Friday, 28 June 2013

The Theatre by the River (Yvonne Arnaud 1890 -1958)

Guildford Guildhall
I’m sure I must have mentioned previously in passing that I had the pleasure of growing up in the fine Surrey town of Guildford.

My home town is famous for its cathedral, the crumbling old castle, the Spectrum Leisure Centre, the Royal Grammar school in the Upper High Street and, well not a lot else really.

Yvonne Arnaud Theatre frontage
But down by the River Wey, lurking alongside the Debenham’s department store, sits the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre. The auditorium was built in the middle 1960’s and will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary.

 I have to admit to vaguely remembering it being built, although I was only knee high to a grasshopper at that particular time (honest I was guv!).

But until recently I never gave much of a thought as to who it was named after, or inspired by. This is a sad reflection from someone who actually worked in the building for a short period about 20 years ago.

So the question now has to be asked, who was Yvonne Arnaud and exactly what relationship did she hold to this fairly nondescript Surrey market town?

Yvonne Arnaud
Germaine Yvonne Arnaud was a French born actress, pianist and singer (b. December 20th, 1890). Born in Bordeaux, she was raised in Paris and at the age of 9 entered the Conservatoire de Paris.

Regarded as something of a child protégée, she started her career as a child concert pianist, touring and performing with many leading orchestras throughout Europe and the USA.

In her early 20’s, she moved on to musical comedy and then, after an operation on her larynx affected her singing voice, into non-musical comedy and drama around the time of the early 1920’s.

She married the actor Hugh McLellan in 1920 and lived in Effingham near Guildford for many years, hence her continual connection to the town.

She appeared on stage and in numerous British films in the 30’s and 40’s, going on to playing a maid in Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle” (1958 - her final performance). This production was in fact the first of Tati’s films to be released in colour.

Not that she ever gave up “tinkling the ivories” occasionally returning to perform as a pianist in her later career (e.g. with the Halle Orchestra in 1948 and at the 1956 Hoffnung Festival).

Memorial stone
She died in Guildford aged of 67, after an operation on a cerebral haemorrhage.and her ashes were scattered in St Martha’s churchyard* where there is a memorial dedicated to her. 

7 years after her death, the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre was opened.

* The area in and around St Martha’s has a local reputation for the odd haunting and “strange” event taking place. In my late teens, myself and a few school friends spent a night up there around the sandpits “ghost hunting.” 

We never witnessed anything, but with the amount of red wine that was consumed on that rather damp evening, it is a wonder we knew what day it was let alone anything else!

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