Actor had a special bond with town

PUBLISHED: 09:40 21 January 2008 | UPDATED: 08:18 02 June 2010

MAN AND BOY: Anton Rodgers, as a youngster during his time in Wisbech

MAN AND BOY: Anton Rodgers, as a youngster during his time in Wisbech

WHEN Anton Rodgers died last month at the age of 74 the obituaries in the national press paid tribute to the leading television and stage actor who was born in Wisbech. But even The Times newspaper got it wrong, because Mr Rodgers was not born in the Fens

Anton Rodgers, as millions of TV viewers and filmgoers will remember him.

WHEN Anton Rodgers died last month at the age of 74 the obituaries in the national press paid tribute to the leading television and stage actor who was born in Wisbech.

But even The Times newspaper got it wrong, because Mr Rodgers was not born in the Fens. However, the Rodgers family did have a special bond with Wisbech and we have been given a fascinating insight into how this helped shape his future career.

The Rodgers family were evacuated to Wisbech during the Second World War and played a major part in both the national and local war effort. They arrived from London where Anton was born.

For retired police officer John Goodman of Wisbech the death of the actor whose career he had followed so closely brought back many memories of the Rodgers family.

DANCE TROUPE: Above, the full company of the Black and White Optimists, formed by Anton’s mother.

Mr Goodman said: "I contacted my sister Sheila in Australia because our family and the Rodgers family go back to the time of their arrival in Wisbech in 1942. My sister was a dance partner of Anton when he was a boy.

"It seems a pity so little is known of the family and so little printed about Anton."

Anton's father was sent to Wisbech to work at the Balding+Mansell print works to play his part in the national war effort. An accountant by profession, Mr Rodgers became a manager at the company involved in the work of printing vital documents such as ration books, permits and passes. He was there to ensure all government security requirements were met.

The family lived at The Hollies in Park Road, where Mrs Rodgers taught music and dance. She was involved with many events to raise money for the war effort.

FAMILY: Anton with his mother and four sisters shortly after their arrival in Wisbech.

There were suggestions in some obituaries that Anton's mother was an overbearing woman who pushed her son into an acting career. Mr Goodman remembers her as a colourful, larger-than-life character loved by all she came into contact with.

The family moved back to London but whenever Anton appeared in theatre in East Anglia he would call at the Goodman family home and John would often have to give up his bed to the special visitor.

This is what Sheila Goodman remembers about the Rodgers family:

BIG SISTER: Barbara Rodgers, Anton’s sister, pictured when she was John Goodman’s nursemaid.

ANTON Rodgers was the youngest member of the Rodgers clan. His family moved to Wisbech at the start of World War II. His father was manager of Balding+Mansell, the paper factory, and they lived in a company house next to the factory.

Anton, at only 10 years of age, was preceded by four older sisters aged between about 18 and 25.

His mother Leonore had herself been on the London stage before her marriage. When the family was moved to Wisbech she started giving music lessons and subsequently dancing classes in the large front room she converted to a studio. This proved so popular with the locals that the business grew to such proportions that she agreed to form a concert troupe, the Black and White Optimists, to raise money for the war effort.

I was in the baby class, at only five I would love to go to dance classes in Park Road. She was a brilliant teacher with a loud singing voice and the only person I ever knew who could sing, play piano, and shout instructions at the same time - and all the while chain smoking as she did it.

Concerts were organised regularly at the Corn Exchange and well supported by the townsfolk. We also travelled out to villages around where stages were quickly erected by local farmers out of planks balanced upon oil drums. A dancer often slipped off the stage unexpectedly.

During one Saturday class, I was told I was to do a duet with Anton, who decided to run and hide in the garden. Under duress he was made to rehearse the song When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose. He had a lovely voice. We sang and danced well together, but in the finale I was supposed to perch on his knee, which he moved so that I fell on the floor. I don't think he liked girls.

When the war was over in 1945 the Rodgers family returned to London but Anton and Barbara always kept in touch with our family. I remember playing table tennis with him on top of the Nissan shelter in the sitting room of our house. On one occasion he was jumping around too much and broke mum's gas globe. Barbara, the youngest sister would come to baby-sit my brother and I, and all the girls would take it in turns to wheel John in his pram.

He next joined the London Repertory Company and we were able to see him act in a performance at Peterborough. He was then posted overseas to do his National Service and he sent me a snap of him in a makeshift room as a radio announcer for the RAF. Of his own volition he started a programme for the children calling himself Uncle Tom, which was a great success.

We met up next when I was in Bath at Art College - again he was back doing rep work. It was poorly paid, we had tea together, which I think must have taken all his week's salary and spent a night walking round the fairground.

I have often been surprised to see him acting in the West End or in television shows. I felt he particularly shone in the BBC classical plays of Dickens and of course his performance as Scrooge was particularly good. He was married twice, I hear, and was happy to become a benefactor and supporter of the Angles Theatre in Wisbech.

Anton Rodgers was a truly talented actor, who I felt never really had that really big break.

An honest humble man at heart, to me, he was a truly talented English gentleman.'

SHEILA GOODMAN

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