Oh, yes, they did. Chris Owen meets a couple who met in panto at The Kings Theatre, Southsea, in 1947 and are still going strong
It was as if Aladdin had rubbed his magic lamp and the genie had granted young Bill Johnson’s wish.
It all happened on the stage of the Kings Theatre, Southsea, 64 years ago.
Bill was 19 when he first clapped eyes on Joy Dancaster, an 18-year-old dancer from Cowplain who was making her first appearance in the Kings’ annual panto.
The year was 1947. The panto was Aladdin and it was the only time in Bill’s long showbiz career that he appeared at the Kings.
‘It was fate. As soon as I saw her in rehearsal I fancied her,’ said Bill.
And so began a seven-year courtship in which the couple hatched various plans to appear in the same shows around the country so they could be together.
Today, the couple live in an immaculate flat high above Clarendon Road, Southsea, with snatched glimpses between the buildings of the Solent and the Isle of Wight beyond.
That view of the sea and ships plying up and down the Solent is important, for the ocean has played a key role in the couple’s 57-year marriage.
They’re also not far from the scene of their first meeting – the Kings, where they are now both patrons.
He is 83 and Joy, a vivacious and sprightly 81, who looks as though she could still high-kick as well as she did in the 1950s when she was a member of the famous Twelve Toppers dance troupe which appeared regularly on television variety shows.
They have two daughters, Lori and Gaye, five grandchildren and two great-grandsons.
Joy still works part-time in the reception at HMS Warrior in the Historic Dockyard while Bill has only recently given up his role as a tour guide on the Victorian ironclad.
So, how did it all begin?
Bill, who came from Brixton, London, says: ‘Show business ran in my blood. I was the fourth generation of my family to go into the business.
‘I was known as Billy in those days and was in a trio with my dad, Bill, and a woman. We’d changed our name to Shenton and we were known as the Shen-Tun Trio. We tried to make it sound Chinese. We were taken on as a novelty act in Aladdin and dressed in Chinese costumes. It was real knockabout stuff, we danced, told gags and did slapstick.’
But by then Bill had fallen for Joy. She recalls: ‘I lived at Cowplain and when Bill asked me out I thought, why not? I’d give him a go, but it didn’t go without a hitch.’
Bill rolls his eyes and chuckles. ‘After the show I took her to the Victory Restaurant in King’s Road, Southsea.
‘I liked her so much I asked if I could take her home. She said that would be fine, but I didn’t know where Cowplain was. We got the bus there but they’d stopped running by the time we said good night on her doorstep and I had a long, long walk back to my digs in Southsea.’
The couple fell in love during Aladdin’s six-week run but then had to engineer ways of appearing in the same shows.
‘Bernard Delfont used to book the summer shows on South Parade Pier so I went to him and asked if he could get us on the same bill because Joy was appearing there. As a result we managed to get several summer shows on South Parade Pier.’
Joy says: ‘I regularly appeared in the shows on the pier and I remember Peter Sellers was in one of them.’
But the showbiz life meant they were often separated so it was not until August 8, 1954 that they married at St George’s Church, Waterlooville. ‘It was a Sunday. It had to be a Sunday because that was the only day we had off,’ says Joy.
‘We were both in a summer show at Clacton. After the Saturday night show we went back to London and the next day we were married at Waterlooville.’
Bill continues: ‘Television was just coming into its own and it was obvious the old world of entertainment was coming to an end so in 1956 we decided to take a pub.’
That hostelry was the Barley Mow in Castle Road, Southsea. Joy says: ‘We’d had our first child, Lori, and we needed to settle down. Life on the road wasn’t ideal with a baby.’
But it was not to last. Bill says: ‘I just couldn’t settle. It wasn’t me. I had itchy feet and I really wanted to get back on stage.’
So they gave up the pub, Joy moved back to Cowplain to live with her mother and Bill hit the road again – this time to the southern hemisphere.
He reworked his routine, wrote new material and eventually started performing a solo cabaret act.
It was mainly in Australia but there were also long tours of South Africa. He even played Sydney Opera House with Rosemary Clooney.
He says: ‘This was in the 1960s and early 1970s and in New South Wales alone there were 1,870 clubs. It was a great time.’
It was there that, now as Billy Mayne, he honed his gag-telling, dancing and singing act accompanied by his ‘death-defying chair’. He used it as a prop to dance with and around and perform minor gymnastics.
‘We’ve still got that thing somewhere,’ says Joy.
She admits that life was not easy bringing up two children with her husband on the other side of the world. ‘It wasn’t great, but that was the life he wanted to lead. I just got on with it.’
With the demise of the clubs, Bill needed to carry on entertaining and came back to England to start entertaining cruise ship passengers on the Fred Olsen Line.
Joy says: ‘That was great because I got to go too and we took the kids.’
But life on the ocean wave really got into Bill’s blood and he spent four years as the entertainments officer on board the first Oriana, still performing with his death-defying chair.
He ended his career back on dry land as the operations manager at Ferneham Hall, Fareham, before retiring at the age of 66.
‘I can remember so much of it so clearly. They were fantastic times the like of which we’ll never see again.
‘On one hand it seems like yesterday, on the other it seems a lifetime ago...which I suppose it was.’
Joy smiles. ‘Aladdin had a lot to answer for...’