A Time When James Returned to Norfolk!

By Haydn Brown

Preface:
The Norfolk writer, Bruce Robinson, died in 2016 at the age of 80 years. His wife, Cynthia, said in his obituary – published in The Guardian newspaper, on 14 July 2016 and modified on 28 November 2017 – that he was:

“Quietly spoken, unassuming, browns and beige on the outside but inside seething with ideas that tumbled over each other to reach the daylight; my husband, was a born writer; someone for whom the honing of a chapter was as natural as the squeezing of oranges he juiced each day for breakfast.”

Notable, after his retirement in 1993 Bruce Robinson wrote mainly for pleasure; focusing on local history, novels with a Norfolk connection, plus miscellanies. Included amongst these was his ‘flongster blogspot’, from which the following two extracts about the late James Stewart, famous film-actor, were taken – Enjoy!:

James Stewart’s visit to Tibenham in 1975:

“…….In early June, 1975, I took a phone call from a [Tibenham] gliding club member who told me that film star James Stewart was planning a private visit to the base – a members’ only job, apparently; very hush-hush; no fans; no Press! But if I didn’t let on how I knew, kept in the background, and didn’t wave a notebook about, then I might be able to pass muster as a club member.

James Stewart (WW2)
James Stewart.
Believed to be on the Control Tower of the old US airbase at Tibenham, Norfolk. Image: Courtesy of the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library Collection and EDP.

However, Stewart’s visit was not a total surprise because during the Second World War he had been based at Tibenham (and elsewhere), from where he flew 20 bomber missions. He was a genuine war hero, and now, thirty years and many films later, he was appearing in the stage play ‘Harvey’ in London, and was simply taking advantage of a day off. Though I didn’t know it at the time, he had also planned to do a photoshoot with Terry Fincher for the Daily Express.

James Stewart (1970's Theatre Poster_Vinterior Co)

On the day in question I did my best to melt into the background and became a quiet bystander as James toured the base and the ruined control tower, and gazed at the runway. He clearly found it all very affecting. When they offered him a towed glider flight to RAF Coltishall and back, he jumped at the chance, and happily squeezed his lanky frame into the tiny cockpit. While he was away ….. I withdrew for a pub lunch.

James Stewart (1975 Visit to Tibenham)2
James Stewart, the famous Hollywood actor, seen here on a visit to the old US airbase at Tibenham, Norfolk, England in June 1975 – he was stationed there during the Second World War as a pilot. Photo: Terry Fincher, © The Fincher Files. 2013

Back at Tibenham again, Mr Stewart was ushered into the clubroom for sandwiches and coffee, where he looked at more memorabilia and chatted freely with everyone. Every so often his gentle drawl, ‘ahhh, well,’ and ‘kinda’ and ‘sorta’ could be heard across the crowded room. Relaxed and affable, he was in his element.

James Stewart (1975 Visit to Tibenham_Fincher)3
James Stewart looking along the old runway of the former U.S. air base at Tibenham, and from where he took off on some 20 combat missions during World War Two. It was here that he served with distinction. Photo: Terry Fincher © The Fincher Files.2013

I was sitting in a corner munching sandwiches when Stewart’s agent came across. ‘He knows who you are,’ he said. ‘He knows you’re a local journalist.’ I envisaged a firing squad. ‘Would you like to meet him?’ Yes, please!

Then James Stewart came across and sat down beside me, balancing a cup and saucer on his knee, and we talked for ten minutes. Deliberately, I ignored my notebook and later on had to struggle to remember some of the quotes. But in a way I was glad. It was not an interview, it was a neighbourly chat, freely offered and entered into.

James Stewart (1975 Visit to Tibenham_Daily Mail)
James Stewart at the derelict U.S. air base at Tibenham in June 1975. In the background, the former Control Tower where it is believed the above image of him, sitting on its rail during the war, was taken. Photo: © As on the above image.

