She worked with the stars, and was herself a star of Suffolk
- Credit: Archant
What a night! November, 1954, and dancer Sidonie Darrell is on stage with a galaxy of stars: Bob Hope and Noël Coward, Norman Wisdom, Max Bygraves, Joan Sims, Frankie Howerd and Peter Sellers.
It’s the Royal Variety Performance, before the Queen and The Duke Of Edinburgh. Sidi isn’t even 21 years old.
Household names featured prominently in her career, which ranged from classical ballet and West End musicals to TV work and appearances in Sunday Night at the Palladium, but Sidi was never starry-eyed. These were talented folk, all doing a professional job.
Later she adopted and adored Suffolk – enjoying a long association with Southwold Summer Theatre, teaching ballet to probably three generations, serving as ladies’ captain at Halesworth and Southwold golf clubs, and helping support local people with the potential to become the theatrical performers of the future.
“She wasn’t bothered about celebrity. People were people, and Wangford church (for her recent service of celebration) was full of a complete mix of all sorts: people she’d met at the shop, people she’d met at WI coffee mornings, people from all walks of life – because she would get involved in absolutely anything and everything that was going on,” says elder daughter Nikki.
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The discovery of Southwold was happenstance.
“We came here for an afternoon and stayed for a lifetime – that is exactly how it happened,” Sidi told us in 2017.
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“Derek and I came here one August bank holiday with our children to rest and relax. And we turned to each other and said ‘it’s lovely here; let’s look for a house’.”
Mum apparently used to dance around with tissues on her head, playing the Queen of the Fairies
Gillian Veronica Matheson Bain (as Sidi was, originally) was born in November, 1933. The family lived in Bristol, where her father was a GP and her mother a ballroom dancing teacher.
The war saw Gillian and her brother evacuated to Scotland because incendiaries were landing on the roof of the family home and life was risky.
“She remembered her mum running down with a spade, with a burning something on it, and saying ‘Adrian and Gillian! Get into your rooms while I get this out of the door!’ Life there was properly scary,” says Nikki.
The children went up to Aberdeen (three days on the train) and spent several years at different boarding schools – seeing each other, and their parents, only in the holidays. The youngsters were often very hungry. “There were stories about them eating grass…”
When they returned south, Gillian’s theatrical leanings came to the fore. “At one school, the headmistress suggested she might like to go somewhere that would be more suitable to her artistic temperament. My sister told a story about how Mum apparently used to dance around with tissues on her head, playing the Queen of the Fairies.”
A new theatrical boarding school at Tring, in Hertfordshire, proved the perfect choice for someone who had begun dancing when young – taught first by her mother. Her stage debut was at Bristol Hippodrome at the age of three: as a dead prince in a Greek tragedy who was cradled by Deborah Kerr (then 15 and later to star in The King and I).
At 17 Gillian joined a dance company that later became English National Ballet. Becoming a professional classical ballet dancer saw her adopt the stage name Sidonie Darrell, which would morph to Sidi.
The company performed in London and also toured, including a longish spell in Italy during which she apparently got engaged to an American photographer. It didn’t go any further, though.
A period as principal dancer with Bristol Old Vic was the prelude to Sidi finding her true calling in musical theatre. She was in (among others) the first UK touring production of Carousel, Kismet, and Bells Are Ringing in the West End. There were many revues, too – at theatres such as The Palladium, the Cambridge Theatre and the Prince of Wales Theatre.
Sidi worked with a host of stars: Morecambe and Wise, Gracie Fields, Barbara Windsor, Norman Wisdom and Harry Secombe among them.
She danced in the original West End production of Cinderella in 1958 at the London Coliseum. It starred Jimmy Edwards (one of the ugly sisters), Kenneth Williams and Tommy Steele (Buttons).
She said in 2016: “I loved that show, and the costumes and sets were wonderful. Kenneth was very funny and Tommy a delight to work with, though Tommy was a terrible prankster.”
Then there was Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate. A version was organised to mark the opening of BBC2 in 1964, with the dancers starting outside and then running into the studio, but a fire at Battersea Power Station caused a massive power failure across west London and it had to be postponed until the following night.
Sidi was then a dancer and choreographer on light entertainment TV shows here and overseas, including Sunday Night at the Palladium.
There’s a great anecdote about helping Sean Connery out of a hole by letting him either sleep on the kitchen floor or a sofa bed (there are various versions!) when he needed a roof over his head for a couple of weeks.
Husband Derek Scott she met in 1953 at the London Palladium. Derek took over from a pianist who had left for New York.
“Dad was rehearsing,” says Nikki. “The Palladium in those days had the massive revolve (revolving stage) and a huge elevator, and he came up, at the piano, through the floor. Sidi was dancing and caught sight of this new pianist, and thought ‘Ooh, he’s playing rather beautifully. And he’s nice’. And that was it.”
