Continuing Brian Green’s reminiscences of fifty years of shopkeeping in Dulwich
Before the onset of the run of recessions, Village shopkeepers not only closed for lunch but also took a half-day off on Wednesdays. This convenient midweek break made it possible to stage what became known as The Great North versus South Cricket Match. So enthusiastic were the players that the joinery department of W J Mitchell & Co Builders, Dulwich Village (est. 1797) made a beautiful wooden spoon some three feet in length for the winning side to hold until the following year. On a brass plate on the spoon was engraved the name of the winning side. There were only two sides in this competition; the North End, which comprised those shops and other businesses north of Calton Avenue, and the South End which was made up of those gathered around the Crown & Greyhound.
I think the cricket match was played for a maximum of three seasons; the anticipated permanency of an annual fixture being swiftly curtailed by the onset of the first of the series of recessions which like North Atlantic gales upset the equilibrium of everybody, closed businesses down, made staff redundant and obliged most of us to open on Wednesdays. Not that Dulwich Village lagged far behind the wider retailing fraternity; after all, John Lewis once closed on Mondays and Harrods on Saturday afternoons. During its brief life, The Cricket Match became immensely popular.
I cannot admit that it started seriously. At the beginning of the first match, played on the hallowed ground of the Old Alleynian Club on Dulwich Common, some of the players wore motor cycle helmets for protection. This was actually quite a sensible precaution because simultaneously with the bowling of a ball a firework would usually be exploded behind the batsman. Nevertheless, as the game progressed things settled down and a lively afternoon was enjoyed.
The following year the match was taken far more seriously, it was as if the players had all read Hugh de Salincourt’s classic story of village cricket over the winter. So closely-fought a game it was that by the time the third annual match came round players were being recruited by both sides from among the shopkeepers’ customers. The South End was rumoured to have secured the services of a Surrey CC Second Xl player and another from one of the better league elevens.
As captain of the North End team I felt it my duty, for the honour of that part of the Village, to respond in kind. It was fortuitous that almost as soon as I heard of the skulduggery of the opposing team, who should appear in my shop but a regular customer named T.C ‘Dickie’ Dodds who had been the opening batsman for Essex and whose record 423 runs partnership is still unbeaten. He was such a powerful batsman that Neville Cardus recalls that on one occasion he hooked a six into the tented tavern, where the ball ricocheted off the beer pump and knocked out both barmaids. Although retired from cricket he gamely agreed to turn out for the North End team. A few days later I also managed to recruit another player from among my customers. John Dewes who lived in Burbage Road, played for Cambridge University and Middlesex and had made his England debut at the famous last Test Match at the Oval in 1948 when Don Bradman’s played his last Ashes game, a match at which I was present. It seemed my two cricketing customers were heaven-sent. Indeed they might have been because they were both church workers.
Although I tried to hide the identity of my two ‘secret weapons’, the news leaked out and the great day of the match, to be played at the Griffin ground in Dulwich arrived. Unfortunately Dickie Dodds was unable to play but the sight of John’s England sweater with the lions rampant emblazoned upon would I hoped send shivers down the opposing team’s spines. It was a close fought match and appropriately the game ended just as Sir Henry Newbolt might have predicted. The South End’s last man was in. There was one over to play and some six runs needed to win. Everyone played up, played up and played the game. Then the first of the recessions arrived.
The telephone call came soon after I opened my shop one November morning. It was from the PA of a company producing a programme about Dulwich for Channel 5 asking if I could assist with some local history input. It was arranged that I would meet the show’s producer at Belair restaurant at 2.30 pm the following day.
The autumn sun was shining as I arrived, a good light for filming I thought. The TV programme makers turned out to be a short, jolly, roly-poly man named Russell Grant, a very young looking cameraman and a rather worried young woman who turned out to be the PA. They were having lunch with the actor- owner of the Belair restaurant, Gary Cady, who before taking on Belair and transforming the derelict mansion into an upmarket restaurant, lived in Turney Road and was appearing in a modestly successful ‘soap’.
Now my knowledge of making TV outdoor programmes is very limited, but even I considered some daylight during filming might be helpful. To my surprise however, there seemed no urgency to dash into the fading sunlight and start to roll. The only roll in evidence was the bread one on the starched white tablecloth. The conversation was ‘shop-talk’ of the television variety. Russell Grant was bewailing his lack of luck at failing to get a spot in the recently launched TV draw of the National Lottery in which, in those early days, an astrologer might make a prediction of the likely winner. Apparently Mr Grant had lost out to a trade rival named ‘Mystic Meg’ and he wasn’t too pleased about it. I thought to myself that if he was such a hot shot at astrology he would have been able to have predicted his own lack of success.
The arrival of the dessert signalled sudden enthusiasm from Russell - “Ooh, lovely, fantastic” he enthused as the confection approached the table. “Bring it in again and we’ll film it!” The now slightly less firm ice cream bombe was thus wheeled in again and with a flourish and with the camera rolling Russell took a knife and cut the pudding into five (rather small) portions, one of which I was invited to share. There was more talk about the privations within the TV industry and Russell Grant explaining that he was having to roam all over Britain making micro-programmes - 5 minute ‘postcards’ of local beauty spots to make ends meet. It transpired that he was paid £250 per ‘postcard’ by Channel 5; not a huge sum considering the distances involved.
At 3.30pm with the earlier bright sunshine dissolving into more an autumnal gloom, Russell announced he was ready to embark on the ‘Postcard from Dulwich’. There was more “Darling” this and that with Gary Cady on the steps of Belair, when after kisses all round we departed on a whirlwind tour of Dulwich.
The change which came over Russell was amazing. He was transformed into the consummate professional, directing me and asking the right questions which invited an explanation of whatever the camera was pointing at. It was only while we were standing on the safety of the Fountain roundabout in the Village that his composure slipped. A couple of white-van-men driving past were unable to resist shouting ribald comments, to which he replied in kind, a reply I regret was not retained in the resultant ‘Postcard’. We arrived at St Barnabas, then newly rebuilt after the fire, as dusk firmly settled. Still the camera rolled, and still Russell pressed for more information on Dulwich’s history.
Russell Grant was able to produce three postcards from Dulwich in the short time we had. Through either some of his magic or modern technology, the gloom was lifted from the scenes we shot. He went on to make a further 300 and they still occasionally appear on screen.
Of all the customers who have put us in hysterics, none compare with The Puppet Man. He only came into the shop on two brief occasions. He had a tone of speech which might well have formed part of the repertoire of the late Kenneth Williams. “Hello”, he said from around the shop door one day, “Have you got any puppets?”. He was directed to the toy department where he made his purchase of two glove puppets. He reappeared a couple of days later. “Hello” he said once again, “You know those puppets I bought? Well all the children were sitting waiting for my puppet show and I said - Hello boys and girls - and then I didn’t know what else to say.” We directed him to the Village Bookshop in the hope that they might provide The Puppet Man with a suitable text.