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John Chilvers 1920 - 2008

The Swansea Grand Theatre’s illustrious past would not be worth mentioning without one of its most colourful and inspirational characters whose period at the grand spanned 25 years and set the standards to which today’s performers strive to emulate. Indeed the fact that the Theatre is still open is due in no small measure to the incredible hard work, drive and enthusiasm in the face of huge adversity, when a lesser man would have taken the easy way out and left for pastures new. Not John Chilvers though. His contribution should not be forgotten and he deserves far more recognition than he has been given thus far. He was born in Norwich on February 3rd 1920. The only son of Cecil and Anne Chilvers, he also had a younger sister Gwynneth, and an older sister called Cynthia. His childhood was very happy. His father, Cecil, was a colourful character who served in the Mounted Police during the Boer War and later in The First World War as a Petty Officer. After the War lack of work forced the Chilvers family to leave Norwich and they moved first to Caversfield in Oxfordshire, then shortly after into Berkshire. John had his first taste of schooling at Cumnor, though before he could find his feet, his family moved for the last time to Chippenham in Wiltshire. John’s second school was another village school, at Derry Hill near Chippenham. It was here that John Chilvers made his stage debut, playing Prince Charming. After this John moved to Bentley Grammar School in Calne, where he was to remain until he reached the age of eighteen. The Headmaster of this school entered into a kind of conspiracy with John: he knew that John wanted to be an actor, and he knew the Chilvers family would oppose this move. So, he arranged a Bookkeeping job in London for John, Thus leaving the evenings free for John to get involved in Theatre work and make vital contacts in the London theatre scene. When Annie and Cecil found out, however, they offered every encouragement, and shortly after the 19 year old was living in the big city and working at night with the Unity Theatre.Soon after the outbreak of the Second World War John Chilvers was in the R.A.F. His training course was at Oban in Scotland and then Ballykenny, and. soon after that, Sergeant John Chilvers was posted to India. He managed to get leave to spend his 21st birthday back at home, but on the boat returning to India he staged a service revue in direct opposition to one of Ralph Reader’s. (Ralph was the creator of The Gang Shows, an amateur variety stage show that is performed in many countries today, and was synonymous with the world Scout Movement. He was also a Choreographer, lyricist, director and producer in both theatre and television).By the time John left the R.A.F. in 1947 he  was an experienced producer of revue’s, and had even played in these shows himself alongside such renowned artistes as George Formby. Back in the business John got his first job with a rep company in Amersham, and over the next few years played Rep seasons at High Wycombe, Halifax, Westcliffe, Ashton under Lyme, Blackpool and Colwyn Bay. Colwyn Bay was a particular favourite, and he played several seasons there and this fuelled his great love for Wales and its people. John was also working a great deal on the touring circuit. Playing in revues like ‘Peaches and Screams’, ‘Curtain up’, and ‘Broadway Scandals’, and straight plays like ‘Reefer Girl’, and ‘Call Girl’. The latter was touring in 1955 and 1956, and during Holy Week it was playing at the Swansea Empire. This was John’s first visit to Swansea. The Watch Committee at Swansea did not think that a play  with a title like ‘Call Girl’ was suitable for a performance on Good Friday,. So the Empire closed that night. The Grand Theatre, though, was offering more acceptable fare- a play called ‘Widow’s Mite’- and a small party of the Empire Company including John Chilvers and Freddie Lees went along to see the opposition at the Grand. The Grand in those days was a bit seedy. It had only recently re-opened as a Theatre, having been a Cinema since 1933. Money was tight, and the place was struggling. John struck up a conversation with the proprietor and obviously impressed the gentleman with his enthusiasm and practicality. That impression lasted for some time, for when the following Pantomime ended at The Grand, and the Proprietor was looking for a six week fill-in , he remembered John Chilvers , and wrote inviting him to direct a six week rep season starting on February 4th 1957. The six week season opened with Ivor Novello’s ‘We proudly present’, and included ‘Ten little Niggers’, ‘Trespass’, ‘No Escape’, ‘The Facts Of Life' and ‘No Trees in The street’. The audiences were not bad, better than previous attempts at rep in the last year. When the season ended on March the 16th, the owner, Mr Willis, suggested that John might like to stay on as Manager of the next few weeks programme, and resume the rep season on May 27th. The 25 years were under way. Those 25 years included 504 shows he directed, 20 Pantomimes, a series of amateur shows with the Scout and Guide movement, and 8 summer seasons with top name variety stars. He also served a term with the Drama Panel of the Welsh Arts Council, and he was awarded the honour of an M.B.E. for services to the theatre in Wales in 1973. His father had died at the age of 89 just before this, but his mother, who lived to be 87, was extremely proud of the medal awarded to John by the Queen. On Sunday 14th February 1982 a tribute to John Chilvers was put on at The Grand, directed by Vivyan Ellacott, who came back from The Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford, for the performance. Many stars of John Chilvers era turned out for a very entertaining and moving experience.A fitting tribute for a huge contributor to the Grand Theatre’s history.  I recently interviewed John and was amazed to find out just how big an influence he was in the development of the theatre which culminates in its standing today. Talking to him made me realise how multi-talented he was, indeed during his quarter of a century reign at the grand he acted ,directed, wrote pantomimes, auditioned performers, sold tickets, balanced the books, handled publicity, opened up in the mornings, closed up at night, inspired all around him and on a few occasions even cleaned the toilets! The equivalent at the Grand today is handled by at least 10 people. The most amazing fact of all is that during a Council meeting in the seventies the subject of salaries was broached, and it was revealed that John’s salary was less than that of a council bin-man, sorry refuse collector.Up until his time there, Pantomimes were staged by outside production companies, who would take the lions share of the revenue. He mentioned this to Rex Willis who challenged him to do his own if he wasn’t happy with the arrangement. Never one to shirk a challenge John put together his first Pantomime, which was“Dick Whittington” in 1962/63. His idea was to bring in local Welsh talent so the audience would feel it was “their” Pantomime. It was a fantastic success with sell-out performances. It ran from 22nd Dec 1962-16th Feb 1963 and starred Johnny Stewart, Sylvia Norman, Peter Boyce, Jill Alison, Reginald Vincent, Linda Lee, Ted Gatty and Pat Somers. Over the next few years Pantomime stars would include Jess Conrad, Vince Eager, Marty Wilde, Wayne Fontana, Stan Stennett and Reg Dixon. All sell–outs, and all helped keep the Grand Afloat. When it became a civic theatre in 1969 John was re-employed to run the Theatre as administrator and his Panto success continued, until the first Ryan and Ronnie Pantomime,  “Cinderella” in1972/73 when its popularity went through the roof. John has extremely fond memories of Ryan Davies and they even shared the same Doctor. During the Pantomime “Jack And The Beanstalk” in 1976, Ryan had to delay his appearance by a few weeks as he was suffering from Bronchial Asthma. Gordon Peters –who was to later appear in “One Foot In The Grave” as Ronnie and had his own show for the BBC replaced him at short notice and filled in without proper rehearsals; unfortunately he could not do New Years Eve or the night after. John had to hurriedly arrange a stand in.  This turned out to be none other than Bill Kenwright - then an actor, who has gone on to became one of this countries most talented theatre director/ producers whose past productions include “Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” which he directed for Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. He has produced many many shows on the West End and he also co-produced the phenomenally successful national arena tour of “Elvis - The Concert” with Elvis Presley Enterprises. To top it all he is also the Chairman of Everton Football Club. More recently he appeared as a judge on the successful BBC show to find a new “Joseph”, “Any Dream Will Do” – Bill arrived by train to Swansea and met the cast just before curtain-up. Being the true professional that he is, he sailed his way through it all and was greatly received by the Swansea audience. Ryan then returned and was fantastic as usual. Ryan’s last Pantomime was the following years offering “Babes In The Wood”. Shortly after it had finished John was called by his Doctor to see him at his surgery. Thinking that the Doctor had some test results, He was shocked to be informed that Ryan had died whilst on holiday in America. Ryan was indeed an enormous loss.  

