The Birth of the Bats
[Editor’s note: this article was written by the late Jimmie Beament [note 1] in 1989 for publication in The Record 1990, pp. 16–17]
Forty-seven years ago, on 17 November  to be precise, I was twenty-one; so also was Geof Greenough [note 2]. The coincidence was remarkable because it was the middle of the war, when only a handful of third-year men were left; most people were called up after one or two years residence. We held a joint party, involving beer, gin, victuals of kinds very hard to come by in wartime - and a pin of farm cyder my parents sent up from Somerset. Around midnight the atmosphere became oppressive and we needed fresh air. We decided to transfer celebrations to the Grove - in the blackout of course. It was such a good party that we awoke Henry Hart [note 3], then Dean, who lived on Y staircase. He came and observed, “There is much vocal and histrionic talent here present, and you will call upon me at nine o’clock tomorrow morning to tell me to what better use you propose to put it!” The only thing I could suggest was a dramatic society. Thus was the Bats formed, in the hangovers of a grey November morning. Henry was christened the Inventor, and marked the occasion with one of his characteristic writings, recently put in the College archives through the kindness of Brian Evans [note 4] who had preserved it ever since. Henry remained a great patron and supporter throughout the formative period and well into the post-war years.
But why BATS? Many have assumed the initials of Amateur Theatrical Society and suggested variously Beament’s or other words beginning with ‘B’, but it had a quite different origin. Queens’ had an active debating society called the St Bernard’s [note 5], sometimes disparagingly called the Dogs, and the Kangaroos [note 6] are of long-standing, so animal names were de rigueur. My father had given me a late 18th C. natural history book called Goldsmith’s Animated Nature [note 7] in which was the surprising entry: “Bats are to be found in belfries and the eaves of old buildings, especially those of Queen’s College in Cambridge” [note 8], and that is what we chose. Our activities were certainly nocturnal and our first smoking concert in the Old Fitzpatrick Hall was inevitably called Bats in the Belfry. There was too a huge bat roost in the loft space of Old Court; in the war, the fire-squad were actually encouraged to know their way around lofts and roofs, in order to reach an incendiary bomb, and they needed no second bidding. For many years pipistrelles flew around the College every summer and after the war, during Cloister Court productions, they became a dependable omen of success. Alas, Old Court is insulated against the roof, not the loft floor, and with the advent of central heating it is no longer the desirable hibernating place it once was.
Our initial efforts were extremely amateur, and in the way of many an undergraduate creation, the Bats could well have died with the departure of the original few to war service. The resurrection came about in the quincentenary year, 1947-48. I came back to Cambridge in 1947, and the Bats re-formed with a production of Bees on the Boatdeck, an immemorable piece by J B Priestley. But things were put on a completely different footing by the late Charles Parker [note 9]. He was one of the many returning from the Forces who seemed able to take part in everything and complete their degrees. Charles it was who had the idea of marking the 500th anniversary with a production of Shakespeare in Cloister Court. It was certainly the first open-air production in Cambridge for centuries, possibly since the time of Milton’s Masques.
We had a further ally in that Charles, who, like many returning ex-servicemen, was already married, had a flat in the attic of the Potts’ house in Bateman Street. James Potts [note 10] had been my Tutor; he was a notable Shakespeare scholar and his wife Mary [note 11] was a great friend of the Dolmetch family who had done so much to research early music and dancing. We have to thank Henry Hart and James Potts for persuading the Governing Body of the time that such a project wasn’t outrageous.
And so As You Like It was put on in Mayweek 1948 in Cloister Court. I wrote suitably pastiche music which was played on lute, recorders and Mary’s tiny spinet; Mabel Dolmetch [note 12] and Mary taught us the Brasle Gaye [note 13] which was danced by the entire company at the end of the play.
The very austere President Venn [note 14] was not only converted to supporting the venture, but deemed it was proper that the ladies of the cast must dress in the Lodge. And we had a real goat for the pastoral scenes. In fact the Bats bad a passion for animals, live or pantomime fashion, for some years which led to a host of events which might be told elsewhere one day; the goat should have been sufficient to warn us off animals for ever. There is the scene in which Rosalind discovers a poem on a bush and reads it; unfortunately, the tethered goat discovered it first, and by the time the actress - who had not learned those lines because they were written on the parchment - came on stage, half the poem was inside the goat. The following matinee we were discovered leading the animal through the ground floor of the President’s Lodge to make its entry at the bottom of the Court. Certain scenes had to be hastily re-staged to avoid such soiling of the hallowed premises.
Some other events of that Mayweek remain vivid memories. We had the Bard himself on a stool in the comer of the stage with a large volume of the play, and when Rosalind forgot her lines she turned to him with, “Prithee, Mr Prompter, a word - nay, half a line if it please you!” But the abiding memory was an afternoon Special Performance of a couple of scenes. For Her Majesty the Queen, as she then was, who had graciously accepted the College’s request in the Centenary Year that she become our Patroness, came and watched. She entered Cloister Court with the splendid remark, “What have we here?” What I had was a major crisis: I had to leave my lute on stage at the end of the scene we performed, and the blazing June sun melted the glue holding the bridge. I spent an agonised evening performance expecting the repair to give at any moment.
The following Term, Adrian Bristow [note 15] came to me with the suggestion we should write a revue. We started on a Friday afternoon; 48 hours, 40 cups of coffee and 400 cigarettes later we had Now We Are Eight. That established the Bats tradition for the next ten years: a straight play in Michaelmas, a homewritten musical in Lent and Shakespeare in Mayweek.
Note 2: Geoffrey Blakely Greenough, Ph.D., F.Inst.P., F.I.M., (1921 Nov 17 – 1991 Dec 27). Matriculated 1940.
Note 3: Henry St John Hart (1912 April 15 – 2004 October 30). Fellow from 1936. Obituary.
Note 4: John Brian Davey Evans, MRCS, LRCP, MRCGP (1922 May 19 – 1997 July 29) Matriculated 1940. Obituary.
Note 5: The St Bernard Society, a college debating club founded 1862, ceased functioning some time around 1970.
Note 6: The Kangaroo Club was a drinking society intended for sportsmen who had been awarded two college colours.
Note 7: An history of the earth, and animated nature, by Oliver Goldsmith, first published 1774, re-published many times.
Note 8: There is no trace of any reference to Queens’ College in Goldsmith’s book. But, in another book from the same period, is the following:
These bats collect in great numbers in some places, if I mistake not the species; for doctor Buckworth informed me, that at Queen’s College, Cambridge, in one night were taken in a net against the eaves 185, the second night 63, the third night 2, and in two or three years after 95 were taken in one night, each measuring fifteen inches in extent.
[British Zoology, by Thomas Pennant, First Edition, Vol. 4, 1770, p. 85]
However, there are no nearby references to
belfries. In later editions, the above wording is somewhat reduced in detail, and incorporated in the main article on bats, rather than in an appendix. This statement was quoted by other authors in many subsequent publications. The
doctor Buckworth is thought to have been Everard Buckworth, matriculated at Trinity Hall 1746/7, Rector of Washingborough, Lincolnshire from 1763, LL.D. 1768, died 1792.
Note 10: Leonard James Potts (1897 December 3 – 1960 August 31). Fellow from 1924.
Note 11: Mary Potts (1905 April 16 – 1982 December 25). Appreciation.
Note 12: Mabel Dolmetsch (1874 August 6 – 1963 August 12). Historic dance research. Book.
Note 13: possibly Bransle Gay was meant.
Note 14: John Archibald Venn (1883 November 10 – 1958 March 15). President from 1932. Wikipedia.