Brinsworth House retirement home for entertainers
18:52 09 November 2009
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2008
Dame Thora Hird, Alan 'Fluff' Freeman and Charlie Drake are just some of the much-loved entertainers who have resided at Brinsworth House - for this is no ordinary retirement home; this beautiful mansion is exclusively for retired artistes.
"Only people connected with theatre or entertainment are residents," says executive administrator and fundraiser Peter Elliott, "and most of them are absolutely hysterical."
Having been a pantomime producer and performer all his life (he was Dick Emery's sidekick for many years - the one that got bashed when Dick said: 'Ooh, you are awful - but I like you'), Peter knows many of the residents from the old days. He became involved with Brinsworth House some 20 years ago and, needless to say, has a whole host of funny stories up his sleeve.
"I loved to chat with Thora Hird, but she kept mistaking me for a doctor and told me that it was a much better profession than acting," says Peter. "I also have fond memories of Fluff Freeman - he was a bit of a naughty character, but the girls loved him and he cheered everyone up - and Charlie Drake, who was a real gentleman and insisted on being called Charles."
Act One - About the house
Built in 1850, Brinsworth House was bought nearly a century ago with funds raised by the Music Hall Artistes' Railway Association, at the suggestion of King Rat, Joe Elvin of the Grand Order of Water Rats. The house cost a princely £2,400 but with necessary repairs and alterations more money was needed. Enter the society known as 'The Noble Six Hundred', a group of artistes and friends of the profession, who each donated £2 10s to pay off the mortgage. Their names are engraved for posterity on a huge mahogany board in the entrance. Today, Brinsworth House is funded by the Entertainment Artistes' Benevolent Fund.
Besides the 36 bedrooms for the residents, the house appropriately named 'the Old Pro's Paradise' boasts six living rooms, a library, a cosy bar and a much-used entertainment stage, all of which are decorated with a theatrical flourish to keep the ethos alive. Posters of variety shows and pantomimes jostle for space in the hallways - there's Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warriss in variety, Charlie Chester at the London Palladium and original posters from many Royal Variety Performances. And in the bar, there's a positive rogues' gallery of stars - from Eric Sykes to Ronnie Corbett and June Whitfield to Cilla Black.
A dedicated team of 64 look after the residents, including 35 nursing staff under the watchful eye of matron Sheila Gould, while Peter Elliott oversees the fundraising and administration. The entertainment coordinator is Jack Seaton and, in the bar, manager Sara Colvin pulls the pints for the gentlemen at lunchtime and looks after the ladies' tipples in the evening. "We all work together to run the house with a lot of humour," says Peter. Certainly, when I visited, there were laughs and smiles all round.
Act Two - Star performers
One of Brinsworth's newest residents is Jean Madden. Beaming with pleasure and full of fun she tells me she comes from a long line of entertainers and has been performing all her life mostly in variety and panto. "My favourite part was as Cinderella - I just loved the dress and the coach and my Prince Charming was a boy," she says coyly. "The worst part was as Little Bo Peep. We had real sheep - the little devils kept pushing me around - it was very embarrassing." Jean is still very much an entertainer in the house, treating us to a couple of tunes on the piano and in the true spirit of show business finishes off our chat by doing the splits. What a trouper!
Sitting close by and looking very glamorous in a leopard print frilly blouse is Penny Forsyth. She was Bruce's first wife when the couple were a singing and dancing double act for a time. "He was my first boyfriend," says Penny with a fond smile. And as for Brinsworth House, well she can't praise it enough. "Everyone is so lovely," she says. "I have probably one of the best rooms, right in the middle at the front of the house."
Wandering into the conservatory, I say hello to Keith Salberg. He is a well-respected entertainment booker with stars like Tommy Trinder and Leslie Welsh, the 'memory man', among his clients. "At 17, I was the youngest ever impresario," he says with pride. When I ask if he's travelled a lot, he just shrugs and says with a laugh, "Well, I went to Wolverhampton one Wednesday!"
It's a testament to Brinsworth House that so many of the residents have retained their sense of humour. When I pass food and wine buff Derek Cooper on his way to the bar, he cocks an eyebrow at me and asks: "Who are you?" When I tell him I'm a journalist, he laughs and replies: "Poor you - well, someone's got to do it!"
Also full of naughty fun is Richard O'Sullivan. Looking very trendy in his stripey shirt, he corners me with a wink and taking nursing officer Raj's hand says: "This place is full of bad girls, but I like the luxury!"
Act Three - Fundraising
As many of the residents agree, the house is more like a five-star hotel - all thanks to charitable donations to the Entertainment Artistes' Benevolent Fund.
The main source of financial support comes from the Royal Variety Performance, now in its 80th year. Originally called the Royal Command Performance, the show was first performed in front of King George V and Queen Mary. It was then that the King agreed to attend a yearly variety show provided the profits went to the Entertainment Artistes' Benevolent Fund.
Since then, the annual event has remained under royal patronage, and this year Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall will be attending the show at the London Palladium on December 11.
In addition to caring for the residents of Brinsworth House, the fund also provides financial help for around 300 beneficiaries who live in their own homes. Money is also allocated to structural improvements, which has resulted in grand openings by the Royal Family. In 1990, the Queen Mother opened a new wing of the house. "She was amazing and so relaxed," remembers Peter Elliott. "She even took off her shoes in the boardroom when we all sat down for a cuppa." Later, in 2002, Prince Charles opened the newly built conservatory. "The Prince spent a long time visiting with us," says Peter. "Being a bit of a thespian, he sat and chatted with the girls and was very interested in their stories."
Peter also taps into his network of showbiz friends to acquire more donations. A couple of years ago, his good friend Max Clifford offered his support with money raised through the TV show Britain's Got Talent. "In the first year, it did very well, but in the second year the donation doubled!" says Peter. This year, A Celebration of Laughter with Ken Dodd and Friends was a sell-out success at the Palladium with all proceeds going to the fund.
Well-known stars also help by sponsoring bedrooms and in return have their names painted on the doors. There's the Barbara Windsor room next to Max Clifford and Gloria Hunniford alongside Norman Wisdom and Brian Conley.
Sir Michael Parkinson is the latest personality to have a room named in his honour when he visited Brinsworth House this summer. In his capacity as the government's newly elected national dignity ambassador, Sir Michael turned up with a load of his chums to chat with the residents. Jimmy Tarbuck cracked a joke or two with Alf Pearson, the oldest resident, who's 93, and Roger Kitter (the loveable rogue Captain Alberto Bertorelli from 'Allo 'Allo) joined in the fun.
The stars still come out for the residents of Brinsworth House at their annual Christmas party, and with Jim Davidson, Ken Dodd, Roy Hudd, Danny La Rue and Joe Pasquale among the vice presidents, the show goes on with plenty of laughs.
- Brinsworth House, 72 Staines Road, Twickenham. For more information, see www.eabf.org.uk/brinhse.htm
Patron: HM The Queen
President: Laurie Mansfield
Chairman: Peter Prichard OBE
Vice chairman: Phil Dale
Treasurer: Ray Donn
Executive administrator and fundraiser: Peter Elliott
RGN Matron: Sheila Gould
Hon Chaplain: Rev Canon Roger Royle
The Royal Variety Performance
Max Miller Appreciation Society
Grand Order of Water Rats
The Royal Theatrical Fund
The Vaudeville Golfing Society