The Salberg Pantomimes at the Salisbury Playhouse 1955 - 1976

by Chris Abbott

“Nowadays, in the best pantomimes we try to make the pantomime into a musical play: we keep the essential traditions and the balance between the conflicting elements, but it all fits together like a Swiss watch. You can have a male principal boy – and there were male boys a long way back, or even a female Dame, but you must have the story, the comedy, the magic. No-one ever grows up completely: there are pockets of childhood in us all and in one of the larger pockets many of us keep pantomime. It will last I hope and believe, as long as the English traditional Christmas.”

(Henry Marshall in a 1969 programme)

Reggie Salberg, who ran the old Salisbury Playhouse from the 1950s to the 1970s, was a member of a famous theatre – and pantomime – family. His father, Leon Salberg, ran the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham and Reggie’s brother Derek later took over that theatre. His cousin Basil Thomas ran the theatre at Wolverhampton. Reggie ran theatres in various parts of the country before arriving at Salisbury in 1955, and the company he developed there became a leading regional repertory theatre and one of the first theatres to get Arts Council support. Reggie never directed pantomimes – or any other productions - but he did all the casting and made sure the appropriate Director was involved (although these were more often called Producers then).

His first pantomime at Salisbury was in 1955 but, as he later admitted, it was not a very good one; Robinson Crusoe played for three weeks but by the third week the theatre was half empty. By 1956 however, with Robin Hood (featuring Josephine Tewson in the title role and Leonard Rossiter as a very effective robber), the Salisbury pantomimes were set on their successful path. A major reason for this was the involvement of writer Henry Marshall, who was to write all the other pantomimes at Salisbury until the old theatre closed in 1976, and for the new theatre until 1985. Josephine Tewson still has clear memories of the 1956 production: “It was great fun if hard work; Len Rossiter and Ken Firth had a wonderful duel using every sort of weapon which I used to watch and enjoy every night.” She was also spotted during the run and cast in a production at the Savoy Theatre in the West End.

Henry Marshall’s real name was Marshall King Battcock, but his family always called him Henry. By this time he was a very experienced writer of plays, pantomimes and BBC programmes. Henry Marshall was to become Norman Wisdom’s preferred pantomime writer; not surprising in view of his impressive knowledge of the genre. He wrote commercial as well as repertory pantomimes, and filled them with routines from his gag book, stuffed with business he had inherited, through working with the Lupino Lane family. Amazingly, the gag book still survives and is a precious record of generations of pantomimes.

Henry Marshall was also a well-known Fight Director and later taught fencing at RADA. Audiences at Salisbury quickly grew and within a few years the pantomimes were playing to close to 100% capacity. Marshall’s second panto at Salisbury Playhouse was Aladdin in 1957 and this time with his brother, Oliver Gordon, as Producer (and Timothy West as the Genie of the Lamp).

Oliver Gordon produced all the pantos at Salisbury from that year until his death in 1970, and played Dame for the last five. Previously he had produced pantos at Theatre Royal Windsor during the War, where he was spotted by Derek Salberg and for him produced seven pantomimes at the Alexandra Theatre Birmingham, starting with Babes in the Wood and directing stars such as Norman Wisdom. He had made his stage debut in 1929 in The Middle Watch at the Shaftesbury Theatre and appeared in many London theatres pre-war, but concentrated on production after the War at Windsor, Wolverhampton, Richmond, Salisbury and in Canada. Stephanie Cole writes that he was a great cricketer and she remembers he had enormous hands.

1957 saw the first of four Dame appearances from Ronald Magill, later to be a regular on Emmerdale Farm. Timothy West was back in the cast in 1958, although only in the role of Major Domo in a production of Cinderella that also included a Minor Domo and a Domo Minimus. He writes in his autobiography of the two years he spent at Salisbury, living in a caravan at the Old Castle Inn and he remembers the scenery being made in an old garage and then moved up the street to the theatre on a barrow. In a telling example of how times have changed, he also explains that the theatre was run by nine people: Reggie Salberg, his secretary, Stan Astin as electrician and his wife Pauline running the Box Office, a carpenter, a scenic artist, a wardrobe person, 1 stage manager and 2 ASMs – plus a Front of House Manager and a part-time Bookkeeper.

Dick Whittington in 1959 saw another familiar name in a small role, with Philip Madoc opening the performance as Town Crier (and Sultan of Morocco), and Josephine Tewson back again as Principal Boy. In this production there was a particularly challenging scene: “I remember a hideously long front cloth for me and Tiddles while they changed scenery into Morocco from the ship. It entailed me singing the “lights of home” and if the scene change still hadn’t been completed, launching into John of Gaunt’s speech about England! On the first night, nerves took me from that into Henry V before Harfleur and “a band of brothers” speech: Nancie Herrod nearly suffocated trying not to laugh in the cat skin…”

The pattern of productions soon developed, with Jack and the Beanstalk in 1960 (with Christopher Benjamin as a young Dame) and Robinson Crusoe again in 1961 (with a cast of 27 on that tiny stage with its minimal backstage area). The Salberg – Marshall – Gordon pantomimes mostly kept to the tried and tested favourites and rarely strayed into the less familiar titles, with certain titles coming up very regularly: Robinson Crusoe, Aladdin, and Robin Hood and/or Babes in the Wood four times and Cinderella and Dick Whittington on three occasions at the old theatre.

