A Potted History

The Phoenix

The Harrogate Dramatic Society was born in 1945 like a phoenix from the ashes of what remained after the war of two Harrogate drama groups:- The Elizabethans, and The Drama Cell.

The Society's first production was "Tonight at 8:30", Noel Coward's three one-act plays, which was performed at St. Mark's Church Hall in March 1946. The first three-act play the Society presented was "Quiet Wedding" at St. Mark's in October of that year. Rehearsals were held in members' houses.

Skipton Drama Festival

After a successful opening in Harrogate, the Society entered "Quiet Wedding" for the first post-war Skipton Drama Festival in 1946 and gained the Amateur Theatre trophy as runner-up. Betty Wilcockson was presented with the award for Best Actress.

So began the Society's long and successful association with the Skipton (later - the Craven) Drama Festival. Over the years, we have been winner five times, runner-up three times, gained six Best Actress and two Best Actor medallions and four Producer'' Trophy awards, culminating in the outstanding success of "Waters Of The Moon" in 1978 when the play won every major award - The Irving Trophy, The Producer's Trophy (Joan Mallett), Best Actress (Jacquie Scarborough) and Best Actor (Don Valentine). To the best of our knowledge this was a distinction never before achieved by any Society at that festival.

The cast and production team of "Quiet Wedding" must feel that the Society has proudly carried on the tradition for excellence of performance and presentation which they began on that cold, snowy and foggy week in November 1946.

The Royal Hall, Harrogate

In 1947 it was decided to risk putting on a large scale production at The Royal Hall as well as playing at St. Mark's Church Hall. The first of these productions was "The Barretts Of Wimpole Street" performed in April 1947. It is interesting to note the name of Earle Couttie playing one of the brothers. Earle was the first member of the Society to go on to the professional stage after his experience with the H.D.S. He has been followed by a number of other actors and actresses.

This first production at the Royal Hall was a great success.

Lal Walker wrote in The Harrogate Advertiser; "By Skilful casting, adroit production and careful rehearsal, The Harrogate Dramatic Society has reached a new standard of achievement." Those three important factors are still today the basis of the Society's work and worth.

The Harrogate Drama Festival

In October 1947 the society presented "Autumn" at St. Mark's Church Hall and entered the play for the first post-war Harrogate Drama Festival. The production was Joint Winner of the festival and Margaret Broome was runner-up to the Best Actress individual award. In the programme notes we read: "In two years the Harrogate Dramatic Society has raised nearly £700 towards their goal of a Little Theatre."

The play was also entered for that year's Skipton Festival, where it was awarded The Irving Trophy as Festival Winner.

The Society's connection with the Harrogate Festival lasted until that festival sadly ceased to function. In that time the H.D.S. had won every major award many times over.

The Royal Hall shows now became a feature of the Society's programme, and in 1948 the Society presented it's first Christmas Production there. "Alice In Wonderland" opened on Boxing Day and played for a week. The financial success of the Royal Hall productions in 1947 and 1948, and "Romance" in 1949, enabled The Society to face it's future with confidence.

Our Aim - Our Own Little Theatre

The rules of the Society dated 6th September 1949 state that the objects of the Harrogate Dramatic Society are twofold:-

  1. To stimulate the interest of it's members in the study of drama, and to produce plays and entertainments of literary, artistic and educational merit, in order to encourage the public of Harrogate, and particularly the youth thereof to interest itself in such works.
  2. To make every effort to procure and establish a Little Theatre in Harrogate, such Little Theatre to be owned and managed by the Society for the furtherance of the aims and objets of the Society as set out above.

Such aims and objects still apply.

In 1948 the Society did indeed acquire its first real "home". Negotiations with The Old Swan Hotel (then known as The Harrogate Hydro) were successfully concluded and the Society moved into the hotel. The ballroom and winter garden were transformed four times a year into a palatial Little Theatre and rehearsal premises (in the old Turkish Baths) were made available. Later a rehearsal room and a committee room were made over, solely for the Society's use, in the maids' wing upstairs.

