YOU go out on stage a youngster, but you come back a star, goes the old line from 42nd Street.
In Gemma Craven’s case, it should run: You go out a hoofer and you come back as president.
Her long career as a film star, leading lady of the West End, and familiar face on TV, all began with Southend’s Little Theatre Company.
Decades later, Gemma has accepted the role of the theatre company’s president, following the death of her predecessor, the late Lady McAdden, She says: “I was gobsmacked when I answered the phone and they offered me the role, but I barely hesitated.
“I just said yes, yes. I was so pleased and proud to accept. I never dreamed all those years ago when I was just a simple backstage person I would one day be president. I’m still reeling from the news.”
Gemma says she intends to be far more than just a figurehead, and will “actively participate in every possible way that they ask me to”.
The planning has started already. As well as attending productions, she will hold workshops with cast members.
Her first active job will be to advise cast members appearing in Calendar Girls. Gemma is well placed for the task, having played Chris – the Helen Mirren role in the film – in a national stage tour of the show.
The new role is, in fact, less of a comeback, more of a continuation. Her association with the company has never really been broken.
She says: “I’m still the best of friends with some of the other members who were with me back in the days when it was the Little Theatre Club rather than the Little Theatre Company.”
She has been in the audience for many productions down the years.
She says: “I just think they’re superb. Their productions are amazing. They are great by any standards and exceptional for an amateur group. I’m their biggest fan.”
Her affection extends to the Palace Theatre, where, then as now, the Little Theatre Company mounted its productions.
After graduating from stage school, Gemma cut her professional teeth as an assistant stage manager at the theatre.
Although she has lived in the Lancashire countryside for ten years because “my partner comes from that part of the world”, she still returns at regular intervals to Leigh. The town was her childhood home and her mother, who is now in poor health, continues to live in Leigh.
Clearly destined to be a performer from childhood, Gemma attended the renowned, though now defunct, Bush Davies School of Theatre Arts in Romford.
She says: “In those days they wouldn’t allow us to do anything outside the school. No commercials, not even any panto.
“So to gain some experience, and really just to have some fun on stage, I joined Little Theatre. I can’t now remember why I selected it rather than any other group, but I am glad I did. I had a wonderful time, but I also learnt a lot, from the ground up.”
Gemma’s most prominent role with the company was as the female lead in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical the Flower Drum Song. Her performance produced strong acclaim. Yet her strongest memory concerns an inadvertent role as scenery prop.
She says: “The rake on the Palace stage is notoriously lethal, the second worst of any stage in the country.
During a key moment in her role, the scenery started to slide downhill towards the orchestra pit.
She says: “I had to lodge it in place with my back while still performing.”
Gemma enjoyed the sort of overnight launch into stardom every young actress dreams of, when she was selected for the female lead role in the Slipper and the Rose, the 1976 retelling of Cinderella. Much was made in the national press about the parallels between Gemma’s own fairytale ascent and its parallels with the Cinderella story. The film was chosen as the 1976 Royal Command performance.
Other memorable performances include the lead role of Ensign Nelly Forbush in the first major West End revival of South Pacific, and the part of Bob Hoskins’ much-abused but ever-faithful wife in the classic TV serial Pennies from Heaven (1978).
The parts keep coming for Gemma Craven, most recently in Midsomer Murders. Now Essex audiences will now be glimpsing her in a special role, as she once again becomes a regular fixture of the Palace Theatre in her old home town..
l Little Theatre Company’s next show, in April 2012, is the Elvis musical All Shook Up. Gemma Craven will reminisce about her career in a future Memories article.