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Bennett was born in Hanley, Stoke on Trent in 1867. He is best known as a novelist and, from the 1890s to 1930s, completed 34 novels as well as volumes of short stories. He also wrote articles for newspapers, journals and, in the 1920s, wrote for the cinema. Many of his novels are set in a fictional version of Stoke-on-Trent - the 'Five Towns'. He passionately believed that literature should be accessible to all and in this regard shared the Vic Theatre’s approach to drama and all things cultural. Bennett died after contracting typhoid in Paris in 1931.
Between 1966 and 1991 ten adaptations of Bennett’s work were performed at the Vic, seven of which were at the original Hartshill theatre and three at the New Vic.
The first adaptation, Jock-on-the-Go (1966), was by the then resident playwright Peter Terson.
“Most of Bennett’s Five Towns stories were set either in his childhood, or in the time of his father. The thing that gives these stories their stamp is the terrific nostalgia for the colourful days of .... travelling theatres, orgiastic Wakes and street cries: in other words a more earthy humanity. And it was this quality that attracted me to Jock-at-a-Venture [from which Jock-on-the-Go is adapted].
“Bennett called Jock-at-a-Venture a ‘frolic’ and we [Terson and the Company] have tried to make it one, rich with the ingredients of song, fighting, melodrama, Shakespeare, fierce religion: and our musicians have aimed to give the songs a folk-like simplicity and strength.”
Peter Terson 1966 (programme notes)
The photograph shows the second reading of Joyce Cheeseman’s 1973 adaptation of The Card at which Bennett’s daughter Madame Virginia Eldin (shown on the left) was present.
The second adaptation, Clayhanger (1967), was by Terson and Joyce Cheeseman. From then onwards until 1991 the adaptations were solely by Joyce (who assumed the professional name Joyce Holliday in 1985).
Peter Cheeseman, the Vic’s artistic director, describes how the second adaptation came about.
“I read Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger when I first came to live in North Staffordshire [in 1962], and it inspired in me a fierce affection for the place that had become my home. Since then the idea of making an adaptation of the book to present in the theatre has been a cherished project.
“….we felt that our [the Vic’s] own work in creating shows where the action is stretched over long periods of time and included all kinds of incidents not normally shown in the naturalistic [theatre] convention would help us make a play which contained much more of Bennett’s story than a three-act play might do. This adaptation, planned to open during the week of Bennett’s birthday, is the result.”
Joyce Holliday came to North Staffordshire with then husband Peter Cheeseman and became involved with the Vic, taking responsibility for artistic administration, casting correspondence and the reading of new plays. Here too she began to write. And so began her very successful series of Bennett adaptations.
Joyce’s later work was not restricted to the Vic. She became involved with West Midlands Arts, the WEA, Keele University adult education and BBC Radio Stoke.
Continuing the ethos of the Vic she focused on community drama. The topics covered included the wartime Air Transport Auxiliary (Anywhere to Anywhere, 1985), the Sheffield Blitz (It’s A Bit Lively Outside, 1987) and the 1905 typhoid epidemic in Lincoln (Bucketful Of Daisies). She took up the story of the communist Silverdale councillor and alderman Fanny Deakin culminating in the 1991 production Go See Fanny Deakin! and the 1997 publication Silverdale People.
Joyce was also vice-president of the Arnold Bennett Society.
(L-R) Joyce Cheeseman, Valerie Lilley (actor), Susan Tracy (actor), Peter Cheeseman at a rehearsal of Joyce Cheeseman’s 1971 adaptation of Bennett’s The Old Wives Tale
Photo: Richard Smiles
(L-R) Joyce Cheeseman, Valerie Lilley (actor), Susan Tracy (actor) at a rehearsal of Joyce Cheeseman’s 1971 adaptation of Bennett’s The Old Wives Tale
Photo: Richard Smiles
This bust shows Arnold Bennett and was donated to the Victoria Theatre Archive when the Arnold Bennett Society was fundraising for the statue which now stands on Bethesda Street, Hanley (near the Potteries Museum).
The statue on Bethesda Street was unveiled on 27th May 2017 which would have been Bennett's 150th birthday.
Bennett productions at the Vic (Hartshill)
Adapted by Peter Terson from Bennett’s Jock-at-a-Venture
(from Bennett’s collection of short stories The Matador of the Five Towns
written in 1908 and published in 1912).
Jock-on-the-Go (programme 1966)
Adapted by Peter Terson and Joyce Cheeseman for the Bennett Centenary Celebrations (Bennett was born in 1867).
Bennett began writing Clayhanger in January 1910
and it was published in September of the same year.
Clayhanger (programme, 1967)
Anna of the Five Towns (1969)
Adapted by Joyce Cheeseman. Bennett’s novel was begun in September 1896, completed in May 1901 and published in 1902.
The production was re-staged in 1979.
Anna of the Five Towns (programme, 1969)
The Old Wives Tale (1971)
Adapted by Joyce Cheeseman.
The novel was begun in October 1907 and published in October 1908.
The Old Wives Tale (Parts One & Two, programme 1971)
The Card (1973)
Adapted by Joyce Cheeseman.
The novel was written in the first two months of 1909 and published in February 1911.
The production was re-staged in 1991.
The Card (programme, 1973)
Riceyman Steps (1982)
Adapted by Joyce Cheeseman.
Bennett begun the novel in October 1922, completed it in March 1923
and it was published in October 1923.
Riceyman Steps (programme 1982)
Bennett Productions at the New Vic (Basford)
Buried Alive (1988)
The first Bennett production at the New Vic, adapted by Joyce Holliday.
The novel was begun in January 1908, completed in February and published in June of the same year.
