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Growing Up In New Zealand

Part 20 - New Zealand life in the 1940s

Dorothy - 17/08/01

An interview with Elric Hooper
Elric Hooper MBE, best known in New Zealand as the Director of the Court Theatre in Christchurch, looks back on the experiences and formative influences of his youth.

Elric Hooper
Elric Hooper
Photo source Elric Hooper
Elric Hooper has recently retired from full time professional involvement in the theatre after an acting career in Great Britain followed by his appointment as Director of the very successful Court Theatre in Christchurch - a post he held for over twenty years.

I recently interviewed him about his life, his career in the theatre and his views on the development of theatre in New Zealand at present.

He made some comments about his early life and also referred me for a fuller account to a two-part Spectrum feature broadcast on the National Programme of Radio New Zealand. With his sense of the dramatic, his skills with words and his sensitivity to the power of detail he built up a vivid picture of growing up in New Zealand in the 1940s.

As he grew up he had a happy life in a loving family environment, but had a persistent belief that he was rather different from his five siblings. He has always thought that having a foundling fantasy is not uncommon among children, without their being any basis for the belief.

Elric felt free to talk about his origins only after the death of his mother. His greatest excitement at present is his recent discovery of the identity of his father and meeting a brother and sister whose existence was previously unknown to him. His new brother and sister and their families have brought real enrichment to his life.

Mrs Hooper grew up on the West Coast and married Gordon Benjamin Hooper who was involved in sawmilling. In 1931 he was killed during tree felling and Mrs Hooper was left with five small children. Her father gave her some support and her husband's firm paid her compensation. Mrs Hooper and the man who visited regularly to organise the compensation fell in love and had a clandestine relationship which lasted some twenty years. She became pregnant, but in the 1940s the censorious attitudes of society made it impossible for her to keep the child when she was living in an environment where her pregnancy would be known and she would be ocstracised. The baby, a girl, was adopted. In late 1935 she became pregnant again and after a quarrel with her father Mrs Hooper took the family to live in Christchurch. She bought a house and Elric was born, and passed off as a posthumous child. The affair continued and in 1943 Mrs Hooper had another child who was adopted a little later. The relationship continued until Elric was about twelve, but he saw little of his father. Elric discovered the identity of his father only about five years ago.

Mrs Hooper was able to keep Elric only because the move to Christchurch made it possible for her to conceal his parentage. The terribly judgmental attitudes of 'respectable' society in that era limited his mother's freedom of action. Recently he discovered the identity of his brother and sister and was able to introduce them to his mother.

This story, in much greater detail, is told in the first Spectrum programme. In the second programme he talks about his life in Christchurch in the 1940s.

People meeting Elric now often assume that he has an English background and has grown up in an upper bourgeois family. He is happy to admit that he grew up in a New Zealand working class family who had difficulties with poverty and that his mother was a recipient of the widow's pension established under the Labour Government Social Security programme after the 1930s Depression. He describes his happy childhood as quintessential 1940s New Zealand.

Elric deplores the New Zealand reticence about showing emotion, but realises that he was fortunate in growing up in a household of shared love. It was also a family who enjoyed singing, speaking poetry and reading.

When I asked Elric which was his first interest, singing or acting, he commented that the separation of drama and music was a comparatively late development in our culture, probably in the nineteenth century. In his own case both developed together. His grandfather had given dramatic recitations of poetry and his mother had natural musical gifts. Elric remembers that when he was very young on Christmas Day he sang a solo - It's a sin to tell a lie".

Elric is described on the programme as a self-made man, which in most senses is true, but he himself acknowledges that people went out of their way to assist him through kindness, not because it was his due as he sometimes thought of it as a child. He recalls the helpful influences of a number of his teachers.

Elric as a school pupil
Elric at school
"I was very lucky in being picked up at Wharenui School by some really remarkable women teachers when I was young who recognised me right from the beginning as somebody with musical and dramatic ability. The first plays I did of course were at school under quite remarkable teachers. As I look back I realise that what I took for granted at the time as being the natural progress was in fact a series of very lucky chances for which one should be very grateful."

