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BETTY BENFIELD

April 11, 2013

BETTY BENFIELD

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 Here at IBY we read the sad news that Betty Benfield has passed away.

Betty was Fairy Godmother in at least six or seven of Paul Elliott’s pantomimes – E&B Productions. She appeared in West End Musicals, plays and tours, as well as appearances in film and television.

Betty hailed from Australia- it was here she first appeared with Opera Companies, and in 1957 worked with The Philip Street Theatre Company in Sydney, appearing in “The Willow Pattern Plate”- A “Musical Fantasy!”

In 1974 Betty had previously played The Queen Mother in the West End pantomime “Cinderella” at the London Casino– now called The Prince Edward Theatre. One of the most star studded pantomimes in the West End it starred Twiggy, Nicky Henson, Harry H Corbett & Wilfrid Brambell (“Steptoe & Son”) Alongside Roy Kinnear, Hugh Paddick, Terry Hall & Lenny The Lion, with the dream team of pantomime designers including St.John Roper with the Cynthia Tingey supervising, Dick Hurran and Irving Davies choreographing, Ray Cook as Musical Director , Tod Kingman’s scenery and Frank Hauser directing.

Betty was Fairy Godmother in the first pantomime of “Cinderella” that Peter Robbins and I did for Paul, in 1983 at the GordonCraigTheatre in Stevenage. She set the benchmark for Fairy Godmothers to follow! Peter Byrne and Linda Hayden, with Kathryn Apanowicz and Spencer Gibbins joined Betty in that pantomime, with Cheryl Taylor as Cinderella.

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The previous year, in 1982 Peter and I had gone to Lewisham to see Paul Elliott’s “Cinderella”, never imagining a year later we would be in one ourselves. Betty was Fairy Godmother with Rolf Harris- and her native Australian twang could still be heard, possibly by close proximity to a fellow Aussie! However, when she sang the delivery was pure RP, and what a huge and beautiful voice it was- Peter and I always told Betty she was our Dame Nellie Melba, and her song for the next five years that we worked with her was always “A Lovely Night” from the Rogers and Hammerstein “Cinderella”. Betty would belt it out in her strong mezzo soprano operatic tones, revealing her touring years with Opera Companies in Australia.

That Lewisham “Cinderella” also starred Loraine Chase, with Pete Murray and Bernie Flint. The Sisters were Simon Barrie and Alan Vicars.

Following Lewisham Betty had returned to Australia and appeared in a pilot show there, as well as appearing at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney in the play “13 Rue De L’amour” starring Leslie Caron and Louis Jordan before starting rehearsals for “Cinderella” at Stevenage!

Betty had made a film in Australia “Norman Loves Rose”, a comedy in 1982 and previously had appeared in “Prisoner, Cell Block H” in the role of Mrs Hampshire in 1979. That year Betty appeared at the Queen’s Theatre London in “Flowers For Algernon” in the role of Mrs.Donner.

Betty appeared in the West End several times during her career. In 1969 she played Rachel Lynde in “Anne of Green Gables” at the Albery Theatre, in 1972 she played the Prince Of Wales Theatre as Mrs Telfer in “Trelawny Of The Wells”, in 1977 at the Prince Edward Theatre (then named the London Casino) she played The Gossip Columnist Hedda Hopper in “Dean”, and in 1986 she appeared opposite Frankie Howerd at the Piccadilly Theatre playing the role of “Domina in “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum”. This production also featured Patrick Carghill, Graeme Smith, and Leon Green

 Betty had toured Australia, Tasmania and New   Zealand with Paul Elliott’s production of “Big Bad Mouse” which starred Eric Sykes and Jimmy Edwards. In 1981 the tour covered Hobart, Cairns, Sydney and Christchurch. She played Matron in Paul’s touring productions of “Doctor In The House”, sailing imperiously through the ward in true Benfield fashion- rigid posture and a no nonsense demeanour! She toured also in “The Mating Game” as Mrs Finney with Trevor Bannister.

Each year from 1983 to 1987 we would meet up with Betty in a rehearsal room somewhere in London- Alford House usually, and carry on from where we left off the previous year. Betty would be the first to arrive, and you would find her sitting with immaculate posture near a radiator, her glasses on a chain, and wearing a cashmere sweater, script in hand. That warm but strident Australian accent ringing out across the rehearsal room- and a wonderful laugh that I can still hear.

Betty appeared with us as Fairy Godmother at Stevenage, Hayes, alongside Dennis Waterman and Rula Lenska, with Peter Byrne and with Jan Hunt, Toni Arthur and Fiona Kennedy- and Kathy Staff and Bill Owen as each year passed until 1987-88.

The Bournemouth season of 1985 was one of very happy memories- Jane Danielle and Caroline Dennis played Boy and Girl, with Betty as always cast as Fairy Godmother. I can still hear the exact phrasing and the volume of her Act One closing lines as she belted out over a seven piece orchestra- “The finest coach of your imagination!”. At that point , backstage in the dressing room Peter would always say “Tea is it?” in a Welsh accent, and we were into the interval!

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Bournemouth gave Betty a great deal of exercise. Not from the lovely golden sands walking to the theatre- but from the addition of Sunday performances. This was the first time that Sunday shows- at 3pm only- were introduced for the first time. There were three of them in the six week run. Kathy Staff played the Queen in this pantomime, but never on a Sunday! Her contract allowed her to return to Cheshire and to attend church- her daughter became the vicar there.

Betty stepped into the breech with the ambitious task of playing both Fairy Godmother AND Queen on a Sunday. The first performance, since there was little time to rehearse, we watched in awe as the Fairy stepped offstage into the Stage Right Wing, raced around the cross-over at the back of the Pavilion , threw an ermine cloak on and a crown just as the fanfare announced “Her Majesty The Queen!” Breathless but with huge style she sailed on holding Bill Owen’s arm and waving in true Royal fashion!

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This year, 1985 saw Betty in the European premier of Sondheim’s “Follies” playing Heidi Schiller at the Forum Theatre, Wythenshawe, Manchester. Directed by Paul Kerryson it featured Mary Millar, Chili Bouchier, Meg Johnson, Josephine Blake, Peter Honri and Linda Jane Holmes.

The following season Betty was to have joined us in “Cinderella” at Richmond, but at the last minute she was released to appear in “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” which ran over Christmas at the Piccadilly Theatre.

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Our final panto with Betty Benfield was in Aberdeen, again with Bill Owen, joined by Paul Henry, Fiona Kennedy, Jan Hunt and Toni Arthur. I think this might have been Betty’s last pantomime, as I remember sitting in a café with her, and she was telling us that she had decided to forego long distance touring, and spend more time at home- then outside of London, and later in the area close to Bath, which she loved.

Every single year since 1983 I received a Christmas card from Betty . This year in 2013 in Wolverhampton I realised there was no card, and thought that possibly Pantoland had lost one of its brightest and most magical Fairy Godmothers- it turns out I was right.

Bless you Betty- one of pantomimes finest pro’s and a truly lovely and witty lady- sorely missed in our profession. Thank you for those magical memories of “A Lovely Night!”

 

 

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