Soham Grammarians - 2020 Reunion Talk, via Zoom
Saturday, 10th October 2020

Some anecdotes as we chatted (edited)

On Stage Lighting - Mr Sid Saunders - The Van der Graaff generator - A Prize-Giving Sketch?

On Stage Lighting

Simon Thornhill SG65: All the stage lighting, I used to do from about Year 3 or 4 upwards, starting with others and then sort of did it on my own mostly after that. The scary ladders we had at Soham, I don't know if anyone remembers those. That very, very tall wooden ladder that you could just about manage to push up on your own.

I'd climb up that ladder with a big Furse Fresnel lamp, lamp in one hand, a wooden chair in the other, place a wooden chair on top of the platform of the ladder, climb on top of the ladder, on top of the wooden chair and, on tiptoes would be hanging the stage lights on the bar in Beechurst Hall. Scary really. Again, I don't think anyone would be allowed to do that these days [laughter].

I still notice one or two lights around Beechurst [Hall] that I put up in my time there. They still seem to be working [laughter], so hopefully they won't start a fire anytime soon.

Geoff Fernie SG59: Simon, I also did the stage lighting at Soham. And afterwards, I kept the hobby up and I was responsible for stage lighting for Top of the Pops in my spare time for quite a few years.  I also I lit Pink Floyd and Cream, Julie Driscoll and stuff - all as a hobby rather than studying when I was at my first university [Sussex].

But I remember the ladder well. And I remember John Dimmock teaching me how to put a plug on to the end of a piece of wire.
Simon Thornhill: The 5 amp round pin plug.

[Editor: If you want to read all about it, go on the website and look at the talk that Geoff gave us in 2017.]

John Dimmock SG59: Remember when we were doing the lighting, the old metal ladder? Now I know Simon mentioned the wooden one but we had the aluminium one, where we had the art stool on the top? [GF: Yes] And then the old wooden box on top so it couldn't actually slide off when we went up and climbed up and grabbed the rail with a light.

Geoff Fernie SG59: Yes, I remember that. And I remember Edward Armitage criticising us because he wanted everyone who was on stage to be lit so they didn't have lines under their eyes. So we had to put some lights that pointed straight into their face. We hung them on frames that you and I made in Tabraham's class with some metal bar and a bit of threaded rod. And they clamped on to the vertical posts in the in the room. Very ugly. Do you remember that?

Simon Thornhill SG65:Yes. There were the dustbin lights as well Do you remember them, the square dustbin bins with a 500 watt light bulb [laughter] in the end of them.

Simon later added: The stage lighting equipment was made by Furse and we simply knew it as a Fresnel lamp because of the shape of the main front lens. It was a bit like the fresnel optics in a lighthouse. They were a gold colour and heavy.

The other lamp I referred to was a home-made, very simple flood lamp made, I think, by 'Arthur' Makin. There were several of them and we called them Dustbin lamps. In truth a waste paper bin lamp (Sani-bin was the name that I incorrectly said) would have been more descriptive. They were a tapered square metal waste paper bin which was painted silver inside and had a 500W light bulb in the bottom. They were just propped up off the floor as a very basic flood lamp. The Health and Safety guys of today would not have approved!

Geoff Fernie SG59: I still remember the the names of the lights and stuff and how we had to crawl around in the roof. I remember that once, for a change, we lit the school dance in the main hallway of Beechurst, around the stairs, and put stuff up there, because we got bored with having the school dance in the auditorium.

Simon Thornhill SG65: My most thrilling lighting experience there was when school went up to Norfolk, did a play in Walsingham. I did all the lighting for them and had to hang the lights in various trees and run the cables around the place. I remember that very well, lovely time, beautiful weather.

Geoff Fernie  SG59: I also remember that John [Dimmock] was a specialist in audio and used to do the public address system for Sports Day. I remember - I think it was Gordon Hemmings - asking in a rather astonished way how was it that John was able to run this system without any electricity going to it? [laughter] Because you had the first battery operated amplifiers in those days. We used to cart your stuff around all over the place.

