Sunday, 7 August 2016

End of an Era

A few weeks ago, both my parents died within ten days of each other. In time, I will probably write about the last few months of their lives, the issues of dealing with end of life care and the memories they left us with, right up to the end. For now, though, I am just posting the eulogy I wrote for their joint funeral, which my sister and I delivered together.

Freda was born in 1926 in Maidstone, to Albert (aka Gerry) and Frances Oliver. Her mother wanted to call her Geraldine, but the family advised that this would mean she would end up being called Gerry, a boy's name. It's ironic, then, that she was known universally as Fred or Freddie for most of her life. Albert was a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy and was absent for the first few years of her life – she remembered hiding under the kitchen table when this strange man came home – but was able as a 2 year old to answer a neighbour's “Where's your daddy, then?” with: “In the Mediterranean.”

Frank was born in Tonbridge four years later, the son of Henry, a police officer, and Rosa. Within the year they had re-located to Maidstone when Henry was promoted to Sergeant. The family – children Bill (Son), Robert, Frank and Brenda - lived at the Police Headquarters at Wren’s Cross. Sadly, Robert died at the age of 5.

Despite a profound dislike of school Fred was one of the first pupils to attend Maidstone Commercial School (later Maidstone School for Girls/Invicta). She often told the story of the wind carrying her much-hated school hat into the River Medway, only to have someone drag it out and return it to the school. To add insult to injury, she then had to write to thank the man who had rescued it. Much more important to her than school was her dancing, which she had been doing from a very young age.

Frank, meanwhile, gained a scholarship place at Maidstone Grammar School, the passing of which exam he put down to the intervention of WWII. Worried about air raids, his primary school teachers took the children out to the relative safety of the oast houses at East Farleigh, where they crammed past scholarship papers. Anyone who knew Frank and that fierce intelligence he still demonstrated even to his last few days, may suspect he was being (uncharacteristically) modest. It meant, though, that both of us were able to point to the scholarship board at All Saints Primary School and say “That's my dad!”

For Frank, the war years were something of a schoolboy adventure. He always claimed to be Maidstone's first war casualty, as he put it himself a few years ago:

On the morning of Sunday 3rd September 1939 Neville Chamberlain made a wireless broadcast stating that a state of war now existed. Within a matter of minutes the Air Raid sirens started to sound. At that time I was a rather cherubic choirboy and the strains of the siren came to us through the chords of the organ while I was at choir practice. We were hurried back to the vestry where the vicar dismissed us with the words "we are in a moment of very great danger - I want you to hurry to your homes". I did not need a second telling. I ripped off my surplice and cassock and leapt through the vestry door, tripped over a tombstone and fell headlong on the ground, taking off a large piece of skin from my knee. Because of this I claim to be the first civilian casualty of World War II.”

The family moved to the new Police HQ in Sutton Road in 1940, where the cells were used to house downed German pilots. As Frank's best friend's dad was the overnight jailer, this meant they were able to get autographs. The war was a formative experience, which he recorded in his (as yet) unpublished work “The Second Great War in Pictures by Frank J Hayward, aged 9 3/4” His best friend at this time was Michael Todd; together they got into all sorts of (almost lethal) scrapes, such as electrifying the whole street by putting crocodile clips on a chain-link fence to run electricity out to the garden shed and constructing a diving helmet out of a gas mask which Frank then tested in Loose stream by weighing his pockets down with rocks! Mike, though, was to have a much more important role in his life.

Fred had by this time left school and was working at Royal Insurance. With the war in full swing she found herself taking a more important role than she would have done in peace time, and was soon trusted to produce what her boss called the “Dear Sir, you're not covered” letters. She was also required to fire watch during air raids, although with her legendary ability to leave cigarettes burning in forgotten places, her colleagues often said the office records were more at risk from her than the Luftwaffe. It was at this time she gained the nickname “Incendiary Fred” and where she met a young co-worker called... Mike Todd.

As Frank told Jill (a few days before he died) “I first met Fred in Mote Park in 1946, at a bonfire to celebrate a year after the end of the war” - Mike was the connection and they all remained lifelong friends.

It wasn't all plain sailing, though. Fred was already seeing another young man at the time and in 1947, married Monty Temblett. She was also by this time growing bored with office life. With the war over, and men returning to their old jobs, she found her role diminished so she took the plunge, left a safe job and formed her own dancing school in 1948.

At the same time, Frank was called up for his National Service. Having been Lead Cadet in his ATC Squadron, he became one of the first five national servicemen to be trained as pilots. He trained initially on Tiger Moths, and always retained his love of flying, although he was less impressed with air travel as a passenger. On a work trip to Perth, he once remarked. “That's not flying, it's just like being on a bus.”

Back in civilian life, his career in insurance went hand in hand with his love of entertainment. He helped out with shows put on by the Freda Oliver School of Dancing throughout the 1950s. It was during this period that the infamous “Shooting of Dan McGrew” incident took place. One of the cast, Tony, was reciting this poem as a set piece and told Frank, who was operating the curtains, to listen for the cue to bring them down. It's quite a long poem, and Frank drifted off into a reverie; he was jolted back into action when he suddenly heard the cue. He quickly pulled on the ropes.....

….and Tony launched into the next verse! Not knowing quite what to do, Frank thought “do nothing and the audience won't notice”, so he hung on to the ropes until the end of the piece. It was only afterwards he was told that the curtains had descended just enough to obscure Tony's head, so the last few verses had been delivered by a disembodied voice. This has passed into family legend and makes events such as funerals quite awkward. At Tony's funeral, his brother came up to Fred after the body was committed, held her hand and whispered, “At least Frank wasn't on curtains this time.”

