Theatre Production, October 2nd-5th 2019
Staged at Theatre Severn, Frankwell Quay, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, SY3 8FT

The summer of 1969 – first man on the moon, Eurovision’s unique four-way tie and another tie that happened on another show which was also watched by millions live throughout Europe... In the 1969 series of Jeux Sans Frontières, Shrewsbury not only became Great Britain’s first winners of an International Heat since the BBC had entered the fray in 1967, but also went on to win the Grand Final (albeit tied with the West Germans of Wolfsburg).

On Saturday 5th October 2019, I went up to Shrewsbury to attend a performance of (so far!) the only theatre production that has, at its centre, my all-time favourite TV programme. I got talking beforehand with the production’s writer and director, Chris Eldon Lee, and one of the stars, Sally Tonge. They were amazed that I had travelled all the way from south London to attend and Chris gave me a free programme, which was very kind of him.

Now, I really really wanted to enjoy this, especially as they showed such wonderful clips on the overhead screen, such as the first colour JSF titles. I had never seen these before as they were before my time (I was all of two years old when these events took place!). They even managed to find someone who had shot parts of the domestic heat with amateur cine film - in colour! - which was very interesting to see, especially as the original video recording was long ago wiped by the BBC from the archives.

The troupe of actors played many roles and engaged the audience by occasionally “breaking the fourth wall” and getting audience participation. They started by being their present selves reminiscing about the past to a younger relative. What was it like fifty years ago? They sang many of the slogans heard in adverts and referenced TV shows of the era such as Thunderbirds, as well as commenting on the impending breakup of The Beatles and Shrewsbury Town Football Club’s season that year. But never once did they mention Lulu and her amazing win in Spain that year, which I found to be odd as The Eurovision Song Contest was really the premier European show of the time (and still is).

They took us through all the build up to the domestic heat between Shrewsbury and Chester. Their trouncing of Chester was achieved with one of the biggest margins in the history of the British Domestic Series: 14-5! However, by this point I was beginning to question what in the play actually happened in 1969 and what was invention for the sake of the play. For instance, did the Chester team really pee in the Dingle pond? That sounds unlikely to me given that this sort of behaviour wasn’t known to be common fifty years ago and would have been very much frowned upon?! And were the Chester team really all suffering from hangovers from the night before, thus accounting for their massive defeat?

Dawn Lake gave a brilliant impression of Eddie Waring, right down to his mannerisms and what he would really say during the various games. The cast also sang a few songs of the time. Christina Cubbin gave us a really lovely rendition of Cilla Black’s Something Tells Me Something’s Gonna Happen Tonight and Ruth Tipton and Patrick Buck (playing Harald the West German boy who Ruth’s character falls in love with) performed a lovely duet of This Guy’s in Love With You. Sandie Shaw’s Eurovision winner Puppet on a String became Puppet in a Swing! They also slipped in some songs from 1980: Day Trip to Bangor became Day Trip to Blackpool, with suitably altered lyrics, and a short refrain at the beginning of the show from Peter Gabriel’s Games Without Frontiers (the part where Kate Bush sings the programme’s title, only making it sound like “Sheer son Fronteer!”).

It was stressed that the games played in 1969 could never be done today due to “elf and safety” and instead there were some hilarious “stunt” puppets to do the work for them! (Hence the Puppet in a Swing!) But I do wonder what the real cheerleaders, who looked so lovely and elegant in the black and white pictures, would think about being played by a troupe of Barbie dolls!!!

There were – predictably – a lot of knowing jokes about Brexit and local Shropshire / Shrewsbury politics which were very funny. But sometimes it really felt like I was watching an episode of the outdated wartime comedy 'Allo 'Allo!, what with the lazy stereotypes on show, particularly of the West Germans. The German teams were definitely the 'baddies' of this production, always the cheats, and sadly all the clichés were trotted out.

The production was entertaining in parts, the cast acquitted themselves well, but overall I’m sorry to have to say this: I thought this sort of humour went out in the 1980s along with the over-tired and discourteous depictions of the Germans. As I said, I really wanted to love this, but in the end it wasn't as good as I hoped it would be.

Review by Hazel Ford

I am sorry Hazel Ford failed to enjoy Shrewsbury’s Finest Hour. Judging by the gales of laughter and enthusiastic applause at every performance (all perfectly audible on the DVD) she must be in the minority.

I fear Hazel may have missed the point, rather. Shrewsbury’s Finest Hour is a comedy about a funny TV show screened in the 60s. So, of course it embraces the humour of that time. What else could it do? It is a recognised theatrical device. John Osborne uses 50s humour in his iconic play The Entertainer to great effect. However, Hazel can be excused as – as she points out – she was just two years old in 1969.

The play is based on extensive, detailed research. We also talked to as many veteran competitors as possible and wove the play around their stories. For Hazel to imply they were fibbing is disappointing to say the least, and the Shrewsbury team are perfectly entitled to be upset.

We were very careful to make it clear in the play that all concerned indulged in ‘gamesmanship’; not just the Germans. There was a substantial sequence about how Shrewsbury colluded with the BBC to smuggle a Blackpool bodybuilder into their team. Hazel seems to have missed this.

Contrary to the cliché, in my experience Germans have a great sense of humour. I should know. I’m fortunate to be married to one - and spend a lot of time in Germany. They are perfectly happy to laugh at themselves … and us! All the Germans who saw the show live in Shrewsbury found it very funny. Since then the DVD has gone down so well in Germany - the first of what we hope will be several public screenings is scheduled for the New Year.

by Chris Eldon Lee, November 2019

Photographs of Shrewsbury's Finest Hour courtesy of Chris Eldon Lee