Betty Blue Eyes – A history By Jess Pether

Nowadays, we are used to seeing musicals that have been adapted from films; Spamalot, Kinky Boots and Billy Elliot are just a few. But as Shenfield Operatic Society (SOS) started to promote our next show, we realised that not only have many people not heard of Betty Blue Eyes but those who have don’t realise it’s adapted from Alan Bennett’s 1984 film, A Private Function.

An established writer of plays, the film was Bennett’s first and starred Michael Palin and Maggie Smith. Set in a small Yorkshire town in 1947, the story follows Gilbert Chilvers, a chiropodist, and his wife Joyce as they get caught up in a farcical tale involving government officials, the imminent Royal Wedding of Elizabeth and Phillip and a rather charming pig called Betty. In a time where rationing was still in force but people wanted to celebrate the wedding in style, the illegally reared Betty became the centre of attention.

The film’s subject came from both Bennet and its director, Malcolm Mowbray. His in-laws were butchers and he remembered a time they had reared a pig, killed it and kept it in the bath! The police had visited one day about a separate matter and caught sight of the pig. The story, and possible comedy of the situation, had grown in Mowbray’s mind since then.

Filmed mostly in Ilkley in West Yorkshire, 70 members of the local amateur dramatics society, Ilkley Players, auditioned for parts and 30 were selected. It was also important to get Betty just right, and three pigs were used. They say you should never work with children or animals, and it sounds like Maggie Smith would agree; at one point, she was hemmed into a corner of the kitchen by a pig and had to escape over the back of the set! After hearing this, SOS (and our audiences) may be pleased to hear that Betty will be played by a puppet in our version.

The film won three BAFTAs and is seen as one of Bennett’s most popular. It was probably inevitable that a musical version of the story would one day appear, and the show opened in London’s West End in 2011. It was the brainchild of two American writers who had caught the film on TV. Although they had no connections to rural life in England, they felt the story had universal themes, strong characters and a brilliant contrast of dark and light; the perfect ingredients for a musical. With the most famous theatrical producer, Cameron Mackintosh, on board, and a great set of songs written by another duo, Betty Blue Eyes was born.

The show opened at the Novello Theatre and starred Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith, both of TV fame. But probably the most famous member of the cast was Betty, who was voiced by singer Kylie Minogue. Sadly, although audiences and critics alike seemed to love the show, it closed after only six months. This was most likely because of how tough it is to produce a successful new musical in today’s world, where the likes of Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera have been running for over three decades.

But that doesn’t worry SOS. We know this feel-good show, full of catchy songs and an adorable central character will charm any who come to see it. So book your tickets and bring your ration cards. You’re in for a real treat!

Betty Blue Eyes is on at The Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, Weds 7 to Sat 10 Feb. Box Office 07734 817418 / boxoffice@shenfieldoperaticsociety.co.uk