to the four remaining kitchen staff. Eventually the troops would come drifting back in, but we would just carry on although nothing had happened! Our stage manager, Nan Whale, had a small collection of essential props and after that we would make do with whatever furniture was available.

Getting to some of the venues was also tricky; I particularly remember one site, which had a very narrow lane. It had been raining cats and dogs for days and our transport, a local Corporation bus, couldn’t get down the lane. So a load of the soldiers came to carry us piggyback style to the building. It was quite hilarious — all of us hanging onto the backs of these lovely soldiers as we were carried down the muddy lane.

We would travel to and from the venues on our Sheffield Corporation bus up to three times a week with our Night Driver, John Jackson, from the Sheffield Transport Department. Often we would be returning in the small hours of the morning, in pitch darkness with no roads signs (since they had been removed to confuse the enemy) so occasionally loosing our way home!

After the end of the war, we had developed a great sense of friendship and team spirit group, so it was natural that we should want to continue performing together. In 1945 we finally named ourselves the ‘Denys Edwards Players’ (DEP) and led by Denys Edwards, who was himself an outstanding actor, we continued to entertain the citizens of Sheffield with a wide range of public performances, including musicals and One Act plays.

I am the last surviving founding member of the DEP, and am fortunate at the age of 85 to still be occasionally treading the boards! To date the DEP have performed over 220 plays and continue to perform at venues such as the Library Theatre in Sheffield. This has been made possible by the hard work and commitment of the members of DEP, and of course by our founder, Denys Edwards, who dedicated many years of his life to the stage and inspired all those he worked with. I will always remember him for his friendship, his impish sense of humour and his kindness for anyone who needed a helping hand.

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