James Stewart was like that. Aimable, interested, and at ease. He talked about Tibenham and how tough he had found it to remember his way around the base. ‘The only thing I can really orientate on is the control tower,’ he said. He talked about his glider flight, and I asked if he had taken the controls. ‘Sure I flew it. Sure I did.’ And then he talked about Norfolk and Norwich and how he hoped one day to visit the city’s American Memorial Library. Then his agent came back, and Stewart rose, shook hands, and wandered back towards the sandwiches.

James Stewart (1975_Glider Flight)
James Stewart being prepared for his glider flight to Coltishall and back in 1975 –‘”Sure I flew it. Sure I did.”  Photo: Courtesy of Mark Wright.

An Aside: In 2012, a Tibenham housing development was opened, and named “Stewart Close” in memory of James Stewart and his links with the village.

James Stewart visits Norwich and the Norwood Rooms:
“Having revisited his War-time Norfolk air base at Tibenham in 1975, Hollywood film star James Stewart kept his word and joined in with two or three of the subsequent 2nd Air Division reunions. But he did not come back to England as a visiting ‘celeb,’ but as an ordinary ex-flyer, one of the boys. He stayed with his mates in the same hotels, travelled with them by coach as they did the rounds of once-familiar locations, and remained as anonymous as possible within the group. They all liked him for that.

James Stewart (LIbrary_ 1975_EDP)
The former Norwich Central Library in which the American Memorial Library was located. Photo: EDP.

One of his more formal appearances was on the day he and his group went to see the former American Memorial Library – later severely damaged by fire, and replaced by a new Memorial tribute in the Forum – which at the time was housed at the old City library. Here he did pose for photographs, and behaved as a visiting dignitary would in a public role.

I have no doubt, however, that he had his ‘anonymous’ role firmly in mind when he and his colleagues, on another of their four-yearly visits, went to the former Norwood Rooms in Aylsham Road, Norwich – a popular dancing and dining venue at the time – for a veterans’ banquet. My wife and I were also invited, and we saw what happened.

James Stewart (Norwood Rooms)
The former Norwood Rooms, Norwich in which James Stewart made an appearance.

First, he did not sit with the brass and bigwigs on the top table. He stayed at his table on the floor of the hall surrounded by his pals. And second, he was a very reluctant speaker.

When he was finally persuaded to clamber on to the band platform to say a few words, he thanked everyone, including the people of Norfolk, for the welcome they gave the Americans during the War, and he told the story of the powdered eggs. Apparently powdered eggs were the staple breakfast diet in the officers’ mess at Tibenham, and Stewart became heartily sick of them. On other days, however, they were fed fresh farm eggs straight from a local farm. Unfortunately, those were the days on which a bombing mission was scheduled. So that was how they knew what was happening. Dried eggs, and they had their feet on the ground a little longer. Fresh eggs, and it was bombs away!

James Stewart (Glenn_miller_story_Wikipedia)

Later the same evening there occurred one of those rare, unrehearsed and unexpected events that invariably stick in the memory. The band was playing some Glenn Miller favourites, which got the veterans whistling and cheering. It was particularly apt because the film, The Glenn Miller Story, starring Stewart as Miller, was still doing the rounds. The band leader beckoned to Stewart and invited him to take over the conducting role. Stewart shook his head. Then the audience started clapping and shouting, and he reluctantly clambered back on to the stage and led the band through an admittedly slowish version of Moonlight Serenade. It brought the house down.

288-2

Some years’ later, our local morning newspaper began a scheme promoting plaques to be fixed to buildings where famous people had appeared. Most of those erected, it seemed to me, related to 1960s and 1970s pop groups. There was nothing to remind passers-by, for example, that Count Basie and his band once appeared at the old Samson & Hercules dance hall in Tombland, Norwich. Or that at the old Norwood Rooms a famous Hollywood film star once clambered on to the stage, borrowed the resident band, and reprised a tiny piece of one of his best-known film roles.

THE END

Sources:
http://flongster.blogspot.com/
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jul/14/bruce-robinson-obituary
James “Jimmy” Stewart | Norfolk’s American Connections

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