Floella Benjamin OBE will be waving her magic wand over The Broadway Theatre in Catford, London this panto season.
Having received the Order Of The British Empire in 2001 for services to broadcasting, and awarded a special BAFTA lifetime award, she was elevated to the peerage in 2010 as Baroness Floella Benjamin of Beckenham.
Baroness Beckenham is, as far as we know here at IBY, the only member of the House Of Lords to appear in pantomime- Oh Yes She Is!
Floella is one of the UK’s most known Television Presenters- and has been in the public eye since she first appeared in the Children’s TV series “Play School” and “Playaway”- songs, dances and of course fun with Hamble, Humpty, Big and Little Ted and of course, Jemima!
In the world of Theatre she has appeared in the West End in “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “The Black Mikado” and “The Husband In Law”. She appeared in the BBC TV’s “Sarah Jane Adventures” as Professor Rivers and was acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival for her role as Miriam in “Black Joy” and recently in the film “Run Fat Boy, Run”.
Floella has written over thirty children’s books since 1983, including “Coming To England” which the BBC turned into a TV Drama in 2002. “Sea Tears” is her first Novel.
Her production company has produced hundreds of childrens television programmes aimed at children from all over the world.
Floella, or to use her formal title, Baroness Beckenham holds the honour of the only member of the House Of Lords to appear in the world of pantomime. Over the years other members of the nobility have come near, but have not actually held this Panto title. No genuine Baron has appeared in Hardup Hall, and no serving Baroness has scolded Cinderella, but for those interested in things of a noble nature, here’s a glimpse at some of the contenders!
Rula Lenska- Countess Lubienska.
Rula was born Countess Roza-Marie Leopoldyna Lubienska. Her Father Count Ludwick Maria Lubienski and her Mother Countess Elzbieta Tyszkiewicz were from Poland. Rula herself renounced her title in the late 1970’s saying “In England it doesn’t Count- if you’ll pardon the pun!”
Rula’s pantomime roles have included Prince Charming in “Cinderella”, “Robinson Crusoe” and The Wicked Queen in “Snow White”.
Lord Graves, 8th Baron of Gravesend, Londonderry
Working under the name “Peter Graves”, in 1963 he inherited the title 8th Baron Graves. Married to Vanessa Lee, he had a long list of theatre credits to his name, from Ivor Novello musicals to operetta, many films, light comedies and straight plays. Because this was an Irish peerage, he was not entitled to a seat in the House of Lords.
His pantomime roles included
1960: “Aladdin” ,Bristol Hippodrome (Emperor)
Baron Miles of Blackfriars
Bernard Miles - Famous actor-manager, who opened the Mermaid Theatre in 1959. He was knighted in 1969 and created a Life Peer in 1979. (He was only the second actor to receive this high honour – following Laurence Olivier). In-between a highly successful career as a “straight” actor, he sandwiched several years as a music-hall and variety performer, supporting Lena Horne at the Palladium, playing the variety circuit with his yokel act, and performing at the Players. Although he does not seem to have played in a traditional pantomime, from 1959 onwards he would regularly appear in Christmas productions as Long John Silver in his own version of “Treasure Island”
Sir Alfred Butt, 1st Baronet
From 1904 for 14 years he was manager of the Palace Theatre, and built a theatre empire controlling the Victoria Palace, Adelphi, Empire, Gaiety and Drury Lane. He was knighted for war services, became an MP in 1922, and was honoured as a Baronet in 1929. He gave up his theatre work in 1931, but was forced to resign from Parliament in 1936 because of a financial scandal. He later became a famous name in the horse racing world.
Percy Vernon, 3rd Baron Lyveden
Percy Vernon’s grandfather was the 1st Baron Lyveden, and his father a vicar. His career was mainly as a straight actor, notably with the Bancrofts and the Ben Greet Co, and sometime managing his own touring company. However, he did appear in at least one pantomime early in his career. This was:
1886: “Old King Cole, or the Girl, the Churl and the Enchanted Pearl”, Corn Exchange, Maidstone,
under the management of Miss Sarah Thorne. (This was a touring panto and moved to the Great Hall, Tunbridge Wells, followed by the Public Hall, Croydon)
He inherited the title Lord Lyveden at the turn of the century but continued to run his own touring company. The title passed on to the son of his first marriage.
Lynda Martell, Baroness Lyveden
Actress and performer in Variety from before the First World War, she married Percy Vernon in 1925 (for both of them, a second marriage) and accordingly was entitled to be called Baroness Lyveden. For the 1925 pantomime she thus became a “real” Baroness working in pantomime. However, her husband died the following year, and the title passed to her stepson. Since the 4th Baron was unmarried she held on to the title and continued working. Her variety act included a comic impersonation of a down-at-heel scruffy woman (a forerunner of her Ugly Sister speciality)
1917: “Dick Whittington”, Elephant and Castle (Alice Fitzwarren)
1919: “Sleeping Beauty”, Portsmouth Royal (Queen Caramelba)
1925: “Jack the Giant Killer”, Brighton Palace Pier (Jack). (In this production Connie Crichton played the Dame – NOT, of course Brighton’s much loved Connie Creighton of some 50 years later!)
