Lancashire director supporting Burnley Empire Theatre

When I was 14-years-old and considering becoming a professional actress my dad saw an advertisement in the back of the Burnley Express to audition for The Rossendale Players to play Anne in The Diary of Anne Frank.

Len Taylor, Rossendale Players director, cast Burnley actress Caroline O'Hara as Anne in The Diary of Anne Frank - her first ever play. (s)
Len Taylor, Rossendale Players director, cast Burnley actress Caroline O'Hara as Anne in The Diary of Anne Frank - her first ever play. (s)

I don’t recall now whether or not I’d heard of Anne before, but I do remember that my dad drove me to Waterfoot soon after where myself and around 30 other girls sat in a big circle in a freezing cold church hall and took it in turns to read segments of Anne’s diary.

Non-actors won’t know this, but actors spend most of their time rehearsing in freezing cold church halls - that’s one of the many reasons why so many of us look like characters from Withnail and I.

I remember seeing a girl at the other side of the room smiling at me, so it was delightful when I turned up for the first rehearsal to discover we would be playing sisters.

Caroline OHara. Photo credit: James Bellorini. (s)

On this journey I have been on, looking for people to interview and connecting with old friends, I have discovered that said actress, Joanna Bond, became a professional actress and is very successful, performing in every genre, from music videos, ads, radio (regularly on Radio 4 and World Service), numerous theatre productions, including Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, and on TV in The A Word, Hollyoaks, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Trust with Robson Green.

The director, Len Taylor, and I lost touch over the years, but I managed to track down his phone number.

I was very nervous to call him.

He has one of those call blocking services, whereby one has to first say your name, then if they want to speak to you they answer.

Luckily, he heard my name and picked up.

We had a trip down memory lane, and I got to ask him about his journey through theatre in the north.

It was a special moment for me, because Len changed my life the day he asked me to play Anne.

How did your love of theatre begin?I was lucky enough to be encouraged at primary school in Orrell to act in dramas having been “discovered” by a trainee teacher in the first instance.

I also took part in several Nativity plays both at school and at the local church Sunday school.

As a consequence I went to several local am dram and operatic plays and concerts.

I also used to put on my own concerts in my garden at home on a makeshift stage using a cord with blankets on as curtains.

I used to involve my friends in my scripted (and unscripted) shows and we charged a penny or a jam jar (which was recycled for a penny) to enter.

The love of theatre also was sustained in grammar school where I appeared in several plays. It was supplemented by theatre visits to see classic plays.

When I was 13 I was also lucky enough to have a school friend who had a famous (or infamous) comedian as an uncle. He was called Frank Randle.

He got free tickets to see him at Wigan Hippodrome Theatre and I was hooked on Variety theatre from then on.

I went regularly to see the turns in Wigan and in Blackpool seeing many famous stars of that era in the fifties.

What was your first show?

My first main play I was in at grammar school was as Hopcroft Minor in The Happiest Days of Your Life.

I was thrilled to hear that make-up was going to be used, so I could become a “proper” actor!

The art mistress who was in charge told me at dress rehearsal to run round the theatre block before the play. When I returned a bit flushed she said that was fine!

We met on The Diary of Anne Frank. What made you choose that play?

We had a play selection committee and it was always one I had wanted to do.

That year was the 50th anniversary of Anne’s death and The Anne Frank Society gave us permission to perform the play.

They came and created a display at the back of the hall and the Rossendale Players had a collection.

We were inundated with responses and had over 50 girls turn up. Eventually we had to change plans and do the auditions over two days.

You were also a biology teacher as well as a director. Did you learn anything from biology that helped you to direct?

Not from biology directly, but teaching is not without it’s drama.

When I got into Webber Douglas Academy, there were three people from the class I was in at Accrington and Rossendale college in the class of twelve. The school auditions thousands of people from all over the world for the twelve places. Have you had any similar experiences of meeting the talent from the area in far flung places?

I have moved around the North of England with my job in teaching and joined many different amateur theatre and operatic groups. It always amazes me how much talent there is in local communities wherever I have been. Many like yourself go on to train and become professional actors and singers.

Who is your hero?

I don’t have heroes as such but there are many people I admire greatly and had the good fortune to see in person on stage. Amongst them are Alastair Sim, Ron Moody, Alan Howarth, John Thaw, Tom Courtney, Peter Postlethwaite, Maxine Peake, Lenny Henry, Victoria Wood, Alun Armstrong and Roy Hudd to name but a few. My favourite dramatist is Alan Bennett.

What have you not achieved yet that you’d like to?

At 76 I have achieved most things in life, but unfortunately having given up acting. I still love directing plays I would like to carry on doing so at Ilkley Playhouse.

Do you have any advice for any young directors reading this?

Be an assistant director. Get a good mentor. Listen. They are there to learn, not be a dogsbody, so I always say, “The next few rehearsals are down to you”, then we have a debrief at the end. We have a 19th Century theatre in Burnley that has been saved from demolition. The only other theatre by that architect is on Shaftesbury Avenue in London. Do you have any thoughts on that?

I never went to Burnley Empire but I understand it was on the Moss circuit which contained many famous artistes who toured the country.

It is a sin to demolish buildings like these and I hope that it can be regenerated as a community arts centre capable of attracting musical acts and plays.

Burnley has a large populated catchment area and I am sure such a venture would be well supported.