They married in 1957, and had an unconventional wedding day. Sidi couldn’t get the night off from her job at Churchill’s club in the West End…
“I think she was dancing in the theatre, and every night after the show would do some work in one of the clubs. So they went down to Bristol, got married and came back to London in the evening, so she could work.”
With the arrival of daughters Nikki and Emma, Sidi changed focus and did more choreography and directing. She began to work, too, with amateur and community theatre in Hertfordshire, trained to be a dance teacher and started teaching keep-fit.
The girls had showbiz in their DNA. Their father had been involved in entertainment in the RAF and been Tony Hancock’s partner in a double-act when they came out of the forces: Derek Scott and Hank.
“He just shrugged that off,” says Nikki, who says her father was a very modest man. He also wrote much of the score for Hancock’s 1963 film The Punch and Judy Man, and the theme tune for the brilliant but troubled comedian’s ATV series.
Alongside the theme tunes written by Derek, including long-running series General Hospital, were the music arrangements for numerous TV entertainment shows, including the many TV series of The Muppet Show from the mid-1970s to early 1980s.
Was it a starry childhood for his daughters? “You don’t think it’s unusual, do you?” says Nikki. “It’s just ‘what the family did’. When (Muppets creator) Jim Henson came to dinner, we just thought ‘Oh… OK…’” When Derek worked on The Muppet Show, Emma in particular went to the studio from time to time. “When Gene Kelly or Nureyev or people like that were on, you were able to breathe the same air as these amazing people,” says her sister. “But neither mum nor dad was interested in celebrity at all. Not at all.”
The couple were different, complementary and committed to one another.
Sidi was a gregarious talker and brilliant orator; Derek was understated. He’d worked with conductor Andre Previn on a film score, for instance, but, because he didn’t think a great deal of it, wouldn’t readily bring it up in conversation. He was much happier with a good round at Southwold Golf Club.
Emma became a professional dancer before moving into literary management. Nikki has worked in the professional theatre, on the technology side. Latterly it was with a pioneering company that developed the techniques to “fly” performers and props over the audience: Mary Poppins, the car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and more.
What I like about looking out of this window is that when I’m gone it will still be here
Over the past decade Sidi had survived a heart scare that nearly killed her. (She was a lover of reality shows, and nurses at Papworth Hospital, where she had a bypass, knew they could nip into her room for a quick glimpse of I’m a Celebrity…) Latterly came cancer.
She became quite ill while visiting Nikki and son-in-law Martin in Hertfordshire, and had a major operation down there last spring, along with chemotherapy.
Once she began recovering her strength in a convalescent home, Sidi typically threw herself into the life of the place. When some activities tailed off in the summer because staff were on holiday, she organised armchair ballet for residents.
Sadly, Sidi died in November, two days after her 85th birthday.
Because of the strong Hertfordshire links, the cremation was held there – and provided one of those black humour moments that often arise. Signs at the crematorium announced the service for Gillian Scott – confusing mourners who’d only ever known her as Sidi.
Then, on January 12, about 270 people packed very snugly into the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Wangford, for a celebration of Sidi’s life.
Among the tributes was one by Paul Hegarty (nominated for a Laurence Olivier best actor award for Sweeney Todd) who sang If I Loved You from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Paul Leonard (who played an admiral in film The Darkest Hour) sang Noel Coward’s Don’t Put Your Daughter On The Stage.
There was a medley of songs from Denis King (whose credits include writing the theme tune for TV series The Adventures of Black Beauty, which won an Ivor Novello Award). And a tribute from Jill Freud – Lady Freud – for so long the face of Suffolk Summer Theatres in Aldeburgh and Southwold.
Nikki says her mother had finally got a flat in Southwold in 2016, by which time the years were advancing and the house she was in much too big.
“She could look out at The Common, and she enjoyed that. That was very special.
“On her last visit back here, when we’d worked out she probably wasn’t going to come back again, she said ‘What I like about looking out of this window is that when I’m gone it will still be here.’
“She and Dad walked along the beach when he was alive and they talked about it (Southwold) then. Nothing could make them happier; something just gave them a sense of peace here.”
She said that when she got to the sign that said ‘Suffolk’, it was like all your cares and troubles went away
The family’s first visit to the Southwold area came in about 1972 or 1973, reckons Nikki.
“We were staying in a cottage in Bury St Edmunds and needed to get to the seaside – because we were two young children. Mum and dad took us for the bank holiday and that was it.”
Sidi and Derek were smitten. After that, they’d rent places in the area and often stay for longish stretches. When they could, they bought a bolt-hole of their own: a bungalow in The Drive, Reydon.
After Derek wrote the theme tune for 1970s TV police series Hunter’s Walk, the money helped fund a move to the Hill Road area – to a new three-bedroom bungalow that bore the name of the TV show.
