Jean Bayless, also sometimes noted as Bayliss has been steeped in the world of theatre since the 1940s however her only major television role was that of Cynthia Cunningham in Crossroads for two years from 1972 onwards.
Here, in this 2011 chat with the fan club, she recalls both stage and television.
Jean, tell us a little of how you came to tread the boards?
“Oh goodness darling, we are going to have to go a long way back (laughs). I began performing with a choir in Blackpool during the Second World War. And then several talent contests, all as a singer.”
Jean was born in Shoreditch but was evacuated to first Kings Lynn, and then the ‘showbiz world’ of Blackpool, where she was sacked by the Blackpool Tower Children’s Theatre before she got beyond rehearsals…
“Oh, yes, they discovered I was eleven. You had to be twelve to work in that production. They discovered my grandmother had misled them about my age.”
But you didn’t give up?
“When I returned to London, after the war, I joined the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts. And we did some wonderful performances with some lovely, lovely people.”
These included names such as Nanette Newman and Anthony Newley. Your first professional stage role came in 1948, can you tell us a little about that?
“That was as Rosamund in Where the Rainbow Ends at the Cambridge Theatre. It involved a magic carpet and a genie, very sweet story.”
It was also while you were at the Cambridge Theatre you worked with Audrey Hepburn?
“Yes!” (Jean goes to the sideboard and brings out a photograph of her with Audrey in the show Sauce Tartare) “This is a lovely photograph of us together… she was a joy to work with. We had a wonderful time. The BBC Television people came and aired the revue too.”
Speaking of television, you featured on Opportunity Knocks, is that true?
“Not the television programme but it was with Hughie Green on the wireless in around 1950.”
Also before television, you struck up a friendship with Noele Gordon?
“She was an adorable personality, an adorable actress. Those were very happy years together at the London Palladium (1951-1952). We used to sing love songs to each other as she was Principal Boy to my Principal Girl in the pantomime Humpty Dumpty.”
“She was a bit older than I was, I’m not sure how many years, but I was 18/19 and she used to come to my dressing room and talk about her boyfriend. At first, none of us knew who that was… I would, after the show, put Nolly’s hair up into a bun and help her get ready for an evening out… it was Val Parnell who was wooing her!”
Val, of course, was the boss of the London Palladium and later ATV…
“Yes (laughs) …and he could give us all work in the theatre. But she was smitten, she adored him. She loved him wholeheartedly. But, as you know, I don’t think he was as dedicated to her…”
Val was married at the time, and although his wife knew of Noele and they ‘shared’ him, it ultimately ended when Val ditched them both for a younger woman in the 1960s.
“She was heartbroken, I think, by that.”
Was it knowing Noele that got you into Crossroads?
“Not quite, as theatricals, we were both so busy with work and our own careers that it wasn’t easy to meet up or even keep in touch, and she didn’t know I’d married and moved to Birmingham. The last time I worked with Noele was on Lunch Box when she invited me to do a couple of episodes as the guest singer and that was long before I married after I met my darling husband at the Theatre Royal [in Birmingham]. It wasn’t until my dear friend Janet Hargreaves joined Crossroads that Nolly knew I was just down the road (laughs).
“Janet used to come and stay with me here,[at her flat in Edgbaston] and one day she said ‘Jean it’s just crazy that you’re not in Crossroads! When you live in Birmingham.’ And so she spoke to Noele who thought it would be lovely to have me come on board.
“So anyway, Janet went to Reg Watson and suggested he meet me. I went to the ATV studios for lunch and had a lovely afternoon with Reg and Noele and later Reg came to dinner at my home.”
So Cynthia Cunningham was born over candlelight?
“(Laughs) well yes because Reg Watson, the producer, he loved my cooking so much he said to me ‘I’m going to put you in the kitchen, I’m making you the cook!’ And that was how Cynthia became a chef at the motel.”
Cynthia was also a lover of the opposite sex, it is fair to say that?
“Goodness, she was a minx wasn’t she? She was so naughty (laughs) A wink and a nudge and all that. She was often in need of a man to help with something or another, an excuse to get intimate with them (laughs). It was a very enjoyable role (Jean smiles broadly)”
Can you remember how Cynthia arrived?
