Obituary: Felicity Ann Sieghart − champion of Aldeburgh Cinema
PUBLISHED: 16:05 09 June 2019
Known as 'Granny Seaside', she had an amazing life: An ill-fated married life in Africa, a battle with the BBC, and two holes-in-one… in the same round of golf
If Ealing Studios has a holiday home, it's undoubtedly on Suffolk's North Sea coast. Life here often displays the qualities that won the classic Ealing comedies a place in our hearts. Many of those heartwarming films - such as Passport to Pimlico and The Titfield Thunderbolt - see provincials operating on a shoestring but confounding well-resourced and immovable officialdom. As they sometimes do in not-so-silly Suffolk.
It surely was like that when dogged Laetitia Gifford took over the running of Aldeburgh Cinema in 1974. She'd stride along Wardour Street - London home of the film companies - and wear down the executives until she won favourable terms for Aldeburgh to show lucrative movies such as a new James Bond adventure.
When Letty's time at the helm was coming to an end, a ready-made replacement was to hand - hewn from the same granite.
Felicity Ann Sieghart recalled, recently: "I was in the process of retiring from my role as a magistrate and one day Letty just bounded up to me and said did I want to run the cinema? 'It'll be fun'.
"I was worried because I knew nothing about the cinema business, but that didn't put her off. Apparently, she thought that I was just the right sort of person to make a go of it. So I joined the board and then became managing director of the cinema."
Felicity Ann shadowed her mentor to learn the ropes, and then took over the running of the cinema in 1994. Under her watch, it became more financially robust.
She was still banging the publicity drum last month - helping flag the cinema's 100th birthday celebrations. Eleven days later, Felicity Ann died peacefully at home in the town - possibly after suffering a couple of strokes in the days before. She was 91.
Aldeburgh had lost one of its fervent champions, one of its lively minds, and a forthright character.
Felicity Ann Baer was born in London in July, 1927. When she was about four, the family swapped St John's Wood for the countryside of west Essex. (What we'd today call "Jamie Oliver country".)
Her father commuted to Liverpool Street from Bishop's Stortford. He'd built a career in the metal industry, and rose to become chairman of RTZ - Rio Tinto Zinc.
His daughter was 12 when war broke out. "She remembers riding out on her pony and a Messerschmitt diving down towards her. She thought that was it. Then it took off again and didn't strafe her," says Felicity Ann's daughter Mary Ann Sieghart, known for her national newspaper journalism (including senior roles on The Times) and work in TV and radio.
Young Felicity Ann didn't go to school for a couple of years because it was too difficult, what with petrol rationing and other obstacles. She was taught to read and write by her nanny.
"Eventually, she begged to go to school and was sent to the Herts & Essex (The Hertfordshire and Essex High School) in Bishop's Stortford.
"In some subjects she was way behind and in others way ahead. But she was very clever and at 16 she got into both Oxford and Cambridge. Her mother said 'Whatever for?'
"She also won the equivalent of Junior Wimbledon during the war - the under-16s."
At Oxford, where she read history at Somerville College, Felicity Ann found herself in the same year as Margaret Thatcher. "She knew her a bit. Wasn't great friends."
After Oxford came a series of jobs for which she was over-qualified and found quite boring.
"In those days it was quite hard to get an interesting job as a woman. And she didn't want to be a teacher," says Mary Ann.
"She thought of joining the civil service but would have had to leave as soon as she got married, so that didn't really appeal."
Then she met and married (at the start of 1953) a much older man called John Ward, who was running a sisal plantation in a very remote part of Mozambique.
"Because she was very adventurous, she thought 'Well, that will be exciting.'
"It turned out to be horrific, and she was stuck absolutely in the middle of nowhere, with no-one to talk to and nothing really to do. It was very, very grim.
"She wasn't allowed to do anything much on her own because everything was too dangerous.
"She wasn't even allowed to go for a walk without being accompanied; and it was blisteringly hot, and there were tropical diseases.
"He was up at five in the morning and dealing with the plantation. She was just stuck, really." She occasionally was allowed to visit the capital, which she loved, but it was a trek to get there.
"He had said she'd have to do only one tour and then they'd come back to England. They came back for a sort of break, and then he insisted they were going out again - and she refused."
The couple divorced at the end of the 1950s, but the relationship had broken down long before.
The mid-1950s were very much better. She'd decided to go to Rome and got a job with the British School there, driving around Italy in her little car and searching for Etruscan remains -"which was again quite dashing in those days. She absolutely adored that.
"She learned some fluent Italian - she already spoke French, German and Portuguese by then".
Back in England, she met human rights barrister Paul Sieghart - mutual friends playing Cupid.
"They discovered not only that they both loved Italy - not many people in those days had even been - they both loved Italian church architecture and they both loved a style called cosmatesque, which is a sort of marble mosaic pattern," says Mary Ann.
