A lecture to the Royston Pike group: Part 4
Connections with America feature strongly in The Elmbridge Hundred. Fanny Kemble I have already mentioned married an American, and found success on stage there when she divorced her plantation-owning husband and returned to acting. The Mount Felix estate that had belonged to Dicker passed into the hands of the Earls of Tankerville when Charles Bennett, the fourth Earl (b. 1743 - d. 1822), bought the house circa 1771. In 1836, the 5th Earl of Tankerville (b. 1776- d. 1859) decided to build a new house and commissioned Sir Charles Barry (b. 1795 - d. 1860) demolish the current house and to build a new mansion on the site of the old one. Barry had won the competition to design the new Palace of Westminster the same year. He designed a large Italianate villa with a square, two-storey porte cochere entrance. Mount Felix became a model for Queen Victoria's holiday home, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight. By the 1850s, the American Sturges family had bought the Mount Felix. Russell Sturges was the director of Baring's bank, and the Mount Felix ball had become a major social event. In a letter to William Webb Follett Synge of Sunday 6th March 1859 Anne Thackeray, daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray describes the Mount Felix ball the night before: "The Mount Felix ball this year went off famous. Papa behaved nobly. Took us down dined at Oatlands Pk. Hotel. Went with us stopped till half 4 slept at OPH. Came back to town next day. ...really liked it as much as last time." Russell Sturges had three talented brothers, the eldest returned to America and became an architect. However, it was the younger two, who lived in England, that were selected for The Elmbridge Hundred.
Julian Russell Sturgis (1848 -1904) became a novelist, poet, librettist, and lyricist. He was born in Boston, but moved to Walton aged seven months. He was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, and became a barrister. In 1885, Sturgis wrote the libretto for Arthur Goring Thomas's opera Nadeshda, which was performed at Drury lane Theatre. However, his best-known libretto is the Ivanhoe of 1891, written for Arthur Sullivan. W.S. Gilbert had declined to write a libretto for a grand opera with Sullivan because he refused to allow his words to be subordinate to the music. However, on Gilbert's recommendation Sullivan asked Sturgis to write Ivanhoe based on Sir Walter Scott's novel. It was performed at Richard D'Oyly Carte's new Royal English Opera House on 31st January 1891. Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), the composer and conductor, was another resident of Walton, and was selected for The Elmbridge Hundred. His partnership with W.S. Gilbert began in 1871 when the manager of the Gaiety Theatre asked him to compose music for a Christmas piece by Gilbert called Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old. I am great fan of W.S. Gilbert's poetry, and think The Bab Ballads one of the great underrated and forgotten masterpieces of popular literature, but I think it is fair to say Gilbert and Sullivan's first collaboration was not their best. The music and words seem at dreadfully at odds. However, the different temperaments of composer and librettist sparked a successful creative partnership that lasted for over a quarter of a century. Ivanhoe, his one great work without Gilbert, played consecutively for155 performances, unheard of for grand opera in Britain, but the new opera house was a failure. The critic Herman Klein called it "the strangest comingling of success and failure ever chronicled in the history of British lyric enterprise!" The most interesting thing about Julian Russell Sturgis is that as a young man he played amateur football for the Wanderers F.C. and won the FA Cup in 1873, becoming the 1st American to play in and win the FA Cup. It is difficult to imagine any of the numerous multimillionaire footballers currently living in Elmbridge penning a libretto.
