Variety is still spice of life after 50 years of success

The Yorkshire Variety Club is celebrating half a century of helping sick and disabled children. Chris Bond looks back at its success with one of its founding members.

WHEN Ian Brill and a group of fellow businessmen in Leeds were asked if they would sell raffle tickets for the Variety Club back in 1961, they were a little bit miffed.

They were happy to help, of course, but felt they could do better than just a raffle. “We were pretty young back in those days,” says Ian. “We were all bigheads and we said, ‘hang on a sec, if we’re going to be part of the Variety Club, we’re not just going to sell raffle tickets, we’ll have our own event’.”

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This they did, at the Ebor meeting at York Racecourse, and through their showbusiness contacts they were able to attract a string of celebrity names. “Roger Moore came and so did Frankie Vaughan and Kenneth More. We had quite a few famous faces.”

They raised about £3,000, which back in the early 1960s was a sizeable sum. But Ian admits in the beginning they were fund-raising novices. “After that first event we organised a ball at the Assembly Rooms in York and one of our colleagues forgot to order any wine so Bobby Caplin, another founding member, and I went round all the off-licences at six o’clock to buy as much wine as we could for 200 people. That’s how green we were.”

Half a century on, the Yorkshire branch of the Variety Club Children’s Charity has raised millions, helping to improve the quality of life for sick, disabled and disadvantaged children across the county. As well as funding several major appeals, including a £125,000 donation from Leeds businessman Leslie Silver and his wife, Sheila, towards the creation of a dedicated children’s radiology unit at Leeds General Infirmary, it also helps thousands of youngsters by providing vital equipment such as wheelchairs, special beds and hoists and walking frames.

“The problem is the state has never been able to look after all these cases,” Ian explains.

“At our last meeting, for instance, one of the appeals was for an extension to a house for a profoundly handicapped child, because the family need a room big enough to get a wheelchair around. Now, who’s going to provide that? The local council can provide about £30,000 but they’re about £15,000 short and that’s where we try and help. We provide loads of electric wheelchairs and we’ve also got the Sunshine coaches and in Yorkshire over the years we’ve given about 300 of them away.”

The Variety Club of Great Britain was founded in 1949 and has grown into a national institution, one that is recognised all round the world. In Yorkshire, the committee is made up of volunteers and raises all its own money. Ian puts its success down to the people who get involved.

“We’ve always had a strong committee and we’ve had some marvellous members over the years. Richard Whiteley was lovely, he was one of our colleagues, and Frazer Hines from Emmerdale has been on the committee, too.”

Many of the stories they encounter are heart-wrenching. “There are a great number of appeals that come in for things like cystic fibrosis and kids that can’t walk, or can’t talk, or see, terrible conditions, and we just try and do whatever we can.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Yorkshire Variety Club Children’s Charity and in September Prince Albert of Monaco will be the guest of honour at a glittering charity ball at Harewood House.

He will be accompanied by Charlene Wittstock, who he is due to marry next month. It will be the couple’s first public engagement as husband and wife and comes nearly 40 years after the Prince’s parents, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, attended a fundraising ball at the Queens Hotel in Leeds, accompanied by famous friends like Cary Grant, Michael Caine and Roger Moore.

It was billed at the time as “the most glamorous social occasion the city has ever seen” by one newspaper and was quite a coup for the Yorkshire volunteers.

“We were talking about different ways to raise money,” remembers Ian.

“We thought a ball was a good idea, then we thought why not have a French theme. Someone said: ‘Why don’t we invite the Rainiers?’ almost as a joke because we thought there was no chance. But we sent a letter inviting them to Leeds and, blow me down, we got a reply saying they would love to do it.”

Not only that but they brought the jet set with them to West Yorkshire. “Balmain came over from Paris with a fashion show and Fabergé sponsored the whole thing. George Barrie, the boss of Fabergé, came over along with Cary Grant and Roger Moore, who were both directors with Fabergé at the time. It was magical, one of those great, unforgettable nights.”

Thanks to their growing list of showbiz contacts it was one of many great nights. “We had Douglas Fairbanks Jnr and David Niven over for a fund-raising event at the Queens Hotel. I remember looking around the room and it was full of famous people.

“David Niven was an absolute delight. I remember going to meet him at the airport at Yeadon and taking him to the hotel. He was chatting to me while he was unpacking and he noticed his dinner jacket had a button missing so he called down to reception and a girl came up to sew the button back on and he gave her £5. This was nearly 40 years ago so it’s the equivalent of about £30 in today’s money, but that’s what he was like, he was one of nature’s gentlemen.”

As well as showbiz galas they’ve also organised big sporting events. “We had a Variety Club golfing society and over the years people like Gary Player, Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros all played for us. We were just young lads from the provinces when we started out but we’ve raised a lot of money over the years and we’ve had a ball doing it.”

Today, the charity continues its good work, organising fun days at Harewood House so that hundreds of children, many of them disabled, can enjoy a day out. It takes inner-city children on trips to Lineham Farm and last year, as part of its Variety at Work activity, the charity organised Christmas parties for more than 1,000 children.

The Sunshine coaches, too, remain a vital lifeline. “Can you imagine kids who’ve never been out of their home, or school, suddenly able to go to Scarborough for the day and see the sea? It’s a luxury for them and it’s something we just take for granted. A lot of them, sadly, aren’t destined for a long stay with us, so if we can brighten up their lives a little bit then that’s got to be something.”