Vernons Girls

Vernons Girls

The Vernons Girls were the only act to appear on every show, including the two trial broadcasts.

Maggie Stredder's new specs

The lovely Margaret Stredder tries on the latest fashion in spectacles!

Memories of 'Oh Boy!'

The Vernon Girls appeared in all 38 shows of the “Oh Boy” series and together with Lord Rockingham's XI, the Dallas Boys , and Cherry Wainer on her Hammond Organ , formed the backbone of the shows each week. Paul Rumbol caught up with ex Vernon Girl Barbara Winslade (nee Mitchell) to revive her poignant memories of performing on Britain’s first and most exciting cult rock ‘n’ roll TV show ever!

A 1958 publicity shot of Barbara Mitchell

"The rehearsals were gruelling and very demanding", recalls Barbara Mitchell, the group’s 'blonde bombshell' who very early on became spokeswoman for the 16-strong group. Apart from learning the dance routines for the forthcoming week’s show, the girls had to provide backing vocals to all the songs as well. In addition, they performed a weekly showpiece where two or three of the girls would be featured up front as vocalists in their own right.

The Vernons Girls rehearsed every day of the week in preparation for each Saturday’s live 'Oh Boy!' show. On Mondays to Wednesdays each week the girls would rehearse at the 'Four Provinces of Ireland Club' at 13, Canonbury Lane, Islington, London N1. This boys club sported a large ballroom and the girls had to be there by 9am each morning.(travelling from their hotel in Maida Vale by tube) They worked 9- hour days under the direction of dance director Leslie Cooper and their singing teacher, Peter Knight, who were both known taskmasters and perfectionists in their pursuit of producing faultless performances from the girls.

The Vernons Girls had to work out their routines by listening to the original records which Knight and Cooper picked up from Jack Good and bought in every Monday morning.  “It was from those original records we had to learn our vocal melody lines and dance routines.” said Barbara. “We nearly always got copies of the records before they were officially released. Basically we had to be near perfect by Wednesday, as on Thursdays and Fridays we would arrive at the Hackney Empire to rehearse with the rest of the cast and bring the whole show together.”


Lord Rockingham's XI, Red Price, Cherry Wainer the Dallas Boys (and to a large extent Neville Taylor and The Cutters) were permanently set up at the Empire Theatre Hackney where they would rehearse their own numbers, and then run through the songs with the guest stars popping in and out throughout the week .
The Vernons Girls would then turn up fully rehearsed at the theatre on Thursdays to join the rest of the cast. The whole theatre was a technical minefield. The seating area in the stalls was removed and every square inch was covered with film, sound and lighting equipment and masses of wiring which took up nearly all the ground floor for the series entire 9 month run. Full rehearsals at the theatre on Thursdays and Fridays were tiring, with all the cast present from 8am to 11pm some nights.

Leslie Cooper with a section of the girls

On Saturdays there was an all day full sound and vision rehearsal until the live transmission at 6pm. Each live show lasted about 28 minutes. Most of the artists could then make their escape for 'an early night' by 7.30pm.


Barbara remembers how excited producer Jack Good used to get when bringing all the diverse elements of the show together near the end of the week’s rehearsals. When Lord Rockingham's XI, the Cutters, the Dallas Boys and the Vernons Girls all ‘fused’ together to produce a stunning audio and visual spectacle, Jack would jump up and down like a child and run wild, gesticulating like some mad Russian composer. But his infectious enthusiasm and brilliance worked wonders. Add to this backdrop the superb new crop of rock and roll singers who were fortunate enough to front this superlative combo and you had a sure-fire winning formula that could not fail. “He would get the audience so buzzed up on the night itself you could have sent on a milk float and that would have got applause” recalls Marty Wilde in a BBC interview back in 1981. “It was the most exciting television show ever. Nothing will ever take its place!”


