A brief look at Sussex Playwrights’ 80+ year history
Celebrating 80+ Years Of Creativity: 1935 – 2017
Compiled and updated by Trevor Harvey
Sir Peter Shaffer was one of the greatest writers of our time. For many years he served as our Honorary President and was a staunch supporter of the Sussex Playwrights’ Club, its members and work. We send our deepest condolences to his family and friends.
The Sussex Playwrights’ Club was founded in 1935 by Charles Walker, initially with a membership of five others, in the Circle Bar at the Theatre Royal, Brighton. Charles belonged to The Southwick Players and they would occasionally perform plays by members. From the start, the Club has been intended for both beginners and professionals, as a place where work can be tried out and responses given in a friendly, supportive atmosphere.
The Club first met at Brighton Little Theatre but later moved to Cooks Hotel at the Old Steine. The President was Hamilton Fyfe, a distinguished retired journalist and good friend of George Bernard Shaw. Among early readings was one of LOTTIE DUNDASS by Enid Bagnold, who had already written NATIONAL VELVET and who lived nearby in Rottingdean. Her friend, the impresario C B Cochran travelled down from London to attend the reading and a production of LOTTIE DUNDASS reached the West End in 1943.
In 1945, a ‘Thank The Forces’ fund was set up locally. The SPC held a public play reading of Constance Cox’s NINE DAYS’ WONDER in the Music Room at the Royal Pavilion, which quickly sold out. Among the readers was the stage and film actor James Hayter. In 1945, the Connaught Theatre, Worthing launched a one-act play competition and it was won by SPC member Vera Arlett, with THIS IS THE GATE. The Club hired The Playhouse Theatre (London) for a week in 1948 and staged THUNDER IN SPRING, a play by SPC member Dorothy Pearson.
By the early 1960s, the Club was meeting monthly at The New Venture Theatre at the invitation of its founder, A Graham Phillips. He was very supportive of the Club and would consider staging plays by SPC members. In January 1967, R C Mansell Woodhouse was the Club’s President and the Club’s Vice- Presidents were Madame Florence Moore (who ran a Theatre Studio in Hove) and Dame Sybil Thorndyke.
For the first-ever Brighton Festival in 1967, SPC was responsible for arranging a National Theatre Open Forum at the Royal Pavilion, with a panel including Tom Stoppard, Kenneth Tynan and Walter Esselinck (of The Gardner Centre) – and with John Stride and Edward Petherbridge performing an excerpt from the recently opened and well-received play, ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD.
By 1974, the impresario Henry Sherwood was the Club’s President and a play competition was set up and named after him. The farceur Philip King became the Vice-President and would often be present at the Club’s monthly meetings. For some years, Ethel Bale – a speech and drama lecturer at The Florence Moore Theatre Studios – was the Club’s Secretary. The prolific stage and television dramatist Constance Cox held various committee roles, being with SPC for over forty years; these included Treasurer and Secretary, holding the latter role for many years until her death in 1998. She was someone always willing to offer constructive advice to fellow playwrights, whether they were experienced professionals or complete beginners – and the financial legacy she left to the Club helped to ensure its continuing success.
Among the various SPC Chairmen were Bruce Avis (then the Head of Westdene Junior School) who had joined the Club at the age of 16 in 1939; Geoff Owen, a respected actor with local groups; Neil McKellar (who also had the role of secretary) and headteacher and writer, George Shepherd. In recent years, the role of Chairman has been taken by Rex Baker, Dennis Evans, Patti Page, Nicholas Quirke, Carole Bremson, Trevor Harvey and Jerry Attwood. For around ten years, following the death of Connie, Dennis Evans was the Club’s hard-working Secretary, a role currently held by Peter Poole. The Club’s quarterly newsletter was edited and produced by Lucy Nordberg and later by Trevor Harvey. Currently, it takes the form of a monthly e-letter produced for members by Peter Poole. The Club’s website was originally set up by Nicholas Quirke and is now operated by Ian Black (who also maintains the New Venture website).
The Club usually runs an annual playwriting competition which is open to all-comers and the details appear on the website.
The Club’s 70th anniversary in 2005 was marked by the unveiling of a plaque in the Circle Bar at the Theatre Royal. The playwright and novelist Simon Brett was the guest speaker at a special function held in a Hove hotel. At the 75th anniversary event, the distinguished writer and West End director Patrick Garland (who had also been in charge of Chichester Festival Theatre for an eight year period) was the special guest speaker.
The Club’s 80th anniversary in 2015 was marked by a party attended by the Mayor and a rehearsed reading performance of the winning Constance Cox Competition play The Normandy Conquests, by David Weir.
The respected stage and television actor Paul Moriarty, who has also been the final judge for the annual play competitions, served as our Honorary Vice President until 2016. Thank you Paul for all your support and best wishes for the future.
The committee for 2016-7
Philippa Hammond Chair
Deborah Knowles Vice Chair
Thomas Everchild Secretary
Jerry Attwood Treasurer
Simon Jenner and Cherie Cherchie Committee Members
The roles of Honorary President and Vice President are currently open