Sir Bob Russell’s recent nostalgia feature about The Playhouse struck a chord with reader Vince Rayner. Here, he shares his recollections of enjoying shows at the much-loved Colchester theatre

MEMORIES came flooding back as I recalled those great variety shows I went to see with my family.

My father had permanent seats in the circle, as, back then, you could see big-name stars of stage, screen and recording locally.

The Playhouse, in those days, operated as a cinema for three weeks and then for a week it would be used as a theatre, with a panto at Christmas.

Aladdin Vince Rayner


Colchester had five cinemas - The Empire, where St Botolphs Circus now stands, The Hippodrome, in High Street, The Regal, in Crouch Street, and The Cameo (which originally started as a theatre, where Arthur Askey made his professional debut) which stood opposite The Playhouse.

The Regal put on Sunday concerts - usually musical acts like Ted Heath and his orchestra, Stan Kenton, Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber - whereas The Hippodrome had occasional pantos and variety shows starring a young Shirley Bassey and Jim Dale’s Skiffle Competition.

However, it was The Playhouse that stood out from the rest as it formed part of the famous variety circuit used by top London promoters including Jack Hylton and Paul Raymond, trying out new acts before taking their shows into the West End.

I’ve lost track of all the stars I’ve seen over the years but some stand out, such as Arthur Lucan as Old Mother Riley and Harry Secombe performing his famous shaving routine that got him sacked at one theatre when the manager said “I’m not paying you good money to stand on stage whilst you have a shave!”.

Arthur English Vince Rayner

Arthur English

I also saw Arthur English, Prince of the Wide Boys, who, according to Jimmy Perry, inspired the character of Pt Walker in Dad’s Army.

The Billy Cotton Band Show from BBC radio, Peter Brough and Archie Andrews, together with Beryl Reid and Ronald Chesney, the harmonica player, became stalwarts of BBC radio comedy and their half-hour shows were broadcast around Sunday lunchtimes.

Peter must have known the area as he joined the army as a driver and was stationed at the RASC department here in Colchester.

During this time, he honed his ventriloquism by entertaining his chums when off-duty.

David Whitfield Vince Rayner

David Whitfield

He was talent-spotted and sent to join the war office pool of entertainers in Greenford, which got him posted into a company called Stars in Battledress, eventually joining the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA).

Peter and Archie Andrews became huge stars in the 50s and were popular with the royal family.

Sadly, Peter died in 1999 and is buried in a cemetery in Maldon.

All these wonderful acts appeared at The Playhouse and, due to the foresight of my father, who hated queuing for cinema seats, I had a wonderful opportunity to see some amazing performers who would later become much-loved stars of radio and TV.

Hollywood Doubles Vince Rayner

Hollywood Doubles

These include Morecambe and Wise and Stan Stennett, whose son I’m in regular contact with and who has given me much information about the lives of those performers during the latter years of variety.

The acts all knew each other and enjoyed each other’s company, with the exception of a few who kept themselves to themselves.

A number of landladies in the area offered cheap ‘digs’ to theatricals, especially those lower down the bill, whereas the big names usually stayed in hotels (the Red Lion, in the High Street, being one of them).

An interesting article about Max Miller’s visits to Colchester hangs on the side wall of The Playhouse, now Wetherspoons, and while he was at the top of his profession he would often expect the theatre to pay for his accommodation, even though he was earning around £500 a week (a small fortune in those days).

Peter Brough Vince Rayner

Peter Brough

He would simply pack his bags and leave without settling his bill.

I remember seeing Max Miller twice, once in 1951 and again in 1953, although why people were laughing escaped me as, being very young, his humour went straight over my head.

Another act that stands out in my memory was Jimmy James & Co, a family act from the north of England, way ahead of their time with spellbinding comedy surrealism.

Their famous ‘Lion in a Box’ sketch, with nephew Eli Woods, can still be seen on YouTube to this day and is as funny now as it was then.

Peter Cavanagh Vince Rayner

Peter Cavanagh

Although James always appeared drunk on stage, with a cigarette in hand, he was both teetotal and didn’t smoke off stage. His one big vice was gambling.

Recording artistes of the day were frequently booked to appear at The Playhouse as it gave local people the chance to see, as well as hear, their favourite performers.

I also saw Dorothy Squires, David Hughes, the Welsh operatic tenor, the multi-million selling recording star David Whitfield and Alma Cogan, the bubbly young singer who many years later helped The Beatles.

These artistes would sometimes visit The Radio Center, in St John’s Street, opposite the old bus park, to meet their fans and sign autographs, boosting their record sales in the bargain.

Phyllis Dixey Vince Rayner

Phyllis Dixey

The Playhouse always had a wonderful pantomime which would sometimes run for a month, from Boxing Day until the end of January, always played to packed houses.

Local dance troupes look part as it attracted whole families to visit to see their aspiring offspring treading the boards with professional actors.

One production that was always a success was This Was The Army, an all-male revue put together by Jack Lewis, who had worked for the ENSA. On demob, he had formed a touring variety show which visited The Playhouse every couple of years.

Jack was also involved in some of the Pantos during the 50s.

Red Riding Hood Vince Rayner

Red Riding Hood

Hypnotists, conjurors, animal acts, jugglers, musical specialities and exotic dancers - the list goes on and on and all appeared at The Playhouse.

However, variety was coming to an end and, within a few years, there would be no more shows.

The Playhouse reverted to being a cinema again and, apart from the odd occasions when it would stage the local operatic society’s productions, the Colchester Scouts’ ‘Gang Show’ or ‘one-nighters’ by visiting entertainers, it stayed that way until it became a bingo hall. How depressing!

Colchester will never see the likes of those ‘golden days of variety’ again, I’m sorry to say. However, I’m just glad I was there in the fifties to see it for myself.

This Was The Army Vince Rayner

This Was The Army

Vince Rayner Vince Rayner

Vince Rayner