In Memory of those we've loved and lost..
Sylvia Valetta Jackson, 1932-2020
The daughter of a Derbyshire miner and a classically trained singer, such was Sylvia’s obvious theatrical talent that she was encouraged to apply for a scholarship to the most prestigious drama school in London – the Central School of Speech and Drama. She was successful and travelled to London at the tender age of 17 to begin her studies - a young, working-class woman who had barely been beyond Derbyshire. Albert Finney and Tom Courtney are often held up as the ground-breakers - working-class northern lads who broke the middle-class, southern mould of British theatre - but actually, Sylvia did it long before them.
She made a big impression at Central and she performed on the West End stage in many productions before returning home to be at the side of her father who was dying of cancer. Once home, she fell in love with the other great passion of her life, a handsome young cricketer called Norman Jackson. They married, had two children and her future as a wife and mother in Derbyshire was set. But that didn’t stop the acting! It certainly stopped the West End performances though, and she even turned down the offer of a part in a new 1950s radio series – The Archers!
But, Sylvia’s passion was theatre of all kinds and at all levels. She set about establishing an amateur group in her home village of Langwith and they performed to packed houses, twice or three times a year for decades. She set up a theatre school for children in Mansfield which was sponsored by the newly formed TV Channel 4, and was Head of Drama at Shirebrook School for almost twenty years. When she and Norman moved to Ravenshead in the 1990s, she set up yet another group – ACE productions – which also ran for decades. For forty years she organised coach trips for her friends to the West End to see hundreds of shows – she wanted everyone to be able to share in her passion, and they did!
Her daughter Lindsay once asked Sylvia if she regretted not having the career in London that she might have had – she was such a talented performer. Without hesitation she said no. She was very thankful for her life and had an enormous sense of achievement in helping people to reach their potential and enabling them to do something that they never dreamed they could. So many people, on hearing of Sylvia’s death, have described how much they learned from her and how her energy, vibrancy and enthusiasm spurred them on to greater things and gave them confidence and the sense that, under her guidance, they could do anything.
During Sylvia’s theatrical career, she directed or performed in over 170 plays and musicals – she kept an exhaustive list! She acted and directed in some of our best theatres – the Royal Albert Hall, the Old Vic in London, the Royal in Nottingham, the Crucible in Sheffield and the Haymarket in Leicester. But she wasn’t a name dropper – she enjoyed performing anywhere. She loved the acoustics and atmosphere of churches and the enthusiasm and community spirit in church and community halls just as much as the grand spaces.
When asked about her favourite character roles, she would invariably choose Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion and Elizabeth Proctor in Miller’s The Crucible. She loved Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and many classics. She famously said she ‘didn’t do rubbish’!
In 2007, after the devastating death of her beloved Norman, she picked herself up and founded the Chatsworth Players. She had been asked by the Duke to advise on bringing the Chatsworth House family theatre back into use and she decided to bring together ambitious local amateur actors to perform there and take on plays that they were less able to do in local village groups. One of her last performances with the Players was as Lady Bracknell in 'The Importance of Being Earnest' and she directed her last show, Robert Bolt's 'A Man for all Seasons' at Chatsworth in 2017 at the age of 85.
She will be very sorely missed, but the Chatsworth Players remain her legacy. We'll do our best to do her proud.
Jenny Bland, who died in 2020
Jenny was a magnificent woman – a bundle of energy, fun and vitality, with a smile that lit up the room. Everything was possible as far as Jenny was concerned and problems were simply there to be overcome.
She had a lovely voice and adored singing in choirs and onstage but she thought she couldn’t act – until she met Sylvia! In 2006, Sylvia was invited to direct Sheffield Operatic Society, where Jenny was a member. As always, Jenny loved a challenge and Sylvia’s guidance and direction enabled Jenny’s natural theatricality to blossom. There was no holding her and she wanted to try her hand at a ‘proper play’.
Years later and after moving home and being within striking distance of the Players, she joined us and achieved her ambition. She played Mrs Rochester (the ‘Maniac’) in Jane Eyre in April 2013. Although a very small part, she succeeded in frightening the living daylights out of the audience every evening. She loved it!
Her busy life and developing business made it hard for her to commit to rehearsals for a while, but she took on her second role in September 2016 in Camille. Jenny embodied the role of Prudence, Camille’s friend and poverty-stricken milliner. She brought her cheeky irreverence to the role and was really smitten with performance.
Jenny was cast to play in the Dresser in October 2018. She read the role of the stage manager beautifully – the woman who had loved ‘Sir’ for years from the wings. Jenny was thrilled to take on such a poignant role. But very sadly, before rehearsals began, she received the diagnosis of motor neurone disease. Typically of Jenny, her initial reaction was to keep going – she didn’t want her illness to define her and she really wanted that challenge - but her loyalty to the Players and concerns about letting others down if she was ill, resulted in her turning it down.
Jenny will be very sadly missed by us all.
Mel Fido-Dexter, 1954-2019
Mel was one of our most longstanding Players. He was the funniest, kindest, gentlest and friendliest person you could ever meet.
Many of you will have spoken to him as you arrived at the Theatre – Mel and his husband Richard welcomed our guests at Chatsworth for almost ten years. And remembering that experience will remind you what a charming, handsome and stylish man he was. You may also remember that Sylvia referred to Mel and Richard as ‘her boys’ and often called them to the front of the theatre to recite a Shakespeare sonnet to them before curtain up.
What you may not know is how much creative work Mel did behind the scenes, dressing sets, making and sourcing props, producing flower arrangements and making costumes. He was always ready to help and utterly reliable. Sylvia even managed to coax him on stage for three productions – he played Richard Mason in Jane Eyre (the brother of the first Mrs Rochester); a policeman (!) in Gaslight; and an elegant bystander at the start of Pygmalion.
But more importantly, Mel was the consummate gentleman and friend – with time for everyone and an uplifting – and occasionally saucy – conversational style.
The Players collected over £700 in Mel's honour for Cancer Research during the production of A Christmas Carol. Thank you so much to everyone who gave in his memory.