Cassie & Selwyn Tillett: Christmas Letters
Madonna & Child, Eglise St Pierre, Aulnay, Charente, August 2003


Dear friends

We're clearly getting old. The usual cry is "we can't have done that much this year". This year it's more along the lines of "that can't possibly have been during the last twelve months - surely it was at least three years ago?"!

We're sitting down to write this - just in time for second class UK post, too late for overseas, as usual - two days after our final Chimes concert of 2003, which just happens to also have been a church event. So we'd better start from there…

The St Mary's Youth Fellowship first visited us at St Mary's a couple of years ago. They started life in 1943, and continued into the 1970s; this was their 60th anniversary, and dozens of St Mary's folks from times gone by - together with a few who are still here - descended on Beddington for lunch on the Saturday afternoon and church on the Sunday morning. And in between, Chimes Musical Theatre provided the entertainment. You must remember this was (of course) a celebration of the music of the 1940s, with plenty of opportunity for audience participation! We welcomed back Melanie, Zoë and Neville, and were delighted with our new recruit, Paul, who soon won our hearts with his beautiful tenor voice.

Chimes has had a busy year. It began with Cassie's 40th birthday back in January, when many of her beloved performers joined forces to serenade her - leaving friends, family and colleagues stunned with their professionalism. It was a wonderful evening - a surprise party arranged by Heather and Selwyn, with the entertainment co-ordinated by Zoë - with folks from every corner of Cassie's diverse life, from work colleagues to genealogical contacts to family to theatre to church… how about we pretend she's forty every year?

February saw a celebration of the music of 1903 for the Gilbert & Sullivan society. Perhaps its most eccentric show was The Cherry Girl, a Christmas show for children, the synopsis of which begins "Pansy, the cherry seller, lives in an attic with Esau, her pet gorilla…" June found us back at the parish of Kingswood - this time in the mother church of St Andrew's, which was celebrating its 150th anniversary, so our music covered the whole of that period - from Verdi to Sondheim and back again. In December, we helped the Chipstead WI begin their Christmas celebrations with another Wassail! That's now over sixteen years since the first concert - long may it continue.

It's been a busier-than-usual year for other performances, too. In May, Selwyn took part in another performance of Almost an Island with our dear friend Beryl from Stow Maries - an anthology of Essex poetry and prose, and the Dengie Hundred in particular. There were two Monday Evenings at Richmond Shakespeare Society, including our own Sometimes am I a King - Part II, reading selections from the histories that Shakespeare didn't write; a performance of our talk about the music hall for Bandon Hill Methodists in September; and just last week, an illustrated talk about Thespis (the "lost" Gilbert & Sullivan burlesque that you might remember from 2002).

However, life got especially silly in the summer. Cassie's arm was twisted to breaking-point, and she was cast as Rosalind in RSS' open-air production of As You Like It. With 700 lines to learn (mostly over headphones in the gym), Selwyn playing one of the Duke's lords in the forest (ostensibly to keep the others in tune), a great new friend in Tracy Frankson as her sister-in-the-forest, Celia, and a very agreeable toy-boy in the irresistible Phil Rodell as Orlando, a great time was had by all! In a blistering heatwave, we capered around the gardens of York House (it was a relief to change into Ganymede's britches from the heavy Elizabethan velvets), played to capacity houses, made short work of the Duke's picnic every night, dealt with heckling from teenagers in the street below the acting area, and were upstaged by the theatre cat on a regular basis. It was a joyful time.

Ever the gluttons for punishment, we found our way immediately into another RSS show: A Midsummer Night's Dream in November (yes, this one was indoors)! Cassie sang the lullaby for Titania (you spotted snakes with double tongue), the stunning music for which - with the rest of the production soundtrack - was specially written by Mark Bannister. Selwyn took on that prime upstager, Philostrate, who appears in the first 12 seconds of the play and then vanishes until the final scene! A controversial production, but strong, fascinating, visually and audibly outstanding, funny, scary, original… we're proud to have been a part of it.

We took time out to watch our friends on stage, too. RSS' The Memory of Water was stunning, rivalling anything you might see in the professional theatre (Fran Billington, as the mother's ghost, was especially captivating). Our gorgeous friend Joanna, often of Chimes, was an outrageously sexy lead in Carmen with Windsor & Eton OS; and our wonderful Zoë found a new theatrical home with East Berkshire OS, playing Elsie in The Yeomen of the Guard (as even the G&S-hating Cassie enjoyed it, you can tell how good it was!) and a heart-rending Julie in Carousel. Our good friends Pam & Ian Akhurst (from church and from Chimes) continue their work with SADC, with the highly enjoyable Saturday, Sunday, Monday by Eduardo de Filippo; and it's only today, on reviewing our file of programmes, that we realise that Giulianella was played by a certain Suzanne Schlaefli - who just happened to be Titania/Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream… we said we were getting old!