1961’s Robinson Crusoe was later remembered by Reggie Salberg as the year that Tony Steedman as Dame decided to improvise at length on the last night and managed to alienate some of the regular audience; and 1962’s Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood saw the cast (including Lynn Farleigh as the Good Fairy) playing to very empty houses during the coldest winter in the century. Good times were just around the corner however, with 1963’s Aladdin being the first Salisbury pantomime to play to 100% capacity. This was the second production to feature Christopher Dunham, this time playing Chinese policeman opposite his wife-to-be June Watson. Brigit Forsyth was Aladdin and Frank Barrie was Abanazar.

Cinderella in 1964 saw some important developments, with Stephanie Cole joining the company to play Dandini. She has written that Oliver Gordon was at first unsure about her performance but he soon saw that his concerns were without foundation – and she also went on, some years later, to marry writer Henry Marshall. This was the first Dame role for Producer Oliver Gordon, playing Ugly Sister alongside David Daker (later a Z Cars regular). Stephanie Cole has very clear memories of this, her first pantomime. “We had real ponies and they lived at the end of the lane behind the theatre with the woman who looked after them. With Henry’s fencing expertise, we had a very authentic short sword fight between me and Brigit Forsyth’s Prince Charming.” She also remembers some of the other hazards of the theatre: “You could look into the wings and see the sparks coming off the lighting board.”

1965 saw some familiar names in Dick Whittington, with Idle Jack played by Chris Harris, who would go on to become a well-known Dame and Director of Bath and Bristol pantomimes. Oliver Gordon played an unusual Dame role as Lady Fitzwarren and Stephanie Cole took on the part of Margery the Cook, her gift for comedy making her a rare example of a successful female comedy role. There was a debut performance in this production too, with sixteen year old Chris Biggins as student ASM and a rat.

Chris Harris returned in 1966 to play Salisbury’s first male Principal Boy in Jack and the Beanstalk. Stephanie Cole was in a comedy role again, Dame Durden, with Oliver Gordon playing Queen Iodine of Cornwall and a young Brian Protheroe (later to play Gandalf in the musical version of Lord of the Rings) on guitar in the pit. Christopher (as he was now listed) Biggins was given the featured chorus role of PC Boggins. Oliver Gordon’s last three pantomimes as producer and dame were Robinson Crusoe, Babes in the Wood and Aladdin. After his death in 1970, Christopher Dunham and then Salisbury Playhouse Artistic Director Roger Clissold (who had appeared in small parts in previous pantos) took over as Producer – or Director as the credit now appeared, and Roger Clissold was to maintain the tradition of pantomime at Salisbury for many years after the move to the new theatre.

With Henry Marshall still as writer – and Reggie Salberg casting and overseeing – the next production was Salisbury’s second Cinderella, this time with Roger Hume and Michael Stroud as sisters. After Oliver Gordon’s death, no one actor took on the Dame role at Salisbury, with it being shared between Derek Pollitt, Geoffrey Brightman, Roger Heathcott and, the last Dame at the old Salisbury Playhouse before its demolition, Knight Mantell as Mrs Twankey in Aladdin (1975).

Henry Marshall, Oliver Gordon, Roger Clissold and Reggie Salberg were the key figures in the Salisbury Playhouse pantomimes but there are other names who recur too. Musical Directors Sydney Carmen, Marie Phillips and Christopher Littlewood, Theatre Manager Alan Corkhill, Costume Designer Barbara Wilson, Designer Stanley Rixon and Carpenter John Scutt are some of the names listed year after year.

The new Salisbury Playhouse opened in 1976 and Reggie Salberg took that opportunity to retire. He was later awarded the OBE and the Studio Theatre at Salisbury is named after him. He died in 2003 aged 87. Henry Marshall continued to write pantomimes for  the new theatre until 1985, and for many other theatres too. Pantomime still continues at Salisbury Playhouse as a much-loved and well-supported yearly event, with a changing team of writers, director and cast. Not all connections with the past have been lost however. A recent pantomime Director at Salisbury was Hannah Chissick – grand-daughter of Reggie Salberg…

With special thanks to Stephanie Cole and Josephine Tewson for sharing their memories for this article. Chris Abbott, with the assistance of Stephanie Cole and her daughter Emma Battcock, is now writing a book about Henry Marshall and the Salisbury pantomimes. If you were involved in any way with these productions, please contact him to share your memories.

Thanks also to

Arthur Millie – Archivist, Salisbury Playhouse

University of Bristol Theatre Collection

This page was last updated 6th October 2010

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