© Abingdon Operatic Society 2017

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Gilbert & Sullivan may have been the musical inspiration for the society’s foundation, but as early as 1961, when Kiss Me, Kate was first staged, the members had to start polishing their American accents. In 1963, AOS took its first trip out west to Oklahoma!

By the late 1960s, the society was clearly becoming confident enough to remove the word ‘amateur’ from its name, becoming the AOS we know today. However, the cost of striving for a professional level of production was high: in 1968 the production of White Horse Inn cost £1,000 to stage (today a comparable production would cost £30,000, but that’s inflation for you!).

In January 1946, within months of the end of the war, the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERA) was set up on the old RAF base at Harwell in Oxfordshire. Over the next ten years, this new research centre drew hundreds of scientists, engineers and administrators into South Oxfordshire. They settled in happily, but found there wasn’t a lot to amuse them outside work. Late in 1956, Ben Kingdom set up a small choir that met once a week in the AERA social club to sing Gilbert & Sullivan.

By 1958, this group were bursting out of the confines of Harwell into Abingdon, where many in the science community now lived. Notices were placed in local papers about a meeting to be held in Tatham Hall and they were amazed by the level of interest. From this low-key beginning, Abingdon Amateur Operatic Society was born and in October 1958 the first show, Iolanthe, was staged at the old Abingdon Corn Exchange in Bury Street, which was sadly pulled down in the mid-1960s to make way for the shopping centre. Ben Kingdom was the show’s MD, while Sylvia ‘Effie’ Preston was the Producer.

A rare photo of Ben Kingdom conducting

in Tatham Hall during Rehearsals for Iolanthe 1958

On stage at Abingdon Corn Exchange for the 1959

production of The Gondoliers

Ann Turton as Dorothy in

1973’s Wizard of Oz

There is a strange sense of pride to be involved in a society that has kept going for over fifty years from such small beginnings, and whose members have worked tirelessly together to make the regular two productions a year we now stage a success. What becomes clear is that the society isn’t a faceless entity, but is instead the sum of its members at any one time. It would be wonderful if AOS is still with us in another fifty years to celebrate its centenary, but this will only happen if the current members show the commitment that the first members showed, and new members are continually encouraged to join and enjoy being part of the family that is AOS.

A very short history of AOS

Unbelievably, in 1976, The Black And White Minstrel Show

really didn’t seem as wrong as it does today.

And so through the 70s, 80s, 90s and noughties, AOS continued to thrive, sticking to its aim of bringing professional production values to amateur theatre.  Among the many highly acclaimed shows from these years was 2003’s production of Howard Goodall’s The Hired Man and the 2009 production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, both succeeding in setting a standard by which AOS (and several other societies) continue to be measured.

For any member looking back through the archives, it soon becomes clear that there are names and faces that are still vigorously involved in the society today, some in supporting roles and some still performing, who once skipped across the stage or sang with youthful voices.