In 1959, Fred and Monty were divorced and in July of that year, she and Frank were married. Their 57th wedding anniversary would have been two days before this funeral, but as they frequently forgot to celebrate it it seems fitting that we were also two days late for it.

Fred and Frank began married life in Brewer Street, but moved shortly afterwards to an upstairs flat at 21 College Road. In December 1962 Jill arrived, in a blizzard, during the second coldest winter of the twentieth century! In 1963, their landlord decided to sell up and offered Frank the whole house. As this included a sizeable front room, which could accommodate a dance studio, they found the money to pay a mortgage, and the rest is history. 

The Hayward family was completed with the addition of Sally in 1965, and from this point on the school became a family affair. In 1966, Fred decided that her pupils had little real outlet for their dancing skills, so she and Frank decided to stage a pantomime, Cinderella, at the town's Municipal Theatre. This was successful and so the following year they formed the Freda Oliver Theatre Group, and provided Maidstone with its pantomime for the next ten years.

In addition to Theatre Group work, Frank also found time to sing with Maidstone Opera Group. He also played Mitch in a production of a Streetcar Named Desire, notable for a press photo which captioned all the cast members' names as John – even the woman in the photo!

Panto scripts were written by both of them (with a fair amount of 'homage' to the Basil Brush Show). Fred's typing – for in those days, multiple scripts meant several sheets of carbon paper and hitting the keys very hard – was legendary. On more than one occasion, Prince Charming declared “...and Cinderella shall be my bridge!”  

Panto took over the entire household from September, when rehearsals started. There was usually a mad dash on Christmas Eve to remove all the costumes from the Living Room so that the family could actually have Christmas. In addition, all four family birthdays fell between the end of December and mid-January – Jill's birthday parties occasionally took place on stage between matinee and evening performances.

When in 1976 Maidstone Borough Council finally woke up to the income-generating possibilities of having a professional panto, the group found itself without a home. Undeterred, Fred and Frank simply re-designed everything and took the show on the road. The Barnstorming Years meant transporting the whole production from one venue to another – village halls, care homes, Medway Little Theatre.

During the 1970s, the Group also put on a series of variety shows and a musical – Cloud 7 – which was conceived, written and performed in the space of 6 weeks when Fred realised she had forgotten to cancel a provisional booking of the Theatre in May 1979. So instead of O level revision, several of the cast were up to their eyes in costumes and rehearsals.

By this time, their children were growing up and doing more. Sally spent many years helping with the running of the school, taking classes, sorting costumes and performing, in addition to college and eventually starting her own school in Sittingbourne. Jill moved from stage to orchestra pit in later years before leaving Maidstone for university.

In 1992, with Frank's retirement from General Accident (something he had been counting down to for about 10 years!), they put on their final pantomime, closed the school after over 40 years and their thoughts turned to moving to Devon, site of our family holidays and somewhere they had always wanted to live. And so, in 1993, they cleared College Road of costumes, pantomime horses, cows, camels, and other assorted momentos of 30 years' residence, packed them up and (as we later discovered) transported much of it with them across country! The garden shed contains the entrance of an Eygyptian tomb painted on hardboard and a lion's head.

Once in Sidmouth, they again threw themselves into local life. Fred joined her local WI branch, serving a term as President; Frank stood for election to public office and served a term as an independent councillor on Sidmouth Town Council. They also enjoyed many a summer evening in Connaught Gardens listening to the town band, as well as seeking out the best local pubs. They were also active members of East Devon Conservative Association, canvassing and advertising cream teas.

In 1998, they became grandparents. Frank threw himself wholeheartedly into this new role, pulling faces and generally being silly. He was also M's greatest defender, always righteously indignant on her behalf and scathing in his opinion of the educational establishment's inability to deal with her autism. 

Fred and Frank also joined the Sidmouth Songsters, Frank singing and Fred turning pages for the accompanist. They also assisted in putting programmes of songs together and Frank spent many a happy hour printing out sheets of music. One of the grandchildren's fondest memories is of when Grandpa (then approaching 80) jumped off the stage during a rendition of Flanders and Swann's “The Hippopotamus Song”, although others questioned the wisdom of this!

The Songsters raised thousands of pounds for local charities and it was only in 2012, when they and other members felt they were getting a bit too old for it, did they finally retire from entertainment. As Frank said to Jill a few days before he died, “All my life, from the time I was a choirboy, I have been entertaining people.” This is so true of both of them.

Frank was diagnosed with cancer in February of this year. He accepted it with equanimity and, true to form, set to organising his affairs. I made as many trips as possible down from Manchester and Frank was delighted that he was able to buy M her first pint at the Conservative Club (and even more delighted when she bought him one in return!). Happily, the family were able to get Fred and Frank down to the Club one last time in April.

In mid-June, quite unexpectedly, Fred was admitted to the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital with a chest infection and sadly died the following day. Frank was, by this time at Sidmouth Community Hospital, where he died 10 days later, with us by his side.

Reading the tributes of old pupils and friends on social media and compiling this eulogy has made us all appreciate quite how significant an influence they were on a generation of young people in Maidstone. Some have themselves pursued careers in entertainment as a result. Fred was a major figure in the town and Frank was a loyal consort, never complaining when he was mistakenly called Mr Oliver. How fitting it is that these two great entertainers, who had known each other for 70 years, should be leaving us in the way they would have wanted – as a double act.