So began a long, happy, luxurious and successful period in the Society's career. The membership grew from the original twenty five to over a hundred. A Patron's Scheme was started, which in it's hey-day had over six hundred subscribers! On the day that the advance bookings opened, the queue stretched from the winter garden to the hotel foyer. Four plays a year were performed at the Little Theatre and one large scale production at the Royal Hall. Halcyon days - before television, before the Opera House had re-opened and established itself after the war, and when Harrogate was still full of Civil Service and R.A.F. personnel.

Were the days too halcyon - was this the time that the H.D.S. ought to have found, funded and bought its own Theatre? Joan Mallett thinks it was and that a great opportunity was missed, but the Society at that time was very happy and settled in the hotel, and the hotel was glad to have the Society within its walls.

The tenth anniversary of the Society was celebrated in 1956 by a dinner dance at The Old Swan. The Society was established and successful, and had certainly achieved its first object and part of its second.

The Harrogate Theatre

In 1962 came the first break in the pattern. The Old Swan Hotel was now a thriving hotel open to conferences and exhibitions, and it found that it was no longer able to allow the Society to use the ballroom on regular dates four times a year. So the H.D.S. turned its attention to The Harrogate Theatre, then known as The Opera House, and arrangements were made to perform there twice a year, while still performing twice a year at the Little Theatre.

"Simon And Laura", performed in January 1962, was the play which began our connection with the Harrogate Theatre - though a "one-off" production had been staged at The Grand Opera House in 1953, "You Can't Take It With You" by Moss Hart.

Coming Of Age

In 1966, the Society celebrated its coming of age. The then president, Harry Cook, wrote at that time:-

"Twenty one years ago from the ashes of The Drama Cell and The Elizabethans there arose, like the fabled phoenix of old, a new Society, The Harrogate Dramatic Society, pledged to present the very best in amateur entertainment. This year, as we celebrate our coming of age, we can hold up our heads with pride, sure in the knowledge that our pledge has been redeemed."

Nancy Poultney, who was then Artistic Director of Harrogate Theatre, wrote:-

"We at The Opera House feel a special affection for the Harrogate Dramatic Society, for between the amateur and the professional companies who share this theatre there exists a rapport that is all too rare . . . our relationship is marked by a spirit of wholehearted co-operation and mutual regard . . . amateur and professional actors tread the boards together at The Opera House . . . we are working towards the same end, a thriving theatre in Harrogate . . . that we can see light at the end of the tunnel can be largely credited to a core of stalwart theatre-lovers - prominent amongst them the members of The Harrogate Dramatic Society."

The H.D.S. has always supported and worked for the professional Harrogate Theatre. We have worked for the theatre and in the theatre. Five members of our Society have served on the theatre board. We ran the gallery for three seasons, manning it on Saturday nights, and we helped with wardrobe and properties as well as actors. We have raised money for the theatre by putting on shows, and we have combined with the professional company on a number of special occasions.

First Blow

At it's coming of age in 1966, the Society was happily balanced between the Little Theatre at the Old Swan, and the Harrogate Theatre. The very next year, the blow fell.

The Directors of the Old Swan informed us reluctantly that they could no longer offer us the Little Theatre on any regular basis; moreover they needed the rooms which they had made available to us in the maid's quarters, For the first time in it's career, the Society was going to be homeless.

59, East Parade

Through the good offices of our then Chairman, D.W. Thompson, we acquired our second "home", No. 59, East Parade. We had the first floor flat - a rehearsal room, committee room and kitchen, and a cellar in which we could store and build our very considerable (by this time) collection of flats and scenery. Joan Chamley offered her attics in which to store the Society's large and comprehensive wardrobe, and the Society seemed "set fair" again.

We played in the Little Theatre when we could, in the Harrogate Theatre, and the Royal Hall. We returned to St. Mark's Hall, played at St. Luke's Hall and kept going.

