SHEFFIELD GIRL - THE FIRST 19¾ YEARS
LOTS TO SAY
I was always good at English Composition, when it came to English lessons my little star shone! I was good at spelling, remembering and reciting poetry - even composing my own, but most of all I was good at creating stories - (which came in very useful when I was caught doing something I shouldn't, which was pretty often). Whilst most of my fellow classmates struggled to cover half a page with juvenile scrawl, for me, the one and half hours allotted, simply wasn't enough. I would race through page after page, usually managing to condense my story into three pages.
Where it all came from, I do not know, the words just came tumbling out without my having to think about it. When given a choice of three subjects from which to compose a story, I would always choose the most difficult; partly to test myself and partly to show off! Inevitably, after our work had been read and marked by the English teacher, I would be asked to stand up and read out my composition, there'd be the odd gasp from classmates who'd struggled to create three lines, unable to comprehend how I'd managed to write so much! I would have gained even more 'house points' for this sterling work, if it hadn't been for my handwriting - it was quite appalling, but I couldn't write fast and neatly! I read voraciously, and loved words, even now, a dictionary is always within reach, (and boy, do I need it now!). Except that, learning new words but not how to pronounce them, would serve to trip me up time and time again! How can I ever forget the time I stood up in class to read out a particularly good story, using lots of new words I'd recently discovered, only to ruin it by pronouncing phenomena as 'pheenomeena'! (I can still hear the laughter!).
Aged eight, I was asked by a visitor to our house, the standard question - "And what are you going to be when you grow up"? My stock answer was - "A Biologist or a Biographer!" And the re-action was always the same, the inquisitor, momentarily taken aback, would then smile indulgently and ask me if I knew what the words actually meant. I knew that one was to do with the workings of the body and the other was to do with writing, but, in truth, I just liked the sound of the words!
Even so, I knew more about the former, than this visitor could possibly have imagined. I had spent a great deal of time talking with my older sister, Mavis, who was born with a hole in her heart and, consequently, spent most of her youth in and out of hospital. She knew a great deal about her condition, which she and I discussed at great length. We would even play games to test our knowledge. The idea was to take it in turns to go through the alphabet naming parts of the body. For instance, A - Aorta (arm would be far too simple!) B could be biceps, or blood if you were new to the game, but I preferred to wait until H when I could say haemaglobin! Then we'd go on to naming the bones in the body in the same way. So, if I didn't have my nose stuck in The Universal Home Doctor, it was imbedded in Nuttall's Standard Dictionary.
I usually came out top in Biology exams simply because I rabbitted on at great length, showing off my 'extra' knowledge, far and beyond what was actually asked for! When I was good at something, I gave it my all, in an effort to make up for my many shortfalls - music, religious knowledge, and cookery - where on one occasion I came bottom of the class, which was so unfair, it wasn't me who burnt the cakes!!
I gratified my desire to write by being a prolific diary keeper and writing letters. At one time, I was writing on a regular basis to eleven people scattered throughout the British Isles. I also had a pen friend in America and another in Sweden. And, some years later, a girl from Krakow in Poland, started to write to me.
As I had an insatiable interest in 'show business', I began to run Fan Clubs for my favourite performers, this too, provided an outlet for my desire to 'put pen to paper'. And, as I was soon to discover, it also provided a 'free pass' through the stage door, and, more often than not - into their dressing rooms for a chat!
Through my fan clubs, I came to the notice of Eddie Holland, editor of The Sheffield Telegraph & Star's Teenage paper. He asked me to help form a committee of local teenagers who, amongst other activities, would organise 'welcoming parties' for visiting 'Stars'. So, not surprisingly, I appeared on practically every photograph taken at these parties! I was even asked to help publicise certain events, in particular, Terry Steeples, manager of a Rotherham cinema, was putting on a Pop Concert featuring Craig Douglas so, as I was his Sheffield fan club secretary, he asked me to go along with some friends and have a few publicity photographs taken - unfortunately, someone had the bright idea of taking them up on the roof of the cinema - on a wet, blustery afternoon! Being the kind of person who thrived on meeting 'Stars' from every corner of the show biz world, my teenage years were very enjoyable indeed!
Someone, at some stage in my life, once said wryly, "Oh, yes, Freda's always got a lot to say for herself"! I'm not sure what, exactly, prompted this remark, but I have never forgotten it, and I have often thought it summed me up pretty well!
I was always quick to respond with a letter, to anything I saw written in a publication that I felt warranted comment, nearly all of which were printed. I well remember when I was eighteen, writing to Mike Tomkin, who I think was the 'show biz' reporter for 'Weekend', a popular publication at the time, similar to 'Titbits' and 'Reveille.' I wish I could remember what it was all about; I know it was on a subject where my opinion was contrary to his.
