It began with Aberfan – now school children all over Wales will benefit
ON October 21,1966, news of the disaster at Aberfan appeared on television. At his home in Sutton, Surrey, Harry Secombe watched, stunned. Then he reached for the telephone.
At the other end of the line was Welsliman Stanley Baker. “Have you heard this terrible news?” asked Harry. “We must do something to help, we must get all show business to do something.”
The newscast hadn’t even finished… but the idea for a wonderful show had been born. The Heart of Show Business had started beating.
Something had to be done. Stanley agreed. He knew Aberfan well; his home is in Ferndale, hardly 10 miles away. Secombe’s family are from Treharris, five miles from Aberfan. A third friend, Welshman Donald Houston, was brought in. He was at his family home in Tonypandy, six miles away, at the time of the tragedy.
And that original idea has grown into a scheme to help school children all over Wales with educational grants until beyond the year 2000.
“It was simply an emotional reaction,” said Harry. “And it probably hit all three of us simultaneously. We’re Welshmen, see. This tragedy was our tragedy. We all felt it. We knew we had to help in the best way we could—through show business.”
On Sunday you can see exactly how in The Heart of Show Business.
But between that original, highly-charged moment, when the programme was born, until Sunday, there’s an incredible story of panic, laughs, unexpected setbacks, success and abounding warmth.
This week I have been piecing that story together.
Three days after the Aberfan disaster, the three met in Harry’s dressing room at the London Palladium to work out the first details. They talked and planned as Harry rushed in and out between stage-calls. This dressing room became the nerve-centre of the operation over the next seven weeks.
Originally, a charity stage show was planned. It seemed the best and most practical idea. Stanley phoned impresario Bernard Delfont to ask for a theatre. Back came the reply: “Why not a television show? We can arrange for you to use Elstree Studios.”
Television — better still. More money, bigger audience, greater benefit for Aberfan. The heartbeat was growing stronger.
An organising committee was formed: Harry Secombe, Stanley Baker, Donald Houston, Bernard Delfont, Eddie Jarrett a booker with the Grade Organisation, and scriptwriter Jimmy Grafton. Their next step was contacting artists.
Days of earnest work. The response was overwhelming. “It seemed that everyone wanted to do something,” said Donald.
Meetings in Harry’s dressing room became nightly events. Working out running order for artists, planning a blueprint for the show.
For this is not a normal show. No set times for filming or rehearsing. The stars had to work in their own time, simply popping into Elstree at the first spare weekend moment they could find — production work on the usual ITV programmes was in full swing during the week.
Harry, Stanley and Donald spent their weekends at Elstree; acting as hosts, helping with production, doing any odd job.
The response from the stars was incredible.
★ Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton flew in from Rome.
★ Sammy Davis Jr. stayed over specially after the Royal Variety Performance.
★ Shirley Bassey, in from Las Vegas, felt “she ought to be in the show.”
★ Tommy Steele wanted to sing his number from the top of a Welsh mountain… until the production problems were pointed out!
★ Frankie Vaughan almost held up his cabaret performance at the Talk of the Town recording his contribution.
★ Virtually every choir in Wales asked to appear. The Pendyrus was drawn from a hat. Then an overnight coach, after many of the miners in the choir came straight off shift at the coal-face.
★ Fifteen leading actors and actresses, many appearing in different productions all over the West End of London, managed to get together TWICE to perfect a long excerpt from “Under Milk Wood.”
★ Peter Sellers flew in TWICE from Rome to be in an old Goon Show routine with Harry and Spike Milligan.
Yes, the first weekend he arrived, Harry went down with food poisoning after eating fried seaweed for breakfast! (Seems that it is officially called Lava Bread, and it is a Welsh delicacy.) He couldn’t appear, there was absolutely no chance of doing the sketch without him. So back to Rome went Peter… and back he flew to Elstree the next weekend.
All these stars paid their own fares.
It wasn’t simply production problems. It still had to be arranged where the money was going. It is hoped, with American sales, to raise well over £100,000.
Stanley Baker went to Aberfan, four days after the disaster, to talk the show over with the Mayor of Merthyr.
Originally, the plan was to build a new youth centre with the cash. Then the Mayor’s own fund grew to such monumental proportions that a scheme for a new youth centre was included in his fund. The Welsh three had to re-think…
Now a committee is to be formed to administer the money as educational grants to children all over Wales. Thanks to investments, the scheme will go on in perpetuity.
Harry Secombe said: “The money will simply be to help Welsh kids get on. In education, in the arts, in acting.”
Exact terms of reference still haven’t been completed; they don’t know how much money they are going to raise. It will be done properly; everyone has his heart in this scheme.
The show has been made in colour. That meant double production problems. Every sequence was filmed in black and white, then colour.
The care, effort and enthusiasm that has gone into the show is fantastic. Stage-hands and make-up girls, everyone mucked in, and was prepared to work hours’ overtime. Just to get it right.
This, truly, is The Heart of Show Business.