He's behind you - Insurance men in pantomime
14 Dec 2009
I thought as the festive season approached that I would try to write a seasonal blog. I made a fruitless search for material relating to Christmas crackers and puddings and then came across some programmes and photographs relating to various staff plays and a blog loosely connected by the theme of pantomimes was born.
The first references I found were in staff magazines and related to members of staff taking part in pantomimes outside the office. In the spring of 1954 TEAM , the staff magazine for Employers’ Liability, included a paragraph relating to the appearance of Tommy Coombs, the west end district manager, in a pantomime produced by the West Wickham Home Guard with whom he had served in the war.
According to the magazine, Coombs gave a very creditable performance as “Squire Lollybags” in the Babes in the Wood the script for which was written by his daughter Pat, then an up an coming radio star in Hello Playmates and later a television regular in shows such as Handcock’s Half Hour , Your’re only Young Twice and In Sickness and In Health .
Another staff member involved in pantomimes with war-time comrades was Frank Kenchington who worked in the London life department of the North British & Mercantile from 1906-1952. During the Salonkia Campaign in 1915 as a private in the 85 th field ambulance he wrote, as part of plans to cheer the troops in the run up to Christmas, the script for what is thought to be the first divisional pantomime.
According to reports General Briggs, the commanding officer of the 28th Division, was "so amused and charmed" by the 85th's performance of Dick Whittington that he ordered the company to tour around all the units of the Division "so that all the men might have the same pleasure and enjoyment".
The company’s Christmas productions became a seasonal tradition throughout the campaign, and inspired other units to form entertainment troupes of their own. Kenchington also wrote “Aladdin in Macedonia” for the troops and both pantomimes were revived and performed in London in the early 1920s.
There is only one pantomime related item in the archive itself which was catalogued as “North British & Mercantile Pantomime poster, no date.” Investigating the poster has revealed a tantalising glimpse of an age of talented insurance clerks, “game” officials and, close relationships between companies.
The title of the pantomime was The Genius of Life and the Fire Fiend and the staff and officials of the company “aided by a host of talent from the various Insurance Offices” provided all the orchestra, actors, singers and dancers involved.
By tracing members of staff referred to in the cast list and references in board and committee minutes to various building works I have narrowed down the date of the poster to 1863 and the very basic research I have been able to undertake shows that the programme was full of “in” jokes.
“The Good Genius of Life” (a female part) was played by Mr Smith, who was then manager of the company, and his “attendant sprites” by Mr Chisholm and Mr McMurtie who were the actuary and the life clerk respectively; the company’s medical officer, Dr Burt, sang a number entitled “ The Perfect Cure ” and the London Secretary, Mr Lance, played a character called “Lance”.
There are many unanswered questions such as how did Mr Lance and Mr Birkmyre, who played “Phoebe Mayflower a pensive village beauty”, attend rehearsals and the actual performance in Edinburgh when they were the most senior officials in the company’s London office and what, if any, link is there to Mr Birkmyre’s resignation in the same year? Most of the cast have now been identified in the company minutes with the most notable “foreign” talent being Mr M’Candlish who played the bagpipes and was at that time the secretary of the Scottish National Insurance Company.
This year is the bicentenary of the establishment of the North British & Mercantile and I have enjoyed the opportunity to take a closer look at the activities of its staff in the early 1860s and to imagine the “grand transformation scene” when the “Good Genius ” produced an “instantaneous growth of celery over the whole office” while the “Fire Fiend” disappeared “amidst a shower of fires”, - oh no he didn’t - oh yes he did!