Florence Remmer always wanted to be an actress. Now, aged 81, she is at last getting her chance thanks to a festival in Bradford aimed at celebrating age. Nicky Solloway takes a look at BOLD festival.
As a young girl working in a Bradford mill, Florence Remmer’s dream was to become an actress.
From the age of 14, she worked 10-hour days in the weaving shed at a large mill on Leeds Road. She spent her weekends worshipping the stars of the silver screen, but was told that acting wasn’t for the likes of a poor mill girl from Bradford.
Now a lifetime later at the age of 81, Florence is finally enjoying her moment on stage. She plays a feisty old lady in the play Home Sweet Home, which is the centre piece of BOLD, a festival to celebrate the arts and older people, opening in the city on Friday. For Florence being on stage is a life-long ambition.
“I absolutely love it,” she says. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
She wonders how it might have been if she’d got the acting job she looked for as a girl.
“In 1949 things were vastly different. If you went to the pictures everyone spoke with a very posh accent. I found out there was a big theatre down on Leeds Road called the Playhouse. I was only 16, and we were very poor, but I was determined, I really wanted to be on that stage. I put a nice coat on and a beret and there was a man stood on the steps in uniform and though I was full of trepidation, I said to him, ‘Excuse me mister, do you need any actresses?’ He said ‘no’, so I came away. When I went home my dad shouted at me and hit me. I’d have loved to have gone on stage, I really would, but that was it and then life took over.”
A couple of years later she joined the Navy Army and Air Force Institute (NAAFI), where she met her husband who was working in the Royal Signals. She had the chance to travel the world when he served in Ghana, Bahrain and Germany, and enjoyed being a mother to three children. She later became a nurse and worked at Riyadh Military Hospital in Saudi Arabia before returning home and working at Bradford Royal Infirmary. Her husband died 30 years ago, and she met someone else.
“When I lost him last September, I nearly went under myself. He was my heart, my whole life.”
Yet it was also a turning point for her aspiration to appear on stage. Her sister spotted an advert for older actors in the local paper and dragged her along to an audition at Freedom Studios in Bradford.
“It was like a light shone on me,” she says. “Now I’ve got a new life. I’ve met new people. It’s absolutely marvellous and is something I should have done years and years ago.”
Home Sweet Home is now in its second run, following a very successful opening in April. The play brings together the true stories and experiences of 200 older people from Bradford, London and Stockton on Tees, where it will be performed. Florence chuckles as she recalls the character she plays, a lady in her 80s who is internet dating. She says of her role: “It’s just a small part because I’m in the chorus but I’ve got a juicy act because I have to tell people I’m having the best sex of my life!”
The idea behind the play and the wider festival is to challenge society’s concept of what it means to grow old in contemporary Britain.
Bradford theatre group Freedom Studios, teamed up with Entelechy Arts from Deptford in London to explore and research the creative experiences of ageing. Each location will hold a series of different performances, including workshops, pop-up plays, poetry readings, concerts and an exhibition of portraits. Events and performances will take place in shops, churches and cafes, residential homes, and sheltered housing communities. The idea is to confront popular misconceptions of what it means to grow old and to overcome fears about the ageing process.
Amongst the highlights in Bradford is Pensioner Warehouse where a couple of old ladies are being “sold before their expiry date” in a closing down sale. The play is performed in a shop window in Centenary Square, with the audience watching from the pavement.
“We wanted to pull in local people and use local talent,” explains Freedom Studios’ creative director, Deborah Dickinson. “We’re doing quite a few pop-up or shop window performances, so we go to the audience. By taking it out you get people going who don’t usually see it and don’t have access to it.”
Her vision is now to turn BOLD into an annual event across the whole country.
While researching the issues of ageing, the team from Freedom Studios worked with a social researcher and spoke to academic experts in the field.
“We found that a lot of it is self-fulfilling,” she says. “For example memory loss. People blame their age but everyone forgets things, it’s only when you get to a certain age that you say it’s ‘because I’m old’. You keep the myths going because of what you attribute to being old. We have to overturn some of these awful labels and stereotypes. My gran is 102 and still lives in her own home and then there are people in their 60s who act so much older. You can’t just lump them all together. It’s much more complex than that. This label of old age covers a huge range of people and it’s crazy that we lump all these people together. What we say is see the individual not the age.”
Back at Freedom Studios, Florence and the rest of the cast are having a lunch break in between rehearsals.
Following a five day run at the Ukrainian Centre next week, Home Sweet Home will go on tour to London and then up to Stockton. Florence can’t wait.
“It’s just marvelous,” she says with a smile. “It’s one of the most exciting things that’s ever happened in my life.”