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PeopleBunty Powell

Bunty Powell

‘I was born in Epsom, Surrey in 1935, one of four children. My older sister June became a staff nurse at Kings College Hospital and married a doctor there, Dr John Jackson, who went on to set up a practice in Blandford, until his death about 10 years ago. Brother John took up farming, though he’s now retired, and my younger brother Timothy lives in Australia.
When I was 15 I was taken very ill with a burst appendix, and developed pneumonia. My parents were called at 3am one night to be told that my chances of lasting the night were slim. I couldn’t understand why they’d come to see me in the middle of the night; it didn’t occur to me things were that serious. However, as one can see, I survived, although I was off school for a year resulting in my leaving at the age of 16.
My father managed to get me a job as private secretary with two authors in Fleet Street. I found it a wonderful experience because it gave me both a taste for organising things, and eventually led me towards a singing career. One of the authors was a Lt Col Reginald Lester, who carried out all the publicity for The King George’s Fund for Sailors. In 1952 he put on two films at The Odeon, Leicester Square on their behalf: The Cruel Sea, and Above Us the Waves which I helped him with. Col Lester went on to write a book called In Search of the Hereafter, an exploration of “life in the hereafter”, which was my job to type. He also set up The Churches Fellowship for Psychical Study, which boasted membership of MP’s and other dignitaries with its inaugural meeting staged at Caxton Hall in London.
After working for Col Lester for several years I wanted more companionship and went to work at TP Bennett and Son, a firm of London architects. There I met my future husband, Peter Powell, who had just passed his Finals as an Architect, and was moving elsewhere to work. We married in 1957 and the next year I gave birth to twin girls. They were undiagnosed—after the first arrived, the nurse said “would you be surprised to know there’s another on the way?” From the way I felt, I said, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were three more. These days, one daughter, Jane, lives in Frimley, Surrey and the other Susan, lives in Charminster. I have four great grandchildren now who chat to me online and are great fun and all keep in touch during this ghastly lockdown.
When we moved to Kingston on Thames, I joined the Kingston Operatic Society. They gave me the part of Rosalinda in Die Fledermaus, the result of which was my husband’s affectionate nickname for me, “the old bat”. I also joined the Concert Artists Association; the first concert I did with them was at Wandsworth Prison, with an audience of lifers. I had to be chaperoned everywhere, and the hall was surrounded by guards. I remember singing Summertime, and noticing a young man in the front row, aged no more than 20, with tears streaming down his face. I wondered how he could be in that place for murder, looking as they all did, so normal. I later performed as a soloist with a Welsh male voice choir in Salute to the Prince of Wales at the Albert Hall, and sang in the Evening Standard’s Award night at Lyons Corner House, with Ted Ray the comedian as the evening’s big attraction. We left Kingston after 5 years and moved to Lower Sunbury on Thames, remaining there for 35 years.
Ann Howard, the English Opera singer, suggested I continue singing lessons with her tutor Madame Rudolpho Llombino, which I did. I also joined a small group of professional singers called Court Opera at Hampton Court, which in the early ‘70s put on concerts in large houses throughout the country. At my suggestion we started staging mostly Mozart operas, and we would invite a chorus to join us. I took over running the group when Leslie Woolf, the previous organiser, sadly died.
My singing career was not earning enough to live on, so it was fortunate to be asked to become Trust Organiser of the Thames Heritage Trust. We put on a huge event on the Brocas, a beautiful meadow just across the Thames from Windsor Castle, which belongs to Eton College. The event was called “The History of the Thames in Music, Drama and Lights” with Celia Johnson and Robert Hardy doing voice overs. We seated 4,000 people every night on tiered seating with Windsor Castle floodlit in the background. In the audience on the last night was Horace Cutler, then leader of the London County Council at County Hall, and Sir Bernard Delfont. I was introduced to them and Bernard Delfont asked me what else I did. I told him about the opera group I sang with and said we were looking for a London venue to perform in. Horace Cutler suggested I go and see him at his office, with an idea to put to me. This was to stage opera at Holland Park, a beautiful old venue near St James’ Palace. We put on Don Giovanni first, in the open air, which was a packed out. I had to do everything, front of house, production, directing, and publicising etc, and I have no idea where I found the energy. In the third year, I did two productions, but the weather that summer was dreadful, and the last night became a disaster. Of course, when it starts raining the orchestra just pack up and go home. Fortunately, the site was later taken over by Kensington and Chelsea council, who erected a large canopy, and took over everything except the productions; they invited us to continue, and I stayed there for another 15 years, as a producer and director only. I always found the production side of things very exciting, as it gradually took over from my singing career, even though it was often financially risky. Holland Park is now acknowledged as the number three opera venue in London.
After leaving the Thames Heritage Trust, I became National Organiser for Help the Aged, and organised fund-raising productions at the Barbican, Lambeth Palace and St David’s Hall, Cardiff. In 1995, my husband decided he’d like to retire, so we moved to Dorchester, taking over a house in Durngate Street where his mother, Gwen Powell, had lived. She had been awarded Freedom of Dorchester in 1992, in recognition of her work for the town. When we moved in, she was in a care home with Parkinsons, but Peter and I brought her back to her old house to live with us for the last few years of her life. Peter and I also decided to continue staging events in Dorset, putting on three years of productions at Lulworth Castle, at Shuttleworth in Bedfordshire, and Hatfield House where I introduced Leslie Garrett and Charlotte Church, plus Jazz with Humphrey Lyttelton and Acker Bilk, to name but a few. My last productions took place at Kingston Maurward, called Lakeside Magic. When I first saw the place I knew it would be fantastic for a show. Having introduced myself to the management at the Dorchester Show, I started by putting on opera productions, but that didn’t pull in the audiences in the same way as Holland Park. But we also put on tribute bands, which were very successful. Lakeside Magic lasted until 2008 but I also put on an operatic show at the Old Courtroom in Dorchester to raise funds for the MRI Scanner appeal at Dorset County Hospital.
We moved to Cerne Abbas 10 years ago. Peter clearly wasn’t well, so we needed to be in a bungalow, and I looked after him until his death two years ago. I’m enjoying life in the village, and am thoroughly absorbed in art, having joined art classes under the direction of Sasha Constable which these days are online only. Despite that, it’s great, it’s very sociable and we chat and show our work to one another, all of course on Zoom.’

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