“Yes, a bit. She was a very disagreeable guest. She was short of money, I think, and had to stay at the motel due to this having just left her husband. However, she ended up even running out of money to pay to stay at the motel. Then Meg took her on, feeling sorry for her, giving her a chance in the kitchen. Then Meg and Cynthia became very good friends.”
Are there any scenes you fondly remember?
“We recorded some scenes at the Chateau Impney Hotel and I’d love to see the episodes with my boys in them. I can’t remember all the scenes, we recorded lots, but I do remember the ATV helicopter flying over the Impney, and my boys were filmed running over the lawn and this was used to open one of the episodes. I’d like to see those again actually…”
“Oh, and dear (thinks) Roger?, Yes, Tonge? ..Roger Tonge. Dear boy. I didn’t have many scenes with him on-screen, but he was such a sweet man. A very artistic boy, he wrote lovely poetry and was very funny in the rehearsals. Also, Morris Parsons, he was also a poet you know. I’ve got one of his poems he gave me…” (goes and fetches a poem by Morris about working on Crossroads).
Why did you leave Crossroads?
“Well Noele Gordon took me out to dinner (laughs) and this was a rumour around ATV that if Nolly took you to dinner just the two of you, it means you were being written out. But she wanted to tell me herself rather than the way some cast found out – by their scripts!”
“I also had offers of theatre work, Ivor Novello and things like that, and being a singer first, actress second, I wanted to get back onto the stage. But I would have liked to go back to Crossroads if the storyline permitted between my singing performances.”
Did you get any keepsakes from the set?
“Sort of, you see the sofa I’m sitting on? This was used in Crossroads as part of the bar set [not the reception bar]. But it was on loan from a furniture dealer, anyway after many conversations, when they were bringing in a new set for the motel bar I was able to buy it from the shop rather than ATV send it back. And here it is, exactly the same as it appeared in the programme.” [The sofa can be seen in episode 1884 from March 1973 with Vincent Ball (Kevin) and Noele Gordon (Meg) having a conversation on it.]
Do you have any idea why Cynthia wasn’t invited back?
“It was a little odd, actually darling, as the storyline left Cynthia able to return anytime even for little cameo appearances which I did a couple later in 1974. If I remember correctly she had only moved into the house next door to the motel to manage a conference centre or some venue like that. So she didn’t leave Kings Oak and was just over the garden.
“Reg Watson, I think, moved back to Australia not long after my final scenes, so one can only assume the new producer didn’t like the character or wanted his own characters. I may be wrong about this but I am sure the writers brought in the Scottish chef, I can’t remember his name sorry, not long after Cynthia departed…” [Shughie McFee was devised by new producer Jack Barton in 1974.]
Looking back over your career are there any moments that stand out as major highlights?
“Playing Maria in The Sound of Music. (Gets up, goes to the cabinet, and brings out an album of the musical from 1961).
“I was the first to play Maria in Britain. And I’ve met Julie Andrews and Connie Fisher… Look at this album, I haven’t had it all these years (laughs) a dear friend got it off.. eBay for me (laughs).”
“Oh and I also enjoyed my three years in America, I took over from Julie Andrews in The Boyfriend on Broadway, we then went on tour across the states.”
Were there any funny things that happened off-screen?
Well, there was, (laughs) this one incident that thankfully didn’t make the newspapers.
I used to have an allotment near Birmingham and at lunchtimes, if it was warm and sunny, the Crossroads regulars would pop over to it and we’d have a little picnic you see.
Reg Watson and Noele Gordon you know, all of the main cast would go up to this lovely allotment for a tea party. We’d had several of them, no trouble at all. Anyway, this one time we had been laughing & singing so much someone in a nearby house had called the police to complain and then suddenly we had these policemen surrounding us and we were all searched for drugs!
Do you have any ambitions left to complete?
“You know I love Doctors on the BBC, and being in Birmingham I’d love to make an appearance in that. I don’t mind, I’d even be a patient just sitting in the background! (laughs) But other than that no, I’ve had a lovely time and have my grandchildren to keep me busy.”
Interview conducted by Doug Lambert and Mike Garrett for the Crossroads Fan Club/ATV Network 2011.