Many Chester residents belonging to a generation who remember the fabulous Royalty, may also be aware of Dennis Critchley, the man who not only managed the theatre, but was agent, director and performer. Through a nine year period until the Royalty closed as a theatre in 1966 Dennis Critchley fought hard to keep the business viable, despite strong competition, and an audience that was moving away from provincial theatre-going.
He was born in London into a theatrical family. Leaving school at 14 he gained much experience touring the theatres around the UK. Dennis appeared at the London Palladium assisting the comedy duo~Nat Mills & Bobbie on 4th November 1946, the first peace-time Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. Being good at dialects and an excellent mimic he progressed to become an entertainer and comedy actor playing various roles in revue, later becoming a solo impressionist artist. During 1952 he made the decision to enter theatre management, becoming deputy manager at the Queens Theatre Blackpool. In 1956 he moved to the Royal Pavilion Repertory Theatre, also in Blackpool. He came to Chester as director and manager of the Royalty Theatre in 1957. He produced and directed plays, musicals and variety throughout the year, together with writing and directing the annual pantomimes.
He is credited with giving local talent the chance to start their careers, Russ Abbot and Keith Harris, to name but two. Russ Abbot thanked him personally for teaching him the basics of comedy presentation and timing on his This is Your Life in 1997.
As the 50s gave way to the 60s, he brought well-known artists such as Frankie Vaughan, Ken Dodd, Jimmy Young, Harry Worth,Bill Maynard and Helen Shapiro,Tony Christie, Alma Cogan and giving little known groups like Gerry & the Pacemakers, Beatles, and the Rolling Stones stage space. In fact The Rolling Stones commented recently about their appearances in the city, as they had to make their escape across roof tops! They mistakenly claimed it was at the ABC instead of the Royalty. There was no access to the ABC’s roof, and certainly no adjoining roof tops.
After the closure of the Royalty, he operated a theatrical agency directly opposite to the theatre. With the Royalty no longer presenting pantomime, Dennis was free to direct summer seasons and pantos for other major venues. The Delfont Organisation, Danny Betesh and Norman Murray engaged him to direct productions starring top names such as Cilla Black, Cannon and Ball, and Dana in the major theatres such as Liverpool Empire, Alhambra Bradford and Golders Green Hippodrome.
In 1980, he revived the subject of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a traditional pantomime, adapting his father’s book. It is now one of the most frequently produced pantos at Christmas due to the popularity of this first large-scale production at the Tameside Theatre, Ashton-under-Lyne. The following year it broke box office records at the New Theatre Hull, with Dana in the leading role and subsequently enjoyed a long run in London’s Phoenix Theatre.
In retirement Dennis Critchley remained in Chester – which had family connections. Enjoying a few years of retirement before he died in January 2012, after a short illness. Dennis spent all his life in the theatre and loved every minute of it. Chester’s theatre goers were lucky he happened along.
Sarah Chaloner remembers ~
I worked for Dennis at Royalty Entertainments and his then partner Paul Bridson. He was a brilliantly funny man, but also very strict! His wife worked in the theatre shop. The costume hire department was in the basement, where there was an awful picture of me modeling a hooped wedding underskirt made by the lovely Lila Harris (Keith Harris’s mum).
One of my first jobs as a typist was to type the panto scripts out for Dennis that were then printed off by hand on a huge old fashioned roller printer by Lila. Very fond memories of Dennis and my YTS job straight out of school.