Memories of Albert Johnson’s amateur dramatics

Albert Johnston in The Importance of Being Earnest

In the history of the school, there are few teachers whose reputation surpasses that of Albert Johnson, a man devoted to two professions – the history of teaching and amateur. We were inundated with memories of Albert Johnston for issue three of Old Stops’ Review, and here we reproduce those contributions that, due to space restrictions, we were unable to print in full.

“Ernie” Whalley (OS 1959)

I was in three of Albert’s plays. Taking a high profile role of third sailor in the trial scene from The Caine Mutiny and an equally significant role in The Tempest of… third sailor. I also had a bit-part in Androcles and the Lion (possibly third sailor, though I’m not sure they had one!

The most memorable of these was The Tempest, performed in my last year at Stockport Grammar School. The mariners were only needed for the first scene and the last. In between times we worked up a thirst by playing a vigorous game of badminton in the gym, clad in our medieval sailor suits, greasepaint running down our faces before donning raincoats and legging it down to the Duke of York on Buxton Road for an illicit pint. We always managed to get back for the final scene.

At the end of the first scene the sailors all leapt overboard or made as if to do so before the lights were cut, during which operation I was allowed to recite my solitary line, “Oh my wife and children!”, save for the bosun whose task it was to haul the mast and rigging, suspended from the roof of the stage, out of the way and secure it with a smart hitch.

Clearly, he had never attended any of messrs Brown and Granville’s Norfolk Broads or Salcombe expeditions for, on one performance the hitch slipped and so, during scene two when the lovers, Ferdinand and Miranda, were playing chess on the island, the mast and rigging swung back and catapulted Ferdinand into the front stalls!

If memory serves me right, Miranda was played by Tommy Bowden, ex-president of the Old Stops.

To add a personal note, after relinquishing the editorship of Food & Wine Magazine, I am still gainfully employed as restaurant critic and wine writer for the Irish edition of the Sunday Times. I also do some wine lecturing and give the odd cookery class and have recently completed a novel – Girls, Me and DJP – which I am currently trying to get published. What passes for my leisure time is spent playing the guitar, composing songs, playing bad golf and racing my radio controlled quarter scale laser at the national yacht club.

I get back to the north-west a few times a year to visit my daughters and grandchildren who live in Sale and Hebden Bridge.

Should any Old Stop of my generation find himself in Dublin and fancy a pint, a yarn about times past, or both, I’m on for it.

Chris Walton (OS 1949)

” ..with a little bit of luck” as the well known song goes. As I sit down to jot down various events in my life I come to realise how important luck, or good fortune, has served me. Here goes!

My first piece of good luck was, yes, that my parents decided to send me to Stockport Grammar School. It was not a done thing because I really wanted to follow a number of my friends in Heaton Moor and go to a boarding school. Money came into it and with a younger brother (Robin) to follow I joined what was then junior B in 1939 coinciding with the outbreak of world war two.

Despite some relatively minor deprivations and disruptions, Stockport Grammar School was a good place to be during the war and thereafter and I enjoyed my 10 years there and getting involved in a wide variety of activities, lacrosse, music and plays.

I did not excel in any of them but towards the end I was greatly influenced by Albert Johnson (AJ, of course) who not only was an inspirational master but had the ability to set aspirations in the boys: it was thanks mainly to him that I left in 1949 with a place at Cambridge.

In those days one had the option of putting off national service until after further education or signing up right away. I did the latter, joined the army and the next six months were a mixture of rough barrack room life, physical and mental exhaustion – which many a Stopfordian will have experienced. But in a funny way I rather relished it because I felt it brought me up to date on what I had missed at boarding school and I think this helped me proceed to a commission.

Towards the end of training at the officer cadet school, we were given the opportunity of stating the regiment of our choice. It seemed strange at the time but nearly every one in our barrack room chose a regiment which was already in action in Korea or about to go there. After all we were soldiers and war was our business. I put in for the Royal Fusiliers (which met that criterion) but instead was gazetted to the Lancashire Fusiliers, headquartered at Bury. However the battalion had no room for me and I was shipped out to the Loyal Regiment in Aqaba, Jordan.

