Monday 22nd March 1993 saw the opening performance of SODS’ Camelot at the enlarged Cliffs Pavilion and
that show began the latest unbroken period of the Society’s use of the venue. With the theatre expanding its
size by almost 50%, the costs of production increased correspondingly. To perform for a whole week entailed
setting up the stage on a Sunday and the cost of this was readily seen to be prohibitive and so Camelot was
the last time that a run comprised eight performances. In terms of audience, the spring of 1995 saw the
Society’s most successful production ever when more than 9,000 came to see The King and I, averaging
nearly 1,300 at each performance! For the 2000 production, the decision was reluctantly taken to reduce the
run even further and since that spring’s Guys and Dolls the Society’s shows have begun with a Wednesday
matinee and run for six performances.
In recent years, the Society’s activities have generally concentrated on the two annual productions.
However, they have also given numerous concerts over the years, helping to raise thousands of pounds for
local charities and the SODS were very regularly used as a chorus to support principals of the
D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in their “Gilbert and Sullivan for All” presentations. In the summer of 2005, they
combined with Leigh ODS to present a highly successful concert in aid of Little Havens’ Children’s Hospice
and this raised several thousand pounds. There have been radio broadcasts, including Friday Night is
Music Night and on Monday 31st January 1972 the Society achieved its highest ever audience, of about
18 million, when they appeared on Thames Television’s Opportunity Knocks, hosted by the legendary Hughie
Green, the programme having been recorded the previous Saturday at the studios in Teddington, Middlesex.
They came first according to the “clapometer” which, ostensibly, gauged the studio audience’s reaction but in
the viewers’ votes they came second to a yodelling milkman from Rayleigh!
While massive strides have been made theatrically, the Society’s finances have failed to keep pace. The
economic recession which began in 2008 played havoc with theatrical companies both professional and
amateur with very many going out of business completely. In 1995, more than 9,000 seats were sold for the
Society’s production of The King and I but less than fifteen years later audiences were dwindling drastically,
costs were rising rapidly and the Society’s coffers were being drained alarmingly. Consequently, and with
considerable reluctance, it was decided that it was too costly to present their productions any longer at the 1,600-seater Cliffs Pavilion where the SODS had performed 83 shows. It was a magnificent venue with superb facilities for cast and audiences alike and it bestowed upon the Society enormous prestige and kudos. Unfortunately, such pleasures do not pay the bills and it was decided to return to the Palace Theatre in 2014. The “Palace” had been the venue for 89 previous SODS productions so, in many respects, it felt like returning home.
The SODS have two paramount and parallel responsibilities: they have to provide the audiences with productions which are consistently of the highest possible standard and at the same time provide all the members with a hobby which is both rewarding and enjoyable. With so many demands being made upon the time of audiences and members, it is essential that this balance be maintained. The Society’s audiences and members are its most valuable and cherished assets and it is essential that these dual needs prevail. It is probably safe to assume that the turnover of members has remained fairly consistent over the years, in which case approximately 1,000 members are likely to have represented the Society on stage in all the years of its existence and every one of them has contributed to its strength. However, every artistic aspect has always been firmly underpinned by strong organisational, financial and stage management and the Society has now evolved into a business – it is only “amateur” in as much as the cast are not paid! Accordingly, the continuing success of the Society in three centuries is every bit as much thanks to a succession of committed and unsung administrators as to its performers on stage. Most of their names have, regrettably, faded into oblivion but we owe them all an enormous debt of gratitude which we can only attempt to repay by constantly striving to present the best possible productions while still maintaining that indispensable element of fun in doing so.