October 17 2005

One of the odder strands of my family’s history is enlivened by a character who refuses to go away even though he’s been dead and buried for well over a century.
Enter, John Baldwin Buckstone, actor-manager, comedian and playwright whose ghost is said to make regular appearances still at London’s Haymarket Theatre, where in his Victorian prime he produced more than 200 successful shows.
The family link is tenuous: old JBB was the husband of the actress Mrs Fitzwilliam, the former Miss Fanny Copeland, who was an aunt of my grandfather’s grandfather, William Robert Copeland, himself an actor and manager.
The theatrical thread was a feature of the family tree from the early 1800s and it persisted with varying degrees of success down to my father, a jobbing actor who came to Stafford in 1931, to join the repertory company at the old Albert Hall theatre in Crabbery Street, long since absorbed into the fabric of the Co-op Department Store.
The company’s juvenile lead had been hurt in a car crash and they wired my father in Manchester to take over. He arrived in the early hours one Thursday and opened the next Monday in a costume drama called The Kingdom of Love.
Two decades earlier the Albert Hall had started life as a cinema, in premises once used as a rag and bone warehouse. It converted to a theatre in 1919 and was the home of live entertainment in the town until 1932 when it again became a cinema.
By the time my father arrived at the place, there were already other family connections. My mother, who worked during the day at the Lotus shoe factory, spent her evenings selling programmes at the theatre where her mother was in charge of the box office and her uncle, the doorman, kept a disapproving eye on unruly elements of the audience.
Contemporary newspapers carried reviews of the shows most of which were well received. None of those I’ve read makes any mention of my father’s performances, but my mother clearly was impressed, because she married him.
There are still a few people around who remember those plays with affection: potboiler thrillers, costume dramas and occasional Shakespeare, the sort of penny-plain fare on offer then in any sizeable town.
Stored away with his make-up box and a few dog-eared scripts, I have a photograph of my father which must date from that period: dashing, white tie and tailed, debonair smile and nonchalent cigarette; more Ronald Coleman than Ronald Coleman.
My father left when the Albert Hall closed and took his new wife with him. For a couple of years they toured the provinces with various companies, my mother occasionally treading the boards with him, although she had no stage experience and few aspirations.
Then as now, acting was a precarious business and with the arrival of my elder sister it soon became clear that things had to change, so they headed back to Stafford.
Dad resigned himself philosophically to years of square peg, round hole jobs, but the theatre remained his passion and for the rest of his life he eased his frustration at being separated from it by involvement in amateur productions.
He was fond of quoting Shakespeare and, from Hamlet, he often offered me Polonius’s advice to his son Laertes: “This above all, to thine own self be true . . .”.
I didn’t like to point out that if he’d followed this dictum himself, he would never have given up the theatre.


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