Memories tend to exaggerate, but on reflection the seven months spent there were sheer bliss. The battalion’s function was to protect our old ally Jordan from Israel and I was posted to the forward company, some 100 yards from the barbed wire frontier where we were charged to observe every movement of the Israeli army in Eilat a mile away. But off duty the atmosphere defies description. The Arab Legion, Glub Pasha,
TE Lawrence, (shadows of) Arab forts visits to the then virtually undiscovered Petra. It was a beau geste world and one of the most formative experiences in my life. What a piece of luck!

Cambridge, and more especially Caius, offered everything and lived up to all expectations. At the end of my first year an undergraduate in a neighbouring room asked if I would like to take over from him as Chairman of the University UNA. It was not on my agenda but I had some qualification for the job having started a branch at SGS. So the rest of my time there was taken up with what became the largest University society, rowing (a continuing passion) and some study.

Then down to the real world of jobs. I had no real idea what I wanted to do but was offered a position (no doubt because of the UNA connection) with the colonial (later Commonwealth) development corporation in London and took it. The next three years comprised a lot of dogsbody assignments with two postings to Lagos Nigeria, the last short one redeemed by the meeting with my wife to be.

Then came my lucky break. I was sent to Nairobi Kenya to work up new projects in east Africa and in particular to make something of the nascent tea industry. I had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. In Kenya the Mau Mau rebellion was over and independence (which would have been a distraction) was hardly mentioned; CDC, which had had a rocky few years, was ready to make investments. It took a couple of years to plan and then with the benefit of £1million from CDC and $2 million later from the World Bank the tea industry took off. Within a decade Kenya had become the largest tea exporter in the world and the organisation acknowledged as the most effective smallholder scheme in Africa.

I then felt it was time to get back to a UK job. The first one with a medium company in the south-east did not work out and I moved to the city to a commodities company which wanted to diversify. The city in those days was very laid back and the company very tolerant of my outside activities. And so I got back into Conservative politics, was appointed adviser on overseas aid to Ted Heath, then opposition leader, and got on to the candidates list with the search for a constituency. Swindon, a Labour held seat seemed to like me and but for a long breakdown in a train from Paddington things would have been different. I got to the meeting just as it was ending and that was the end of that!

Bad luck? In the event, no – because within a week and out of the blue I was offered a permanent job with the World Bank in Washington DC and there we lived and worked for nearly 20 years. They were exciting times, heading up divisions for agriculture development in most of Africa.

Finally, it seemed sensible to return to the UK and I was appointed bursar of an Oxford college for eight years before so-called retirement. My activities then included 13 years as a governor of Stowe School. Taking my time at Stockport Grammar School and Stowe together, I must have sat through nearly two dozen speech days.

With one exception I cannot remember a word any of the guest speakers said and that was at Stockport probably in 1947 or 1948. The speaker – I cannot remember his name – was head of the BBC in the north-west and did not say much but ended up with the words not to be forgotten: “When you leave here for god’s sake DO something, think big and take risks.”

Well almost. In October 1984 I was on my way from Washington to Ghana and stopped off in London to take up an invitation to a party at the Conservative party conference in Brighton. A lot of food and drink was consumed that evening on the sixth floor of the Grand Hotel. We went our ways at midnight and I had to decide whether to take up a room at the hotel or drive 20 miles to my own bed. I took to the road. The rest is history. At 3am that morning the IRA high explosive went off in the room next to where we had been partying gutting the middle section of the hotel. If I had stayed that night I would probably have been a “gonner”, as sadly many others were.

Rev Andrew Body (OS 1964)

The first thing to say is that AJ will be turning in his grave. He obviously loathed his Christian name, and never used it. Even in the Johnston company productions, where all the other actors had their name in full in the programme, he remained “A.Johnston”. He was always known affectionately as “Johnnie”, and even in semi-formal situations like asking for him at the staff room, it was “AJ”, which distinguished him from WS Johnston, from whom he could not have been more different in character!

AJ was an enthusiast of the first order, and every memory I have of him seems to include his smile. He was totally absorbed by the plays while they were on – maybe to the detriment of his teaching, although I have no evidence to back that up. Any free time he had was devoted to the play. His non-teaching time was more likely to be spent constructing scenery than marking books. There was the great occasion when there was a fire drill, and the whole school assembled on the playing fields – the whole school, that is, less A, who was working on scenery in the stage staff shed.