Julian's brother Howard Overing Sturgis (1855-1920) also became a writer. Unlike Julian, Howard was born in England. He too attended Eton, before going up to Cambridge. Howard was openly gay, which was both conspicuous and brave after the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895. The court declared that the Marquess of Queensbury's accusation that Wilde was "posing as a Somdomite" was "true in substance and in fact", which rendered Wilde legally liable under the 1843 Libel Act. Subsequently, a warrant for Wilde's arrest was applied for on charges of 'sodomy' and 'gross indecency'. The latter charge was a term meaning other homosexual acts not amounting to buggery, which were an offence under a separate statute of the Law Amendment Act of 1885. After the death of his parents, Howard Overing Sturgis bought a house in the country, which he named Queen's Acre, or Qu'acre. 'Howdie' (as Sturgis was known) and his much-younger lover William Haynes-Smith (who he called 'the Babe') entertained a wide circle of friends, mostly gay young Etonians, and literary figures such as Henry James, E.M. Forster, and Edith Wharton. His 1st two novels Tim: A Story of School Life (1891), and All That Was Possible (1895) were both successful, but his third Belchamber (1904), failed to find a readership despite being considered a masterpiece by Forster and Wharton (and me). Belchamber inspired Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Sturgis's novels are mostly about young men, in a style influenced by Walter Pater and George Meredith. George Meredith was greatly admired and was a close friend of Sturgis. Sturgis is the subject of a memorable biographical sketch by E.M. Forster, who was also selected for The Elmbridge Hundred. E.M. [Edward Morgan] Forster lived at 19 Monument Green in Weybridge with his mother from 1904 to 1925. All six of his novels were completed or written at Monument Green, including most of A Passage to India. Small-town bourgeois intrigue, the crushing of personal values by worldly necessity, conflicts of conformity and propriety were given a passionate and dramatic voice in his writing.
Another American who made Walton her home was Hannah Weinstein [née Dorner] (1911-1984), and American journalist, publicist, and left-wing political activist who fled to England as a refugee from the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunt in the 1950s. She became a TV producer and was best known for producing The Adventures of Robin Hood series in the 1950s. To write the series Weinstein hired many American writers who had been blacklisted by the McCarthy Communist hearings. She established her own production company at Walton, called Sapphire Films, and in 1982, she received the Women in Film Life Achievement Award.
Hannah Weinstein was one of three Jewish people that were selected for The Elmbridge Hundred. Another was the hugely admirable Harry Cohen (1912-2000). Harry was the founder and Headmaster of the pioneering Finnart House School on Oatlands Drive (only Finnart Lodge survives today) from 1937-1970. Finnart was the 1st 'Approved School' for Jewish 'problem' boys, mostly from poor backgrounds in London and other inner cities. From the late 1930s onwards, Finnart also included CoE boys. Cohen was also a founder of Northwest Surrey Synagogue in 1968, a councilor, and Mayor of Elmbridge.
One Elmbridge resident that crossed the Atlantic the other way, went to America, hated it, and hurried back, was Charlie Drake ?(1925 - 2006) the comedian, actor, writer, and singer. Drake walked out of America's Ed Sullivan Show and never worked in the country again, because the producers would not allow him to do his routine the way he wanted. He is primarily remembered for the hugely popular Charlie Drake Show in the 1960s, and his catchphrase "Hello My Darlings". The popular character from the show The Worker was from Weybridge, and in his many interviews at the Labour Exchange (Job Centre), The Worker's fussy, snobbish social pretensions made him unemployable. He always comically referred to Weybridge as 'upmarket', pompously introducing himself as "Charles Drake from Weybridge". Almost overnight, Drake turned Weybridge into a national byword for posh and pretentious. Drake's funeral was held at St James' Church. The selection panels felt Charlie Drake had done almost as much as Henry VIII and John Easthope to colour national perceptions of Elmbridge, and demonstrate the power of television in our own era.
Several influential filmmakers were selected for The Elmbridge Hundred. A recent American academic term is 'mediacracy', which is a collective noun for media folk in general, and sounds aptly like mediocrity, although none of those selected for The Elmbridge Hundred can be described as in any way mediocre. The filmmaker Cecil Milton Hepworth [formerly Herbert Milton] (1874-1953) acquired a house on Hurst Grove in Walton-on-Thames in 1899, and for 25 years it was the home of the Hepworth Manufacturing Company. His father, Thomas Cradock Hepworth, was a well-known Victorian magic lantern showman, and Cecil became one the founders of the British film industry. In 1901, he filmed Queen Victoria's funeral procession, and the coronation procession of Edward 7th. In 1903, Hepworth made an ambitious 800ft film of Alice in Wonderland, which was an important development beyond the early, short 50ft 'actualities'. The following year, in 1904, he made Rescued by Rover, which he co-directed with Lewin Fitzhamon, and which starred a collie in the title role. It was a huge financial success, and is now regarded as an important development in the visual grammar of filmmaking. Seeing the movie at one of the frequent local screenings is a tribal rite of passage, and until you have seen Rescued by Rover you can't really say you are 'of Elmbridge'.