Buried Alive (programme, 1988)
The Pretty Lady (1990)
Adapted by Joyce Holliday.
This novel about civilian life during the Great War was completed in January 1918
and published in March of that year. It became a bestseller,
despite calls for it to be banned for undermining public morality.
The Pretty Lady (programme, 1990)
The Card (1991)
Adapted by Joyce Holliday.
This production was a re-staging of the 1973 performance.
The Card, second production (programme, 1991)
This image shows Sue Glanville playing Maggie in a scene from Clayhanger. The 1967 performance was adapted from Arnold Bennett's novel of the same name for the Victoria Theatre.
Clayhanger is a saga story rather than a reflection of the conditions of England at the time. It tells the story of the Clayhanger family as (over time) they leave humble beginnings in the workhouse to become an alderman and other middle class professions that were highly aspirational to the first generations of the family. Maggie shows the plight of many women of the time, who were trapped by economic dependence in caring for first her father and then her brother, protagonist Edwin. The series is often referred to as a trilogy, but the first 3 novels were published as one volume and there are actually 4 novels in the series: Clayhanger, Hilda Lessways, These Twain and The Roll-Call.
As with many other of Bennett's novels, Clayhanger is set in the Potteries. Clayhanger Street in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent is named after the novel, which demonstrates the influence that Bennett's work had on the local area.
Photo by Ian Stone.
The adaptation (called The Old Wives Tale Part II) featured music which was specially composed for the performance by Stuart Johnson.
The story follows the lives of the two sisters and the different paths that their lives take: "Sophisticated" Sophia who elopes with a travelling salesman, and "Constant" Constance who marries a man who works in her father's draper's shop.
Susan Tracy went on to perform in another of Bennett's works, having played Beatrice Sutton in ITV's 1971 production of Anna of the Five Towns.
Photo shows (L to R) Susan Tracy as Sophia and Valerie Lilley as Constance in the second of a two part adaptation of Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives Tale.
This programme is from a production of The Card by local author Arnold Bennett which was performed at the Victoria Theatre in August 1973. It was the fifth adaptation of Bennett's work performed by the Victoria Theatre. The programme also shows the Archive's honorary curator, Romy Cheeseman (nee Saunders), as a member of the cast in this production.
It features a little tongue in cheek humour which can be noted in the thanks offered at the end of the second page (transcribed below):
"We should like to thank the following individuals and organisations for their kind assistance and for the loan of properties: Wardrobe care by Daz; Robin Starch by Reckitt & Coleman; Sewing thread by Sylko; Dyes for wardrobe by Dylon; Adhesive for props and wardrobe by Copydex; Zips by Lightning Fasteners Ltd; Dress shields by Kleinert's Incorporated; Paints by Windsor & Newton Ltd, Harrow; For THE CARD: Hanley reference library; J. L. Black Ltd., Newcastle; L. Lee, Jeweller, Hanley; Chocolate by Cadbury and Nestle; Pottery by Wood & Sons, Burslem; Minton Ltd.; Spode Ltd,; S.T. Chadwick, Newcastle; Collecting box loaned by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution; King Street Pottery Ltd., Fenton; Herbert Merchant Ltd., Andover; Clayton Lodge Hotel; North Stafford Hotel; Mr Little, The Spinning Wheel (antique shop); Lyons Maid Ltd."
Thanking the individual companies for their contributions to costumes, crockery, tea and snacks is in-keeping with the humour of the play and the original novel from which it was adapted. The novel ends with the following quotation:
"'What a card!' said one, laughing joyously. 'He's a rare 'un, no mistake.'
'Of course, this'll make him more popular than ever,' said another. 'We've never had a man to touch him for that.'
'And yet,' demanded Councillor Barlow, 'What's he done? Has he ever done a day's work in his life? What great cause is he identified with?'
'He's identified,' said the speaker, 'with the great cause of cheering us all up.'"
This play was an adaptation of the Arnold Bennett novel of the same name created by Joyce Cheeseman. The action of the novel takes place in London rather than Bennett’s Five Towns and is set just after the First World War.
The novel was published in 1923 and won the James Tait Black prize for fiction that year. It follows the tale of a miserly second-hand bookshop owner.
One image shows the dramatis personae. Note the impact of the First World War reflected in the list of characters in the play, 2 widows and a shell-shocked young man.
The second image shows the props list for the first scene of the play. The detail in this listing is amazing; everything is noted and recorded right down to handkerchiefs and rings used by the characters.
This image is taken from the props loan book of 1991/2. It shows how great was the attention to historical accuracy in this dramatized version of Bennett’s novel.
The image records the loan of an actual paper copy of the Monday 16 June 1902 edition of the Staffordshire Sentinel (later The Sentinel) from the Hanley Reference Library in Bethesda Street. Since the Vic Theatre was in-the-round attention to detail like this was important - those at the front could see every tiny detail. In the future historical accuracy of this sort will be harder to achieve as paper copies of newspapers are less likely to be archived in digital times.
The image also records the loan of an aspidistra from a local garden centre to be used in the same production. Aspidistras were tremendously popular plants in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Some people call them “cast iron” plants.
Their massive popularity at the turn of the century is thought to be due to the fact that they are very hard to kill and might therefore thrive in the cold, dark conditions of a gas-lit home.
Huge planters for the plants were very popular too and many local pottery firms manufactured these. One such firm was Thomas Forester & Sons at their Phoenix works in Longton. This firm specialised in majolica jardenieres and vases. In 1900 the firm employed 700 workers and had showrooms in London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna.
Not visible are some concerns about the possible health of the borrowed plant during the run of the play! It does, however, look as though the aspidistra survived the production since the final column (unseen in the photo) records its safe return after the final performance.