In 1982, when Derek retired, the couple moved full-time to Suffolk: to a house near Reydon church. In 1987 they moved to nearby Wangford.
It goes without saying that the Scotts threw themselves into local life even before moving to Suffolk permanently.
Sidi worshipped at the churches in Southwold, Reydon and Wangford, and at times served as a churchwarden and lay elder, and on parochial church councils. “And yet,” smiles Nikki, “she could stand up and have a boogie and dance on the table and mix with a whole host of people, and it didn’t make any difference to her.”
Sidi had a knack for befriending people, supporting them, and drawing out their talents and strengths.
At one point she helped stage religious mystery plays at Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh – getting much of the community involved and persuading priest Harry Edwards to play Jesus.
At the celebration service, says Nikki, he told how Sidi had put him on The Cambridge Diet, and encouraged him to go running, to slim down for the production. Apparently there was even the hint of a six-pack by the time the big day dawned.
Costumes were brought in from the National Theatre, and a local builder was persuaded to wear a Roman soldier’s tunic that on him looked more like a skirt.
It was a big production, and fun. And repeated two years later.
A project to mark the millennium was another in which Sidi and members of the community were involved. There was a huge projection screen at the front of a church and names were read out of people from local parishes who had died.
It’s remembered as being incredibly moving – made more so by the fact that representatives from perhaps half a dozen Royal British Legion branches lowered and then held still their standards as their church/parish was mentioned.
“One of the things she could do very well was to make you laugh – she could do something crazy to tell a bit of the story, and then, almost in a heartbeat, you’re watching something and you’re crying,” says Nikki.
“Because she understood the theatre, and timing, and was an emotive person, there was an amazing tenderness to everything. She was great at putting it on stage.”
When Wangford church became a major part of her life, Sidi put on many concerts there. Often she got professional performers with local links to appear gratis, in a good cause. One was Paul Hegarty, whose “turn” helped buy much-needed paint for St Peter and St Paul’s!
“Once they moved up here permanently, she never stopped. Mum was captain of the golf club in Southwold, captain of the Halesworth club at some point – having been captain of a golf club in Hertfordshire. She taught dancing in Southwold. She taught keep-fit. She got involved.”
Not least with the summer theatre productions masterminded in Southwold and Aldeburgh by Jill Freud.
Sidi first met the inestimable Jill in 1984, in Southwold High Street. “Jill had just taken over the summer theatre and thought ‘Oh, I’ve got here a musical director, a pianist and a choreographer, dancer, actress, with London experience… how useful!’” says Nikki.
Her mother performed and choreographed for many years. In 2017, Sidi told us that despite appearing in all those West End shows, some of her best times on stage were in Southwold.
“I look back at a lifetime of fun. My favourite performance was in Stepping Out as part of the Jill Freud Summer Theatre.”
The comedy is about eight different characters who meet each week at a tap-dancing class in an unappealing church hall.
Sidi was in two local productions. In one, she portrayed the keyboard player. Ever the pros, Derek recorded the music his wife would “play” and she practised miming it until it was very slick.
“She was complimented one night by someone who said her playing was amazing. So she was pleased she’d pulled it off,” Nikki remembers.
In more recent times Sidi had chaired the Friends of East Suffolk Performing Arts for about a decade. The charity was born of the “Friends” group that supported Southwold and Aldeburgh Summer Theatres.
FESPA aims to keep the east Suffolk performing arts scene in good health, and back local people learning and honing performing arts skills.
“Mum was in ill-health earlier this year but was absolutely riveted by the BBC Young Musician of the Year (contest) because in the final was Maxim Calver, who is local and played the cello absolutely beautifully. He’d been supported by FESPA.”
Sidi naturally found it difficult when Derek died in 2006, but did not give in – enjoying her friends and travelling.
Nikki says her mother was always incapable of sitting still. In later years she adapted actress and writer Joyce Grenfell’s Letters from Aldeburgh to create a one-woman show. She’d also take coaches and buses to indulge her love of ballet by watching performances in places such as Norwich and Lowestoft. And she went to Ipswich to see dancer Sylvie Guillem; met her too.
Up to late 2017, despite being a bit wobbly after having had a replacement knee and hip in previous years, Sidi was still working hard.
One of the last talks she gave was for Southwold Arts Festival, called My Passion for Ballet. She told us: “I love performing. It’s not showing off; it is sharing with others the most important thing in my life.”
After her family, her love of theatre and performance was the thing dearest to the heart of this grandmother to Polly and Harriet.
Suffolk was up there, too. Does Nikki know why she and Derek found it so magical?
“I don’t know. In the olden days, when you drove up from the Watford area, it took about five hours, because you would go through the middle of Chelmsford, Colchester, Ipswich… It was really boring. They used to do it a lot, and she said that when she got to the sign that said ‘Suffolk’, it was like all your cares and troubles went away.”