It’s time for another of our regular looks into the history of Alan Ayckbourn’s home theatre – the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.
1968 was not a particularly notable year for the Library Theatre except for… wait, is that a blue box appearing from nowhere?
1968:The Doctor Is In by Simon Murgatroyd
You will have to forgive the author a bit of self-indulgence as we bring together two of my favourite subjects with the Stephen Joseph Theatre and the long-running, time- travelling television series Doctor Who.
So let’s board the TARDIS, set the co-ordinates to 1968 and traverse the time vortex back to the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in a year which has two notable omissions and one interesting addition.
In October 1967, the Library Theatre’s founder, Stephen Joseph, died at his home in Scarborough. Although he had not been actively involved in the 1967 season, he was still closely connected with the theatre and regarded as a figure head. 1968 marked the start of a new era for the company.
Also missing was the company’s most famous protégé, Alan Ayckbourn. Alan had joined the company in 1957 and even though he left to join the Victoria Theatre in 1962 and, subsequently, the BBC in 1965, he had been a presence every year since 1957.
Not in 1968 though, which stands as one of just four years between 1957 and the present day where Alan neither acted, directed or wrote a play for the company. It was, in fact a very unusual summer about which very little of which is held in archive.
It apparently marked the longest summer season yet at the Library Theatre, running for 14 weeks – ‘apparently’ as there is no surviving brochure or timetable for the season and the schedule of the plays has had to be been painstakingly reconstructed as best as possible from newspaper reports, adverts and other miscellany.
The season was overseen by Director Of Productions (Artistic Director) Rodney Wood and he would direct three of the five plays, unusually only one of which was a new play and that by a writer who had never been produced before or since by the company.
The season mixed little known Russian and German plays with a Noël Coward classic and a historic drama, making it an unusual – if largely unremarkable – season in the history of the company.
However, there is one significant point of interest with the addition of a new actor to the company, who would go on to become one of the most recognisable faces on British television during the 1970s.
Tom Baker joined the company two years into his career as an actor, which had notably begun playing the Bear in an acclaimed production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which had visited the Edinburgh Festival, Cambridge and Venice during 1966. He had also been involved in the 1967 summer rep season in Henley-on-Thames.
The time-traveller-to-be then found himself in Scarborough where he joined a core company of nine actors, none of whom – uniquely in the SJT’s history – had worked previously with the company nor would do so again. Tom appeared in four of the five plays with roles in David Bramley’s new play A Boat In The Backyard, Noël Coward’s Hay Fever, Carl Sternheim’s The Strongbox and Arden Of Feversham (not a mis-spelling but how the play was titled for the production).
Several photos of Tom survive from his productions and – as you can see from the photos from Hay Fever, Arden Of Feversham and The Strongbox – he is very recognisably the actor who would go on to star in Doctor Who six years later.
The only reviews from Tom’s time with the company are drawn from The Stage’s online archive but one of which – for The Strongbox – draws a familiar picture of the actor to anyone familiar with his performances over the years.
“Tom Baker as the photographer has a prodigious part and his antics, his florid speech, his foppish and extravagant mannerisms are a joy to watch.”
Tom left the company at the end of the summer season and did not return to Scarborough. He would join the National Theatre from 1969 to 1971, but increasingly worked in television and film.
Famously he was in a bit of a lull and working on a construction site when he was cast in 1974 in the BBC series Doctor Who, taking over the role of the Doctor from Jon Pertwee.
He would play the part of the fourth Doctor between 1974 and 1981, appearing in 178 episodes, and is arguably the most well-known and loved Doctor from what is now called its’ classic’ phase (1963 – 1989). He returned to the show briefly in 2013 for the 50th anniversary episode of the show, The Day of the Doctor, as the mysterious Curator.
Coincidentally, the Library Theatre has another significant link with Doctor Who – particularly Tom’s Doctor – as the year after Tom left, the actress Elisabeth Sladen joined the company in 1969. If you’re a Doctor Who fan, you will undoubtedly recognise Elisabeth as one of the most popular of all the Doctor’s companions, Sarah Jane Smith.
Unlike Tom, Elisabeth’s tenure at the Library Theatre was inextricably tied into Alan Ayckbourn. At the time, Alan was employed as Radio Producer for the BBC based in Leeds and Elisabeth met and worked with Alan at the BBC.
In 1969, Alan was appointed Director of Productions for the summer season at the Library Theatre and he invited Elisabeth and her husband, Brian Miller, to join the company for the season. She appeared in Peter Hawkins’ The Dynamic Death-Defying Leap of Timothy Satupon the Great, Leonard Barras’s A Little Stiff Built Chap, Stan Barstow and Alfred Bradley’s Ask Me Tomorrow and, most notably, Alan Ayckbourn’s world premiere of How The Other Half Loves.
Elisabeth, then 21, was cast as Fiona Foster – a considerably older character – with Brian playing William Featherstone. She was also responsible for unwittingly originating one of the lines from the play as she recalled in her autobiography.
“I still wasn’t a drinker at the time and so whenever we went out together I’d ask for a tonic water. ‘Just a tonic water, please’ became a bit of a catchphrase for the company, but I didn’t realise how much so until I saw the final draft of How The Other Half Loves and Mrs F was given my line! I know Alan must have had a good old laugh about it but I could have poked him in the eye.”
Although Elisabeth got good reviews for her role in How The Other Half Loves, she wasn’t cast in the phenomenally successful West End production in 1970, although Brian did reprise his role of William. However, it did mean she was invited back to Scarborough the following year where she appeared on Leon Katz’s Wife-Swapping – Italian Style, Leonard Barras’s The Shy Gasman and Alan Ayckbourn’s world premiere of The Story So Far… (later retitled Family Circles).
Elisabeth remember her time at the Library Theatre fondly as well as working with Alan and Alan likewise enjoyed working with her. During 2019, he contributed towards the recently released documentary Our Sarah Jane: Remembering Elisabeth Sladen (part of the Doctor Who: Season 14 blu-ray set).
Elisabeth left the company at the conclusion of the 1970 summer season and would join Doctor Who as the feisty investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith opposite the third Doctor Jon Pertwee. But it was when the Doctor regenerated the following year and Tom Baker took on the role, that she made her greatest impact. She would come to be regarded as one of the most popular of the Doctor’s companions from the entire history of the show and stayed until 1976.
In 2006, she returned to the relaunched Doctor Who making several guest appearances with the tenth Doctor, David Tennant. From there she would also star in her own spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures from 2007 – and would again work with both David Tennant and his successor Matt Smith – until her death in 2011.
On a personal note, Tom and Elisabeth as the Doctor and Sarah Jane are my earliest memories of Doctor Who and it gives me great joy to think they were also connected with the theatre which has helped inspire my life and work.
But wait, is that the Cloister Bell I hear chiming from the Tardis? It’s time to head back into that old police box and leave Tom and Elisabeth behind to head to 1969 and more memories from the archive…
You can find out more details about Tom Baker’s career, as well as view more photographs from his time with the Library Theatre company, at his website www.tombakerofficial.com.
These articles were first published in the Circular – the e-publication for the SJT Circle supporters’ organisation. During these difficult times for theatres, the SJT Circle is a great way of helping to support the theatre and further details can be found here.
Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. All images are copyright of Scarborough Theatre Trust (except for the Doctor Who images, copyright of BBC). Please do not reproduce either the article or images without permission of the copyright holder.