Richard’s tale of beer and a bear provides a royal fanfare for Hitchin Festival

Richard Whitmore signs copies of his autobiography at a preview event at the Queen Mother Theatre, H

Richard Whitmore signs copies of his autobiography at a preview event at the Queen Mother Theatre, Hitchin, June 2015 - Credit: Archant

Former newsreader Richard Whitmore turned the clock back to 1951 as he helped launch the annual Hitchin Festival.

Richard Whitmore signs copies of his autobiography at a preview event at the Queen Mother Theatre, H

Richard Whitmore signs copies of his autobiography at a preview event at the Queen Mother Theatre, Hitchin, June 2015 - Credit: Archant

Guests who gathered at the Queen Mother Theatre studio space which bears his name were treated to a reading from his new autobio-graphy, officially published on Saturday.

He recalled his early days as a cub reporter on the Hertfordshire Express, a predecessor of the Comet, and his recruitment into the ranks of the Bancroft Players theatre group which now has the QMT as its headquarters.

As the town’s month-long festival got under way, he recalled Hitchin’s response to the postwar Festival Of Britain.

More than 30 groups teamed up to stage a series of events, the biggest of which was a pageant in the grounds of Hitchin Priory involving a cast of 1,300 people.

Richard Whitmore

Richard Whitmore - Credit: Archant

The lavish production had a royal premiere thanks to the town’s long connection with Queen of the day, better known to succeeding generations as the Queen Mother but then still reigning alongside her husband King George VI.

Another young Bancroft Players member, Michael Robbins – best known for his later role as downtrodden husband Arthur in TV sitcom On The Buses – was a much-praised Roman centurion in the pageant telling the story of Hitchin’s 900-year history, but Richard was given a non-speaking role as a dancing bear in a medieval episode.

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His performance in an unconvincing mask and moth-eaten costume proved a hit with younger members of the audience, and as the week-long run drew to a close he repaired to the Red Hart pub in Bucklersbury for a couple of under-age pints.

Still in costume and with the mask to hand, he was seized by devilment as he headed home past his workplace, the nearby Wm Carling & Co newspaper offices in Exchange Yard.

Spotting lights still burning, he stole in and saw binding department manager Algy Grimes disappearing into the lavatory.

He hid behind bales of newsprint nearby, slipped on the mask and when his poor colleague emerged, buttoning his fly, he loomed out of the shadows uttering a low growl.

He said: “I remember the terror on Algy’s face as he froze in his tracks. He managed to gasp ‘Oh, Christ!’ before shooting back into the lavatory and locking himself in.”

He tried to explain, but eventually apologised through the still-locked door and slunk off home with his tail between his legs.

Luckily when he returned to work the following morning everyone saw the funny side, and he still had a job.

One arresting image in the book, published by Mattingley Press at £14.99 and available online and in bookshops now, shows the First XI hockey team at Hitchin Grammar School, now Hitchin Boys’ School, being greeted with Heil Hitler salutes by a visiting team from Germany six months before the outbreak of the Second World War.

It was, he writes, “the closest Nazi Germany came to conquering my little corner of England” as the visitors ran out 4-1 winners.

A party from Hitchin paid a return visit to Germany at Easter, hosted by members of the Hitler Youth movement, and one report recorded in that year’s school magazine prophetically noted: “It will be a long time before we have such an enjoyable holiday again.”

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