He shared the disinterest many of us had in games, and therefore was an ideal umpire for game six, I think it was called, where none of us really wanted to be on the pitch. He stood at the wicket marking up his copy of the current play, and was occasionally told that the over was over. He didn’t turn a hair that the rest of us bowled underarm and walked between the wickets.

He was always on the lookout for talent. The only one of my contemporaries to become a professional actor – Christopher (now known as Knight) Mantell – owed his first break to an event in the woodwork room, when AJ happened to be present, because he was delivering a message.

Christopher had missed half the woodwork period because he had been having a piano lesson. The woodwork master, Eddie Bromley, called us all to the front and berated him, “You skip games, you skip gym, you’re not skipping woodwork!” To which Christopher responded with 13-year old hauteur ‘Mr Bromley, I will not be spoken to like that.” His career I am sure started from that point!

Although he didn’t become a professional actor, one of the stars of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which as a junior school pupil I was privileged to be one of Titania’s attendant fairies, was David (Lumpy) Brierley. He later became general manager of the RSC at Stratford. So AJ was able to use his connection there to borrow RSC costumes for Shakespearean productions. I have a vivid memory of Terry Volk’s (OS 1964) face when he saw that one of his costumes as Volumnia in Coriolanus bore the name of Edith Evans.

Johnnie never appeared in school plays himself – but he did play the part of the voice of God in the production of Everyman. The custom was to do two school performances in the afternoon. At one ‘Everyman’ school performance, there was unrest in the ranks, and the voice of God boomed “If you don’t settle down, you all be in detention.”

Whatever you write for the review, I hope you will acknowledge the fact that it was a joint effort with his beloved wife Miki, who taught junior C, and started many of us on a love of poetry.

There is an old saying that the difference between an actor and a clergyman is that an actor speaks fiction as if it were truth, and a clergyman speaks truth as if it were fiction. I would like to think that those of us like me who were later ordained might have been helped to avoid that trap by Johnnie’s coaching in voice production and timing. I guess it would also apply to those who later became barristers, and indeed teachers themselves.

John Blunden-Ellis (OS 1969)

I was involved in their last two plays for the school: Richard III in November 1966 (playing Cardinal Bourchier) and Arms and the Man in November 1967 (playing Sergius). As a result of the Johnston’s influence, amateur dramatics has been a hobby of mine ever since.

Rehearsals were always held in the History room, the old room five that disappeared when the hall was built across the drive. When I was in the first year, and being taught ancient history by Albert Johnston during the autumn term, I was always mystified by AJ’s habit of suddenly sketching chalk lines across the parquet floor while teaching. I put this down to eccentricity until I later understood that he was mapping the set for the school play.

Rehearsals were held after school and AJ was assisted by his formidable and memorable wife Eleanor (known as “Mickey”). She was an extraordinary and fascinating woman. She dressed very dramatically and I clearly remember her appearing for an Arms and the Man rehearsal dressed entirely in pink, with a huge hat garnished with floral decoration. When I first auditioned for a school play (you were summoned, you didn’t volunteer), Mickey used to open the sliding panel doors that separated room five from the then staff canteen, and stand at the far end of the room to listen to our reading. Invariably the response was “I can’t hear you!” You read it louder, to the response “I still can’t hear you!” Excellent training for projection. They were also both very keen on correct pronunciation and precise diction.

PG Dixon (OS 1953)

In the latest edition of the Old Stops’ Review you ask for memories of school plays during the period 1935 to 1968 – I have three from the period 1947 to 1953. The first, from 1951, of which I have no record unless it was Julius Caesar for which I retain my school copy of the play with certain annotations by me. In this production I was a scenery painter and stage hand!

For the 1952 production of Androcles and the Lion I have a lot of memories and photographs. For this production I was a scenery painter and a Christian. After the performance, as was expected, parents came backstage to congratulate the Johnstons. Much to my surprise a voice rang out “Billy Dixon!”, which turned out to emanate from Mrs Johnston. It then transpired that Mickey and my father had been friends from their much younger days prior to marriage by both.

Here the coincidences get even more curious. Not only did these two ladies look very similar but in 1957 my mother was planning to move to France and we spent some time looking for a home for her in the Cimiez district at the back of Nice. Just as my mother was about to sign her sister had a horrendous motor accident which resulted in my mother giving up the idea of a move to France to nurse my aunt for the next three years.

What we did find out much later was that Mickey had moved to France (not sure when and whether with Albert). It would have been amazing if they had lived in the same village at the same time, wouldn’t it?

