On this day in history : 6th September 1952 – A de Havilland jet fighter disintegrates at the Farnborough Air Show – 31 people, including the pilot and the onboard flight test observer, are killed….
Pilot John Derry and flight observer Anthony Richards had collected the DH.110 prototype aircraft from de Havilland’s factory at Hatfield, Hertfordshire and had flown it to Farnborough, arriving just in time for their slot in the airshow’s schedule…. The plan had been to fly another prototype which had been used for the airshow the previous day – but it had developed technical faults…. The September 6th de Havilland display had nearly been cancelled….
Derry had been the first pilot in Britain to exceed the speed of sound, when flying a DH108 research aircraft in 1948…. During the performance at Farnborough he flew the DH110 in a supersonic dive, creating a sonic ‘boom’ and continued on a fly past at 40,000 feet…. He then completed a left bank, travelling at around 520mph and flew towards the 120,000 spectators at the airshow…. Next he pulled the jet into a climb – but within a second the aircraft had disintegrated – the outer wing sections, both engines and the cockpit separating from the airframe…. The cockpit landed, with both men still inside, in front of the crowd near to the runway – several spectators were injured….
One engine crashed harmlessly…. The other carried on and ploughed into the crowd that had gathered on ‘Observation Hill’ – a vantage point outside of the airfield used by many locals to watch the display…. It was here that most of the fatalities occurred….
The emergency services were on the scene within minutes and after only a short break the air display continued! In total 31 people lost their lives, with many more injured….
On this day in history : 31st July 1947 – The birth of English actor Richard Griffiths – perhaps best known for his role as Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter series of films….
Richard was born in Thornaby-on-Tees, in the North Riding of Yorkshire…. His father was a steel worker who also took part in paid fights in pubs…. He and Richard’s mother had three other children, a daughter and two sons but all had died before Richard came along…. Richard’s parents were both deaf and mute, he grew up adept in sign language…. There was no TV or radio in the house – his was a very quiet childhood….
Richard left school at 15 – but returned to education to study drama at Stockton and Billingham College…. He then went on to the Manchester Polytechnic School of Drama…. Initially he kept all this a secret from his father – who was furious when he did eventually find out….
Following his graduation Richard landed a contract with the BBC for their Radio Drama Company…. He was then to join the Royal Shakespeare Company and was a natural in the comic roles, such as Falstaff…. He came to the attention of Trevor Nunn, the then RSC artistic director….
Richard’s early TV career saw him with small roles in ‘Minder’, ‘The Sweeney’, ‘Bergerac’ – amongst others…. He also had small parts in films such as ‘Chariots of Fire’, ‘Superman II’ and ‘Gandhi’…. His breakthrough came as Uncle Monty in 1987’s ‘Withnail and I’….Another of his best known characters was that of the disillusioned Inspector Henry Crabbe, a role made especially for him…. ‘Pie in the Sky’ ran between 1994-1997 and was about a policeman who was rather discontent with his work and between getting into scrapes and solving cases had a sideline of being the most amazing pie chef in his wife’s restaurant….
A role as a ‘foodie’ suited Richard – as he was known for his rotund girth…. But he had actually started out skinny and underweight…. At the age of 8 he had been given treatment for his pituitary gland – and within a year had gained 60% more body weight…. He was picked on by his school mates but was more than capable of standing up for himself….
Richard met Irish actress Heather Gibson in a production of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ – and they were married in 1980…. They were to have no children – but Richard was Godfather to comedian Jack Whitehall….
Many will associate Richard with the Harry Potter films…. He played the part of Uncle Vernon, married to Harry’s aunt Petunia and having grudgingly raised Harry from an early age was certainly not very nice to him…. He never explained to the boy how his parents had died or told him about the magical world….
When performing on stage Richard was not adverse to showing his displeasure towards the audience if his performance was disturbed – especially by a mobile phone…. In 2005 he ordered a man out of London’s National Theatre after his phone rang for a sixth time during a performance of Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’ (a role for which Richard was awarded with a Tony Award in 2006)…. In November 2005, whilst he was on stage in London’s Wyndham Theatre, a woman’s phone kept ringing – after the third time Richard stopped and had her ejected, to a loud applause from the audience…. Again, during a performance of History Boys, this time in New York’s Broadhurst Theatre he thundered at a member of the audience after their phone rang for a third time….
Richard was awarded an OBE in 2008…. He died on the 28th of March 2013 at University Hospital, Coventry after complications following heart surgery….
On this day in history : 20th April 1912 – The death of Irish-born writer Bram Stoker, author of the 1897 gothic horror ‘Dracula’….
Born on the 8th of November 1847 in Clontarf, Dublin, Abraham (Bram) Stoker was the third of seven children and his father worked as a senior civil servant….
Bram was a sickly child and spent many of his early years bedridden and was not expected to live – although nobody seemed to know exactly what ailed him…. He would entertain himself by ‘people watching’ through his bedroom window and listening to the stories and legends of Irish history told to him by his mother…. No doubt these pass-times helped fuel his creative imagination….
