The nostalgia column with Margaret Watson

Margaret Watson.
Margaret Watson.

THE other week I showed a photograph of film star Mai Zetterling walking in Longcauseway Gardens, Dewsbury, when she was appearing at the Empire theatre.

This week, I am recalling another famous star who appeared there, Anthony Newley, who wrote the smash hit What Kind of Fool Am I?

CROWNING GLORY: A young Anthony Newley crowns Miss Ann Elizabeth Gray as the festival queen for St Saviours Church, Birstall.

CROWNING GLORY: A young Anthony Newley crowns Miss Ann Elizabeth Gray as the festival queen for St Saviours Church, Birstall.

It was here in Dewsbury, while appearing in repertory with the Saxon Players, that the young Newley, fresh from doing his National Service, decided to make show business his life’s work.

Throughout his life, Newley always spoke affectionately of Dewsbury. He always said it was the warmth of Dewsbury audiences which had helped him make this decision.

He stayed in Dewsbury for about 18 months, living in local boarding houses, mainly in one, a garage house in Halifax Road at the corner of Stonefield Street.

After leaving Dewsbury, he signed up to the Rank Organisation and was groomed to become a romantic leading man.

Anthony Newley as a star.

Anthony Newley as a star.

His appearance in the film Idle on Parade led to him becoming a pop star with hits in the charts.

In the 1960s, he wrote, directed and appeared in a string of hit musicals including Stop the World I Want to Get Off.

The young Newley, made his first appearance in Dewsbury in 1950, several years after receiving rave reviews as the Artful Dodger in the widely acclaimed film Oliver Twist.

The handsome 20-year-old cockney from Hackney soon became a hit with Dewsbury audiences and a heart-throb with local lasses who queued up to see him nightly.

Shortly before his death, he wrote to one of his oldest fans, Dewsbury woman Marcia Hall, who had first seen him at the Empire when she was 16.

Marcia, along with many other fans, met up again with him in 1994 when he returned to Dewsbury to open an exhibition about the history of the Empire.

Also there to meet him was another friend from the old Dewsbury days, Peter Croughan, from Westtown, who had worked at the Empire as a lighting technician.

Peter and Newley, known to friends as Tony, quickly became good mates who went drinking together in local pubs, usually the Scarborough Hotel and the Shoulder of Mutton.

Peter recalled how the young Newley was always short of money because young actors weren’t paid much in those days.

But despite this, they always managed to have enough to buy a few halves of beer.

In a book written by a life-long fan, John Harris of Wakefield, Newley’s stay in Dewsbury is described as having an important effect on his life and career.

Even when interviewed by top magazines in America where he later made his home, Newley always found a kind word for Dewsbury, describing his time here as being one of the happiest periods of his life.

He also said playing at the Empire with the Saxon Players for £15 a week for 18 months had a crucial impact on his life and his development as an actor.

He said: “My memories of Dewsbury and the Empire Theatre will always stay with me. They are a legacy I will keep forever.”

Photographs taken of him in Dewsbury were cherished by Newley, and a painting of the Empire theatre, by local artist, Don Wharton, took pride of place in the Surrey home he shared with his elderly mother.

When Anthony Newley arrived in Dewsbury to open the Empire Exhibition in 1994, there was a spectacular sight to greet him.

Precisely 1,600 balloons – one to represent every seat which used to be in the theatre – were released from the roof of Dewsbury Town hall.

A 50 foot banner with the words Welcome Back to Dewsbury was hanging from Empire House where the old Empire had been situated before its demolition in 1960.

Newley was overwhelmed by the reception he received and the vast crowds waiting to greet him.

He sent the following letter of thanks to those who had organised the event.

He wrote: “How to thank you and everyone concerned for that most wonderful of day at Dewsbury. The warmth and affection shown to the ‘Old Singer’ was more than he really deserved.

“Would you please pass on to all your friends and those responsible for the endless little kindnesses, during your wonderful salute to the old Empire, my heartfelt thanks and gratitude for a memorable day in the life of this honorary Yorkshireman!

Love and Gratitude,

Anthony Newley.

Many of the stars who appeared at the Empire were often called upon to take part in local events, and Anthony Newley was one who obliged.

He played cricket with local teams and attended church festivals, and local competitions. The picture above shows a young Anthony Newley crowning Miss Ann Elizabeth Grey, Festival Queen for St Saviour’s Church, Brownhill, Birstall.

If you remember Anthony Newley, or have pictures of his while he was staying in the district, please contact me at tresham3@gmail.com.