The story of a group of extraordinary South Tyneside women is coming to the stage.
The Dolly Mixtures toured the male-dominated working men’s clubs in the 1970s to raise a whopping £100,000 for Cancer Research – that’s worth more than £1million in today’s money.
The pals were inspired after Margaret Fleck’s husband and Hilda Joyce’s brother, Ken, died from bowel cancer, aged just 34. Out of tragedy, came a wonderful charity effort and a life-long, unbreakable friendship.
Now, a musical based on their fundraising is coming to the Customs House, in Mill Dam, South Shields.
The show, penned by South Tyneside duo Tom Kelly and John Miles and directed by Ray Spencer, will be at the venue from August 24 to September 3.
The ladies – also including Doris Ashcroft, Betty Dickinson, Sylvia Nichols, Jean Smith, Liz Errington and Joan Jacobson – held down full-time jobs and raised children while taking to the stage every weekend for 15 years.
Hilda, 82, who is grandmother of South Shields X Factor champ Joe McElderry, said: “Before everything started we had a group in the Bamburgh pub, it was the only room in South Shields that didn’t let men in, and we used to put shows on for each other just for fun.
“We used to get together once a week as well for a sherry evening. The men would watch the children and we’d take turns to go to each other’s houses and sing and have fun.”
Things changed when Ken was diagnosed with cancer and went into hospital for chemotherapy. With nothing to keep him and the other men on the ward entertained, the girls decided to raise money for a dart board or pool table for the hospital, and when he sadly died, their mission became much greater.
Together, the eight friends became The Dolly Mixtures and began touring working men’s clubs around the North East with their variety show.
They sang, mimed, and made people laugh with their comedy sketches, to the tune of £100,000.
Margaret, 82, a former nurse, said: “Some of the women had never even been inside a working men’s club and it was practically unheard of for women to be on stage doing comedy, it was very dominated by the men.”
Doris, 76, who also worked as a nurse, added: “In the beginning, we used to go out and do it four times a week, and it was a lot considering we all had full-time jobs and children at home.”
The girls were given only mid-week spots at first, with professional turns dominating the weekends, but Hilda negotiated with club committees until they bagged the prime-time bookings.
But things didn’t always go to plan.
Hilda, who worked as a seamstress and made the costumes for The Dolly Mixtures, said: “We always used to get paid with a cheque that went straight to Cancer Research every week, but we sometimes had collection tubs as well.
“One night in one of the clubs, a man offered to take the pot round the bar, where the women weren’t allowed, and then we never saw it again.
“People had been putting £5 notes in it all night, but we learned our lesson quickly and it never happened again.”
Doris said: “After a while we started to get a reputation around the North East and people wanted to see us.”
Hilda added: “It was so different to anything else that was on stage in the clubs.
“We never imagined we’d get anything close to the amount of money we did, and we did it all for the cause, nothing else. All the girls knew Ken and people round the clubs did too, he was a great singer.”
Now that their story is coming to the stage, the ladies say they’re excited but nervous about seeing actors portray their lives.
Margaret said: “We didn’t think we were doing anything special at the time, but now 40 years on someone thinks it’s a story and we’ve realised that it really is a great one.
“It was great fun. We wouldn’t have kept going out and doing it every week if we weren’t enjoying it, but it was all for Ken and for the charity.”
Hilda added: “It was a really special friendship, and one that we’ve still got. We shared everything and went through everything together. There were marriage break-downs and all sorts, but the girls never missed a show, and no matter what they’d be on stage with a smile on their faces.”
Doris said: “When we heard about the show, I was the one who was the most excited. I knew we had a good story.”
But it was reading the script and hearing the songs that convinced the other girls.
Hilda said: “We all sat together in my house listening to the songs and it took us right back to that time and we all started to cry.
“It took us back to the way we felt then and gave us that feeling in the pit of our stomachs and it made me realise, that’s why they’re telling this story.”
Tickets cost £17.50 with a £15 concession. To book, go to www.customshouse.co.uk or call 0191 454 1234.