Connecting Communities with Hidden Lesbian Stories Embedded in Popular Heritage from the Past
This project supported, by the National Lottery Heritage Fund has the following objectives:
Charles Duff, at the event we organised in October 2019, talking about his mother Caroline Paget and her partner Audry Carten and their long friendship with Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney
Video presentations about Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney in a dedicated archive room set up by us and local volunteers at our event at Baildon Hall in February 2020
We are working with local volunteers in London, Brighton, Effingham, Bradford and St Austell to research the importance of these 5 places in the lives of forgotten variety stars Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney. Between October 2019 and March 2020 we hosted 4 events to share and celebrate this research in the communities Gwen and Norah lived.
London Event: 22nd October at the studio behind Gwen and Norah's house in Chelsea
Brighton Event: 25th October 7p.m. Horatio's Brighton Palace Pier
Baildon Event: 2nd February 7.30.pm Baildon Hall Club
Effingham Event: 7th March 2020 Effingham Golf Club
September 2020 Online Exhibition with Effingham Local History Group
Gwen Farrar drew her own record of life with Norah Blaney, including sketches of the house they shared in the King's Road Chelsea.
Norah Blaney left a wonderful oral history legacy in recordings of conversations she had with Londoner Derek Hunt in the 1970s. These recordings have now been stored at the British Library sound archive. We are sharing extracts from these conversations with local historians and matching Norah's reminiscences with playbills, photographs and recordings to create a timeline of events in the career of Blaney & Farrar.
We are working with local musicians to recreate the Blaney & Farrar double act, tracking down out-of-print sheet music and transcribing words and music from recordings almost a century old.
On 22nd October 2019 we shared this work in a wonderful celebratory evening in Gwen and Norah's old music studio in front of packed audience. In the words of one participant it was, "A joy and a treat.. really enchanting, evocative and the gathering was warm, appreciative and eclectic. I so enjoyed myself."
Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney visited Brighton
regularly, both to perform and to take a break from performing. They often caught the Brighton Belle steam train that left London late on a Saturday night.
We celebrated their connection to Brighton with an event at Horatio's on Brighton Pier on 25th October 2019 sharing the story of Blaney & Farrar with local groups including Older and Out and Kenric. The evening included a Charleston Dance demonstration followed by inclusive dance instruction, which got most nearly all the audience up on their feet, joining in. "We absolutely loved how you brought the book to life with stories and songs - we really enjoyed ourselves and I found some of the readings very touching."
Norah Blaney lived just outside Bradford from 1932-1945, contributing much to her local community. Having been a leading 'Principal Boy' at the Alhambra Theatre and the Theatre Royal, Leeds for 'King of Pantomime', producer, Francis Laidler, Norah then became a member of Bradford Operatic Society. Local volunteers are researching this and her connection with the National Spinster's Association.
Founded by Bradford local Florence White, the Association sought pension equality for unmarried women. Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney together headed a rally that was held to raise awareness of the cause in June 1937.
Norah hosted large garden parties in aid of Bradford Civic Theatre in the grounds of her mansion, 'Woodlands' in Baildon.
We have been working with residents there to research and celebrate her connection with the area. This has taken on a life of its own with one resident writing a 10,000 research paper on Norah and another organising 20 voice women's choir to attend rehearsals and come together to perform at our event. On Sunday February 2nd 2020 we held a wonderful community event in Baildon Hall. We told Norah's story using readings from 'Tell Me I'm Forgiven: The Story of Forgotten Stars Gwen Farrar and Norah Blaney' and fresh evidence found by local researcher Philip Jones who co-hosted the event. We re-created the Blaney/Farrar double act with songs from their repertoire. The specially put together choir performed Norah Blaney's greatest hits, Irving Berlin's 'What'll I Do?' and 'Someone To Watch Over Me'. In the ancient Oak Room at Baildon Hall we had continuous screenings on a loop of photographs and moving images from the Blaney & Farrar archive.
Choir and audiences members reported enjoying, 'the music, the story, the camaraderie, the hospitality' and experiencing 'nostalgia and joy'. Another commented, "It does us good to understand and empathise with people from the past - it can inform the way we behave in the future."
Gwen Farrar rented a cottage in Effingham, Surrey in the mid 1930s. Here she and Norah Blaney prepared for their most successful recording session at Abbey Rd Studios in February 1935.
Members of Effingham Local History Group are exploring Gwen's connection to other stars who lived locally: members of the famous Ballets Russes and the distinctly bohemian actress Teddie Gerard. With them we held a celebration event at Effingham Golf Club on 7th March 2020 and are mounting an exhibition in September 2020 in the village's King George V Hall.
We feel particularly fortunate to have been able to hold the Effingham event. For us, and most of those who attended, it turned out, unexpectedly to be the last theatrical/community event before the Coronavirus isolation period. It already hold a special place in their memory. Jeremy Palmer from Effingham Local History Group co-presented the eventing which told the story of Effingham's Bohemian residents in the 1930s, focusing in particular on Gwen Farrar. As in Baildon we were able to have a separate area to show footage and photographs on a 30 minute loop. Volunteers from the local History Group had worked hard to erect display boards and mount a mini exhibition in the Golf Club's conservatory. Murmuration Arts provided a marvellous demonstration of 1920s and 30s dance and many people from the age of 8 to 80 were up on their feet joining in.
Kate Shortt brilliantly and hilariously re-created Gwen's cello performances accompanied by pianist Alan Mills.
"I don't know who masterminded which area of Saturday event but all I know is that the whole evening was great entertainment and presumably reckoned a great success. For me, the venue was perfect as I could walk to and from it but everything else was most enjoyable, especially the singing and dancing of the era. I have always thought the 20's and 30's produced the best melodies!"
"My 3 friends and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole evening - more than I expected, having said that I was not really sure what to expect! I think that everyone present enjoyed it.
Please accept my - and friends - many congratulations and thanks for getting it all together and pass on very complimentary comments to anyone else who was involved."
In this we must include our thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts Council without whose generous support this Project would not have been possible.
In 1945 Norah Blaney moved to Cornwall where she lived and kept livestock at Vounder Farm (now part of the Eden Project). She kept up her interest in local theatre and became a key member of the newly founded St Austell Players, directing three very successful productions for them, even involving her old friend J.B. Preistley.
We have been working with members of the St Austell Players to research Norah's connection with the group and help celebrate its 75th Anniversary. They are hoping to mount a production of 'Dangerous Corner' to commemorate Norah directing the same play for them in 1945. Fran Trebilcock, a young member of St Austell Players, has studied and recorded some of Norah's hit songs. Her performances can be seen as part of our lockdown project, a short documentary film, 'Maybe I'm Wrong Again'.