In 1948 a small group of friends formed a drama group to brighten up the dark post-war days for villagers in Horndean.
They called themselves Horndean Amateur Theatrical Society (HATS) and would put on shows in the splendour of the dining room of Cadlington House, in Blendworth.
Around that time a Southsea teenager called Betty Perryman dreamed of treading the boards. She worked long days in her family’s hardware shop and longed for the glamour of the stage.
In 1950 she joined HATS and, astonishingly, aged 90, she is still gracing the stage and passing on her knowledge to the younger members of the company. Fellow thespians who now meet weekly at Merchistoun Hall, Horndean, say Betty is the ‘heart and soul’ of HATS.
And in the group’s 71st year, Betty, the longest-serving member, explains what’s so special about it.
She says: ‘It was 1950 and a friend had heard about a drama group and asked me to go along and find out if the natives were friendly. Luckily, they were.
‘My family had a hardware shop in Albert Road, Southsea. My sister worked there until she was called up to join the Land Army and although I wanted to be a nurse I wasn’t allowed to, I had to work in the shop.
‘In those days you did what your parents told you to do.
‘So, for me, drama was a way of expressing myself outside of work.’
Betty threw herself into amateur dramatics with as much gusto as a professional actor.
She took lead roles in plays and musicals, including The First Mrs Fraser and Bonaventure.
And although she never married in real life, she has been proposed to many times on stage.
One scene in particular sticks in her memory. ‘I remember corpsing on stage when a very well-to-do naval chap was trying to propose to me,’ says Betty. ‘I just couldn’t stop giggling!’
She has some lovely memories from those early days and, amazingly, she can still remember lines from the earliest plays. During our interview she gives a fine monologue from The First Mrs Fraser, though she admits to finding it harder to learn new scripts so has to take more walk-on than speaking parts.
During the war, Betty was evacuated from Milton to Cowplain to live with her grandparents but was sent back to Portsmouth when she caught impetigo. She says: ‘It was a bit of a relief actually as my grandparents were very religious and made me read the Bible every day.
‘Later when my granny died I came back out to out to look after my grandfather. And on the bus to work from Waterlooville to Southsea each day I’d learn my lines for the plays.’
Over the years Betty has been the group’s chairperson and secretary, and is now a life member in recognition of her dedication to the group.
One of her favourite acting roles was Aunt Perriman in The Heiress. She opened the 1963 Merchistoun Fete as Princess Constantina.
She laughs: ‘I even had a go at directing once but I wasn’t very good because I don’t like telling people what to do! I like comedy. I love to hear people laughing, I think it’s good for you.
‘You do get nervous, a bit of stage fright, especially when someone doesn’t come on when it’s their cue. We once found someone who’d missed their cue asleep in the green room.’
A number of people have urged her to take up acting professionally but instead she dedicated her life to looking after her parents.
She says: ‘But I wouldn’t have liked to have been a Hollywood star anyway. I’m quite happy, I’ve had a good life. I’ve made lots of happy memories.’
And she says it seems like yesterday she and her pals skipped arm-in-arm down the lane to the Cadlington House, singing all the way.
And for Betty, HATS still has that same sense of camaraderie. ‘It’s the people that make it,’ she says with a smile.
‘I have made great friends over the years. HATS is very professional, even though it’s an amateur group.’
And she also belongs to Reflections, a performance troupe who put on shows in care homes around the area. Her favourite number is Burlington Bertie – she goes the whole hog in a top hat for that.
Stuart Dickenson, from HATS, says: ‘Even when Betty has been treading the boards, she has also managed to look after all the other members by helping to make the tea during rehearsals for longer than anyone can remember. Betty is the heart and soul of the group.’
Go to horndeanamdram.com.