The Vernons Girls were paid about £10 a week in 1958/59 and for 18 months they resided at the Colonnade Hotel off Warwick Avenue, near Maida Vale Underground tube station in West London. Even when 'Oh Boy!' ended at the end of May 1959, the girls were fully booked for other live shows and rehearsals were soon to begin that summer for Jack Good’s new series 'Boy Meets Girl' beginning in September that year and which also ran for 9 months. “The owner of that hotel did well out of us” said Barbara Mitchell. “Our management literally paid to take over the entire hotel for us 16 girls. All our accommodation, meals and travel expenses were paid for by Vernons and we had the time of our lives.” However, in 1959 when 'Oh Boy!' had become a smash hit they dared to ask for a pay increase. “We were turned down flat because they said the hotel package and the food and free travel was worth £40 a week to us in total benefits. We even offered to find our own accommodation in exchange for a pay increase but the management declined.”


In early June 1959 after 'Oh Boy!' had finished its run, the girls agent, Stanley Barnett, employed by Vernons, was approached by TV mogul Lord Bernard Delfont. He wanted the three main Vernon vocalists, Barbara Mitchell, Maggie Stredder, and Jean Ryder to appear in a 'London Palladium Spectacular' for three months during that summer of 1959. A petty legal issue involving the 3 girls stage names soon erupted and blew out of all proportion. After successfully auditioning in front of Delfont himself they were disheartened just moments later when Barnett told them they would not be performing. Apparently Bernard Delfont insisted he billed the girls as 'Maggie, Barbara and Jean'. Barnett, supposedly on advice from his employer, insisted they were billed as 'The Vernons Girls' to continue promoting the company name. An impasse was reached and the girls retreated to their hotel dismayed.

Barbara recalls. “We were very disappointed at this petty minded decision by Vernons . Over dinner the three of us girls thought this could be the start of something big. Apart from the Kaye Sisters there were few girl trios in the pop market at that time. That same afternoon we even went to see Peter Charlesworth, THE most successful agent in the business who represented many stars like Max Bygraves and Shirley Bassey, and he too agreed we could make it big. There was definitely an opening in the market for a girl trio. We went back to Barnett straight away asking him to reconsider his decision not to let us work at the Palladium. I remember things getting very heated. Then Jean Ryder, who was more hot-headed than the rest of us, said something and Barnett just blew his top. Right I'm not putting up with anymore of this nonsense from you. You're all fired! We returned to the hotel devastated and broke the news to the other girls over the evening meal that we had to leave. The rest of the girls were distraught. They were crying and couldn’t believe this had happened.”

But within minutes the hotel received an urgent long distance telephone call from Vernons top director Tom Grenfell who summoned Barbara to the phone. “Meet me at the Wardorf hotel in 3 hours.” He demanded. “When we met him he had especially made a trip from Liverpool to London to see us and he took us to the restaurant." This was the venue where Vernons used to entertain their big weekly Pools winners and I think we were slightly over-awed by it all. “Anyway, in the end we gave in over the Palladium issue. Grenfell offered us our jobs back. We accepted and he breathed a sigh of relief. He then gave Barnett a real telling off in front of us girls for sacking us and it did give us some sense of power. Though of course we didn’t get what we really wanted. I still wonder to this day what might have been had we been brave enough to set out as a trio act. That whole incident took place within 24 hours. That was quite a day.” Said Barbara.


The girls only occasionally socialized with the guest stars. More often than not many of the artists had live bookings later in the Saturday evening and had to rush straight off after the show to get to their gigs. Some stars did pop into see the girls during their rehearsals at Islington. Ronnie Carroll (who starred in the first several 1958 shows) and Alma Cogan in the Spring of 1959 who was “a great giggler and liked to have a laugh with us.”

Barbara Mitchell reveals "I did have a particular soft spot for Billy Fury. But he was in bad health even then. He was such a lovely kind man. And he always made time to talk and have a cup of tea with us during rehearsal breaks. I grew very close to him. As close as two people can be without becoming boyfriend and girlfriend.”

