Patrick Stewart — Chancellor of the University of Huddersfield and its Oldham satellite — let slip his Oldham failings as he launched the new University of Oldham
Oldham Repertory Theatre was the spawning ground for some of the best-known actors and comedians of the 20th century. Reporter JADE WRIGHT dusted off the history books with the Coliseum’s historian and front of house manager David Rustidge, to discover the award-winning actors who got their first break at the extraordinary theatre...
Anne dreamed of being an actress from an early age . . . years before she trod the cobbles of Wetherfield she was delighting Oldham audiences with her rare blend of beauty and comic timing.
As an 11-year-old, Anne signed up with Saddleworth Junior Players, and before long she was spotted and taken on at Oldham Rep as an actor/assistant stage manager.
Anne, daughter of Chronicle cartoonist Jack Kirkbride, swiftly became one of the theatre’s finest actresses.
Coliseum house manager and resident historian, David Rustidge, said: “Anne was outstanding. People would come to see her week after week and every time she could bring something new to the character.
“She had that rare gift of timing, and whether it was comedy or serious drama she knew how to move a crowd.
“From the very beginning, audiences spotted her star quality.”
In 1972, she was snapped up by “Coronation Street” casting directors and ‘Deirdre’ was born.
The nation quickly took Anne to their hearts and when news broke of her battles with cancer and depression she was overwhelmed with letters and cards of support.
Deirdre, and her glasses, became a cultural icon and when the character was sent to prison for a crime she didn’t commit in 1998, the British public protested “Free the Weatherfield One” until she was acquitted on appeal.
Anne has not left our screens since, and Oldham theatre’s loss has been Britain’s gain.
DORA BRYAN OBE
Dora Bryan has become one of Britain’s most well-respected character actresses.
The glamorous blonde made her name at Oldham Rep, starring in “Stage Door”, “No Room at the Inn”, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “Hello, Dolly!”
In the early 1960s she made the leap into films, starring in “A Taste of Honey”, for which she won a British Academy Award.
It was the first of a clutch of awards, including the variety club best actress award for “She Stoops to Conquer” and a prestigious Olivier Award for her performance in “The Birthday Party” at the National Theatre.
Mr Rustidge remembers many of Dora’s early performances.
“She was always a wonderful actress and over the years she has remained a friend of the theatre. She has returned here many times and is always a very popular figure in Oldham,” he said.
Dora has recently been awarded an OBE and an honorary Masters Degree from the University of Manchester for her work in theatre, film and television.
ERIC SYKES OBE
THE young Eric Sykes began his career as an actor at the Oldham Rep.
Sykes was born in Oldham in 1923. His mother died during childbirth and his early years were spent living with a local spinster while his father worked in a cotton mill.
He insists that the stream of unsuitable jobs which came his way after leaving school gave him the best apprenticeship any comedian could have had, but it was not until the outbreak of war that he would learn to use his comic talent.
He began entertaining the troops in the RAF by writing forces’ revues with a young Denis Norden. On his return to Oldham he took a job in rep.
He went on to write for television and radio, and in 1959 the BBC gave him his own show which became the longest-running domestic comedy series in the history of British television.
Over the years, Bernard has become one of Britain’s best-loved children’s entertainers with a string of distinguished television and stage appearances under his belt.
He was born in Oldham in 1928 and has been a professional actor since he joined Oldham Rep as a student player at the tender age of 14.
He stayed with the company for eight years, learning his craft in plays ranging from Shakespeare to music hall.
Like all repertory actors, Bernard had to learn a new play most weeks, and regular theatre-goers would see the same cast in different roles every week for a year or more.
After leaving Oldham, he went on to become a leading light on the London stage before releasing several humorous records including “Right Said Fred”.
He became the narrator of the popular television show “The Wombles” and became a regular face on children’s television for many years.
In 2003, he returned to his northern roots to play ageing lothario Wally Bannister in “Coronation Street”.
Among his long list of film credits are notable appearances in three “Carry On” films, “The Railway Children” and a role in fellow rep member Eric Sykes’s comic masterpiece “The Plank”.
Barbara is an Oldham lass through and through.
The daughter of a millworker and a factory worker she left school at 15 to work as a telegraphist in the Post Office in Oldham.
While she was there, she took up amateur theatre and was spotted by Oldham Rep and taken on, albeit without pay.
As the months passed she got her first pay packet and during her 12 years in rep she honed the craft of acting and rose to be one of its most popular stars.
“Barbara was a gift to Rep because she was so very versatile,” said David. “She’s got a great deal of talent, but she has worked very hard too.”
In 1972 she joined the new Manchester soap opera “Coronation Street” and has been delighting viewers with the exploits of her character Rita Sullivan ever since.
She has won a number of awards, including the Oracle Teletext Best Actress award, The TV Times award and a lifetime achievement award at the British Soap Awards.
JOHN LE MESURIER
After failing the entrance exam for the Royal Navy and quitting after a few weeks in a solicitor’s office, when the young John Halliley decided to change his name and tread the boards he headed to Oldham.
After training at the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic Art, alongside a young Alec Guinness, he came to Oldham to join the rep.
In time, John moved back to London and took a series of jobs on the West End before joining the cast of “Hancock’s Half Hour” and marrying comedy actress Hattie Jacques.
The part for which John is perhaps best known is dapper Sergeant Arthur Wilson in “Dad’s Army”, which began in 1968.
John was originally cast as the captain and Arthur Lowe the sergeant, but in an inspired last minute change of heart by writers Perry and Croft, the roles were reversed and one of television’s best double acts was formed.
The cast of loveable pensioners captured the nation’s hearts and the show ran for 12 series and sold worldwide. In 1971, he won the Society of Film and Television Arts Best Television Actor award for his portrayal of Kim Philby in Dennis Potter’s play “Traitor”.
In 1983, John died from cirrhosis of the liver.
THE HOLLYWOOD CONNECTION
MOVIE stars Ralph Fiennes and Minnie Driver trod the boards in what is now the Coliseum before they went on to great acclaim on the silver screen.
Ralph Fiennes made some of his earliest stage appearances in Oldham.
After graduating from RADA and one performance at Theatre Clywd he appeared in “My Mam Says”, “Don Quixote” and one of the theatre’s lowest-selling plays, Caryl Churchill’s “Cloud Nine”.
“I remember seeing him and he was good, but no-one really raved about his performances,” said Mr Rustidge. “You wouldn’t have picked him out as being better than the other actors. When he popped up in ‘Schindler’s List’, we were amazed.”
Similarly, Minnie Driver failed to dazzle in her 1991 Oldham debut, “Raving Beauties”.
“She was a lovely girl, but I wouldn’t say she stood out.”
The Coliseum has been the training ground for many more of today’s biggest names, including movie star Ben Kingsley and Coronation Street star William Roache, but there will always be one who got away...
Not all of those who applied to join Oldham Rep were welcomed with open arms.
Speaking at the opening of University Centre Oldham in 2005, Huddersfield-born star Patrick Stewart told the crowd: “In the summer on 1959 I was unemployed and wrote to the Oldham Rep.
“The artistic director wrote back to me saying in no uncertain terms that there was no work for me in Oldham.”
Patrick went on to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company before becoming Captain Jean-Luc Picard and later taking a starring role in the “X-Men” films.