Putting the spotlight on Pamela

Pamela Griffiths
Pamela Griffiths

THE halcyon days of the Hartlepool stage came flooding back for Pamela Harrison.

It is exactly 60 years since the former town woman starred in a stage production at the glamorous Empire Theatre - the ornate venue that stood amid a row of shops in Lynn Street.

The venue may be long gone, but the memories live on for Pamela who still remembers the day she starred in a production in November 1952.

And even though she now lives a life of retirement in Berry, on the south coast of New South Wales in Australia, the former actress was keen to share her memories with the Mail.

Pamela, now 81, said: “It was not just a building. It was a great place. It was the lifeblood of the town.

“Everyone went to the theatre. It was the main entertainment before television. The spirit of the Empire came from years of enjoyment, of laughter of sadness and of tears.”

Pamela added: “In great theatres, you can feel the magic. It was always there in the Empire.”.

Pamela was an actress in the 1950s. She graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in 1952 and first joined Charles Simon’s Repertory Company as a “juvenile lead,” she said.

She first played at the Empire from November 1952 to January 1953.

An original programme, sent by Pamela to the Mail, shows her in the cast of a show called Edward, My Son.

Pamela - nee Griffiths - played Eileen Perry, and recalled: “We were playing twice nightly at 6.15pm and 8.30pm, to good houses.

“Meanwhile, we were learning and rehearsing for a different show the following week.”

In the days before modern equipment, a strong voice was paramount.

“We were expected to project our voices, even when we whispered, to the very back row.”

The show lasted for an impressive 12 weeks before moving on to the Theatre Royal in Middlesbrough.

Pamela’s love for the stage was embedded in her forever and her stage career was on the up.

She recalled: “I went on to become the leading lady at the Royal Astoria in Darlington, the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield, the Hippodrome in Keighley and many more.

“But the Empire always held a special place in my heart. It was not only a wonderful theatre, but the people of Hartlepool were very friendly as well. They were always welcoming to us.”

But perhaps the most heartwarming story relates to performances Pamela gave at the Empire towards the end of 1952 - on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve.

She remembered: “We had a matinee and two shows. We had full houses and we gave away turkeys in 
the interval!

“What with all the Christmas cheer, it was lucky we knew what we were doing by the third show!”

The merriment continued a week later.

After performing a farce called Turkey Time, she and the rest of the cast were invited by members of the audience to come back for “first footing”, that age old tradition of welcoming a stranger into a house at New Year.

Pamela said: “It went on for most of the night, from house to house. And then we still had to rehearse and put on two shows the next day!”

But Pamela’s abiding memories are of the “wonderful hospitable people of West Hartlepool.”

She added: “If there are still people who remember going to the repertory plays 60 years ago, I would like to thank you so much for being truly great audiences.”

Pamela was one of a number of beautiful stars to grace the Empire stage.

There were names to conjure with. Doreen Stephens, Jean Kay, Margary Manners, Maudie Edwards.

Sadly, the Empire’s decline was not far away.

The last show came in November 1959 when Carousel was performed by the West Hartlepool Operatic and Dramatic Society, the same company which had performed the very first Empire show of Toreador in 1909.

And by 1975, the building was demolished.

But for Pamela - and hundreds of others - the memories will never die.