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Stars in our eyes
Ken Hurst, projectionist at the County and Studio cinema, as well as travelling the neighbourhood with a mobile cinema

Strange as it might seem, Bletchley has been home on occasion to several stars from the realms of cinema, stage and literature. In an age when it appears that 'celebrity' status is achieved with very little effort and even less talent, local historian John Taylor recalls some of those who have helped to put Bletchley on the cultural map!

In times when education and learning were the preserve of the few, clergymen were among an articulate elite. As regards Bletchley, one of the rectors would invent the first form of shorthand to be introduced into America, while another, the Rev William Cole, would record his local observations of 18th century life in a diary which, fascinating to read, contains sufficient characters to form the basis of a modern day 'soap'.

In later years came the invention of photography and eventually cinematography, and in 1909 at No 5 Albert Street would be born Bletchley's very own Hollywood star, Robert Douglas Finlayson.

Coincidentally, the year of his birth would also be the year in which Bletchley acquired its first cinema. For when the Wesleyan Methodists moved to new premises in Bletchley Road, the old building in the High Street was purchased for use as a cinema by Mr Barber.

Having been successively known as the King George Cinema and the Picture Palace, it then became the County Cinema in 1932, as part of the Odeon circuit.

As for Robert Douglas, (this being his screen name), after studying at RADA he made his first film in 1931, but it was in 1938 that he appeared in the epic that was perhaps intended to make him a star.

The Challenge featured him as the Victorian mountaineer Edmund Whymper, but as an Anglo-German production the timing of the release was perhaps hardly opportune!

Nevertheless, the film would be shown at the County Cinema in 1939.

During World War II, Robert served in the Fleet Air Arm, whilst playing the role of an airman in The Way to the Stars was the well-known actor Michael Redgrave.

In the film he starred as Flight Lieutenant David Archdale, and he was in fact the cousin of John Palmer Redgrave, the brother of Mrs L Kent of 22 Buckingham Road.

John had chosen a military career, and as the youngest of four soldier sons he would rise from the ranks to be granted a commission of full Lieutenant in the Royal Corps of Signals.

At the age of 60, during December 1940 the death occurred of Charles Thrupp who, being a renowned woodcut artist and illustrator, had carried out much work to beautify St Mary's Church, including work on the Lady Chapel ceiling.

For several years he had lived at Walnut Tree Cottages, in Old Bletchley, but it would be at 59 Eaton Avenue that another well-known illustrator had now come to live.

He was the famous Canadian artist and illustrator, Herbert Sellen who, whilst on a visit to his daughter Mrs Phyllis Fryer found that, because of the outbreak of war, he was unable to return to his Canadian home.

Instead he would stay at his daughter's home, and he soon became a familiar sight riding around the town on his racing cycle.

During the war he ran several art classes in Bletchley, as well as providing artwork for the local newspapers. But his reputation had achieved a much wider renown, and the illustrations for The Story of Little Greedy - A salutary tale for the younger generation are just one example of his artistic talents.

After the war he continued to live at his daughter's address, and there he died, aged 86, in 1962.

Becoming an art teacher at Bletchley Grammar School, also possessed of an artistic talent, was his granddaughter, Kathleen, who at the age of 15 inadvertently became a film artist during a trip with a friend to Maidenhead.

At Beaconsfield they had stopped to watch the shooting of an outdoor scene for a Just William film and, asking if they could take part, they were then given the job of extras, standing at a garden gate and pointing at William as he sprinted past, carrying a bunch of flowers with his dog!

Perhaps it was because John Clark, the 13-year-old actor who played William in the BBC series, had opened the Bletchley Company Boys' Brigade fete the previous year that they were given the role!

During the war the Bletchley Park Drama Group, the 'Parkites', had staged many acclaimed productions in the town, these having been arranged by Major Douglas Jones - whose chief qualification appears to have been a singing engagement at the end of Weston Super Mare pier in the summer of 1938!

A couple of years after the war Bletchley Park then played host to another artistic talent when Constance Curnmings, 'star of radio, stage and screen', opened the Bucks Divisional Labour Party Fete. As for other film stars, after the war an officer stationed at the Bletchley RAF camp was granted special leave of absence to portray his real life POW experience in the film The Wooden Horse.' He subsequently attended the well-received premiere in London.

Another Bletchley serviceman to be immortalised on film was Mr S Prat of Water Eaton. Disabled during the war, he was now a resident at the Star and Garter Home in Richmond, and there he had been selected for an appearance in the movie The Lady With a Lamp, featuring Anna Neagle as Florence Nightingale.

In fact, in the film he and his co-stars would play the role of wounded Crimean War soldiers.

As for the younger generation, 43 pupils from the Bletchley Road Primary School were destined for their 15 minutes of fame when, in the school hall on Wednesday, February 6 1946 they were filmed by Pathe Gazette giving a demonstration of puppet-making.

The premises had been especially transformed into a film set, complete with lights and a camera, and, although the film would last for only 15 minutes, the cameraman stayed for four hours!

With Mr Brann as the producer (assisted by the educational adviser to Pathe Pictures, Miss Wilson), Pathe Gazette had first developed an interest in the subject following a successful demonstration of the craft in London, and, with a shortened version of the footage, (Pathe Pictorial No. 77) being screened in those cities on Sunday, March 2, audiences in Manchester and Birmingham would be the first to be shown the completed production.

In fact, on the day after the original filming, on Thursday, February 7 International Photos Ltd, an American company, had taken more than 100 stills at the school, and with these intended for distribution to magazines and journals in Britain and the US, the pupils would then once again become the focus for media attention.

By now television transmissions had been resumed, and provided the medium for Mrs Bloggs to achieve national renown when she appeared on What's My Line. She was employed as a Bletchley signalwoman, and her occupation was correctly guessed by the panel!

Another TV star would be an employee of the Cowley and Wilson garage who, on an inventors' programme, demonstrated his revolutionary 'kitchen pot stirrer'.

Despite the advent of television, radio programmes still remained popular and, for a while, Bletchley would accommodate a well-known wireless celebrity Catherine Campbell, as she was known to her fans.

A member of the BBC Repertory Company, she was in fact Mrs Aldridge, who lived in Church Walk at Yew Tree Cottage.

Coincidentally, at one time this would also be the home of Dr Ronald Connor, the brother of the film and television star, Kenneth Connor.

As for Bletchley's original film star, Robert Douglas, he continued his film career after the war, including a role in the 1952 remake of The Prisoner of Zenda.

However, by the end of the decade he had become more involved in television directing, being associated with such programmes as Lost in Space and The Fugitive, but nevertheless he still made an occasional on screen appearance. Indeed, only a few weeks ago it was pleasing to see him cast as a ship's doctor, in a repeat episode of Colombo, which also starred Robert Vaughan.