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Betty left the dark years behind with fame at the Rovers

By The Bristol Post  |  Posted: October 09, 2012

  • Above, Betty Driver on the set of Coronation Street; below, on stage as a youngster and at her London home in 1955. Bottom right: Bristol during the Second World War, after a Luftwaffe bombing raid – Betty made regular trips to the city to sing on a half-hour comedy show with the legendary Hughie Green

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At the start of the Second World War the BBC evacuated 700 employees from London to Bristol, where they thought they would be safe from air raids. As well as Broadcasting House in Whiteladies Road, the BBC also took over church halls, community centres and the Clifton Rocks Railway.

A young singer called Betty Driver made regular trips to Bristol to sing on a half-hour comedy radio show together with a young Canadian band-leader called Hughie Green. Betty was also paid 15 guineas to sing on Radio Boost, broadcast from Clifton's parish church hall.

Nostalgic, sentimental songs were discouraged – the programmes had to be upbeat and optimistic.

Betty had a fling with a chap called Jack Watson, who used to appear as a comedy double-act with his father – Nosmo King and Hulbert.

"We used to drive out to the Mendip Hills in his Austin 7 and watch the bombs falling on Bristol, playing jazz records on a wind-up gramophone on the back seat," she recalled. "We also did some broadcasts from Weston-super-Mare. After each show, we'd walk along the front – all these young people, linking arms and singing with the bandsmen and the aircraft boys we'd befriended.

"We'd go to the Winter Gardens and have the last half-hour of dancing there. Then we'd go to a little café called Lou's for great plates of delicious sausages and chips – and sometimes even real eggs."

In 2010, I drove to Cheshire to interview Betty for our Radio 2 dance band series, The Bands That Mattered.

She had been a singer with Henry Hall's band and gave me a graphic account of that experience.

I asked Betty if I could also interview her about other events in her life – in music, films and theatre. She readily agreed, sharing with me an extraordinary story of a wretched childhood, a bullying ambitious mother, an alcoholic father, a failed marriage, heartache and breakdown.

But running through it all, a cheery and indomitable spirit and a love of performing that kept her going through the dark years.

In the second half of her life, TV's Coronation Street provided Betty with the loving family that she'd never had.

Now in her 90th year, she told me that she'd never been happier.

After she died, on October 15, 2011, I persuaded Radio 2 to let me turn my recording into a 60-minute tribute.

Betty had been born in May, 1920, in Leicester, to a mother who adored the theatre.

"When I was eight she noticed I was singing all the time, and so she thought, 'Hello, there's money to be made here'," recalled Betty. "So, from age eight till 11, I did charity work and concerts. Mother used to take me to the parks in Manchester where they had little huts where retired policemen would meet for a cup of tea and a smoke, and I used to go in these huts to sing – to entertain them.

"I did a season of rep and George Formby came to see me there one day. He came round afterwards and said, 'Would you like to be in a film?' Of course, I jumped at the chance.

"The studio was in London, at the back of a garage, where I sang The Alpine Milkman. When I'd done, a voice came from out of the dark: 'Either that kid goes, or I do'. This was Beryl, George Formby's wife."

Betty always believed that she had been cut out of the film (called Boots, Boots) on Beryl's instructions. But it was when the film was shortened to fit in a cinema double-bill that little Betty ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Betty's schooldays were chaotic, being ferried around to different seaside towns for summer seasons in variety. She even auditioned at the Windmill Theatre.

"I was a very shy girl. On stage, singing, I looked into the wings and saw all these girls with no clothes on and, on the other side, all these dirty old men looking at them.

"So I was off, running down Shaftesbury Avenue, with mother chasing after me. She took me to the Prince of Wales Theatre, where they booked me for a fortnight – five shows a day."

In the 1930s, Betty made several records at HMV's Abbey Road studios and also appeared in a pioneering TV broadcast from the London Coliseum. But wherever she went, mother and father were still very much in charge.

"I worked until I was 17 and then my sister said, 'It's time you handled your own money'. My dad had always banked everything and done the books, so I went home and told him, 'I want to bank my wages myself'. He said, 'You're an idiot', but did eventually give me my own bank book. I'd worked from age 11 to 17, but there wasn't one penny in my account."

Betty played a singing barmaid in Penny Paradise, filmed at Ealing Studios in 1938 and directed by Carol Reed. But war closed the film studios and put an end to her movie career. However, once the theatres re-opened she was back on stage and also doing regular radio broadcasts for the BBC.

"One day my agent rang and said that Henry Hall's singer had been taken ill and would I go to Cheltenham and deputise," she said.

After a week, Henry asked her to join the band, and that was that.

"We used to do Workers' Playtime in these huge factories, in the canteens while they had lunch.

"I'd received my call-up papers, but Henry persuaded the War Office that I'd do better service entertaining the boys. So we went all over – France, Belgium, Holland, Malta, and Cyprus."

In 1944, Betty – now Captain Driver in a smart khaki uniform – joined Hall for a triumphal tour of Europe, starting in Paris.

"I was with Henry for seven years, but I didn't earn much money.

"Then one of the men in the band started telling tales, hinting that I was carrying on with Henry, which, God forbid, I'd never have done.

"So I left and topped the bill in variety theatres."

In 1952, she had her own TV series. The Betty Driver Show, from BBC's Lime Grove Studios, was the first variety show to be hosted by a female entertainer.

She also teamed up with Arthur Lowe in Pardon the Expression, a sitcom in which she played a canteen manageress, with Arthur as the pompous, bumbling assistant manager in a chain store.

In 1968, Betty decided to retire, taking over a little pub in Derbyshire with her sister.

"We'd been there five years when the producer of Coronation Street came on a visit," she recalled. "Why don't you come and pull a few pints in the Rover's Return?" he said. "And, 41 years later, I'm still at it."

But here's a funny thing – this modest lady could never be persuaded to watch herself on the screen, or listen to her old records.

"I don't like the sound of my own voice," she recalled. " I can't look at myself on the screen, either – I can always pick faults. I had all the 78s I'd recorded in a cupboard, but I threw them away. I hated them because I could see my mother's face right there in the middle.

"She wanted me to sound like Gracie Fields – and I hated Gracie Fields. Mothers have a lot to answer for, don't they?"

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