59, East Parade became our "home" in a very real sense. "Green Room" meetings were held every Wednesday night - classes, demonstrations, talks and play readings formed a season's programme. Coffee mornings were held on the first Saturday of every month and fund raising / social evenings were held on the last Saturday of every month.

Another easy, happy and settled period in the Society's history began.

And then - the next blow. The Arts Council Of Great Britain, which gives a large grant to the theatre, stated in it's rules that no part of it's grant could be used to subsidise the amateur theatre, and therefore the rent of the theatre must be, for one week, 1/52nd of the running costs of the theatre, and the local authority made the same stipulation. At one stroke the rent trebled, so we could no longer afford to play twice a year in the main theatre. Soon we could not afford to play even once a year as costs escalated.

Fortunately, a Studio Theatre had been created when the theatre was refurbished in 1972, and we transferred there. We could only just cover costs in our Studio productions, but we played at St. Mary's Church hall twice a season to make money, and in the Studio twice, as there we were, at least, in a real theatre.

We performed in the studio theatre three times a season, presenting large-cast plays - "Under Milk Wood" for example as well as smaller more intimate productions. Our membership stayed loyal, though new members then never had the thrill of playing on the theatre stage.

Open Air Productions and Special Presentations

In 1964, the Society presented it's first open air production in the Valley Gardens. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was a great success and half the proceeds were given to local charities.

Escalating costs meant that the production of "The Merchant Of Venice" in 1970 and "Twelfth Night" in 1979 only covered expenses, but they were artistic successes and were seen by large audiences - our regular patrons, local schools, the Harrogate public and visitors to the town - all were directed by Joan Mallett.

In The Harrogate Theatre, we have presented large-scale productions - "Tea-House Of The August Moon", "Jayne Eyre", "Rebecca", "I Remember Mama", "Tom Jones" etc. Our largest production "Cavalcade" had seventy people on stage including the Knaresborough Silver Band.

Another full scale production in the theatre was a special presentation for the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977 - "A Pryal Of Queens" was devised, written and produced by our own members and it received great acclaim from the audience, the then Mayor of Harrogate and the press.

Life Begins At...

In 1985/86, our 40th Season, we returned to the Old Swan Hotel, "Move Over Mrs. Markham" was performed. In May, a light hearted review - "Forty-simmo" looked back out our 40 years of history, and on our actual birthday, September 25th, we performed "Birthday Party". To conclude our year of celebrations, a dinner-dance was held in February 1986 in the ballroom of the Old Swan Hotel - scene of our many triumphs - attended by the Mayor and all the Presidents of all the societies in Harrogate. For the next 10 years, we continued happily with the pattern of 3 studio productions and one main-house production in the Theatre.

Then, in 1988, we took the bold step of deciding to risk a main-house production again, in spite of the rent being £3000 a week! (When we first played at the Theatre, it was £200) We made money on that production - a Francis Durbridge thriller, and so we continued to play one main house and three Studio productions per season.

Golden Years

Our Golden Anniversary loomed and thoughts turned to what great celebrations should be planned for our 1995-96 season. Should we have another great dinner-dance with 100 guests or what?

Then two things happened. Joan Chamley, our wonderful wardrobe mistress, who had collected and housed our wardrobe for 30 years - died, and the top floor of No. 59 became available to us at a greatly increased rent. That, we decided would be our 50th anniversary present to us - we'd take over the top floor. No money to spare for large dinner-dances with guests, but we had a modest though enjoyable party at Harrogate Golf Club and then settled down to a summer of cleaning, painting, and re-carpeting No.59 and moved our wardrobe to the top floor. We moved our props up there also freeing the back room to become a "Green Room" with a carpet and comfortable furniture instead of the storage room it had been. Joan Chamley's bequest to the society of £2000 paid for the work.

