On Valentine’s Day, PETER BARRON shines the spotlight on a couple whose love affair flickered into life on stage at a North-East theatre more than 60 years ago 

WHEN young, bright-eyed Jeff Mann was put in charge of the spotlight for the first night of a show at his local theatre back in 1962, little did he know it would illuminate the rest of his life.

Jeff’s job with Darlington Operatic Society was to climb up into 'the gods' and keep the star performers bathed in a strong beam of light.

Instead, the teenage volunteer crewman took a shine to one of the dancers. His spotlight kept straying to the part of the stage where she happened to be – and it earned him the sack.

When Jeff arrived at Darlington Civic Theatre for the second night of The Belle of New York, he was taken to one side by director, Joy Beadell, who'd taken a dim view of his lack of focus, and promptly relieved him of spotlight duties.

“I would like you to work backstage from now on, Jeffrey,” she told him, sternly.

“The idea is to keep the spotlight on the principals – not the pretty little blonde dancer at the end of the line!”

Jeff was suitably admonished, but working backstage meant he was able to chat up the dancer in the wings and discovered she was called Liz Denham.

Liz had joined the society for the previous show, Kismet, having progressed from Joy Beadell School of Dance.

It might have been love at first sight for Jeff, but Liz took a little longer to see the light: “To be honest, I wasn’t interested in him to start with, but he pursued me and I suppose that was quite flattering,” she admits.

Jeff’s next move was to invite Liz to go with him to see Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen at The Baths Hall, just before Christmas.

She said ‘yes’ and they went on a double-date with friends Reg Hibbert and Glenys Jameson.

Jeff's persistence paid off and the romance blossomed through dance nights at The Majestic.

Every Friday, Jeff would cycle from his home in Haughton, leave his bike, coat and balaclava at Liz’s house in Thornbury Rise, then meet her on High Row when she finished work at Mortimers hairdressers.

After the dance, they’d walk back to Liz’s with a bag of chips, and Jeff would get wrapped up for the ride home.

“It was a long way, so I used to take a breather on the bridge on Thompson Street bank, and there was one night I fell asleep still astride my bike!” remembers Jeff.

The couple married at Holy Trinity Church on October 12, 1966, and went on to have two daughters, Sarah and Jill.

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Their Valentine’s story is one of countless examples of families who’ve been touched by Darlington Operatic Society (DOS), which is this year celebrating its 100th anniversary of staging shows at what has now reverted to Darlington Hippodrome.

Jeff’s parents were another example. His father, Ernie, was 'property master' for the society, while his mother, Frances, served on the ladies’ committee, and was a dresser.

The couple, who became honorary members in recognition of their service, had encountered DOS through their daughter, Sue, who attended childhood ballet classes with Joy Beadell.

Jeff had no particular interest in theatre but was “roped in” by his dad to work backstage, and admits he also saw it as an opportunity to meet girls! His younger brother, Trevor, also got involved as a “call boy”.

The family’s connection to DOS has carried on, with Jeff and Liz’s daughter, Sarah (pictured below), performing in shows, and serving on the committee, rising to become a former chair.

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In turn, Sarah’s daughter, Lily, performed as Jemima in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in 2018.

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As Jeff and Liz reflect on their marriage at their home in Darlington, and sift through the fading programmes of the shows they worked on together, it’s clear to see the impact that DOS has had on their lives.

“So many Darlington families have been involved with Darlington Operatic Society through the years, and so many friendships have been forged,” says Jeff, a retired engineer.

“I’d never done anything like that before – I was always playing football – but my dad got me involved and it was such a laugh.”

There was the time, for example, when the formidable Allene Norris, well-known as a reporter for BBC Radio Cleveland and several regional newspapers, was playing the lead in Annie Get Your Gun.

“I was up in the 'flies' and, when Allene fired her gun into the air, it was my job to throw a vulture down onto the stage.

"But, on the nights that followed, it became a joke to throw down other items – ending up with a stuffed dog,” he laughs.

Now retired, the couple remain at the heart of community life. Jeff takes over as president of Darlington Rotary in June, and Liz becomes president of Darlington Inner Wheel a month later. And, of course, they never miss a DOS show.

“The quality of the productions they put on now is magnificent. In terms of professionalism, they’re every bit as good as you’d see in the West End,” Liz declares.

“Darlington is just very lucky to have had such a special organisation, enriching the community, and bringing so many people together. It’s been an integral part of the town over so many years.”

Read more from Peter Barron here:

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Indeed, it has. History shows that DOS famously saved the theatre from being demolished in the late 1950s, when it took over the lease to keep it running in the midst of a financial crisis.

So, without Darlington Operatic Society, the town wouldn’t have such a beautiful theatre.

And it's equally fair to say that Jeff Mann wouldn’t have met the light of his life.