A lecture to Molesey History Society: Part 6
I would like to end with one, last, local life that I am sure that many of you know well. R.C. Sherriff [Robert Cedric] (1896-1975) was a playwright and scriptwriter. During the 1st World War, he served as a captain in the 9th East Surrey regiment at Vimy and Loos, before being severely wounded at Ypres in 1917. Apart from plays, he wrote several acclaimed novels and film screenplays, including Dambusters, the story of Barnes Wallis' 'bouncing bombs', and Goodbye Mr Chips. R.C. Sherriff lived at Rosebriars in Esher Park Avenue. When he died, his estate endowed The R.C. Sherriff Trust to support the arts in Elmbridge, and it is through the generous support of The R.C. Sherriff Trust and its trustees that The Elmbridge Hundred project started and continues.
The next phase of the project is the ambitious of task of seeking local sponsorship for one hundred poetic plaques to be sited around Elmbridge at the places that each of The Elmbridge Hundred are most closely associated with. Our sponsorship campaign began a few weeks ago and, despite the belt-tightening economic climate, we already have 7 of the plaques sponsored. So, if any of you individually or collectively have a favourite figure from The Elmbridge Hundred you would like to help commemorate please make yourself known. To quote the Conservative party slogan at the 1906 General Election, which forced David Lloyd George to begin the arms race with Germany that contributed to the outbreak of the 1st World War, "We want eight and we won't wait." The Tories, by the way, wanted dreadnought battleships not poetic plaques.
To quote Psalm 90:9, from the King James Version, which, of course, is a beautiful, poetic and wildly inaccurate translation of the Hebrew original, "We spend our years as a tale that is told". In my poetic portraits, I try to look for a lesser-known tale: an event, or episode, which somehow reveals a shape that evokes the whole arc of a life history. I would like to conclude by reading you the poem from the first plaque I have made, which recounts the story of R.C. Sherriff's first play.
After surviving the muddy hell
Of the battles for Vimy Ridge and Messines,
Second Lieutenant Robert Cedric Sherriff was wounded by a shell
At Passchendaele in 1917.
After a spell in The Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley,
He returned to his old job with The Sun Insurance Company.
He joined the Kingston Rowing Club, and, in 1921, started writing plays
Hoping to raise £100 to replace their worn-out, patched-up boats,
And keep the colours of their racing eight afloat.
As secretary of the entertainments sub-committee, his fellow rowers had decreed
That he must try to write a one-act comedy with twenty-five male leads!
Because, they all agreed,
The more rowers acting in the play there were,
The more likely it was that all their wives and girlfriends,
Friends and foes might bother to buy tickets!
And so the curtain rose
On the playwriting career of R.C. Sherriff,
As the stage was set with chairs in four neat rows,
Suggesting an empty bus about to depart for Brighton.
Gradually, a variety of actors arrive in ones and twos and threes,
And pay their fares to a silent man they assume to be the bus driver.
Each tells a tale in turn, in a chain of chatty, comic scenes.
When every seat is filled and fare is paid,
The somewhat shady, solitary man
Takes the cash he has collected, and sneaks stealthily away,
Just before the real driver of the bus arrives to say
How sorry he is that the bus has broken down,
But trusts the chap he left behind explained!
The play was a success in that it kept the boats afloat,
But left Sherriff with a dramatic itch,
Which meant that writing plays became an annual event,
And every month, payday became play day
With an evening visit to a theatre in the West End.
However, seeing other people's plays was not enough,
And Sherriff yearned to find something worth writing about,
Until, in 1928, he decided to base his seventh play
On letters he had sent to his parents from the trenches of Arras and Ypres.
The entire three-act play takes place
On four fateful days between the 18th and 21st of March 1918
In a dugout at Saint-Quentin.
Every major London theatre turned it down,
Claiming people did not want to see a play
Without a leading lady,
About the futility and inner torment of the First World War. However, a friend suggested that he send the script to George Bernard Shaw,
On whose good word Journey's End was staged for two shows at the Apollo,
Starring a young and unknown actor named Laurence Olivier.
In 1929, it opened at the Savoy, before transferring to the Prince of Wales.
In March that same year, it opened and ran for a year on Broadway.
It was a dramatic journey for a modest insurance adjuster,
From an ill-fated bus trip, with roles for all his friends,
To the Savoy and Broadway's Journey's End.
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