"What they both particularly loved was the cosmatesque pulpit in the cathedral in Ravello, which is above Amalfi. They looked at each other and realised they were probably the only two people in England at the time who did!"
They married in 1959, after Felicity Ann's divorce came through. Son William (an author, publisher and founder of National Poetry Day) was born in 1960 and Mary Ann the following year. They joined a family that included their father's children from his earlier marriage - Matilda and Alister, whose mother had died of cancer.
The expanded family lived in Epping. At one point Felicity Ann had four children under the age of seven to look after. With Paul often working in London for long spells, it could be hard work.
Getting things done
Felicity Ann launched the Essex branch of the National Association for Gifted Children and later chaired the charity itself.
There was a feeling not enough was being done to develop the potential of gifted youngsters. Some were bored and dispirited at school because they were not being challenged intellectually.
In the late 1970s she hosted a world conference, in London. The organisation also ran after-school and holiday activities for gifted children.
Later, Felicity Ann became a magistrate - covering the south London area. "She joined as the Brixton riots had been happening, so that would have been about 1981. She was sentencing all these people from the riots and it was a salutary learning curve."
Felicity Ann went on to chair the Bench for the area - overseeing probably hundreds of magistrates and dealing with the judicial authorities.
Why did she become a magistrate?
"She wanted to use her brain!" says Mary Ann. "I think she'd always wanted a paid job, but it was difficult with her husband being away a lot in London, and with four children. But she definitely wanted something that gave her intellectual stimulation; and, actually, learning the law is rather fascinating. "I think she quite helped Lord Scarman with his inquiry into the cause of the Brixton riots. She knew him anyway, and had started talking to him about the things that were coming up before the Bench."
Felicity Ann had long loved Aldeburgh. She'd come on holiday to nearby Thorpeness in the 1930s, as a child. Later, she'd bring her own young family to Suffolk - renting a house usually in Thorpeness, occasionally in Aldeburgh.
"She saw it as her favourite holiday place all the way through the '60s and '70s, but my father didn't particularly like it."
Sadly, Paul died of lung cancer in 1988. His widow later sold the house in Epping, keeping a flat in London and buying a home in Aldeburgh. She'd come up for holidays and weekends initially, but began spending more and more time in Suffolk and less in the capital.
Then came that "third career" at the helm of Aldeburgh Cinema.
Letty Gifford sounded her out about taking over. Felicity told Mary Ann, years later: "Being a person who makes rash decisions without thinking about it, I said 'Yes, I would!'
"I knew nothing about the business of running a cinema - and, after all, it had to pay - and I've never run a business of any description. And I've been very spoilt in court from having such marvellous support services. Suddenly having to find you've got to do all that yourself is a shock."
There was one member of staff in the office, a part-time projectionist, and there was ongoing anxiety about the cinema's financial health. But it worked.
A battle with the Beeb
One of the most successful innovations has been the Aldeburgh Documentary Festival, introduced to broaden the cinema audience and make the place more commercially viable.
Felicity Ann was musing with daughter-in-law Molly Dineen, a film-maker, about ways of pepping-up the business. Molly had the idea of a documentary film festival.
Author and satirist Craig Brown, who lived locally, joined them to help make the dream a reality.
The festival celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2019. But it very nearly died in infancy.
The programmes were printed; arrangements made. And then someone asked: "Have you fixed the copyright with the BBC?" Felicity Ann's response? "Copyright? Why should I have done that?"
She found herself dealing with BBC Worldwide, the corporation's commercial arm, to get permission to use clips.
"I rang up and got an exceedingly disagreeable gentleman, who put every kind of objection in front of me and said 'You can't do it, because you'll never cover all the people involved. It's an impossibility. You're going to have to cancel!" she recalled later.
"Oh, I can't. It's too late!"
Fortunately she found the friend of a friend − a lawyer with the BBC, who went in to bat for Aldeburgh, explaining it wasn't being done for commercial gain per se. The lawyer dealt with Worldwide and somehow managed to sort it out at the 11th hour.
Roll up, roll up
Mary Ann says her mother, responsible for programming at the cinema, had very good, eclectic tastes, but realised not everyone would agree with her choices.
"There were some startling art-house movies she thought were fantastic, and she'd show them perhaps for a night or two, but she'd put in the programme 'I don't think Aldeburgh will like this'!
"She thought it was her duty to mix blockbusters with some things that were a bit less blockbustery - like Merchant Ivory films."
Lars von Trier's dark film Breaking the Waves (think sex, religion and psychology in the Scottish Highlands in the 1970s) springs to mind as one "which she loved but I don't think Aldeburgh liked.
"She'd get the latest Bond film in and people would flock to it, and that would cross-subsidise the von Trier".
Felicity Ann received an MBE when she retired from the cinema, but never got paid for running it. "She saw it as voluntary work. There were a lot of dramas, but she loved it."