Mr Sid Saunders

Peter Smith SG59: I've got a brief follow up to the Sid Saunders Cherry Tree anecdote.

I'm not terribly sure if it's true, or one of these legends that grew out of just a bit of gossip. But I was reminded of it when John Dimmock talked about recording the religious programmes and then playing it back to Sid's classes, probably the early years. So Sid ran the recording on the radio player and left us  to listen to this religious broadcast. He would disappear - the rumour was he'd gone to the Cherry Tree - who knows?

While he was gone, Terry Mackender SG59 got his own radio and put it in a cupboard just below the recording device that we were listening to, switching on his radio, [turning the recorder off or down] and closing the doors.

Sid would come back to switch off the religious broadcast. Terry's radio kept playing. Sid was poking every button on the top of the recorder "My friend", "My friend!" - exasperated because he thought he couldn't switch it off.

I can't remember what the dénouement was. Knowing Sid he probably found the radio and threw it down the end of the classroom. I think Terry Mackender was one of the the class jokers so half of that is true, the rest I think has been embroidered over the years, like most school anecdotes.

Geoff Fernie SG59:  I remember my Dad used to play bridge with Chas Ford and Sid Saunders. And I remember him explaining that Sid's definition of a gentleman was someone who knew to go into the Lounge Bar with a tie on, rather than into the Public Bar [laughter]. That was the aim of education at the time.

Frank Haslam SG'59': The other story people gave me - because remember, I'm an outsider, I don't have the advantage of all the work and family connections that many of you have by virtue of your families being in the area for some time - was that you could check your watch by where Sid was in which bar in Ely. Whether that's true or not [laughter] The Lamb was said to be his favourite watering hole.

The Van Der Graaff Generator

John Dimmock SG59: Do you remember the incident in the dressing room with the back of the stage with the generator attached to the door handle?

Geoff Fernie SG59: Yes, the Van der Graaff generator. What was the name of the kid that always had these toys. He lived on Cambridge Road.

[John Dimmock: Was it Aspin?]

Aspin. Yes. He came in with a Van der Graaff generator. We were in the dressing room for the theatre and he strung a thin uninsulated wire across the room to the door handle. [He powered the] generator up.

Slug Riley came along - "Who's in there?" "Who's in there?"

The voltage was creating a spark across the entrance door handle. Riley took his gown and sensibly wrapped it [round his hand] to pull the door open. It backfired on us, because that broke the wire and it then started floating around the room touching all of us [laughter]. I remember that.

[Aspin] came to school one day - now it doesn't seem that surprising - with a suitcase that had a light socket attached to it that would take a bayonet light bulb. He fitted the light bulb and turned it on. We were all quite astonished.

There was a story that he wanted to blow something up. He and his sister Carolyn Abbott lived on Cambridge Road (near where Armitage ended up retiring) and he made a bomb with an alarm clock in a wooden box. He [attached] some balloons and filled them with gas and let it out of the window at night expecting it would rise, go over to the Cathedral with the prevailing wind and then blow up.

It got caught on his chimney or something. I don't remember the consequence, but I think it damaged his chimney or antenna or something [laughter].

A Prize-Giving Sketch?

Frank Haslam SG'59': One memory, that I haven't yet had corroborated, was something like a Sixth Form spoof of a Prize-Giving. Either it was a spoof or they had a rigged something where Edward lifted up a cup to present it. Attached to the bottom of the cup and to the table was a bra. That caused gales of laughter as you can imagine. Maybe it was one of those things we were sometimes encouraged to do to show that we had a sense of humour [and, I suppose, our targets].

Peter Smith SG59: Yes, it was the year above us. I think those who started in 58 were particularly good at that, it was a bit like the Footlights did, putting on Revues. 

Report on our 2020 Reunion

The 2020 Reunion Talk: Some Funny Goings On at Soham Grammar School

Who registered for the 2020 Reunion? And who sent apologies?

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last updated 23 Oct 20