James and Gilda, Wendy and Little Jimmy and Me
Jimmy Perry OBE has passed away at the venerable age of 93. Jimmy is best known to most for co-writing Dad’s Army with David Croft, but when I was a teenager, Jimmy was best known to me for running the Palace Theatre, Watford. I knew him then as James. He was one of the few grown ups I met socially in those pompous times who I could call by their first name.
James and his actress wife, Gilda, lived across the road from the Palace Theatre in a lovely posh flat over the top of the scenery store. The walls of their stairs were lined with old theatre bills in glazed wooden frames.
Lynda has just pointed out that Wikipedia claims the Perry’s had no children. Absolutely untrue, my doods. James and Gilda had a son, Jimmy, and my older sister Wendy, who sadly departed this world many years ago, was little Jimmy’s nanny. I’ve pushed the little dood in his pram along Watford High Street on more than one occasion when Wendy and I were out shopping. We’ve still got photographs of him from the times she brought him to our parents house opposite the recreation ground.
My family connection with James and Gilda and little Jimmy qualified me for a weekly complimentary theatre ticket. Thus equipped, I used to trot along to Claredon Road and climb up the stairs into the gods to watch the rep company’s latest offering – murder mystery, drama, or musical – and loving every minute of what to me was pure magic.
The Watford Repertory Theatre Company put on a play a week. They’d be rehearing next week’s play during the day and performing this week’s play in the evening. The musicals they’d throw in every now and then were a bit of a challenge for some members of the cast, perhaps none more than James himself. His attempts to wax into song waned into one step short of actual singing and ended up as a sort of melodic talking.
I got to know the cast so well and how they interacted with each other that I was in on their in-jokes (helped by the private info and gossip I managed to drag out of Wendy), which made the whole experience even more enriching and special for me.
For the Christmas season James and Gilda would put on a pantomime. I made sure I saved my freebie for the last night of the panto. There was a tradition that the actors could deviate from the script on the last night and slip in veiled insults to each other and some not so veiled insults.
The cast would try to throw each other by leaving out cue lines and ad libbing outrageously which was brilliant fun all round. Occasionally an actor would be so successful in his or her mission to reduce a colleague to helpless laughter that the cast were unable to continue with the panto until said actor had recovered, drawing cheers and laughter and huge applause from their appreciative, mainly adult, last-night audience when they managed to resume the action.
Wendy told me that James had the end of one of his fingers missing and I remember trying to spot it every time he was on stage. I think it was the last joint of his left hand index finger, but I can’t be sure.
James Perry introduced me and my younger sister to the actor Kenneth More in the foyer of the Palace Theatre. Kenneth More was a real gent with loads of time for everybody. We were well chuffed to meet such a big star of the silver screen and in our home town too. I had seen him as Douglas Bader in ‘Reach For the Sky’ and as Second Officer Charles Lightoller in ‘A Night to Remember.’ Kenneth More seemed genuinely interested that I had just become an engineering apprentice, a lot more interested than I was, I have to say.
Kenneth More had been down our way before, I since learned. The sinking of the Titanic scenes in ‘A Night to Remember’ had been filmed at Ruislip Lido.
Kenneth More was at the Palace filming the Memory Man sequences for the 1959 screen version of ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps.’ The theatre was a beautiful example of Edwardian Theatre design which, of course, is why they chose to film there. You will see it for yourself if you ever get to watch the film. I believe that when James and Gilda left, Watford Council took over the running of the Palace.
Jimmy’s passing has made me feel sad for the passing of those wonderful lo-fi days of theatre and especially sad for the untimely passing of my poor sister Wendy. May Wendy and Jimmy rest in peace.
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