Quite a heated correspondence developed between us, which I was rather enjoying, he was a good looking fellow, and this added a certain extra dimension to the proceedings. But eventually he got fed up with the whole thing, and sent one last letter underlining his original viewpoint and insisting that that was the end of the matter. Feeling a little miffed that the 'game' was over, I think I may well have responded to this finality with a certain immaturity: something along the lines of "cowardy, cowardy custard"!
Strange, that when asked what I was going to be when I grew up, I never replied "A Dancer". Perhaps it was an ambition I knew I could not really fulfill. I was obsessed with music from a very early age, music made me feel good inside and I just wanted to express these feelings in song and dance. I was about 12 years old before I started taking lessons in tap & ballet at the local dancing class (held in the hallway of a neighbour's house, it didn't quite aspire to the rank of 'dancing school'!). I'd desperately wanted to go well before then, but my parents simply couldn't afford to get involved, it wasn't just the cost of the lessons that had to be taken into account, which I think were about 2/6 for an hour, but the cost of tap and ballet shoes, a rehearsal costume, cost of exams - which required one to dress all in white - including tap shoes, the cost of costumes for the shows that we put on. These were not all 'for the old folks' either; I actually appeared in shows at Sheffield's City Hall! But sadly, I was all enthusiasm and no talent; my exams results would suggest that I was merely average.
I adored 'Musicals', the kind that took me into another world were 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers', (I had a youthful passion for Russ Tamblyn!) 'South Pacific', 'Carousel' and 'Oklahoma!'
If I heard Howard Keel singing 'Oh What a Beautiful Morning' on 'Housewife's Choice' during the week, or 'Two Way Family Favourites' on a Sunday morning, I was out of bed in a trice, full of the joys of spring. Mum had the devil's own job to get us all out of bed on a Sunday morning - although the smell of bacon and eggs cooking often did the trick!
I loved all Musicals, including those early Elvis Presley films, but the film that had the most influence on me and left me open mouthed with wonder was 'The Jolson Story'. Still only aged 12, I fell madly in love with Scotty Beckett, who played the part of the young Al Jolson. After it had finished its run, at the Capitol Cinema at Sheffield Lane Top, 'Jolson Sings Again', quickly followed, again I sat open mouthed, just knocked sideways by the sheer effervescence of the man. That deep voice, that handsome face (I fell in love again!), those songs that set my feet tapping. It was an experience I have never forgotten, and those old films thrill me still! And, along with just about everyone else, I could not separate the handsome face of Larry Parks from the wonderful voice of Al Jolson. It was perfect teaming! Sadly, I was less than thrilled when I met the exceedingly gorgeous Larry in the flesh, a few years later.
After I started work at The Grand Hotel in the centre of Sheffield, I began to write in my tiny, handbag size, 'Film Star' diary, all the daily happenings. I was meeting 'Stars' almost every day, and I felt it all had to be carefully documented. I also kept my autograph book close to hand! I was able to meet many stars on a one to one basis, thanks to the manager of the Sheffield Empire, Johnny Spitzer, who lived at 'The Grand'. He was very kind to me, not only giving me two free tickets, in the best seats, almost every week, but also making sure that I met the performers that I really liked.
Whilst my old school friends were now forming steady relationships and looking in jeweller's windows in anticipation, for me, marriage was always in the distant future. Despite having strong feelings, from time to time, for certain boyfriends, it was never with the intention of 'settling down'. For me, I felt there was so much more to life than getting married, so many people to meet and places to discover - and I managed to hold on to my single status until I was 27!
Despite the rather hectic and most enjoyable social life I had in Sheffield, I longed for something more. Jenny, my pen friend in London, encouraged me to spread my wings, and when I eventually left Sheffield behind, I was full of excited trepidation for the wonders that I truly believed existed in London. And it was exciting. (Quite terrifyingly so, on occasion).
I was there when the 'Profumo Scandal' made all the front pages; in fact it was happening so closely around me that I was even mistaken for Mandy Rice-Davies! Meeting well known people from stage screen and television was a daily happening, and I was thrilled to become friends with my favourite pop star - Gene Pitney! I remember clearly the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Jack Kennedy; coming face to face with two of the Beatles on Oxford Street; appearances on TV and having a very famous neighbour!
I was almost 20 years old, it was the birth of 'The Swinging Sixties' and London was most certainly the best place to be - I became a teenager all over again! I really loved living in London, even imagining, eventually, that I was a London Girl; after living there for eight years I thought I'd shaken off my Yorkshire roots - I'd certainly had some rough corners knocked off me! But of course, you never, ever, completely lose your true foundation. And although I have now been away from Sheffield, for far longer than I ever lived there, I will always think of myself as a Sheffield Girl.
THE WAR, SUNDAY SCHOOL and MRS JILLIVER'S AMPLE BOSOM ...
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