Beating the odds
It was in 2003 that the then 76-year-old made the news. Playing at Aldeburgh Golf Club, where she'd been a member since 1990, she made two holes-in-one during the same round.
Bookmaker Corals put the odds against a 76-year-old female doing that, especially on a difficult course such as Aldeburgh, at 100million to one.
This, said a spokesman, was a tougher achievement than winning the National Lottery (an easier 14million to one).
Felicity Ann had first used a five-wood, against the wind, at the 134-yard eighth hole. She couldn't find her ball on the green, or in the rough behind it. She went back to check the hole, and there it was.
Later, on the 17th hole (a breeze-affected 130-yarder) she planned to use a seven-wood, but on the tee found herself holding her driver "and couldn't make the effort to go back and change clubs".
She told the EADT's Tony Garnett: "There was no sign of it (her ball) when we reached the green, so I looked in the gorse at the back. Feeling rather foolish, I went to look in the hole and the ball was there.
"Had I been on my own, I would probably have thought I had imagined it. That night I couldn't sleep. It was going round and round in my mind."
Felicity Ann had been playing golf since she was 12, starting at Theydon Bois in Essex, and these were not her first holes-in-one. She'd already had five, including one at Aldeburgh at the 181-yard 15th hole.
"She must have been the oldest person in the world to have done it, as only a handful of people ever have," says Mary Ann of the double hole-in-one.
"One of the reasons she loved Aldeburgh was the golf course. I think at her best her handicap was six, and she was still playing at 90. She was playing the river course. She would say 'I can only do nine holes now.' That's pretty good at 90!"
Why did she love Suffolk?
"It reminded her of her childhood. She loved the gentle landscapes and the big skies. She loved the architecture, and particularly church architecture.
"She and I used to go on little tours. We'd go away for a weekend when I was a child and visit country churches and stay in a B&B or something like that, and I loved that. When she came to Aldeburgh, she did it with one of my daughters, who's now an architect."
Felicity Ann said the town was full of such fascinating people. "At one point, both the former directors of MI5 and MI6 were living in Aldeburgh. She loved those sorts of people: clever Foreign Office types. She had such a good brain and she loved exercising it."
Mary Ann laughs at the memory of her mother, recently widowed, being invited to stay with her brother in Somerset - with a view to a permanent move. "She went for a trial weekend and said 'The people there are simply ghastly!'" She didn't move down.
Felicity Ann learned to play bridge in her 80s, and enjoyed it. "I remember at some point she was doing a Latin poetry class and an English literature class. These were run by clever people in Aldeburgh who wanted to share their knowledge. She really enjoyed that."
Mary Ann believes her mother was once president of The Aldeburgh Society, which seeks to protect the town's glorious character.
She was also a committed traveller. "It was her favourite thing. She went through a phase of loving India. They (Felicity Ann and husband Paul) went there a lot. So much so that she ended up cooking only Indian food for a bit. On Christmas Day we had roast Indian spiced leg of lamb!"
She was travelling until the year before she died, though by that stage it was generally cruises. Even so, there were some unusual places, such as Peru.
Felicity Ann had been living independently until 10 days before she died.
"She made us promise not to have her taken to hospital and not to put her in a care home. 'I want to die in my own bed, in my own home'," says Mary Ann.
The funeral is a family-only occasion, but a memorial service open to all is being held at Aldeburgh Parish Church on Friday, July 5. It starts at 12noon.
The family requests "no flowers", but donations are welcomed: for The Macular Society, via Tony Brown's Funeral Service, New Cut, Saxmundham, IP17 1EH.
Is it fair to say Felicity Ann was a person of huge spirit, a degree of eccentricity and an ever-curious mind? "Absolutely. And formidable too, I would say. People found her quite scary, though I don't think she meant to be! She was very benign."
That said, there's anecdotal evidence that one local official would cross the road when he saw her coming, just in case she pinned him down about one issue or another!
She could air strong views. "She couldn't bear the Maggi Hambling Scallop, for instance." The sculpture stands on the shingle at the north end of Aldeburgh beach.
"I suppose she was very direct; very forthright. But great fun and had a huge number of friends in Aldeburgh. She was such good company. Very gregarious - and eternally curious, wanting to talk about politics.
"She used to ring me up and say 'Darling, I want to pick your brains.
"I've been watching a fascinating Lords select committee on Parliament channel and want to talk to you about it.' I was a political columnist and she'd know more about it than me!
"She was passionately anti-Brexit and thought her generation should be voting the way their grandchildren wanted them to vote. 'We've got hardly any time left on his earth and it's their future that matters.'"
Of all the labels we might attach, the best must be "Granny Seaside". It's what she was to the 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren who came to visit. Felicity Ann adored her corner of Suffolk and loved to share its delights.