One of the teachers whom Elric describes as daunting, but 'a genius teacher', was Miss Broadhead. She taught the Maori language to her class, which in that era was most unusual, but was also into drama. He remembers being in a play then, wearing his mother's green dressing gown as a royal robe, and having his first theatrical success. Another teacher, Joan Latimer, introduced improvised drama on Friday afternoons. Elric shone in this and the approval of the other children and the teacher gave him his first taste of an enthusiastic audience response. Hilda Hutt, also a Wharenui teacher, recognised Elric's musical ability and he sang solos as a boy soprano.

Elric describes himself as a child of the first Labour Government as his mother was able to draw the widow's pension. She supplemented this by doing housework for other people in the area.

"Our home was a rambling wooden bungalow," Elric commented, "and one of the things that distinguished childhood now from childhood then was that there were very few things in our life. Modern life is full of things. You can go to The Warehouse and buy things for ten cents, but when I was growing up things were rare. When I was born I was placed in an apple box as a cradle and this is one example of a childhood with few things. Everything you owned and everything in the house might be awful or impoverished, but their rarity made them valuable. I can tell you the number of pots we had in the kitchen and what they were made of, the furniture in the sitting room and the things in the china cabinet. The settee was made of wood and had a squab on it. It could be transformed into a bed if anyone came to stay.

"The radio was a Columbus with a green eye and it played a very important part in my life. It was a radio generation. I still remember listening to the great BBC World Theatre Series - Hamlet, Goethe's Faust, and Ibsen's Ghosts with the smoky wonderful voice of Griselda Harvey as Mrs Alving. I remember having my ear glued to it as my brothers and sisters played cards - most often euchre and crib. I began piano lessons but as we could not afford to buy a piano I had to give up because I could not practise."

Clothes were important as they had few. He remembers putting cardboard in shoes when the soles were worn out and they could not afford new ones. Going shopping for clothes was an event. They were bought at Millers, a large firm which manufactured locally most of what was sold. Shirts were always grey, but one had a faint purple stripe which was especially valued.

Although his environment might be described as humdrum it did not confine Elric's imagination. He was often in an imaginary world full of magic and the romance of past times. The tall trees of Riccarton Bush which could be seen from his home represented a world of mystery and there for Elric was real life. He now believes that this can be rather dangerous, because the here and now is where real happiness is.

He fed his imagination through his passion for reading although his siblings thought it would have been far better for him to go out and kick a ball around. Although he was not a sporting person he admits that he exercised to keep his appearance at its best and satisfy his narcissism. He also loved going to the Wharenui School Swimming Pool for regular swims.

Like most people of his generation Elric was greatly influenced by movies. He lived about fifteen minutes from the Rex Theatre and has vivid memories of Robin Hood, Captains Courageous, and musicals with Betty Grable. He believes that his real life was in that building watching black and white movies. On Saturday afternoons the serials were shown, and he recalls missing the last episode of The Rattler and not believing the end of the story as related by his friends.

One of the lucky chances Elric acknowledges was being the youngest in the family, which meant that while his brothers and sister went to work early to help the family finances he was able to stay at secondary school.

His sense of separateness began when he attended Christchurch Boys' High School which has been regarded by most people as a centre for rugby rather than the arts. His interests were not those of the great butch football-playing school, but he was not unhappy there, and feels that his artistic activities made him an eccentric, but not a punishable eccentric. He was successful academically and enjoyed the music with Clifton Cook who gave Elric plenty of performance opportunities as a boy soprano. The dramatic side was also developing at that time.

"In the schools I attended I was given a marvellous cultural background," he said. At primary school we sang songs by composers like Handel and that training helps to make a person musically literate. I was extremely lucky in the inheritance that came to me from my English and history teachers. An enthusiasm for poetry which was in my family through the verbal literary tradition was reinforced by my education. A major influence at university was Professor John Garrett teaching courses in Shakespeare and Romantic poetry."

Click here to read about - Elric As Student, Actor And Trainee Director.

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