By the age of seven Bram had recovered from his mystery illness and was able to start his formal education, attending a private school run by Reverend William Woods…. Despite his frailty during his early childhood Bram was to go on to thrive both physically and academically…. He grew into a tall strapping young man and after being admitted to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1864 he even excelled at sporting activities…. He was recognised as Dublin University’s Athletic Sports Champion in 1867 and played rugby for the University…. He was President of the University Philosophical Society and auditor of the College Historical Society…. He also became interested in the theatre….
After graduating Trinity with a Bachelor of Arts in 1870 Bram was then to go on to gain a Master of Arts in 1875…. He was to embark on a career path which followed in his father’s footsteps as a civil servant, taking a position at Dublin Castle…. He also took an unpaid role as theatre critic for the Dublin Evening Mail – and in December 1876 gave a favourable review for actor Henry Irving’s ‘Hamlet’ at the Theatre Royal, Dublin…. This review was to change Bram’s life…. Henry Irving was Bram’s idol – and he would no doubt have been delighted when he received an invitation to dinner from Irving…. The two were to become firm friends….
Bram had started to write seriously in his twenties; his story ‘Crystal Cup’ was published in 1872 by the London Society and he followed it up with his four-part ‘The Chain of Destiny’…. He also wrote a non-fiction book, ‘The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland’, which was published in 1879….
In 1878 Bram married Florence Balcombe, who was a renowned beauty and had formerly been romantically linked to Oscar Wilde…. Bram counted Wilde amongst his friends having met him during his student days…. The friendship was tested as Wilde was initially upset that Florence had chosen Bram over him – but eventually differences were overcome and Bram and Wilde resumed their friendship….
Following their marriage the Stokers moved to London as Irving had invited Bram to manage his Lyceum Theatre – which Bram continued to do for the next 27 years (1878-1904)…. On the 31st of December 1879 Bram and Florence became parents to a son who they named ‘Irving Noel Thornley Stoker’ – he was to be their only child….
Inevitably Bram was to make many connections in his role as manager of the Lyceum…. He was to become well-known in theatrical circles and included amongst his friends and acquaintances people such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Buffalo Bill (Cody) and Mark Twain…. He was acquainted with William Gladstone, Theodore Roosevelt and Lord and Lady Randolph…. One of his closest friends was British novelist Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine (usually known as Hall Caine) – Bram dedicated his masterpiece ‘Dracula’ to his friend….
Henry Irving received a Knighthood in 1895 – he was the first actor to be knighted…. Bram accompanied Irving on many of his tours, particularly America but also to other parts of the world…. However, surprisingly, he never visited Eastern Europe – the setting for his masterpiece novel…. He was to set two of his novels in America and further novels in the small Scottish village of Cruden Bay in Aberdeenshire – a place dear to him and where he would spend month long holidays…. It was here that he began to write ‘Dracula’ in 1895 – it is believed Dracula Castle may have been inspired by the nearby ‘Slains Castle’…. Further inspiration for the novel had already been received by a previous visit in 1890 to the North Yorkshire seaside town of Whitby (which had also provided inspiration for another of his novels ‘The Snake’s Pass’ in 1890)…. ‘Dracula’ was finally published on the 26th of May 1897….
The story of ‘Dracula’ involves Jonathan Harker, a solicitor, who when on a business trip stays at the Transylvanian Castle of Count Dracula…. Harker discovers that Dracula is a vampire and flees…. The Count follows him to England and begins to terrorise Whitby…. A group form, led by Abraham Van Helsing, to hunt Dracula down – which they eventually succeed to do and manage to kill him…. The book itself is written in the format of the diary entries and journals of the main characters….
Bram had met a Hungarian-Jewish writer, traveller and expert in Turkic languages and culture by the name of Armin Vambery…. Some say Vambery’s tales may have given Bram the idea for ‘Count Dracula’ – but there are others who dispute this…. Bram’s original idea as a title for his novel was ‘The Un-Dead’…. His Count was going to have been from Austria – and was to have been called ‘Wampyr’…. However, he found the name ‘Dracula’ whilst browsing in Whitby Library and thought it a more suitable name…. After its publication ‘Dracula’ was immediately well received – and has become one of the most successful literary works of all time…. Since publication it has never been out of print…. There have been several play versions of the novel and a film….
After a series of strokes Bram was to die at 26, St. George’s Square, his London home…. He was cremated and his ashes rest at Golders Green Crematorium, North West London…. An annual festival to honour the literary achievements of Bram Stoker is held in Dublin….
On this day in history : 13th April 1880 – The death of Scottish botanist and plant hunter Robert Fortune – who brought to us some 250 new species of ornamental plants – and tea to India….
Fortune was born in Kelloe, Berwickshire on the 16th of September 1812…. Little is known of his early years and to those who knew him he volunteered little information…. However, we do know he was an apprentice in the gardens of Moredun House and showed promise from the start…. He managed to gain a place at Edinburgh’s Botanic Garden and trained under William McNab, a man who was not easy to impress…. But impress him Fortune did – and with McNab’s backing around 1840 he became Superintendent of the Hothouse Department at the Horticultural Society’s garden at Chiswick, London….
