Theatre reviewer Derrick Graham has been a regular contributor to The Surrey Mirror and also past President of Betchworth Operatic & Dramatic Society (BODS). Here, we reproduce an article he wrote in 2005 in which he looks back at the group's history and relates the fascinating story of how it all started.
When a few local residents got together to form a society to put on plays and operettas, back in 1936, Betchworth was vastly different from the way it is today. A great new by-pass had recently been created between Buckland Church and the Arkle Manor. No longer would the main east-to-west traffic across Surrey have to squeeze through the confining banks of the Reigate Road , it would go north of the village.
The Village Memorial Hall, erected in 1926, had only been accessible at the end of Station Road , on the outskirts of the village, but was now only a few yards from the new road, opening it up to Reigate and Dorking.
The hall had not been built for staging plays, having just a raised platform, stopping short of the wall at one end to allow access to a kitchen at the rear. In the centre of the auditorium were floor sockets to hold the posts for a boxing ring.
The members of BODS, as the group became known, erected a timber-framed proscenium arch and, over the next few years, added stage curtains, borders and legs (the curtains that mask the wings) and each year staged a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, a musical and a play.
After the war, they re-formed and carried on in the same pattern until 1956 when the chairman came up with the idea of a one-act play competition between the local drama societies. Seventeen companies became involved, providing a full week of theatre and, if they had adequate facilities they, in turn, hosted the Betchworth Drama Festival. Similar festivals started all over the country and soon Betchworth became the first round in the All England Drama Festival, when the winners from each area went on to compete against each other.
With a proscenium arch opening of only 18 feet and a stage depth of 13 feet, performing operettas was fairly difficult, and the through corridor at the end of the stage meant there was hardly any wing space on one side. Brian and Alison Cooper achieved miracles with set changes, there being no headroom to raise a backcloth, so they had it rolled or turned over.
I came on the scene in 1975 and as David Longes wanted to act instead of stage manage, I took on the job (in addition to a similar function with the Redgate Players, who were also using the hall).
We began by making a hinged flap to extend the stage over the through corridor and a demountable, three-foot extension on the front of the stage. At last, it was possible to have the cast waiting in the wings to go on and to get them off the stage quickly instead of queuing to get down the stairs. We scrapped the backcloth and painted the main scene on the rear wall of the stage, blanking it out after each production. Settings for Ruddigore, Gondoliers, Pirates and most of the G&S operettas are in layers on that back wall, plus wallpaper from the plays !