When I interviewed John Chilvers in late 2007, it became very clear to me that he was a very driven man with a self-belief and pride, which I am in awe of. He clearly loved the Grand theatre and made it not only his job but also his vocation. His Repertory seasons were entertaining but immensely gruelling, some times over forty weeks in duration. He would start the audition process in London where he would see lots of actors and actresses. He would then pick a core team who would then all move to Swansea and find accommodation. His wisdom drew him to also cast a few local Welsh actors – presumably to relate to the Swansea Theatregoers. Then the season would begin.Sadly while I was writing the Swansea's Grand  book John died after a short illness on March 10th 2008


I have written a poem to celebrate his contribution.


John Chilvers 1920 - 2008

  

A sad day for Swansea, its flags at half-mast

As a light has dimmed on its theatrical past

For John Chilvers the final curtain’s come down

But what a legacy he has left to the town

  

A theatre so grand he nurtured and saved

A performing future for many he paved

He directed with skill, too many shows to list

His inspirational persona, will sorely be missed

  

Rarely has one man, Achieved so much

He certainly possessed “The Midas Touch”

Through all of the Grand’s stormiest weather

J.C. was the glue that held it together

  

For 25 years at Swansea, he held centre stage

One of a kind from a bygone age

He could get others pulling together to deliver the art

It was his creative ability that set him apart

  

He had theatre running through his veins

And his variety seasons attracted big names

Frankie Howerd, Cilla Black, and Ryan to name but a few

All lining up to join his summer season queue

  

He leaves us with happy memories aplenty

Of the Pantomimes he did of which there were twenty

Good clean fun that made us all chuckle

And a couple of jokes that were near the knuckle

  

Swansea is a better place, after his intervention

And Freddie Lees is worthy of a mention

Our hearts go out at this sad time, but Freddie be proud

Of how much he was loved by the Swansea “crowd”