Alfred was an extraordinary character. He was already retired when I knew him, but he had spent his working life in the shoe industry, employed at the CWS factory which was in Mountergate, Norwich. He was widowed before I knew him but he still lived in a family sized council house in Jex Road. He had been active in Labour Party politics, although he had never attained any political eminence.
All this could have been repeated many times among the inhabitants of Norwich. What I have said so far reveals nothing remarkable about Alfred Dennis – but remarkable he was. He was a great organiser, a leading impresario of amateur musicians in Norwich. I do not think he would have recognized the term (a foreign word), but that was what he was. Unlike many organisers of amateurs he had no musical ability himself and he knew nothing of musical notation, or technique. He certainly could not read music and he could not even sing. But his enthusiasm was huge.
He had a great love of light music; but nothing serious. On one occasion his choir chose to branch out and do the Silver Swan madrigal by Orlando Gibbons (1583 – 1625). He grimaced at the thought; his audiences did not want to hear that sort of thing. What they wanted (or what he wanted) was LIGHT MUSIC as had been played on the Light Programme before it became Radio 2. Classical music was alright if it was light classical, but definitely nothing serious. Equally though, it couldn’t be anything Pop.
What we played therefore was a diet of pieces that range from the Grasshopper’s Dance by Ernest Bucalossi to In the Shadows by Herman Finck; not very far in other words. (In the Shadows should be known to film enthusiasts as a piece played on the Titanic, while the Grasshopper’s Dance was used some time ago in a series of TV adverts for milk.) It all dates from the first quarter of the 20th century. Sometimes we ventured outside this narrow band to something as relatively ancient as a Chopin Nocturne, or as modern as West Side Story. This is, incidentally, rather difficult, especially rhythmically. Elizabethan Serenade (Ronald Binge) was positively up to the minute, having connotations with our current Queen. The exotic In a Monastery Garden and In a Persian Market by Albert Ketelbey were always popular.
My part in the orchestra was playing string bass. For some reason I often took him home after rehearsals. He did not drive so someone had to pick him up as well. Since he was not involved with the playing he did not really have to be at the rehearsals at all, but he always came; he loved the music. He took quite an interest in me and was keen to fix me up with a wife (I was unmarried at the time). He was particularly impressed because he remembered the Labour Party activities of my Aunt Ruth.
He had a list of concert venues, mostly Old Folk’s homes around the City. I think that the audiences, although appreciative were, though old, actually more up to date in their musical tastes than Alfred was, and would happily have swung along to something more recent and pop.
Here is the programme for The Dennis Orchestra concert held at the Whiffler Theatre in August 1985. 1. March from Carmen 2. Ancliffe in the Ballroom 3. Selections from Carousel (Eileen Love) 4. Elizabethan Serenade 5. My Day Out (Reading, Joan Roberts) 6. Italian Festival 7. I Know Him So Well (Eileen Love) 8. Selection from The King and I 9. Colonel Bogey 10. Annen Polka 11. Melody in F 12. And Yet I Don’t Know (Reading, Joan Roberts) 13. The Gay Gordons 14. Roses from the South 15. Selections from Bitter Sweet (Eileen Love).
The Whiffler Theatre is, I should make clear to those who are not familiar with Norwich, an open air theatre in the moat (previously called the castle ditches); this is of course now dry. Whiffler is a perculiarly Norwich word and relates to the celebrations that used to occur on the change of Mayor on Guild Day, a tradition that lasted centuries. One feature of the festivities was the large man sized puppet of Snap the Dragon who would go amonst the populace seizing their caps are suchlike pranks. He had six attendants who were dressed in an oulandish uniform and they were called the Whifflers.
The Dennis Orchestra was a bit of a joke among some amateur musicians in Norwich. There was a touch of snobbery about this; Alfred was working class with no pretensions to be anything else. It was also due in large part to the type of music we played. Personally I love Light Music, but others despise it. My tastes in music are catholic; I also admire 16th century English madrigals (which Alfred definitely did not) and the music of J. S. Bach, the folksongs of the Sheringham Shantymen or the tunes of Cole Porter. Alfred Dennis put a lot of work into organising a choir and an orchestra, and I am sure his efforts brought much pleasure to performers and audiences alike. And he did it without any thought of payment; nor did we performers ever part with a penny, though the rooms we used for weekly rehersals with the cost of heating and lighting cannot have been free. No doubt Alfred managed to scrape enough from donations to manage.