Peter Felgate ~ a life in the Fols
How many can honestly say they have had a thoroughly enjoyable life?
Peter can. Theatre was in his blood. His paternal family boasted a concert singer, a professional pianist an entertainer, and a Music Hall act. His mother was a mezzo soprano and dancer, her sister a professional ballroom teacher and brother a semi-professional drummer in a dance band.
Peter’s parents married in 1918, having met while entertaining troops in "Merrygoround". While appearing with the Fol-de-Rols in Scarborough Floral Hall, his mother was letting out her costumes prior to Peter’s birth in December 1919.
a strict regime, including cold baths at 6am, with the option of diving off the pier in summer
Education began at Downsmead School, Upperton Road, Eastbourne with Clive Dunn as friend and fellow pupil, followed by Roxborough School, sited on what became the Princess Alice Hospital. It was run by the Gilbert Brothers, who believed in a strict regime, including cold baths at 6am, with the option of diving off the pier in summer.
Peter also remembers spinning for bass off Beachey Head in one of the sailing dinghies. The school provided Eastbourne with many successful businessmen, including John Day. Alec Guiness was one year ahead of Peter.
At this time Peter was confirmed and became a keen Crusader, especially enjoying the annual camps at Glynde.
Down on the Pier
In 1924 the Pier bandstand hosted his parent’s own show.
Performing alfresco, Peter joined the small company to learn the song for the children’s slot. It was essential he win the singing competition to keep the prize for the next show.
When the Blue Rooms opened the ‘Pier Revels’ did 3 shows p.a. at Christmas, Easter and in the summer. The young Peter increasingly sang and danced, so much did he love the work that he left school early, despite promising exam results.
In 1935, aged 15, Peter had his first professional season with ‘Clarkson Roses Twinkle’ on the pier, followed by revue at the Floodlight Saville Theatre. Here he worked with John Mills.
Peter attended RADA for a year but he had been taught well by his father. He did however become a life long friend of Ian Carmichael. Latterly their correspondence had become a series of medical bulletins - sadly Ian died in 2010.
Joining the Fol-De-Rols, run by his godfather, Greatrex Newman, Peter rubbed shoulders with the likes of Arthur Askey, Richard Murdoch, Jack Warner and Elsie and Doris Waters.In 1939 at the White Rock Pavilion, he worked with Cyril Fletcher.
The Fol-De-Rols were an elegant outfit with ladies in crinolines, bonnets and gloves and men wearing frock coats, tight trousers, beaver top hats and lace jabots. But even the airmen stationed at Hastings were won over after an initial stunned silence on their free first night.
In November 1939 the company went to France under the auspices of Ensa. The Crazy Gang, Vera Lynn, they were all there!
Peter had been called up but Rex Newman did wangle him a second stint of entertainment in France. This time they performed in canteens, off the back of a truck – wherever! One day Peter was reading an old newspaper in Rouen which stated that all Ensa parties had been safely evacuated. This small company had not and became part of the trudging columns of people trying to avoid the dive-bombers following the invasion of the lowlands. Eventually they made it home via Cherbourg.
Peter at War
At the Royal Artillery Depot, Plymouth, Peter became Sergeant Instructor in Gunnery. Living through the Blitz he was in charge of an anti-looting squad. One sad task was the digging of communal graves. Even so he ran a dance band performing in the Officers’ and Sergeants’ Mess. Eventually he was posted to a coastal defence battery in Mablethorpe, near Grimsby – and it was grim! Peter therefore applied for a commission. Five months passed at an Officers Training Unit at Alton Towers, a wonderful place, but the transfer to Catterick was horrible. Peter put on an end of course show with the cadets.
As a young officer, Peter joined the Sixth Field Regiment at Brasted in 1944. It was very pleasant until Monty decided the troops were unfit and instituted the regime of running everywhere at the double.