The New Millenium

We did not make a very successful entry into the new millenium, in fact at our first A.G.B. 2000 the Treasurer had to report a loss of £4779 on the season. The loss was reduced by £1030, our interest on various savings accounts but £3749 was still a very serious loss - we were not used to showing such a serious deficit. Doom and Gloom nearly set in, indeed a countdown to extinction was displayed - "If we keep on drawing on our resereves at this rate, we have only 3 to 4 years of life left to us."
A problem there was - and a problem that had to be tackled. Costs were rising, rents at the Theatre and 59 were at an all time high - everything cost more and more.
We began putting up the membership from £15 to £20 and raising the price of tickets - by a little but not too much. Our new Chairman, Frank Moorby exhorted The Society to pull together and do everything possible to get out of the morass.


In the next season, every play was a financial as well as artistic success. Members rallied round and organised fund-raising events and at the A.G.M. 2001, it was announced that not only had we wiped out the debt, we had made a profit!

So that's where we stand in October 2001, still with problems but determined to overcome them. We are in our 56th Season. Our 60th is only 4 years away. "Sixty Glorious Years", we'll have to do another re-view to mark the occasion.

The Society in 1947 published two aims:
1. To present the very best of amateur drama to the highest professional standards
2. To own our own Little Theatre

We have achieved and maintained the first aim - as to the second - who knows.
Perhaps... one day....

Joan M. Mallet, President, Harrogate Dramatic Society, 2001

Sad Times

In February 2008 our wonderful President, Joan Mallet, sadly passed away.

Joan had been involved with the Society for many years and is sadly missed by all who knew her. The energy, strength and enthusiasm she threw into her time with HDS was remarkable and she remined a strong supporter until the day she died.

In Joan's own words, "I've been to a marvellous party"

Stuart Kellett
Chairman, Harrogate Dramatic Society, 17th February 2008

But Life, and the Show, as they say, must go on.....

In early 2009 the Society learned that our home at no. 59 was to be redeveloped and we would need to find new premises - a new home! After difficult and protracted negotiations we finally secured a lease on a workshop building Rear of 20 Regent Parade.

"We all found our forced removal from 59 East Parade after 40 years a seriously traumatic experience and I am sure that when Stuart happily embarked on the Chairmanship in 2009 he was expecting the dramas to be confined to the theatre stage and not to be taking place in the offices of planners, lawyers and the like, culminating in the conversion of near derelict premises into our new home.  Through all this the underlying strength of HDS has been very evident with different people stepping forward to deal with the multifarious problems at the right time and bringing us to what is a situation offering great opportunities and excitement at the start of the 2010/2011 season.
There was a great sense of this at the AGM when members attending having come through the inauspicious black door and climbed the dodgy creaking stairs found themselves in the bright surroundings of our new rooms. And they are new rooms.  When we moved in during early April we were faced with a leaking roof, bulging wall cladding, toilets the like of which those of us who had not been to China had never seen, a mountain of properties, scenery, costumes, wood and a multitude of items the use of which nobody could remember. There was barely room to move. Gradually a space was created and work was able to be started so that 5 months later we have excellent premises in which to work.  Much remains to be done, it is true, but the future is clearly bright. One thing we must never forget is that these are our New Rooms.  BEFORE HDS MOVED IN THEY DID NOT EXIST. Virtually everything there, apart form the outer walls, is the creation of HDS. While we can look back warmly on what was achieved in our 40 odd years at 59 East Parade we must take pride in our new rooms, look after them and look forward to new successes and new opportunities.
So what do the new rooms offer? Firstly we have two rehearsal spaces, one the same size as the Theatre Studio and the other the same size as the Main Stage, with the added facility that the wall separating them can be removed rapidly to provide a really very big room which will easily accommodate our meetings, coffee mornings and many other events. We now have a very well organized costume storage area which we hope will attract people to assist Sheila in this important part of our work. Downstairs work is beginning to organize our workshop facilities and the storage of furniture and properties. The stairs need to be strengthened and repaired as they are wilting a bit with such traffic that they have not sustained for a very long time. This will have to be done while constructing the sets for “Abigail's Party” and “Absurd Person Singular” and will take a little time so that it may not be until the New Year that everything is completed."

Ian Rattee, Chairman, Harrogate Dramatic Society, August 2010.