History Focus – Some More Teddington Celebrities

Last month’s dip into memory lane seems to have awakened some reminiscences amongst you readers. In addition to the stars I hadn’t got around to writing about, there are now a new wave of Teddington characters to consider. 

When writing about the Film Studios, I mentioned my favourite comedians — Dave Allen, Benny Hill and Windsor Davies. But I must not overlook the man who was surely to become the new master of situation comedy — Richard Beckinsale. Richard got his lucky break with Paula Wilcox in The Lovers which ran for 13 episodes. He was then cast in two of the funniest comedies of all time; as Alan Moore against Leonard Rossiter in Rising Damp and as Lennie Godber with Ronnie Barker in Porridge, It was quite a common sight to see Lennie Godber coming out of his house in Waldegrave Road or just shopping in Broad Street. His sudden and unexpected death was a great loss to British comedy.

I dare not go any further without mentioning Keira Knightley. A born and bred Teddingtonian who progressed through Broom Road School to an early screen career as a child actor before moving on to the full block-busters we all know from Bend It Like Beckham, Atonement, The Duchess and the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. More recently she has earned critical acclaim for her parts in The Imitation Game and Official Secrets. I once had the misfortune (or fortune) to bump into Keira. It was a cold December morning and I was running late for work. I flew out of the front door without looking where I was going and collided with Keira knocking a bundle of Christmas cards out of her hands. Apologising profusely as I helped me pick them up, I suddenly realised who she was — “Wow ! You’re Keira Knightley !” I gasped. She smiled and simply said “Yes.” For once I was absolutely speechless and we both went our separate ways. I am pleased to say that this encounter did not prevent her from becoming one of Hollywood’s highest paid actresses.

Teddington has also been home to many musicians and singers over the years. Some of our older readers will no doubt remember the BBC Light Programme with the music broadcast Semprini Serenade which ran for over 25 years and was presented by concert pianist, Alberto Semprini, popularly known simply as Semprini. Despite the obvious Italian name, he was born in Bath and spent nearly all of his life in England. For him Teddington was well placed for London’s West End and he made the journey from his house in Park Road daily. He was also a popular recording artist and his version of the film theme of Exodus was well known.

Apart from Semprini, I have been reminded by Eddie Lillo that we and many others were driven to school by the “Cockney Sinatra.” This wasn’t strictly true as the driver — Matt Munro — was a North London boy and not born within the sound of Bow bells. The actual limousine in question was a No 27 bus which ran from Teddington Station to Highbury. I don’t recall Matt ever singing whilst driving but he won so many talent contests that he was banned from entering them. Illness cut short his career or else he would doubtless be with the great crooners of all time. 

Teddington has long been the home of young actresses even before Keira’s timeo Dodo Watts was a famous film star of the 1930s with over a dozen major films to her credit. After the 2nd WW she moved into the administration side of filming and became the principal casting director for ABC Television. It is her that we have to thank for casting Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in The Avengers. She died at her home in Broom Road in 1990, aged 79. 

Another well known name was Christine Norden, who achieved fame for her singing, dancing and acting. She was discovered by Sir Alexander Korda in a cinema queue, aged 200 She appeared in all of the main West End Theatres and was a star on both sides of the Atlantic. She was the first entertainer to visit and perform for the troops after D-Day which made her a hit with the forces. She was almost as famous for the number of her marriages (five) as for any success in her career and with husband No 3 she moved to the USA and took American citizenship. In 1967 she caused a sensation by becoming the first actress to appear topless on Broadway. She returned to Teddington in the 1970s, still appearing on the London stage and with husband no 5 — a retired mathematician named George Heselden. She died in 1988 after heart surgery, aged 63. 

In recent years, many celebrities have chosen over the border Strawberry Hill as their place of refuge. Starting with Rob Brydon who achieved fame as Geoff in his series of monologues about the cuckolded taxi driver. He then cropped up as Uncle Bryn in Gavin & Stacey, moving on to The Trip series with Steve Coogan whilst remaining the anchorman of the popular panel show Would I Lie to You.

Hot on his heels were the established pair of Keeley Hawes and Matthew Macfadyen. They met on the set of Spooks in 2002 and moved to Strawberry Hill shortly afterwards. Keeley has had a remarkable run of television in the last 20 years. Apart from Spooks, she has enjoyed starring roles in Ashes to Ashes, Upstairs Downstairs, The Missing, The Durrells, Line of Duty and Bodyguard. Matthew’s credits have been as numerous, starting with Pride and Prejudice opposite Keira Knightley, Ripper Street (36 episodes), The Pillars of the Earth. Any Human Heart, and more recently as the Coughing Major in Quiz.

Finally the Tennant family — David, Georgia and their five children. What hasn’t been said about David Tennant clearly isn’t worth saying and so I shall leave it to another opportunity to concentrate on him.

Happily Teddington’s connection with the Arts continues with local actors Amanda Root and Tim McMullan. A rediscovered work by Rosina Filippi at the British Museum inspired Amanda to get together a group of friends to produce this work entitled Playing Jane as a COVID-19 busting performance to boost the work of the Landmark Arts Centre. Two shows were staged over two nights to packed houses. Tim McMullan, better known for his appearances in Foyle’s War and The Crown made an excellent Mr Collins in the memorable episode from Pride and Prejudice and the other members of the cast performed their parts admirably, It is to be hoped that Amanda will keep this company together and to repeat the experience of live theatre at the Landmark with another such masterpiece.

Ken Howe is a local historian and author of several books.

howe64@btinternet.com  020 8943 1513

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