Richard Cawston, (1923-1986), was a documentary filmmaker who was born in Weybridge. He became film editor and then producer of the popular Television Newsreel, producing 700 editions between 1950 and 1954. With the BBC news division he produced a series of major documentary films, many of which won national and international awards. After the start of BBC2 in 1965, he was made head of documentary programmes, and for 14 years influenced a whole generation, including many of today's leading documentary filmmakers. Of his own later documentaries, Royal Family, which was a yearlong record year of the private and public life of the queen during from 1968-69 was, when it was broadcast, the most popular documentary in television history, and led to him producing the queen's Christmas day broadcast to the Commonwealth from 1970 to 1985.
Brian George Wenham (1937-1997) was also a broadcasting executive. Between 1962 and 1969, he worked in production and editing at Independent Television News (ITN). In 1967, ITN launched News at Ten, its groundbreaking half-hour prime time news programme, which was the leading news programme for over thirty years. Wenham was the programme's first editor, and gave it its title. In 1969, at the age of 32, he moved to the BBC to edit its flagship current affairs programme Panorama. Two years later, he was promoted to head of the BBC television current affairs group, and in 1978, he was appointed to controller of BBC2. Under Wenham, BBC2 had a new lease of life. He redefined the shape and attitude of the channel by introducing innovative and accessible arts and current affairs programmes, such as Newsnight and The Shock of the New, alongside satirical, alternative comedy and topical drama, such as The Young Ones, Not the Nine O'clock News, Boys From the Blackstuff and Edge of Darkness. However, it was as director of programmes for BBC television, between 1982-85 that he made his most significant contribution to British broadcasting, when he successfully defended the principle of state-funded, public service broadcasting to Sir Alan Peacock's review of BBC funding, which was instigated by Margaret Thatcher. This resisted the implementation of free-market theory (commercial advertising as funding) in response to Thatcher's belief in the left-wing bias of the BBC. Wenham lived and died in Weybridge, and is buried at St James's Church.
A figure from an earlier, pioneering generation completes an impressive triumvirate of documentary filmmakers in Elmbridge. Paul Wyand (1907-1968) started his career as a motor-racing mechanic at Brooklands, working for Parry Thomas. However, it was as a newsreel cameraman for Pathé News and British Movietone that he found fame, and is today regarded as perhaps the greatest British newsreel photographers of all time. His 5,206 assignments included throughout the late 1920s and 1930s pioneering 'swing shots', and many other camera techniques still used in sports and outside broadcast. He also filmed countless news events, including the first pictures of our present Queen. When the 2nd World war broke out, he joined the British Army Film Unit, and filmed many famous events, including dramatic footage of the battle of Monte Cassino, and Churchill's crucial wartime visit to USA. He crossed the Rhine with the advanced allied troops, and perhaps most importantly of all made the appalling film of Belsen concentration camp that was shown at Nürnberg trials. I mentioned Hannah Weinstein, and Harry Cohen, but the third Jewish member of The Elmbridge Hundred was Yehudi Menuhin, (1916-1999) the violinist and conductor who, in 1962, founded the music school at Stoke d'Abernon, where he is buried. After Paul Wyand's film was shown in British and American cinemas, Menuhin went with the composer Benjamin Britten to perform for inmates of Bergen-Belsen, soon after its liberation in April 1945. In 1965, while he was still an American citizen, Menuhin was made an honorary Knight of the Order of the British Empire, and after Menuhin took British citizenship in 1985, his knighthood was upgraded and he became Sir Yehudi Menuhin. In 1993, he was made a life peer, as Baron Menuhin of Stoke d'Abernon Paul Wyand later filmed the German surrender, and after the war, he made the official films the 1948 London, and 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, but died shortly before he was due to film the 1968 Mexico Olympics.