80 years on the stage – taking Croydon from the Blitz to Narnia

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: This year marks the 80th anniversary of the first performances by CODA, the Croydon Operatic and Dramatic Association, making it one of the longest-lasting community arts organisations in the borough. DAVID MORGAN looks into how the group came to be formed in the middle of World War II

Grand designs: Harry Carter and friends got Croydon’s Grand Theatre and Opera House reopened for performances in 1942

In 1942, when the Second World War was raging all around them, and with German bombs still streaming down on London on an almost nightly basis, Harry Carter and two friends made a decision which might surprise people today. They decided to start up the Croydon Operatic and Dramatic Society – CODA.

“It will occupy the minds of the people during the air raids,” Carter said at the time.

Carter was also the chairman of the Croypur Arts Society which presented the Croydon Repertory Players each week at the Grand Theatre, a particularly grand, as you might expect, Victorian era theatre on the High Street (a little to the south of where the Flyover stands today; the Grand Theatre and Opera House would be demolished in 1959 to make way for an office block).

Back in 1942, after the Blitz and with El Alamein offering some shred of hope for Britain’s war-time campaigns, the Grand had managed to re-open. There were a few amateur dramatic groups managing to continue to stage shows, the ARP Players being a notable example. Most societies, though, were being closed down or mothballed, so it really was an unusual move by Carter to start up a new one.

Harry and his wife Edith had their share of wartime tragedy when their son Peter, an RAF pilot, was killed in October 1940. They knew from bitter experience the importance of doing something to take your mind off the events of the war.

“People said I was stupid to start a society while the war was on, but I felt it was the best time,” Carter said.

Initially, rehearsals were difficult, being held in “draughty huts and dreadful halls”, but the interest in CODA increased, and so did its membership. Premises were rented on the High Street, a few doors down from the Grand at No117, just opposite the Croydon Times newspaper offices. The association was truly up and running.

Wartime mission: Harry and Edith Carter formed CODA after their son, Peter, was killed on service with the RAF. You can see a photograph of Peter on the piano

It was decided from the beginning to admit any member of HM Forces to honorary membership if they so wished.

The Croydon Times and Surrey County Mail in its April 3 1943 edition reported that the newly formed CODA would be performing The Mikado, a favourite of AmDram groups today just as it was 80 years ago, on Monday April 5 at the Grand Theatre.

When it reopened the previous year, one of the Grand’s aims was to “cater intelligently for the district’s music-loving public”. In the Croydon of wartime blackouts and rationing of pretty much everything, the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta was presented with a “pre-war magnificence of costume and stage setting”.

Big news: how the local papers reported the first CODA stage show

The conductor of the orchestra was Leslie Smith, the organist and choirmaster at Croydon Parish Church.

Reminders of the war were never far away. In CODA’s first production, the role of Nanki Poo was played by a young man, Roy Sheldon, who had recently been invalided out of the Royal Navy after action at Narvik. His boat was torpedoed and he was adrift for two days in the freezing ocean before he was rescued.

The first CODA production to be staged with a week’s run of performances would come in August 1943, with Merrie England opening with a 2.30pm matinee on Bank Holiday Monday. It had a cast of more than 70, so the stage of the Grand Theatre would have been crammed during the chorus numbers.

Merrie England was such a success that its run was extended with a second week because hundreds of people were unable to get tickets for the first shows. The star of the production was Heddle Nash, who played Sir Walter Raleigh. He enjoyed a stellar professional career in opera and oratorio and would have been a huge draw.

The Croydon Times reported, “Packed houses are testimony to the flawless production which is by Frederick Lloyd of the Scala Theatre, London, and the excellence of the players taking part.”

Big draw: CODA’s Merrie England at the Grand Theatre was so successful, they extended the run by an extra week

In just two years, CODA established themselves as a group who put on high-class shows every time the curtain went up. Beginning on Thursday March 1 and running until Saturday March 10th the society put on Rudolf Friml’s musical romantic play The Vagabond King, again at the Grand.

This was considered their most ambitious production so far and had a cast of more than 80.

Vagabond success: CODA’s productions attracted rave reviews

By now, some names taking leading roles were becoming familiar and well-liked by the audiences. Donovan Cross and Doris Sanson were just two of the early stars. Already, CODA had moved away from including professional leads and were justly proud of their local talent. Sanson had thrilled audiences by appearing as Yum Yum in The Mikado and Bessie in Merrie England while in the Vagabond King she played Lady Katherine.

CODA certainly favoured Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in those early days. Their 1944 production of The Gondoliers had record attendances with an advertising slogan of “Out before blackout”.

How different things must have been for CODA’s members and audiences after May 1945 and VE Day, with the war finally coming to an end in August after the surrender in Japan. But post-war times would be tough for some years yet, with many basic essentials still rationed into the 1950s; surrounded by wartime rubble, putting on stage shows still required huge efforts and ingenuity.