1926: “Cinderella”, Playhouse, Cardiff. (Ugly Sister)
1927: “Robin Hood”, Leeds City Palace (Robin Hood)
1936: “Cinderella”, Torquay Pavilion (Ugly Sister with George Hyam)
Sir George Power, 7th Baronet of Kilfane
Best known for his performances in early Gilbert & Sullivan operas with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, he created the role of Ralph Rackstraw in “HMS Pinafore” in 1878 and sang the role of Frederic in the London premiere of “Pirates of Penzance”. He gave up his operatic career in August 1881 and became a singing teacher.
However, in December 1881 the name “George Power” appears in the cast list of Majilton’s Grand Opera House, Bolton, playing Broker’s Man in “Cinderella”. And in future years “George Power” appears as Dame Durden alongside Lottie Collins in “Red Riding Hood and Her Sister Bo-Peep” (Bradford 1884) and as Emperor in “Aladdin” at Birmingham Royal in 1886.
The pantomime performer is almost certainly NOT the same man as the opera singer – there being no Equity around at the time to ensure no duplication of performers’ names.
Sylvia Storey, 7th Countess Poulett
(1890 – 1947)
The daughter of Fred Storey, the actor, manager and scene painter, Sylvia began her career with her father’s company at the age of six. She had already appeared in several West End productions by the time she was 18, when she married the 7th Earl Poulett. Initially very happy, the marriage soon began to break up despite the birth of a son in 1909 and a daughter in 1912. In 1918 Lord Poulett suddenly died at the early age of 35.
After his death Sylvia much preferred the life in London among her theatrical friends, and her children were left in the country estate, receiving little in the way of a normal family upbringing. This led to great resentment from her son, now the young 8th Earl.
In 1921 Sylvia announced she would re-marry, and her husband-to-be was Major Percy Howard Hansen, “Piccadilly Percy,” to his friends. Shortly afterwards Sylvia, still unmarried to Hansen, gave birth to a daughter, named Phoebe. The outraged young Earl was reported to have slashed the coronation portrait of his mother with a knife. It was then announced that the engagement with Major Hansen had been cancelled. “By her marriage,” a report in the press stated, “the countess would have lost a large portion of her income under the terms of the late earl’s will."
The Dowager Countess died in 1947, and her resentful son never erected a memorial to her. She lies next to her husband the 7th earl in an unmarked grave. Her daughter Phoebe died suddenly in 1948 from meningitis.
Her pantomimes included:
1896: “Gerda in Fairyland”, Brighton Palace Pier (Gerda)
She also appeared in some of the pantomimes for George Edwardes and Seymous Hicks.
Oriel Ross, 8th Countess Poulett
(1907 - 1994)
Beginning as a walk-on in “The Insect Play” in 1923, her career included appearances in ballet, straight plays, films, revue and cabaret, and even as Titania in “Midsummer Night’’s Dream” and Queen in “Hamlet”. In 1935 she was briefly married to the 8th Earl Poulett who, like his father the 7th Earl, had an attraction for actresses. The marriage lasted until 1941. (The Earl re-married on two future occasions, but there were no children, and the title died out with him.)
Her pantomimes include:
1935: “Jack & the Beanstalk”, Palace Manchester (Jack)
1933: “Sleeping Beauty”, King’s Edinburgh (Princess)
1949: “Babes in the Wood”, Margate Hippodrome (Robin Hood), with Rex London, and Tony Scott
Arthur Wellesley, 4th Earl Cowley
A legitimate and much respected actor, originally in the chorus of such musicals as “Our Miss Gibbs” and “Peggy” and later in “Maid of the Mountains”. In 1914 he toured in the USA, and appeared in an American “vaudeville”. In 1919 he inherited the title as 4th Earl Cowley. Sadly it seems he never appeared in a pantomime.
Lady Dunlo, Countess of Clancarty
A notorious divorce case in 1890 featuring Lady Dunlo spurred the “Father Of Pantomime”, Augustus Harris to chance Drury Lane’s forthcoming pantomime from Dick Whittington to Beauty And The Beast, with Belle-Lady Dunlo as Beauty!
When Music Hall performer Belle Bilton met and married young Lord Dunlo in secret- they were both aged twenty- Dunlo’s Father, The Earl of Clancy sent his son to Australia, and forced him to start divorce proceedings against Belle. The wave of public sympathy for the put upon Belle, and the surprise return of her husband declaring his undying love meant the public adoration of Lady Dunlo knew no bounds.
She appeared in the 1890 pantomime with the top Music Hall Star of the day, Vesta Tilley. Vesta was later to become Lady DeFreece, when her impresario husband was knighted. She had then retired.
Lady Dunlo was now the breadwinner, as her husband had been cut off from his fortune. She toured as Venus in a play- the public cared little for anything other than the chance to gaze on their heroine wearing very little as the Goddess of Love. When her despised Father-In-Law died she became Countess of Clancarty and retired to the estate in Ireland.