A few months later fortune was granted the position of the Society’s new species collector in China…. He was sent off to find, amongst other things:- double yellow roses, blue peonies, true mandarin oranges, tea plants and information on the peaches that grew in the Emperor’s garden – which were said to weight 2lb each!
Arriving in Hong Kong on the 6th of July 1843 Fortune wasted no time in starting his search…. Over the next three years he made excursions deep into the northern provinces of China…. As plants and seeds were seen as property of the Chinese Empire Fortune would not have been particularly welcome…. He was to encounter many hazards including being threatened at knifepoint by angry crowds, as he went about collecting species such as wisteria and weigela…. He also faced horrendous storms and even pirates on the Yangtze River…. To blend in and avert suspicion he disguised himself as a local Chinese merchant…. He learnt to speak Mandarin, shaved his head and even sported a pigtail…. With this disguise Fortune was able to collect his species to transport back home…. He did this by using Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward’s Wardian cases, an early type of terrarium….
He finally returned to London in May 1846 and the following year published his book ‘Three Years’ Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China’…. Using the journals he had kept he detailed Chinese gardening and agriculture and the history of China’s tea culture…. He had brought back with him a vast array of beautiful exotic ornamental plants and flowers, which were subsequently introduced to the gardens of Europe, the USA and Australia….
Fortune was to set off for China again…. This time for the East India Company, with the mission of securing the best possible tea plants with which to establish plantations in India…. Once more he disguised himself as a local merchant…. He hired an interpreter and ventured into the tea regions of China…. He managed to collect over 2,000 plants and some 17,000 germinating seeds, which were taken to the Himalayas to establish India’s tea industry….
Fortune was to make a further two trips to China and a trip to Japan…. He was to introduce hundreds of trees, shrubs and flowers to us…. From the Kumquat….to many varieties of azaleas, tree peonies and chrysanthemums…. Even the Dragon tree – and camellias, including the ‘Robert Fortune’ which was named for him….
Fortune died in London and was buried in Brompton Cemetery….
On this day in history : 2nd March 1999 – The death of singer and record producer Dusty Springfield – who’s career spanned five decades – from the 1950s through to the 90s….
Dusty was born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien on the 16th of April 1939 in West Hampstead, London – into an Irish Catholic family…. She spent the early part of her childhood in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire before later moving to West London….
She began to sing with her brother Dion, performing in folk clubs – and in 1957 the pair worked in Butlin’s holiday camps…. She then joined the Lana Sisters in 1958, performed on television and played live shows both at home in the UK and at US Air Force bases in Europe….
In 1960 she was back working with her brother and together with Tim Field they formed ‘The Springfields’ – a folk-pop trio, who went on to have chart success both here and in the US…. It was at this time that she and Dion changed their names…. The story goes the band got their name by taking Tim’s surname and as it was a beautiful day added ‘Spring’ to it, giving the name ‘Springfield’…. She changed her name to ‘Dusty Springfield’ and Dion changed his to ‘Tom Springfield’….
Dusty’s solo career began in 1963 with I Only Want To Be With You, which charted at No.4…. It was followed by a succession of other hits, such as Wishin’ and Hopin’ (1964), I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself (1964), You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me (1966) and Son Of A Preacher Man (1968)…. It was also in the late 1960s that she was given her own variety show on the BBC, with guest appearances from the likes of Tina Turner and Jimi Hendrix….
The blonde beehive hair-do and darkly made up eyes gave Dusty the iconic 60’s look…. She could also be a high-spirited lass in nature….and liked nothing more than a good old food fight! Once making the newspaper headlines when she aimed a cake at a waiter at the Melody Maker Polls Awards….
Dusty relocated to the States in 1970….the strain was beginning to show…. She had been living with American songwriter Norma Tanega since late 1966 but cracks were beginning to appear in the relationship…. Dusty didn’t like the media intrusion into her private life nor the speculation about her sexual orientation…. By now her health was beginning to deteriorate and she was suffering from bouts of depression…. She settled in Los Angeles and became involved in campaigning for animal rights…. By the mid 1970s she had slipped into relative obscurity and had begun to drink heavily….
But in 1987 there was to be a massive turnabout…. She was asked by The Pet Shop Boys to record What Have I Done To Deserve This? with them….which went on to reach No.2 on both sides of the Atlantic…. She then recorded the theme tune to the 1989 film Scandal, a version of The Pet Shop Boys’ Nothing Has Been Proved…. It was at this point that she came back to England to live…. A BBC biography, ‘Dusty’, was televised in May 1994 – and she released a new album A Very Fine Love in 1995….
It was whilst recording this album in Nashville during January 1994 that Dusty became unwell…. Her doctors in England diagnosed breast cancer and she underwent intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatment – putting her cancer into remission…. However, by mid 1996 it was back…. Dusty died in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire on the 2nd of March 1999….