This year is a monumental milestone for Derry couple Donald and Nan Hill.
Donald and Nan will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next month but it’s also the 50th anniversary of the Londonderry Musical Society, of which Donald is a founding member.
The Londonderry Musical Society was founded by Belinda Story, a music teacher from New Zealand, who taught at Londonderry High School in the early 1960s.
Stuart Smith, who was also involved in the school’s musical department was another of the Society’s founding members.
Donald got on board after a conversation over the hedge of his garden with Belinda Story.
“I remember we were living on the Northland Road at the time, I was out working in the garden and Belinda asked me if I was interested in helping out with the society. I sang in a few concerts back then so when she asked I decided to jump at the chance. That was 50 years ago and here we are now – the society is still going strong. We had a show at the Millennium Forum this week.”
A few months before Donald joined the society he married Nan. Although Nan was equally keen to get involved she opted to leave the responsibility of taking centre stage to her husband
“I always helped out with what went on backstage,” says Nan smiling. “It took until the 1970s for my name to be included in one of the programmes but you wouldn’t believe the work that went on behind the scenes.”
The society’s first show was staged at Londonderry High School (now Foyle College senior school) on Duncreggan Road in May 1963.
“We did a short operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan and ‘Trial by Jury’,” recalls Donald. “It was a fantastic night but one of the reasons we did so well was because of the talent in the society. We had people like Scott Marshall, Allister King, Liam Smith, Bill Caruthers and Arthur Wilkinson – they were a joy to watch.”
The society went from strength to strength. Numbers increased and one newspaper cutting confirmed just how popular the shows became with a headline that read: ‘Londonderry Musical Society sells 700 tickets in 45 minutes.’
A year after the society was established its first major show was staged in the Guildhall when the company, which now boasted now boasted over 100 members, performed a production of HMS Pinafore. Tickets to the HMS Pinafore show cost three shillings and sixpence and five shillings (17 1/2p and 25p today).
The society staged a variety of Gilbert and Sullivan productions for the next six years but their crowning glory arrived during a production of ‘Iolanthe’ in 1968, which swept the board at the Waterford International Festival of Light Opera.
“There was a great social aspect to the society too,” says Nan. “Although we were involved because we wanted to experience the joy of theatre and music, we also enjoyed meeting new people – it was lovely.”
The society did not stage any of their annual shows between 1971-74 because of the Troubles. However, the group persevered and replaced the musicals for works including Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D and Handel’s Messiah.
The society returned to the Guildhall in 1981 where they staged a production of South Pacific.
“The Guildhall was a magic place for us,” recalls Donald. “In our return to the place in 1981 we had a wonderful director called Tony Newby-Lee – he put his heart and soul into the production. I think he spent every waking minute he had in the Guildhall making sure that everything was ok.”
The society is something that has been a big part of the Hill household for 50 years. All three of Donald’s and Nan’s children were involved with the society at some stage and more recently, two of their grand-children, Hannah and Holly, have also taken part.
“The society was always really family orientated. We have so many happy memories of it all and it’s nice to see the younger ones getting involved now.”
One of Donald’s most treasured memories was when he played the role of Wazir in the musical ‘Kismet’ in 1996.
“I remember having much more hair back then,” he laughs. “I was asked would I think about shaving off my hair to play the part so I did. I got my head shaved in the Foyleside shopping centre and used it as an opportunity to raise some money for the NSPCC. When I came home Nan and my daughter helped to dye my beard, it was so funny but I think that I really looked the part.”
The society will celebrate its 50th anniversary with an official dinner dance in October and this week it staged a production of ‘The King and I’ in the Millennium Forum.
“There’s a person I know who has come to a lot of our shows over the years. He can be very critical when he wants to be but he said that after watching the opening night of ‘The King and I’ in the Millennium Forum on Wednesday night, he thought it was our best and most professional production.”
Each year, the society also team up with the Britannia Concert Band to stage its showstopper shows. Money raised at the showstopper events is then donated to charity.
As the only remaining founding member still in the society Donald is keen to see it maintain its position as one of Derry’s most treasured amateur dramatic groups. He encouraged as many young people as possible to get involved.
“We would be delighted to see more young people coming along. It’s a fantastic way to learn a new craft and meet new people. I have no doubt that the society will go from strength.
“We’d not have been as successful as we have been if it wasn’t for the help of all of our sponsors, both past and present,” says Donald.
“There’s some amazing talent in the society and as long as we continue to get new members I think that we will continue to entertain and make people smile,” says Donald happily.
For more information on the Londonderry Musical Society visit Londonerry Musical Society