Some others who were ennobled after retiring from the theatre
Gertie Millar, the Countess of Dudley
Gertie Millar, best known as the star of many Edwardian musical comedies, was originally married to the composer Lionel Monckton, and was one of the most photographed and top stars of the era. She retired from the stage in 1918 to look after her ailing husband. He died in 1924, and she re-married, her second husband being the 2nd Earl of Dudley, a former Governor –General of Australia. She survived her second husband by two decades, and died in 1952, aged 73.
In her early years she appeared in many pantomimes, including
1892: “Babes in the Wood”, St James’ Theatre, Manchester (Girl Babe)
1899: “Cinderella”, Grand, Fulham (Dandini)
Mimi Crawford, Countess of Suffolk
(? - ?)
Began as a child performer, billed as “Little Mimi Crawford, her later career saw her work as actress, vocalist and dancer, appearing in musicals and revues like “Sally”, “One Dam’ Thing After Another” and “The Co-Optimists”. In 1934 she married Charles Howard, the 20th Earl of Sussex, a bomb-disposal expert and later famous for his exploits in the early part of World War 2. She retired from the stage, and produced three sons. Her husband died in 1941.
Her pantomimes included:
1909: “Pinkie and the Fairies”, His Majesty’s (Elf Whisper)
1929: “Goody Two Shoes”, Leeds Grand (Title role)
1931: “Jack & the Beanstalk”, Palace Manchester (Princess)
1933: “Sleeping Beauty”, King’s Edinburgh (Princess)
Baron Rix, of Whitehall, in the City or Westminster and of
Hornsea in Yorkshire
Baron Rix, of Whitehall, in the City or Westminster and of Hornsea in Yorkshire
Born in Cottingham, East Riding of Yorkshire, the son of a Hull
shipowner, Brian Rix was educated at Bootham School, York.
He became a professional actor, briefly, when he was 17, playing with Donald
Wolfit in Cardiff. His wartime National Service began in the Royal Air
Force, but he soon after volunteered to become a Bevin Boy, working instead
as a coal miner.
Born in Cottingham, East Riding of Yorkshire, the son of a Hull shipowner, Brian Rix was educated at Bootham School, York. He became a professional actor, briefly, when he was 17, playing with Donald Wolfit in Cardiff. His wartime National Service began in the Royal Air Force, but he soon after volunteered to become a Bevin Boy, working instead as a coal miner.
After the war, Rix returned to the stage and in 1947 formed his own theatre company. He ran rep companies at Ilkley, Bridlington and Margate, and at only 26 years old was a highly successful actor and manager. Rix was associated with the Whitehall Theatre from 1944 until 1969, although as an actor-manager he became increasingly well known on TV as well as stage.
He became famous for his staging of Reluctant Heroes, both on tour and at the Whitehall Theatre for four years. The theatre specialised in farces, such as Simple Spymen and Dry Rot, some of which were regularly televised. After the Whitehall Theatre, Rix moved on to the Garrick and more successes. Rix appeared in 11 films and 70 farces for BBC TV and was regularly seen on screen without his trousers on. He also made a handful of films that were well suited to his talents as a farceur such as The Night We Dropped a Clanger (1959), The Night We Got the Bird (1961), Don't Just Lie There, Say Something! (1973).
He also hosted the TV series Let's Go, the first British programme to be created specifically for people who had learning disabilities. In 1980, he retired from acting, and became Secretary-General of the National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children and Adults (Mencap) - it became “The Royal Society” the following year - and in 1987 became its Chairman. Since 2002 the Society has been officially called the “Royal Mencap Society”, with Rix serving as its President.
Rix was created a Commander of Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1977, and knighted on 25 November 1986 for his services to charity. On 27 January 1992, he was created a life peer, becoming Baron Rix, of Whitehall, in the City of Westminster and of Hornsea in Yorkshire.
His pantomimes included:
1973: Robinson Crusoe, New Theatre, Cardiff (Billy Crusoe)
Charles Shaughnessy, 5th Baron Shaughnessy
We are grateful to Chris Abbott for this information
Lives in Los Angeles and he plays a leading character in soap opera The Days of Our Lives. However, one of his first stage appearances was in 1981-82 at Salisbury Playhouse when he played one half of Tallulah the Cow in Jack & the Beanstalk. Strangely, this role is not mentioned on his website (www.charles-shaughnessy.com). His brother David Shaughnessy is heir presumptive to the title, and also an executive producer and director of day-time soap operas in the United States. He also appeared in panto at Salisbury - as Dandini in Cinderella in 1976-77 (the first pantomime in the new theatre after the old Salisbury Playhouse closed). Their father, Alfred Shaughnessy, was one of the writers of Upstairs, Downstairs.
We are very grateful to Vivyan Ellacott who provided much of the detail on our noble lords and ladies. www.overthefootlights.co.uk
This page was last updated 7th August 2012