The picture (left) was taken on the 'Oh Boy!' stage during the evening of Saturday 25th April 1959 just prior to the live broadcast and shows three of the Vernon Girls (Barbara on left) with two of that week’s guest stars, Michael Cox (his only appearance) and Billy Fury who was about to make the third of his six appearances in the series.


The members who made up Lord Rockingham's XI were older than the other members of the cast, with most in their late 30s and 40s and like all seasoned jazz musicians 'hung out' together at the nearest watering hole in Hackney at every available opportunity. Barbara Mitchell recalls. “They would disappear down the pub at lunchtimes and a few in particular would come back looking a little worse for wear.” Red Price, the superb saxophonist who provided so many superlative solo performances during the series, especially enjoyed his Guinness at the lunchtime drinking sessions. “His face would go so bright red when playing we worried he’d have a seizure or his head would burst like a tomato. You still remember things like that even after all these years,” said Barbara.


One meeting place for some of the stars was the Lotus House Chinese restaurant on the Edgware Road. The Vernons Girls used to go there often, and Cliff sometimes went there with his close friend Cherry Wainer and other members of the cast. Marty Wilde, another regular patron, who began dating Vernon Girl Joyce Baker in 1958 held his wedding reception there.


One night, the notorious gangster Ronnie Kray, a regular at the restaurant and always one to court favour with celebrity, saw Cliff Richard and a small group of friends sitting at a nearby table. Kray did not recognize Cliff as famous but he had other designs on the young man, a recent ITV documentary on the gangster twins revealed. Finding the young man attractive, Kray sent over one of his henchman to invite Cliff to his table. He declined the invite. Cliff, even at the start of his career was well protected by management who looked after his welfare and kept outsiders at bay.


Barbara remembers how 'well polished' the shows became so early in the series. “We knew we were producing something a bit special. I have great memories of the Dallas Boys. They were so professional and like us girls were resident each week, so it was hard work for them too. It's difficult to remember the songs we performed live on the shows back then because there were so many, and of course all the paperwork relating to those shows has disappeared too.”

The girls most popular hits were 'Don’t Look Now' and 'Bad Motorcycle' both of which were featured on the officially released live 'Oh Boy!' LP in October 1958.

Aside from singing with the entire group, Barbara, along with Maggie Stredder and Jean Ryder, performed one song each week as a trio. ( See picture right. )

Among the songs the trio performed were 'Who Are They To Say' (an obscure number), 'Jealous Heart', 'The Oowee Song' and 'Maddison Time' which was a novelty track from a dance craze at that time.

During their evenings off, the 16 Vernons Girls would either socialize at the hotel, or go off to meet their current boyfriends. Understandable considering the average age of the girls during the series was only about 22.


Some of the girls used to hang out at organist Cherry Wainer’s flat in the Edgeware Road not far from the restaurant, and she held several memorable parties there. “I remember Cherry had a poodle which she was so very close to. She would take it to the rehearsals and it would sit next to her obediently for hours while she played.”

One abiding memory Barbara has of what she believes was the final 'Oh Boy!' show, was performing a song called 'Packing Up' where the Vernons actually performed on TV in their coats and clutching suitcases. “It was like a farewell track where we all said goodbye as it was the final show!” Barbara was due to sing the lead vocal but when it came to the actual show Jack Good wanted Maggie Stredder to take the centre stage. “So rather than let me do it they recorded me on tape singing the song and on TV Maggie just mimed to my recording.” That tape, along with nearly all the entire series has vanished of course. This song did not appear in the final show on 30th May 1959, as this edition is one of two 'Oh Boy!' shows which have survived in the British archives. So on which show this number was performed remains a mystery!


