Thornley Birds to continue to soar

Photo Neil Cross
Thornley Birds 2017 pantomime Peter Pan
Founder Margaret Blackburn in her final panto roll
Photo Neil Cross Thornley Birds 2017 pantomime Peter Pan Founder Margaret Blackburn in her final panto roll
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A lot of pride, a lot of fun, a lot of family, lots of hard work but with great creative results – we’ll miss it all.

That’s how the five sisters feel who have all, in some way, been connected with the Thornley Birds pantomime performances since its formation almost 20 years ago.

Photo Neil Cross
Thornley Birds 2017 pantomime Peter Pan

Photo Neil Cross Thornley Birds 2017 pantomime Peter Pan

All are octogenarians with the combined age of an amazing 421 years, and from the eldest Margaret who is 89 in April, they are Veronica, 87, Frances, 84, Joan, 82, and Mary who has just turned 80.

And at almost 89, founder of the group since starting it originally with the Thornley WI, Margaret Blackburn, has been the doyenne and chief mover of the annual pantomimes since then.

But she has decided that, after the success of this year’s performance of Peter Pan when she was once again in the Dame’ character of Galley Sally, she has taken her final bow and curtain call.

She said: “The sight in one of my eyes is not good and I am 89 this year. So I felt I was ready to hand over to another Thornley member, Maria, who has produced this year’s show.

Photo Neil Cross
Thornley Birds 2017 pantomime Peter Pan
Keeping it in the family, Maria Adamson, the new director, with mum Val Ellington, daughter Kate and Kasia and Gabrysia Kuczas

Photo Neil Cross Thornley Birds 2017 pantomime Peter Pan Keeping it in the family, Maria Adamson, the new director, with mum Val Ellington, daughter Kate and Kasia and Gabrysia Kuczas

“We all look back over the years with great affection and pride, and must thank so many for supporting us and helping us to raise funds for the charities the group itself has supported.”

As chief costumier, author, scenery painter and creator of props over the years such as a Chinese lion, a two-hump camel, a group of sailor dummies and much more, Margaret’s enthusiasm has inspired other family members to join the cast each year.

Daughter Elizabeth Morris has seen to stage props and music, granddaughter Rebecca was once Cinderella with niece Claire Villers as Prince Charming, among stage hands have been son and grandson Robert and Jacob Blackburn and “there have been lots of other nephews and nieces as well, ” laughed Margaret.

Her sister Veronica – or Vera as she is also known – was always on keyboard, Mary took different parts, Joan and Frances helped with programmes and tickets and all inherited an early love of performance from their parents, Robert and Emily Wignall.

Meeting for lunch as they do regularly at the Thursday market day charity event in Longridge Civic Hall, they looked back with strong memories of growing up in Preston’s Plungington Road.

“We were the Wignall sisters and, with our late brother Robert, Moor Park was our favourite playground,” they recall.

“The sense of theatre was in our home and with our parents from an early age.”

As a teenager, their mother Emily started the theatrical ball rolling as a member of Mrs Smith’s Concert Party when she played the piano.

She was later part of English Martyrs Drama Group – where the family went to church and the children attended its school – and encouraged the six of them to put on small plays at Christmas.

“Dad would come home, fix a curtain across the front room window and we would put on our little acts for entertainment, ” says Margaret.

The sisters, all now widows except for Mary, became teachers, Margaret both teaching and demonstrating arts and crafts and, while producer of the many pantomimes, also organising the fund-raising at the shows for several different charities.

Vera Dewhurst was a piano, keyboard and organ teacher successfully seeing pupils through 100 per cent rates in exams, while Frances Donnelly started her own dance school aged 18, taught ballet and tap and also raised thousands of pounds through her shows and displays.

After several clerical jobs, Joan Turner became a mature student training to be a teacher of English, geography and religion, while Mary Holmes, also after being a mature student, became a junior school teacher, teaching piano prvately with her many students gaining exams their first attemnpts and also at 100 per cent success rates.

Their 18th annual pantomime is reckoned to be Margaret’s final bow, but she now feels this will be her last as a fully participating member of the cast.

She said: “We all look back with great pride and affection on what we’ve achieved, but we feel we would like to continue in some way.

“So at our next regular meeting for Longridge market’s coffee day, we’ll be getting together to talk about how to continue supporting the Thornley Birds in whatever way we can.”

Pantos produced have included Aladdin, Cinderalla, Dick Whttington, Dr Dolittle, Willy Wonka re-Wonkasized and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

As they ponder their decision, however, that future family tradition is assured as new producer/director is Maria Adamson whose husband, daughter, mother and Maria herself – a Thornley Birds member for six years – were all part of the 2017 production of Peter Pan.