Christmas at Bell House
Four Magical Scenes
Four cameos from Bell House’s long and fascinating history were told in promenade performances in Christmas 2022. Christmas Eve 1772 amusingly recalled a musical evening in the same room in which it originally took place. Something’s Cooking allowed a peep into the preparations taking place in the original kitchen for an anticipated celebration in 1851. Elegy 1919 saw authors, G K Chesterton and Maurice Baring joining Nan Lucas, then owner of Bell House, at Christmas and remembering Nan’s brother and their great friend killed in 1916. Coronation Day 1953 hilariously related the story of how the Dulwich College housemaster and his wife had contrived to watch the events of the day on the then boarding school’s 9” TV without interruptions from the boys.
Production Manager - Jan Rae
Stage Manager - Clarisse Hassan
Costumes - Jane Jones
Front of House - Séverine Powell
Bell House Support - Fabienne Hanton
Historical Advisor - Sharon O’Connor
Music Coach - Marilyn Harper
Mr Jones, the Butler - Ian Jones
Borrie, the Under Butler - Steven Borrie
CHRISTMAS EVE 1772
Thomas Wright - Paul Sykes
Elizabeth Wright - Tracy Brook
Ann Wright - Chloe Couper
Richard Randall - Mike Coates
Written and Directed by Brian Green
SOMETHING'S COOKING 1851
Mary Ann Baker - Hannah McDonald
Jane Cain - Claire McDonald
Sarah Gager - Lydia Dickie
Written and Directed by Gillian Daly
Nan Lucas - Elizabeth Holden
Maurice Baring - Hugh Blake-James
G K Chesterton - Robert Greenhalgh
Written by Gillian Daly and Directed by Mike Foster
CORONATION DAY 1953
Bill Tapper - Roger Orr
Barry Tapper - Marcia Bennie
Lilian Day - Jenny Gammon
Boy - Louis Powell-Sykes
Written and Directed by Jill Alexander
Picture Perfect Christmas at Bell House
by Alison Venn
It was dark, damp and my mood was unpromisingly wintry on the cold night we had tickets. It had been a long time since I’d squeezed into high heels and a black-tie outfit, hoping to meet the Dress to Impress code for Gala Night. When the front door opened wide into Bell House, however, I stepped into a different world: elegant guests in black and sparkling technicolour, spiced mulled wine, mince pies and enviable Christmas décor in the stunning entrance hall.
We’d been offered four plays and an immersive experience, but how was it going to work exactly?
Ah, I see, the butlers were in charge; we listened good-naturedly to instructions delivered by a fine double-act. Then we were off, led in four groups simultaneously to watch four cameos in turn in four lovely rooms where such events might have happened; a fusion of times past in Bell House on four separate days. The real achievement was to make us feel as though we’d stumbled into the lives of the characters present who would continue in role as we left. You might say we were eavesdroppers; I prefer invited guests, because we seemed included in the conversations. Personally, I learnt so much local history from the anecdotes which spilled effortlessly from the dialogue. Many congratulations to the writers: Jill Alexander, Gill Daly and Brian Green.
None of us had exactly the same experience. Let me give you a sense of what I saw. Each intimate space was dressed beautifully, with props and furnishings in keeping with the period, as were the costumes. My group began its journey with ‘Elegy 1919’ in the Lutyens Room. We joined the conversation between three old friends seated comfortably in front of the fire, G K Chesterton trying out the handwritten draft of his latest Father Brown stories. ‘So, what do you think?’ he asked them in the opening line and the discussions flowed as easily as the sherry. It was completely absorbing. The actors engaged us in their musings so genuinely I wouldn’t have been surprised if one of them had turned to us to contribute to the debate as it freewheeled into philosophical truths, right and wrong and poignant memories of love, loss and glory in a great war.
On the handbell we left the fireside and pushed open the salon door for a first glimpse of ‘Christmas Eve 1772’: the owner of Bell House, Mr Thomas Wright proudly posing at a mantelpiece finely bedecked in Christmas roses and trailing greenery, candles flickering. The first sound cue was of Mrs Elizabeth Wright’s rather hapless harpsichord playing. I appreciated the gentle humour in this piece and felt for her. Who hasn’t been exasperated when the notes just don’t come out right? In the script we recognised themes mirrored in today’s world. For instance, Mrs Wright fretting about crime on the local streets. ‘You’ll not catch me venturing out on dark nights’ and praise for the newly renovated Greyhound Pub. Young Miss Ann Wright, her corset straining with desire, begging for permission to attend a party in the wonderful new venue, Great Denmark Hall, had her father spluttering with rage against the owner of that ‘infernal’ place. Seems that landowners in 18th century Dulwich shared some of the issues with builders and architects we might have today. There was some eye rolling at Mr Wright’s explanation of why talk in the new Dulwich Club wasn’t suitable for the ears ‘of the gentler sex’! Good job we moved swiftly on to finish with organist Mr Randall’s polished performance of Rule Britannia at the harpsichord.
Below stairs into the kitchen next to watch ‘Something’s Cooking, 1851’. More in my comfort zone with the Christmas preparations, the maids busy with their rolling pins, making sweetmeats and sugarplums and gossiping in time-honoured fashion. The banter revolved, slightly madly, around the baby hippopotamus Mary had seen at the zoo, Bell House’s new owner, Mrs Withington, job assurance and better working conditions. Amidst the laughter and grumbles, I noticed that housekeeper Mrs Gager was looking strained, hardly surprising since her ‘To Do’ list for a feast of a supper with ‘Service a la Francais’ beats my Christmas menu planning. With the mincemeat and so many puddings to make, would her team ever stop talking about the new-fangled water closets, department stores and the merits or otherwise of cooking fruit before eating it?
Our final stop was in Matron’s quarters. (Who knew, incidentally, that Bell House was for some time a boarding house for 35 young chaps at Dulwich College?) I’m glad our journey happened to end there with the ‘Coronation Day 1953’, the tempo changing again with the excitement of seeing the young majesty enthroned and the test driving of the new 9” television, positioned importantly downstage centre. Settling down to view it all were the Housemaster, his wife and Matron, their commentary providing a wonderful source of anecdotes of the time. The television wasn’t cheap, Bill informed us, but it was a lot less than the price Manchester United paid for Tommy Taylor, nearly £30,000. ‘That’s mad. They can’t keep that up surely’. And divided opinion on Andy Pandy versus the Flowerpot men made me chuckle. The House Master displayed enviable ignorance of today’s Health & Safety legislation, instructing the boys in his charge to dig a huge pond and to fill it with water to keep them busy and out of his way. I loved the companionable dialogue between the three of them, punctuated by the schoolboy’s excitable entrances. The biggest laugh came from our certain knowledge that there’d be trouble for Binns Minor.
What a brilliant idea to stage these little gems of local history in the richness of Bell House. Who else but Brian Green would have had the vision and energy to dream up such entertainment? I’m filled with respect for the actors who delivered their plays four times in quick succession each night – and twice times four on the Sunday. Thank you to the Dulwich Players for their integrity and skilled performances and to the writers for their wit and wisdom. More please.
Further photos of the performances can be seen at Phil Gammon's website here.