To Southend, then Tilbury and the convoy to Europe in the early hours of D-Day. Churchill’s address was relayed and the whole experience was unforgettable. From Juno Beach Peter found himself in trouble spots such as the capture of Caen aerodrome and the battle at Falaise. He never reached Arnhem, becoming bogged down in mud, but was in the Ardennes, supported an air drop across the Rhine and in the ‘Jock Column’ rushed to Schleswig Holstein.
Peter was mentioned in despatches for distinguished service. When his regiment was posted to Burma, he remained as unofficial welfare officer at Hamburg, where as Captain, he staged shows for the troops. At Lubeck he caught up again with Rex Newman.
The Show Goes On
After being demobbed in 1946, Peter reverted to show business, rejoining the Fol-De-Rols in 1947. He decided however, to try the West End, getting a part in the American show ‘High Button Shoes’ at the London Hippodrome and, in a cameo with a girl, stopped the show on the first night! One of the dancers was young Audrey Hepburn; Alma Cogan was a singer.
He then auditioned for the part of Will Parker in ‘Oklahoma’ becoming the first Englishman to play a major part in the production.
Other shows included ‘Intimacy at 8.30’ at the Criterion with Joan Sims and Ron Moody. He turned down the part of Tony in ‘The Boyfriend’ destined for America; it wasn’t right for him.
Eventually rejoining the Fol-De-Rols, he performed with David Nixon, becoming in time, the Company Manager and Producer.
In 1960 they took part in the Royal Variety Performance. But when Rex Newman died Peter left.
Peter and Maggie, a distinguished singer in her own right, (now married for over 40 years), decided to open a guesthouse in Worthing but were soon lured back to Eastbourne when Peter became Production Manager with Peggy Paige and Richard Burnett’s Rep. Company at the De La Warr, Bexhill. His last West End show was at the Mayfair Theatre with Michael Flanders in 1970. Young David Essex was there.
The later years of Peter’s career saw him as Manager of the Hippodrome, Devonshire Park, the Congress, and at his own request, Devonshire Park again. He retired in 1984 to take up gardening and water colour painting, exhibiting in Eastbourne, Seaford and Charleston.
Links with St John’s have always been strong through the School and both daughters were married in the Church. He enjoys St John’s, having good friends, and he has many a laugh. He is not quite so active now but is a regular face at the 9.30 service.
When you next see him, remember this is the man who won the All England Tap Dancing Championship at the Scala Theatre, London in 1936!
Peter has two children from his marriage to 'Fols' dancer Phyllis Harcourt.
Their daughter Linda was educated in Eastbourne, where they lived and danced at the Eastbourne Academy. She is married with three children: Christopher, Nicholas and Sophie, who is a dancer and wants to run her own school!
His son Nicholas, who worked at Lloyds in London, now lives in Paralimni, Cyprus where he is an entertainer in the hotels and army bases, assisted by his son Ritchie. Ritchie is a professional guitarist, singer and composer: see his videos on YouTube.
Nicholas' other son, Michael Felgate, is a professional footballer in Cyprus. Needless to say, Peter is very proud of them all.
Peter has a step-daughter Fiona by his marriage to Maggie Macdonald. Fiona was educated in Eastbourne and also had the "theatre bug". She toured with her Godfather, Jimmy Logan, as a stage manager and PA in Scotland, but is now settled as a Deputy Headteacher at Motcombe School, Eastbourne where she now lives with her husband and two children Thomas and Jessica.
In Memorium: Peter Felgate
It is with great sadness that I have to tell you that darling Peter Felgate died on Wednesday 5th February 2014 in Eastbourne, which had been his home for many years.
He was 94 and when I last saw him in November 2013 was full of beans if a little frail.
He was a wonderful "Man of the Theatre" and I shall miss him very much, as will his wife of over 40 years Maggie Macdonald.
There was a service to celebrate his life at 11.30am Wednesday 19th February at St John's Church, St John's Road, Eastbourne.