The 1946 production of Pirates of Penzance (Gilbert and Sullivan again!) saw the society having to solve the dreaded problem of illness to key people in show week. Grace Nisbet, who was to play the part of Ruth, fell ill and, given just two hours’ notice, Doris Marsh stepped in to fill the role. The drama critic commenting on the opening performance wrote that “in the circumstances, and she was not the only one to need to the prompter on the night, Marsh did very nicely”.

This was not the only problem for the production. At the dress rehearsal, Leslie Smith the conductor was taken ill. He was replaced by Herbert Dykes, who although he was an experienced conductor, had never seen this particular musical score before.

Going strong: in 2019 CODA staged the Mel Brooks comedy musical The Producers at the Ashcroft Theatre

It was a few years later, in 1950, that CODA was proud that one of their actors who had first trodden the boards with the association turned professional.

Joan Cairncross, who was described as one of their most reliable actors, appeared in a BBC Radio production of Ibsen’s Pillars of Society as Mrs Holt.

A drama critic wrote that Miss Cairncross “had a beautifully controlled voice and a good stage presence”, something he felt was so lamentably lacking in many younger actresses of the day.

The 1950s also saw the society perform in a different venue. Their 1953 production of Terence Rattigan’s The Wilmslow Boy was held in the Civic Hall. One of the successes of that show was the 15-year-old lad who played the Osborne naval cadet accused of stealing a postal order. This actor was Nicholas Horne, whose father was Kenneth Horne, remembered for the Round the Horne radio comedy. The Horne family lived in South Park Hill Road, South Croydon.

The Civic Hall was also the venue for the 1955 CODA production of Berkeley Square, a play by John Balderstone about a young American who is transported back in time to London at the time of the American Revolution to meet his ancestors. Alex Bregonzi and Barbara Hawkins were the leading actors in this production.

December 1961 was a truly significant month for the society. Their production of the musical The New Moon was the first amateur show on the stage of the new Ashcroft Theatre. The week-long run was not without its difficulties. More than one comment was passed about the price of the tickets.

“Why are the seat prices for this first amateur production at the new Ashcroft noticeably dearer than for the professional company?” wrote one correspondent.

Premiered: CODA performed Young Tom at the Ashcroft, before a transfer to the West End that included Simon Le Bon and Russell Grant in the cast

While the company would have been thrilled to be in the Ashcroft, it was apparent to the opening night audience that they ought to have had more than the one run-through in the new building. The drama critic from the Croydon Times observed that the lighting for some of the solos and duets was rather strange and that the orchestra struggled when the pit was plunged into darkness during the second half.

He also suggested to Robert Vernon, the producer, that the show should be speeded up so that it would end by 10.45 at the very least. It wasn’t a dreadful production, he concluded, but needed an all-round tightening up.

CODA has been at the forefront of innovation and the presentation of new material over many years. The 1960s was a hot-bed of theatrical and musical innovation. CODA played their part, in 1971 premiering a musical Young Tom in the Ashcroft Theatre working with the film impresario Joe Vegoda.

A child star, Christopher Moore, was engaged to the play the title role in the story adapted from Tom Brown’s School Days. The production was a tryout for the writers, with a view to take the show to the West End as a fully professional production. This they did in 1972 when the show opened at the Cambridge Theatre starring Russell Grant, Roy Dotrice and a 13-year-old Simon Le Bon, who was in the chorus of Rugby schoolboys.

In 1992, CODA presented the London amateur premiere of the musical Poppy, also at the Ashcroft. This was a warm-up to their 50th anniversary year which needed the skills and commitment of all its 100 or so members. The musical section of the society had two major productions, Oklahoma and The Gondoliers, while the drama section chose The Government Inspector and then Woody Allen’s Play It Again Sam for their golden jubilee programme.

CODA, of course, continues to stage crowd-pleasing shows today.

It has just concluded a run of  Lewis Carroll adaptation, Alice Through Wonderland, performed in the open air at the Wandle Park bandstand, as part of Croydon’s year as the Borough of Culture, and where one performance asked cost-conscious theatre-goers to “pay what you can”, mindful of the cost of living crisis.

In some ways, with their next production, CODA is completing a circle, going all the way back to the darkest days of the war, when children were evacuated from London to the safety of grand houses in the country. In November, CODA delves into the Narnia fantasy world with an adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, to be staged at Selsdon Hall.

So after 80 years, the Blitz and blackouts, the good years and the harder times, CODA continues to provide, as Harry Carter once said, something that will occupy the minds of the people.

  • David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups

If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page

Other articles by David Morgan:

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  • ROTTEN BOROUGH AWARDS: Croydon was named among the country’s rottenest boroughs for a SIXTH successive year in 2022 in the annual round-up of civic cock-ups in Private Eye magazine


About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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