Terry Gauntlett, who first trod the boards in 1947, is head of the Gauntlett dynasty which seems ubiquitous in the South London amateur theatre world…
I’m talking to him and his son Kevin in the latter’s office in West Wickham, Kent. Terry’s a retired solicitor who used to work in this same building where his son now practises and his father was once an articled clerk. Kevin’s daughter Ellen, 25, his secretary, is on the premises. “She’s the fourth generation Gauntlett to work here,” Kevin smiles. And – about to play the postulant nun in West Wickham Operatic Society’s (WWOS) production of Sister Act – Ellen’s the third generation of enthusiastic performers too. ‘Family’ is probably the most used word in my whole conversation with Terry and Kevin.
Kevin and his wife Louise, another actor (“She grew up in Petts Wood Operatic Society but ‘came over’.”), have two sons who rejected the family interest in theatre as they grew up, and a younger daughter Kate, 16, who is “very keen.” His brother, Jeremy, also an active enthusiast, is an estate agent in nearby Bromley while his other brother Richard is a professional actor.
No wonder Terry, in his understated way, is so proud. I doubt that he envisaged any of this when he played Shual in Jonah III in the school hall at Beckenham and Penge Grammar School seventy-two years ago. I have chapter and verse because Terry has prepared, and gives me, a typed list of all the productions he has been involved in. There are 214 shows on the list (an average of around three per year since childhood) and they range from Gilbert & Sullivan ‘Grossmith’ roles, to occasional Shakespeare parts, ensemble work and a lot of directing. He’s led a very busy theatrical life: his most recent appearance was in the WWOS ensemble at Churchill Theatre for its production of Anything Goes in May this year. The first for WWOS was as First Page in Merrie England in 1949.
He and his family have worked with and for a number of groups and societies over the years but now it’s now predominantly WWOS of which Terry is chairman – although I did see and review Kevin in CODA’s production of The Producers, recently on the opening night of the re-launched Fairfield Halls in Croydon. “Well I got involved because I’d done that role before,” he says, adding that he’s also chairman of Players Theatre with whom he also performs.
He hints that he’s unlikely to make a habit of CODA, although he and Terry have both worked with them in the past, partly because he has some semi-professional theatre work alongside his law practice. He just grins when I say that I’m glad I don’t have to manage his diary. “At Christmas I take a month’s leave to do the dame role in a professional pantomime at East Grinstead,” he explains. “It’s Cinderella this year and I’m playing one of the ugly sisters as well as directing. And that’s paid work.”
I’m interested in the relationship between WWOS and Churchill Theatre because I’ve heard hair-raising stories about some amateur companies and the theatres they use in other parts of the country. “We have no problems at all,” says Kevin. They make no stipulation about what we can put on. We pay to be there and for the use of facilities such as front of house and a skeleton backstage team. But we can do what we like, how we like. It’s a pretty open-ended deal. If we make a loss then it’s our own.”
The bottom line, as for companies (amateur or professional) everywhere, is balancing the books and because WWOS is a registered charity it would be failing in its duty if it carelessly mounted too many loss-making shows. “So we have to be careful about choosing shows and of course that’s partly governed by what’s available in terms of rights. Our Cats in 2018 sold out and meant that we could afford to do Follies, which we knew would be less popular later that year,” explains Kevin adding that choices have to made very carefully.
WWOS’s next show, in spring 2020 is Made in Dagenham which will be followed in autumn 2020 by Kipps: The New Half a Sixpence Musical. “You have to grab good shows when you can,” says Kevin telling me that the company is eagerly awaiting rights availability for Shrek and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “We certainly can’t fill the Churchill with Gilbert & Sullivan anymore although we have taken productions to the G&S Festival at Buxton and, more recently, Harrogate,” adds Terry, telling me that WWOS usually rehearses in and around West Wickham at Theatre 62, Emmanuel United Reform Church and Wickham Halls. Kevin, incidentally won a NODA London District Best Award for Best Male in a G&S, Opera or Operetta earlier this year for a 2018 performance as Ko-Ko but he doesn’t mention this. I stumble upon it when I’m checking facts later.
“It’s a lot easier at the Churchill now that we are the only amateur company which works there,” says Kevin. “When we first went there we were in competition with seven other societies which obviously spread audiences more thinly. In general we sell about a third of the tickets ourselves and the Churchill sells about two thirds.”
How do they advertise the shows, I wonder, having noticed a large Sister Act banner on the fence outside Kevin’s office? “There’s another one like that at my house too,” he says. “Posters and flyers are no longer very effective. Inclusion in the Churchill Theatre brochure helps. Otherwise it’s just continual pushing on social media. Have you looked at the promo video on the WWOS website, by the way? We’ve got forty-three nuns in Sister Act.”
The other strategy which helps to keep WWOS financially healthy are one-off shows, consisting of lots of songs, which the society takes out for hire to clubs, societies, charities and the like. “We call it ‘Wickham’s Wandering Oldtyme Stagers’. All you need is a chairman and a pianist. Then you just turn up and take the fee,” says Kevin who also does guest chairman appearances. “I get calls all the time, sometimes with only two-hours’ notice!” he says cheerfully leaving me wondering if his family ever see him at all other than if they happen to be performing alongside him or sitting in the audience.
At the time of writing the WWOS production of Sister Act is imminent and you will probably have read my online review by the time you see this interview. It was the 40th show at The Churchill, directed by Kevin who also played a small role. It won’t be long before he can produce a credit list as long as that of his father.
WWOS production of Made in Dagenham is at Churchill Theatre, Bromley 19 – 23 May, 2020.
Susan Elkin is a widely published journalist, author and teacher. She specialises in education and performing arts which includes reviewing shows for Sardines. From 2005-2016, Susan was Education & Training Editor at The Stage newspaper.