Finally I was involved as a stage hand for the production of The Mad Woman of Chaiullot which starred Mickey (or should I say Mrs?) Johnston. It is partly thanks to both Albert and Mickey that I have had a lifetime of enjoyment of theatre in all its forms.

Peter Richardson (OS 1940)

I played Annie in Gallows Glorious in 1936 or 1937. It was great fun – I remember, on the night, having to go on stage carrying a tray of food
to the table where fellow actors were having a discussion. At the very last moment as I was making my entrance onto the stage a joker whipped the food off the plate and substituted an upside down drawing pin which I had to politely present at the table. I was nearly convulsed with laughter but just managed to control myself – at least I think did. I don’t think AJ knew about this.

Albert was of course my history master and history was not my strong subject. However AJ’s poor assessment of my history ability in the term report was leavened by his comment “Played a very good part in the school play” – damned with faint praise!

I should be very interested to hear if there are any other survivors of the cast or stage hands.

Neville Savage (OS 1961)

Planning the lighting for each production, including the number and disposition of the lights, and the colour of the filters, commenced several weeks before each production. Hand-drawn plans were used.

For the Johnston company production, Albert Johnston usually had a large part, along with his wife, Mickey, and he would tend to spend our history lessons leading up to the play walking up and down memorising his lines while we were doing written work!

Every single item of the lighting – lights, cables, dimmers and filters – was hired from Strand Electric in Manchester. The whole kit was delivered on the Wednesday before the production and had to be checked-off item by item against the order.

Meanwhile, the stage was being built at the convent end of the Hallam Hall from a scaffolding kit. Platforms from form rooms were taken to the hall to raise the level of the audience seating at the back. John Stanley, art master, supervised the construction and painting of the set(s) to a high standard.

Hanging of all the lights began on Wednesday afternoon. There could be up to 50 individual spotlights and floods, some with remotely-controlled colour filter wheels fitted, plus cyclorama battens above and on the stage.

The front-of-house spotlights were hung on a scaffolding pole suspended over the audience on two steel wires which went through two tubes in the ceiling (still visible) into the roofspace. It took three or four boys each side to haul the assembly up to the right height, level it and tie off securely. I used to have awful dreams of a terrible accident caused by the wires either breaking or coming undone, and the whole lot crashing down on the audience. And it would be my fault! Health and safety would have had a field day. During the positioning, it was quite difficult to hear the commands from the hall, resulting in much mirth as in “up a bit on the left”, “down a bit on the right”, “no, as you were.” It seemed to go on forever. It reminds me now of the chandelier sequence in Only Fools and Horses.

After the spotlights were hung, they were wired back to the lighting box via complex multicore cables fitted with plugs and sockets. On one occasion, during the testing, one of the cables must have had a loose live wire, and it made the stage scaffolding live, causing a boy called Swift, who was right at the top at the back corner, to yell and be thrown off onto the solid oak floor below. He had to go to hospital.

Fortunately, apart from a bit of concussion, he was ok, although he wasn’t able to help with the rest of that production. Of course, we then had to find the offending wire. I can’t remember how long that took.

The lighting was controlled from the balcony above the audience to the right of the organ. The sound was controlled from the balcony to the left of the organ, above the stage. Black curtains were used to shield the balconies from the corridor. I seem to remember the lad who recorded and controlled the sound effects, using a large reel to reel tape recorder, was called Henshall, but I may be wrong.

The mains power was derived from a large fusebox in the balcony, usually concealed behind the oak panelling. I wonder if it is still there?

The dimmers were the old mechanical slider type, about 18 inches long, and mounted on what were called junior eight boards, two rows of four per board. These were quite heavy and had legs so they could be stood upright. They were arranged in an arc in the balcony with their backs to the curtains. They were a far cry from the modern computer-controlled lighting.

Each of the lights had to be connected to its appropriate dimmer via the multicore cables, and each board had to be connected to the mains fusebox. Sometimes, it was quite a struggle pushing all the wires into the fusebox connections.

On Thursday night, each lamp was adjusted in turn for correct focus, coverage and filter colour, with all the other lamps off. This took some time.

