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Newbury's Queen of Pantomime

France Belk entertained thousands

Jackie Markham

Reporter:

Jackie Markham

Email:

jackie.markham@newburynews.co.uk

In post-war Newbury, Christmas wasn’t Christmas without a France Belk pantomime. 

Once upon a time in West Berkshire, there lived a talented lady who was inspired to entertain others.

Mrs France Belk’s contribution to the life of the town in providing public entertainment for over thirty years was legendary.

In 1962 the town presented her with an engraved silver rosebowl, in recognition of 25 years of producing shows and pantomimes in aid of charitable causes. At the time,one of the councillors said that France Belk had probably given greater pleasure to more people than any other person in the town, with her spectacular festive shows over the quarter century.

Mrs Belk, a local dancing teacher, first produced her shows in the 1930s, to raise money to help the unemployed. Her first pantomime, “Cinderella” was produced in 1936.

Throughout the dark war years she brought relief by taking shows to villages and factories and anywhere where entertainment was needed, sometimes improvising a stage from the back of a lorry.  Her “indefatigable spirit” overcame any practical difficulties she may have encountered.  She went on to produce 28 annual pantomimes, each one a riot of colour and involving lots of local children in singing and ballet.  As well as producing and directing the shows, Mrs Belk wrote the scripts and some of the music, and also choreographed complicated dance routines. In addition she designed all the sets and the colourful costumes, made by an army of willing helpers.

The scale of these shows was impressive – Cinderella had 60 performers, including 14 principals and 16 child fairy dancers; there were 20 songs, 250 dresses and 11 scenes.  Postwar, with the growth of the “France Belk School of Dancing and Dramatic Art” at the studio in Station Approach, the shows became ever more ambitious, with imaginative creations involving 70 or 80 performers. In the weeks following the performances, which gained huge audiences, the letters page of the Newbury Weekly News was filled with praise and appreciation from satisfied theatre- goers.

Her last pantomime, in 1966, was “Robinson Crusoe”, after which she retired from public life to care for her ailing husband, and the couple moved away to Lee-on Solent.

In 1972 she attended the Corn Exchange Newbury Operatic Society’s performance of “Wizard of Oz”, many of whose principal players had been child stars in her pantomimes.

She died 40 years ago this month, much missed among Newbury’s creative community.

Newbury Corn Exchange recognised France Belk’s considerable achievements to Newbury’s artistic and creative life by dedicating a plaque to her memory, as part of the theatre’s 1990s refurbishment programme.

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