IAN HANDFORD, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, give us the who and how each Blue Plaque in Torbay was chosen
Having been approached by Brixham Town Council for help in placing a Blue Plaque on the town hall and theatre building on New Road, Torbay Civic Society was pleased to assist once the basic formalities had been sorted out.
In wishing to honour the actor John Slater, who in the early 1970s had saved the Brixham Theatre from threatened closure, my first thought was, is his widow still alive and would she agree to a plaque being placed on the town hall/theatre building.
The answer to both questions was yes, and after visiting her at her Goodrington apartment, I discovered we had a mutual interest – keeping budgerigars.
She, like us, allowed them to fly free in her flat, on occasions.
It was nice to be able to swap stories and having learned that she and John had formally been residents of Brixham, she told me about the whole debacle of the theatre issue, and the parking for audiences, mainly because the theatre was suffering from lack of finance and audiences in general.
John Slater was known to millions of television viewers who watched him as Sergeant Stone in the Z Cars series, but he was also a star of radio and had featured in a number of large screen cinema films.
He and Betty had moved to Brixham in 1964 although he did not finally retire from entertainment until 1971, after a second major heart attack.
Betty confirmed that once he had learned the Brixham Theatre was threatened by closure, John had decided to purchase the lease from Torbay Council and then personally arrange three summer shows from the 1972 season which included the play ‘Wanted One Body’ followed by ‘Reluctant Heroes’ in 1973.
He produced both and starred in both but in the third year, having suffered another heart attack which led in 1974 to really poor health, he produced the show but could not be in it.
He died in Harefield Hospital in January, 1975.
Brixham Town Council sponsored our Blue Plaque and with Betty’s full endorsement, it was unveiled on the front wall of Brixham Town Hall.
The plaque was to form part of a new ‘Heritage Trail’ the council was putting together, and it would later be just one plaque of many the council would sponsor.
The society was fortunate to attract the Trevor George Entertainments Company, which sponsored an advertisement on the rear of our historical pamphlet, a publication that accompanies every Blue Plaque in what we call our ‘collectors series’ giving a biography and full history.
The pamphlet can still be obtained from Brixham Town Hall cost just 50p.
At the unveiling in 1998, Mrs Betty Slater was star of the ceremony, supported by her son Roger who had journeyed down to Devon, to also enjoy the event to honour his father.
Upwards of 60 locals, including Torbay Civic Society members, turned out for the event, which was followed by liquid refreshment served in town hall cafe, courtesy of the council.
Saving Brixham Theatre had not been easy for John because during 1973 he had warned the council he might not stage a third season, unless it approved his pleas for improvements to the building.
It actually took three more years after his death before Torbay Council heeded those wishes, when installing raked seating in the auditorium while making many other improvements.
It was John’s entrepreneurial spirit that saved Brixham Theatre, although today in this new century, the current lockdown is creating similar problems.
We can only hope that the new charitable trust now established will be as successful as John Slater was in an earlier era.