On Friday night, the lighting for each scene was planned. Again, this could take a long time. For the school plays, there could be up to 50 separate lighting cues. The position of each dimmer slider for each cue had to be recorded in a book for each operative. If necessary, chalk marks were made on the face of the dimmer. There had to be a seamless transition from one lighting scene to the next. To achieve this, each lighting assistant usually controlled four dimmers, which usually meant a strip of wood was required to assist in the moving of four sliders at the same time. On a command, everyone moved their dimmer sliders. Some sliders moved more smoothly than others, and a few squeaked, which caused a few problems, sometimes sorted with graphite from a pencil.

We were provided with a copy of the script, which was marked-up with all the cue numbers. Fortunately, I have to say that most of the actors were word-perfect for most of the time, and we didn’t have to experience that horrible feeling of quickly turning the pages backwards and forwards, wondering where they were up to before the next cue.

When the lamps were at a low light setting, the dimmers would get very hot, and occasionally start smoking! It was certainly never cold in the lighting box.
For some plays, a complete instant blackout was required, in which case, I think a special box was used, otherwise the noise from the main fusebox would cause a distraction.

From memory, I think there were dress rehearsals with the actors on the Saturday and certainly on the Sunday afternoon. Occasionally, the lighting plots would be changed.

For the school plays, the form rooms on the lower corridor behind the Hallam Hall were used as dressing rooms. Obviously, lots of costumes were required.

The Johnston company used William Johnston’s office overlooking the playing fields. For one play – I think it was The Cherry Orchard with the Johnston players – there was an evening scene with a lake in the background. To achieve the effect, special paint was used on the backcloth, and we lit it with an ultra violet light, which we christened “the purple pupil eater”. It looked fantastic.

Johnny (Mr Johnston when I was a pupil!) and his wife Mickey co-produced the plays, as well as being in the Johnston company plays, but Mickey was very much in charge! She certainly was someone with very strong opinions, and could be very dramatic. Sometimes a time-out was called while things calmed down.

I remember we used to hang a no smoking sign from a nail below the lighting balcony. We doctored the reverse and it was christened the “noz moking” sign. The doctored side would be displayed when no-one in authority was looking!

We also controlled the house lighting with a single dimmer, which involved breaking into a circuit, I think in the sound balcony. There was a lot of unlabelled old wiring in there, and it was always a bit “hit and miss” to get it right. The details tended to be handed-down from pupil to pupil.

There wasn’t much free time during the school play performances, as lighting cues often came thick and fast. There was generally more time between the cues for the Johnston players, and we used to retire to Mr Cassie’s lecture theatre and play Monopoly or other games, occasionally getting back to the lighting box for the next cue by the skin of our teeth. In my time, I don’t think we ever missed one though!

Of course, in the lighting box, we had full view of the action on the stage, so we knew if everything was going ok. The sound people only had a restricted view from above the stage at the side. If necessary, we would tiptoe to the sound balcony for whispered instructions to them and/or the stage manager.

We were also on view to the audience, and if we knew someone in the audience (girlfriend, parents etc), there would be a great temptation to try to communicate with them during the course of the evening!

Following the last performance on the Saturday night, we would start stripping out everything as soon as the audience had left. Then there would be a break while we all had our fish and chip supper in Albert’s form room. This was followed by speeches and thank yous. It was the highlight of the week.

Then we all went back to pulling everything down, and checking everything off for collection by Strand the following week.

Everything had to be tidied-up before we could go home, certainly to be ready for school on the Monday morning, and sometimes for a service in the Hallam Hall on the Sunday. It could be as late as just before dawn on the Saturday night before I would set off to cycle home. I was once stopped by the police in the early hours, when cycling home to Hazel Grove along the A6 with a rucksack on my back – very suspicious!

All the productions were very ambitious but carried-out to a very professional standard. Everyone was expected to provide of his very best and there were some memorable productions and performances. We worked as a team. I certainly enjoyed every moment of my involvement and I have many happy memories, only a few of which are shared here. At the time, I was also involved in church am-dram, which was a totally different experience – type of play, standard of acting, facilities etc.

Subsequently, I have been a member of Poynton players, both as an actor and behind the scenes. I think the school owes a huge debt of gratitude to Mr Johnston and his wife for providing such a rich heritage and for recognising and nurturing talented pupils, thus providing a firm foundation for the school for future generations. I was very lucky to count them as friends. The skills I acquired from being given responsibilities at such a young age have served me well throughout my life.

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