Remembering the great Sidney Grapes - ‘Boy John’
PUBLISHED: 08:12 28 April 2018
Sixty years today one of Norfolk’s greatest-ever entertainers died. Keith Skipper pays tribute to a man who was the living, breathing spirit of a county’s humour... Sidney Grapes.
Sidney Grapes, the Clown Prince of Potter Heigham, created a one-man Norfolk entertainment enterprise in the name of precious local pride and heritage.
Garage proprietor, rustic comedian and man of letters, he inspired a whole generation to glory in the county and its dialect and humour. He remains arguably our most steadfast comic influence in an era of alarmingly transient fads and fashions.
Now, 60 years after his death on April 28, 1958, it’s fitting to pay fresh tribute to a performer and writer who continues to remind us how Norfolk humour may not dig you in the ribs or smack you in the face. But it can tickle your fancy like no other.
He had made his pitch as the archetypal Norfolk turn at local concerts and dinners well before dropping a few lines to the Eastern Daily Press in January 1946, the start of a 12-year exercise destined to endear him to a far wider audience.
The Boy John Letters, a delightful microcosm of village life, were written in dialect but never swamped by it. They were composed by a countryman who wrote as he spoke and spelt as he pleased. He happily combined written and stage entertainments in an appealing and enduring style, a rare double in any age.
Sidney and his homely cast may be rooted in time and place, but their offerings retain genuine charm and value because they are wholly unpretentious, softly amusing and admirably self-effacing.
Those of us weaned on the homespun humour of characters like Aunt Agatha, Granfar and
the busybody Old Mrs W --- can scarcely believe they are well over half-a-century old when audiences of all ages fall under their spell
at harvest supper, village gathering and family reunion. They have proved a regular attraction on my entertainment rounds these past 40 years.
Early epistles had readers guessing who some of the colourful characters might be (especially ‘Mrs W’) and they were full of post-war austerity as rationing and shortages induced heavy sighs. Even so, a truly warming cheerfulness and community affection shone through from the start.
Letters were cut out and sent to exiles all over the world to provide “a breath of home”. They have sold since in their thousands as beacons of authentic Norfolk. Their countless admirers include Professor Peter Trudgill, Norwich-born international expert in the field of dialects and president of FOND, Friends Of Norfolk Dialect.
He describes The Boy John Letters as “work of not a little genius … not only are the characterisations and vignettes of village life brilliant and therefore enormously popular, but Sidney Grapes is also a superb writer of the Norfolk dialect”.
As with his stage routine, Sidney used the letters to emphasise how dangerous it might be to treat the rustic as no more than a buffoon. He would get his audience laughing at him at a local function and then up would go the admonishing finger – “Now, howld yew hard!”
On stage, Sidney wore an old “chummy” hat – a soft, felt hat with narrow brim – a smock and a “wropper” round his neck. Those tempted to treat him as just another country bumpkin soon discovered he wasn’t quite the fool he might have looked.
He was often advised to head for the professional circuit but refused to see his talents for comedy as no more than a hobby. He accepted limitations of Norfolk dialect outside his native patch and would not have liked to compromise with anything less than the genuine article. If only current national television and drama producers could adopt such standards!
He lived all his 70 years in the Broadland village of Potter Heigham, starting work at 15 for his father, a carpenter and builder. A bicycle shop developed into a garage and motor business with a marked increase in traffic to the Broads and coast. Sidney was first to accept how holiday traffic weakened the dialect even if it did boost our local economy.
The Boy John Letters were designed to be read out loud – and that’s where I served an important Norfolk apprenticeship.
My emerging reputation as a willing performer, based on delivering a succession of long recitations at Sunday School anniversaries and proclivity for impressions of wireless sporting commentators while riding my bike, led to requests for public readings of those captivating EDP instalments.
I even added the latest dialect treat to my Saturday morning party pieces for men building new council houses just past the old chapel. Pennies and praise took much of the sting out of more mundane chores waiting for attention.
It was in the reading room at Hamond’s Grammar School in Swaffham, however, where this pleasure in making a gentle exhibition of myself yielded highest marks. A Boy John Letter in the paper demanded a genuine swedebasher to do it justice.
Several pupils, most notably those with fathers in the RAF, asked for personal hearings. My stock again rose dramatically when I offered rough translations of Norfolk gems like “moderate for the best part o’ some time” and “well, fare yer well, tergether”.
This was up there with Chaucer and Shakespeare! That scrawny kid from the back and beyond in Beeston had his uses after all despite laughable results in algebra, chemistry, geometry, physics …
Skipper’s Norfolk masterclasses were cut short by the end of the letters delivery shortly after my 14th birthday, but valuable seeds had been sown. They blossomed into a lifelong passion for a vibrant local vernacular and Boy John’s starring role in keeping it cheerfully relevant on a fast-changing stage.
I never met Sidney Grapes. But he’s been following me around ever since Mrs W— won first prize at a village social for the woman who could pull the ugliest face ... “and she wunt even in the competition!”
Sidney Grapes lived through sweeping changes in his home village of Potter Heigham as it flourished at the heart of the boating industry and holiday trade.
Of course, Sidney added to the village’s fame after the Second World War with his Boy John Letters and glowing reputation as a rustic entertainer. Older inhabitants still call it “Boy John’s village” and a development called Grapes Close serves to to keep his name to the fore.
It is in the beautiful parish church, however, where his memory burns brightest. The older part of St Nicholas’ Church, with its round flint tower and thatched roof of Broadland reed, dates back to the 12th century.
Sidney was a choirboy here from boyhood and later a faithful churchwarden until the end of his days. By his wish, the church was decorated at his funeral as for a spring festival and joyous hymns were sung.
Later in the year, an oak-panelled clergy vestry was built in the parish church and dedicated to Sidney’s memory by the Rt Rev Percy Herbert, Bishop of Norwich from 1942 until 1959.
His address on Sunday, November 23, 1958, paid warm tribute to Sidney’s creative talents shining through the Boy John Letters: “It is not given to many writers to create fictitious characters that are so alive, and that once met with will never be forgotten.
“Granfar, Aunt Agatha, Old Mrs W --, we know them, they are our friends; he made them living people, each with their own special character, but each the kind of people we’d known all our lives. He takes his place, in that sense, with the immortal characters invented by Charles Dickens …”.
The Boy John Letters, published by the Mousehold Press of Norwich, are on sale at £10.95 in local bookshops, including the Jarrold stores in Norwich and Cromer. This latest edition has a new introduction from me about their enduring appeal. For more information contact publisher Adrian Bell at: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: 01603 425115