Tribute to Ken Wright

by Martin Roche
Ken Wright began his stage career at the age of 7 playing a robin.
Why am I not surprised?

With this significant performing arts foundation and, bolstered by four G&S Operettas under his belt at Chadderton Grammar School, it was preordained that, when posted to the Far East in May 1953 with the Royal Engineers, he would be appointed ‘Regimental Entertainments Officer.’ He wrote, produced and compered the Christmas Concert that year which led to an invite to join the REME Drama Group.
This led to a dizzying array of roles including ‘Frank Lippencott’ in My Sister Eileen and the Sport’s Master in The Happiest Days of Your Life, with the unfortunate character name of ‘Dick Tassell.’ Oh, the naivety of 1950’s Singapore.
You will be interested to learn that, in Malay, Dick Tassell translates into … ‘Dick Tassell.’
He was subsequently offered a role in a semi-professional production at Singapore Rep’ in the play St Joan. But Ken apparently turned it down as, having read the script, he “didn’t understand a word of it.” I guess that was an early documented example of his northern ‘tell it how it is’ approach to life.
Back home, Ken was soon laying the foundations for his love of theatre by immersing himself at any opportunity: Oldham Amateurs, Rochdale Curtain Theatre, Middleton Operatic, Ashton Operatic, North Manchester, Congress Players, Saddleworth Musical Society and Saddleworth Players. That’s some CV.
It’s also some legacy.

In December 1963 whilst working in the Borough Engineer’s Office in Oldham, Ken received a call from Pat Battle to say, “the theatre has burned down.” She was referring to the (then) local theatre in Shaw. Ken was to record that, three years later, he “ … wished she’d called someone else!”
It was apparently blamed on a cigarette end dropped between the stage and the revolve during an after show drink following a production of Jane Eyre. If only Charlotte Bronte had thought of that as a plot line: “Kiss me Rochester – but mind what you do with that fag.”
Due to a lot of work by many people including what Ken described as “the incredible talents of Derek and Ruth Clegg” the old Prince’s Cinema in Shaw where Ken had gone every Saturday as a boy, was identified as the replacement premises. It had since become “a paint and wallpaper emporium” – rather decadent for Shaw – and was up for sale. It was purchased for £5,500 and the long and dedicated process of turning it into a theatre began. Ken got the job of converting Derek’s fantasy into something workable. Seats were purchased at 10 shillings each and recovered with fabric from Fox’s Mill. They acquired the lamps for nothing from Buckley & Proctor’s shop at Mumps. The brick layers came from Middleton Operatic and the joinery was completed by two workmen from Oldham Sewage Works. “The Oldham Sewage Work Joiners.” That in itself sounds like a Stanley Holloway monologue.
But it was a true team effort and as was his way, Ken was at the heart of a legacy we now know as ‘Playhouse 2.’
Following the first production, The Manchester Guardian described the new theatre as “a small pocket of culture nestling in the foothills of the Pennines.”
And his keen desire for taking a role and responsibility for local theatre included being Deputy Chairman of Oldham Coliseum theatre. Chris Moxon said of Ken “he was almost the only one who actually understood the problems of running a theatre.”

This was also where both Ken and Anne first met the composer Howard Goodall and who was to become and remain, such a close friend.
Ken and Anne were long standing members of Saddleworth Musical Society and in more recent years, Ken was the welcoming face as part of the Front of House team.
His first show was Iolanthe in 1970 when he apparently played “a most unusual Strephon.” I can’t envisage his interpretation having being anything else, bearing in mind the character is a fairy down to the waist.
In 1976 he returned to his G&S roots directing Patience for them. And his after-show party pieces were legend, such as his Mr Cellophane from Chicago resplendent in a white suit.

But I guess his most enduring association was with Saddleworth Players and in every conceivable role.

Chair for over 11 years and licensee for over 15. He acted, built sets, did publicity, Front of House, the Youth Theatre, building maintenance, the list goes on as do all his acting roles down the years. Malvolio in 12th Night, Separate Tables, Last of the Red Hot Lovers – and that’s a title not an epithet – for which he won Best Actor. Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sancho Panza in Man of La Mancha which won best musical at the Reporter Awards and not to forget Entertaining Mr Sloane where he played Anne’s father. Don’t worry, I think it’s a Dobcross thing.

And so, what are the themes which have come out in the tributes to Ken from his theatre friends? These are just a sample of the accolades:

“Friendship, good counsel, inspirational, multi-talented, selfless, an important part of my life, made a difference in the world, made me who I am, loved him like a father, one of a kind, someone I could always turn to, a true gentleman, helpful and caring, he made everyone feel welcome and … his contribution and legacy to the arts community of Saddleworth and Oldham will live on.”

It is easy to see the measure of the man. Ken didn’t just influence theatre. He also influenced lives and careers.

On stage as in his life, Ken never came across as anything other than genuine, honest, sincere, passionate, caring, dedicated and committed. I guess the word we would be more familiar with in this age is that he was a ‘Mentor’ to so many; he enabled so much in people just by being himself.
He gave a substantial part of himself to theatre, to life, to all that he did, to all whom he cared for. Consequently, there was no pretence, no façade with Ken Wright. Onstage, you knew he was playing a character but the genuineness, the sincerity with which it was done, brought it to life, made it all so real. And that was a reflection of the inner man; his ease with himself, his strength of personality, his steady, strong, dependable nature that made us all warm to him and in turn, ensured that we all held him so easily in such high regard.
But equally, I found him a sensitive man. Easily touched by the emotion of those special moments in theatre. He knew quality and wallowed in the opportunity of being immersed in it.
And on stage his expertise and his observation were second to none. He could stand doing nothing in a scene on stage and steal it from the rest of us. Swine.

Ken will be sorely missed by our theatre community and we send our love and condolences to Anne and her family.
Ken was still guiding and helping us until very recently. Last Season he stepped in to design sets at a time when our new set team were learning the ropes. We simply couldn’t have managed without him, and we’ve been adapting his plans ever since.
His contribution to Saddleworth Players and beyond can not be under estimated, but I will particularly miss his wise counsel, straight talking and great sense of humour.

Ken Kright MBE 5th January 1931 -20th April 2024

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