Barbara left the Vernon Girls late in 1960 to get married and start a family. After 'Oh Boy!' she starred in Good’s subsequent series 'Boy Meets Girl' in 1959 and 'Wham' in 1960. She appeared in the 1959 Royal Variety Show and the May 1960 Royal Command Performance with Cliff and Adam Faith, which was the first one ever to be televised in Britain and which thankfully survives on film in Carlton’s archives. In October 1960 Barbara left the group while the other Vernon Girls went on to back Cliff on his new six part television series for ATV which was filmed in January 1961 and broadcast a month later.

In June 1989 the surviving Vernon Girls were reunited with many other former stars of 'Oh Boy!' to back Cliff for his 30th anniversary concerts at the massive Wembley Stadium. Barbara performed songs like 'It’s My Party', 'Book of Love' and 'Don’t Look Now' to an audience of over 150,000 people who packed the stadium during the historic two day event.

Today Barbara, a widow, lives in Portsmouth. She has one daughter, Kim, who is very proud that her mum was right up there performing among the biggest stars on television and who contributed to the great rock n roll revolution in Britain.



The following is an article written by David Griffiths, in the 12-18th October edition of the TV Times in 1958:

Oh girls! sigh OH BOY! fans

The Stage Door Johnny is back! Probably nothing quite like it has been seen outside a London theatre since the old Gaiety days - when many a chorus girl could look forward to marrying into the nobility. Times have changed, of course. Now it's the Hackney Empire, now a TV studio, that the Johnnies wait outside - with flowers, boxes of chocolates and cars, but without top hats and peerages. For this revival of an old-time theatrical custom is not caused by a theatre show. And the girls feted are not ordinary chorus girls. The show is Oh Boy! which caters for modern rock 'n' roll tastes, and the singing Vernons Girls are the centre of attraction. Most of them do not look like showgirls. Their figures, faces and heights are not standardised. The Vernons Girls, highly attractive former office workers, have now added some of the glamour of show business to their charms.
They were originally formed as a welfare project by Vernons, who wanted to encourage an interest in choral singing among their employees. With 8,000 girls to pick from, there was a high standard of talent. So it was decided to prune the singers from about 70 to about 16 and launch them in show business.
Because girls leave to get married (those Johnnies are persuasive!), dance director Leslie Cooper and their singing teacher, Peter Knight, often hold auditions at Vernons.

"They are looked after from the moment they get through an audition," Cooper told me. "They aren't expected to be polished singers, never mind dancers, at this stage. Peter Knight listens to their voices and, when he finds a good one, asks if I could train the girl. She will have been used to sitting at a desk and won't be conscious of things like deportment, so I just have to watch for a good figure - and sense of rhythm when she sings. If she has that, I assume she'll be able to dance."

While in London, the girls stay at the same hotel and are guarded by a full-time chaperone. "It's remarkable how well they get on together," said Cooper during an Oh Boy! rehearsal break. "When you get a lot of girls working together they usually squabble, but these don't. Yet they are all types. Some I have to shout at, others I have to be kindly with, to get the routines right."

Cooper and producer Jack Good have pioneered a televisual dancing style for the Vernons Girls. They are put into two or three groups with a camera on each. By fast cutting from one camera to another, viewers are shown complicated, exciting dance routines. Cooper usually thinks them up at home while listening to rock 'n' roll records. "So far I've been able to remember my ideas. I don't write them down. But with my luck, one day I'll have 16 girls in front of me and forget what I want them to do!" he said. Well, it didn't happen at the rehearsal I watched. The only hold-up was caused by the hula-hoop craze. During breaks some of the girls struggled to keep hoops circling their bodies.

Blonde Barbara Mitchell, who usually assumes the role of the girl's spokeswoman, told me: "Last week we tried using wooden hoops, and now we've got bruises and aching backs. Now we're using plastic hoops, which are lighter but more difficult to get the hang of." Will they be using hoops in any dance routines? "I doubt it," said Leslie Cooper. "They are too unpredictable. Viewers wouldn't want to see girls with hoops round their ankles."

Read 70359 times Last modified on Tuesday, 04 October 2016 14:04
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