The Beginning: The Seventeenth Century Village

In 1984, the English Civil War Society came to Gosport to stage 'The Battle of Stokes Bay'.  Gosport Borough Council gave them a site at the Council Nurseries for the duration of their stay, where the ECWS constructed an authentic seventeenth century hamlet, with a tented encampment for the soldiers, a wattle and daub inn and other buildings, and huts for various crafts essential to the soldiers' trade.  The Battle was a great success, as were public visits to the hamlet, and the ECWS agreed to come back in 1985.

The following year was even more successful, but the ECWS indicated that they would not be able to return in 1986.  Local support for 'The Village', as it was known, was great, and the suggestion was made that a local volunteer group could be set up to run the Village, and allow schools and members of the public to continue to visit and learn.

The Borough Council was keen to support this idea, and a meeting was organised, to be to be held in the Council chamber of the Town Hall.  The meeting was well attended, and the outcome was a decision to form the Gosport Living History Society, to run the Village each summer for public visits.

The Villagers: The Idea Starts

At the end of the main meeting, two people stood up and announced that, having visited the Village, they felt that it would be an ideal site for performing Shakespeare in the open air, and would be setting up a drama group to do so if there was sufficient interest.  Those two people were husband and wife Austin and Carol Hicks, and their first recruit from that meeting was James Doyle.

Other friends were soon recruited - Aussie and Carol knew Glyn and Ian Wright, and Blyth and Julia Crawford, through other drama groups in Gosport.  Together with Nigel Dean, these formed the nucleus of the first Villagers production.

The First Production: Labour Pains

The first meetings were held at Ian and Glyn's home in Strathmore Road, Gosport.  The name, The Villagers, was quickly agreed on, and A Midsummer Night's Dream seemed an apt choice for a play to stage.  The end of July was chosen for our production as this fell at the end of school term, a good time for the many teachers in the group.  Glyn had just had a baby, David, who attended many of the early meetings (albeit in a non-speaking part), and he can fairly be said to have absorbed Shakespeare from as early an age as is possible.

By twisting the arms of various friends and relations, a cast was assembled.  Some people who had expected to be working backstage suddenly found themselves with parts; others, who had thought they would be offering moral support to relatives, found themselves making costumes, gathering props, and generally far more involved than they had anticipated.

One great Villagers' tradition began with Dream: that of the major part that doesn't get filled until the last minute.  With Dream it was Oberon; a steady stream of actors turned up, read for the part, promised their participation, and then disappeared.  Titania (Glyn) began to worry that she was scaring them off, but eventually, her saviour arrived.  Morley Alexander, our first 'loan' from the Southsea Shakespeare, had played the part fairly recently, and still knew most of his lines.  Joining a matter of a week or two before opening night, he fitted in perfectly.

Another concern at the time was obtaining an ass's head for Bottom.  Various possibilities were pursued, but all turned out to be dead ends.  Luckily, this gave us a hook to hang some publicity on, and our first mention in the local press gained us both more heads in the audience, and also a head for Bottom!

The Queen's - God Bless Her!

Another great Villagers' tradition was instigated by Nigel and Aussie.  Both partial to the odd drink or several, they were regulars at The Queen's Hotel, a Gosport pub famous for its real ales.  The tradition of dashing to the Queen's after each performance (and rehearsal) for a well-earned drink was enthusiastically adopted, and the staff and regulars at the pub quickly got used to a bunch of oddballs in seventeenth century garb turning up at 10.30 every night.  It's amazing how much beer you can get through in half an hour.

The pub has proved a useful recruiting ground in the years since, for both cast and audience, and the Queen's is definitely the Villagers' second home.

Behind the scenes, there were numerous problems to overcome, often not the sort of thing a drama group would have to overcome.  The village was too far from civilisation to get power for lighting, and so a generator had to be hired; not many plant hire companies get asked for a 'quiet' generator!  This also meant that providing hot drinks at the interval relied on a huge array of vacuum flasks being brought along with hot water.  We had to conduct our own negotiations for a theatre licence, and for fire safety approval (of which more later).

Leave Them Wanting More

Eventually, at the end of July, A Midsummer Night's Dream finally happened, to the amazement of many of us.  It began brilliantly, establishing another tradition of great weather during our productions, and the audience were very enthusiastic.  The venue was variously described as 'magical', and 'perfect for Shakespeare', and the ambience was fantastic, despite competition from Air-Sea Rescue helicopters from HMS Daedalus, the army firing range, and everything else that outdoor theatre has to cope with!

The general feeling among the members of the group that was it had been very worthwhile, and nearly all, including some of the reluctant volunteers, were ready to do it again next year.  We had made enough money to make donations to local charities, including the nascent Living History Society, and still have enough seed money left for another play.  A second production was getting serious, however; for a one-off play we could afford to be a little happy-go-lucky in our approach, but doing it again meant getting organised and professional.  At least, in theory it did...