It's something of a shock to realise that the amateur theatre world - both performing and watching - has almost completely eclipsed the professional variety this year. One of Cassie's birthday treats was the then newly-released film of Chicago - a very splendid film-of-a-musical, and happy memories of her own performance in the show in 1994; Bob Kingdom was a superb Dylan Thomas in his one-man show at the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford; and Cassie's 70th birthday gift to her mum in November was a trip to see Anything Goes at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (incredibly stupid plot, wonderful songs & routines). And that really was that for the year! Extraordinary.

We have seen something of family and friends - honest… There hasn't been much time for genealogy (although we're likely to make up for that in 2004, as Selwyn has presently around 75 Tillett relatives, including a few from the USA, visiting us next August bank holiday); but a few more twigs have appeared on the Nicholson, Skingley, Vanderhoven and Godward trees. We also hosted another great "get-together" - this time of the Nicholson clan. The descendants of Alfred William Nicholson and Alice Eastland assembled in the Rectory garden on a glorious day (we seem to be blessed with the weather for these events!), and a wonderful time was had by all.

Cassie also tracked down (through that amazing new website, Friends Reunited) her original "best friends" from school days: Barbara Bolton, from Barclay Infant & Junior schools, and Sandra Goode from Warwick High School. We visited Sandra (or Sam, as she's now known) with her husband Graham and gorgeous son Max, down in Dorset.

And it was a joy to attend the beautiful wedding of Cassie's special friend Kay to Andy on a stunning autumn day; we wish them every happiness.

A sadder event was the death of Don Worts, who was the co-writer, producer and Dame in Cassie's performances with Siddons Music Hall - nearly ten years ago, which is worrying in itself. Don was the finest comedian we've ever known, and it was tragic to lose him at the early age of 72. His funeral was a worthy celebration of him, full of theatrical eccentrics - including us…

And then, of course, there's life at St Mary's church. The fund-raising goes on, but continues successfully. You might remember that last year we found ourselves with a new project: the urgent re-wiring of our medieval building. We're delighted to report that we have all but raised the necessary funds, and work started earlier this month; we hope that Bishop Nick of Croydon will be able to dedicate the new lighting system at Candlemas in February. This leaves us with the final £12,500 (out of £100,000) from our Diocesan loan (for the building of the church centre in 1995); this is 2004's fund-raising project, together with the Tower & Bells (re-hanging of bells, shoring up of tower) which is over £60,000 through a £100,000 target.

It hasn't all been fund-raising - after all, it's hardly what we're here for! Even when we are bringing in money through social events, the fun we have doing it is far more important. So we've had an Alternative Burns Night (including Scottish dancing), the annual (and fiercely-fought) Ringers' Quiz (which the Rector's team won!), an evening of poetry and prose (Violets in the Lane) for Mothering Sunday; two performances of the beautiful Rutter Requiem, for Passiontide and for All Souls, by our excellent choir; the very special and popular celebration of a Passover meal during Holy Week; a multi-cultural Harvest Supper, and the resulting new St Mary's recipe book; Summoned by Bells, a concert for the Tower & Bells fund (including the Tilletts' performance of Victoria Wood's Freda & Barry); and a hymn tour of the British Isles (you know the way that hymn tunes are named after places? - 157 hymns in just over seven hours)… oh, and yesterday's Christingle service saw the Rector being dressed as an orange…

There hardly seems to have been the room for holidays, but we managed some wonderful times. The post-Easter wanderings took us to Yorkshire, principally to meet Selwyn's delightful and newly-discovered uncle Ernie - his mother's half-brother - and to spend a couple of days with our dear friends Amanda and Jonathan, and their son Nicholas, in their amazing, vast house in Richmond (the Northern one), plus a visit to Dot & Milton in Bolton.

In August, we had a superb three weeks in France. We started with a visit to Jackie & Geoff Maude, from Cassie's Skingley researches, in their stunning house in the Charente; then a week in the Dordogne, and finally a week in the Loire. All the best wine-producing areas, you notice. (The stocks are now running sadly low - we'll just have to go back and replenish them.) Oh, and in October it was Selwyn's birthday - which meant a trip up the London Eye, followed by Calendar Girls (wonderful, both).

So where does that leave us - apart from shattered? Happy and fulfilled, after another year of wonderful times; and looking forward to whatever the new year may bring.

May your new year be full of laughter and learning, and all you would wish yourselves.

With our love -

Selwyn & Cassie