RC Sherriff: the Hollywood celebrity in Esher's midst

To most people, R C Sherriff is best known for his powerful wartime play Journey's End and as the screen writer of legendary film The Dam Busters. In one corner of north Surrey, however, the name of the writer also lives on

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2007

To most people, R C Sherriff is best known for his powerful wartime play Journey’s End and as the screen writer of legendary film The Dam Busters. In one corner of north Surrey, however, the name of the writer also lives on though his invaluable support of the arts

Words by Julia Gregory

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Playwright RC Sherriff knew that he would always be best known for his World War One drama Journey’s End, based on his experiences as a captain in the East Surrey Regiment.

Later, he would go on to become the highest paid English screenwriter in Hollywood – he wrote the screenplays for The Invisible Man, Goodbye Mr Chips, the war time movie Lady Hamilton, starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and The Dam

Busters, currently being remade by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. But it is for his poignant play about life (and death) in the trenches that he is chiefly remembered.

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In one corner of Surrey, however, the name of the writer also lives on in his support of the arts.

Robert Cedric Sherriff used his Journey’s End earnings to buy Rosebriars, his beloved home in Esher Park Avenue, Esher. When he died in 1975, he left the house to the people of Elmbridge to be a centre for cultural and social activities. Eventually, though, the local council decided its upkeep was too expensive and sold it to developers. The capital was then invested and a trust formed in 1993 to develop the arts in Elmbridge.

Now known as the RC Sherriff Trust, it spends �160,000 on projects annually, with �60,000 to �70,000 as grants. Run by 11 trustees, including eight Elmbridge councillors, the Walton-based organisation gives out grants of up to �2,000 at a time. These have ranged from help with Jacqueline Banerjee’s book about Literary Surrey to support for Claygate’s music festival to buying stage flooring for the Vera Fletcher Hall in Thames Ditton. Other activities include funding concerts at the Princess Alice Hospice in Esher, donating recording equipment to the Sherriff Studio at Hinchley Wood School and support for Elmbridge Community Link for adults with learning difficulties.

“There are four parts to the trust’s work,” says trust director Loretta Howells. “It produces a quarterly listings magazine, Arts Focus; gives out grants; supports projects initiated by others; and runs its own events, including contemporary music and schools festivals.

“Last year, the trust joined forces with Elmbridge Borough Council for the first Elmbridge Literature Festival combining work by local writers Adrienne Dines and Meg Gardiner with creative writing classes and a writing competition.

“It also supported the Claremont Landscape Play with �10,000 over two years. Staged at Claremont Landscape Garden and Claremont School in Esher, the play involved a cast and backstage crew drawn from the community.”

Projects this year include the year long Paper Trails, with Jane Ponsford as artist in residence at St George’s Church, Esher, which hosts an open studio and papermaking workshops in June; the second Elmbridge Literature Festival in September run with Elmbridge Borough Council, which features local writers and a literary competition with the theme A Life in Colour launched in May, a Remembrance season at the Riverhouse in Walton in November and a lantern festival in Walton in December.

For Thames Ditton artist Claire Rye, the trust helped get her career off the ground. As well as giving her work exposure, it provided her with the chance to get involved in local projects such as Journey’s Beginning, which brought art to unexpected places such as Garson’s Farm in West End, Esher, and the Brooklands Shopping Centre in Weybridge.

Claire also helped five to 16-year-olds at Walton’s St John’s estate as part of the trust’s �8,000 scheme last summer. She found herself teaching art – something she had never planned to do – but now aims to do some training in youth work.

“For them to give me the opportunity to do it was brilliant – I learnt an awful lot,” she says. “The children really had their horizons expanded. They got involved in drumming, painting, mask making and creating a graffiti mural.” The scheme was so successful it will be repeated on St John’s this year with a further week at Thamesview in Walton and a week at Lower Green, Esher.

Back at St John’s estate, residents have continued to be involved in art and made lanterns as part of the trust-supported local festival in Walton.

Claire maintained her links with the community by getting involved herself. She worked on both the St John’s projects with Weybridge artist Donagh Curwen, who became involved with the trust when she made a sculpture of Henry VIII made for Elmbridge Museum. Since then, Donagh has gone on to work at schools and at arts festivals.

“I feel that they kick started my career in working with schools and organisations,” she says.

It is clear that as a result of Sheriff’s extraordinary legacy, the arts scene in Elmbridge is thriving. “The money that he’s left is being ploughed back into the arts in Elmbridge, helping the community, the arts groups, the schools, the individuals, the clubs and the churches,” says the trust’s chairwoman Tannia Shipley. “There is so much going on; it’s so worthwhile.”

Sherriff’s doctor Michael Dixon, meanwhile, remembers him as a friend who was “quiet and courteous, amusing, easy to talk to and very pleasant to be with.” Dr Dixon believes Sherriff would have been pleased with the trust’s support of the arts. “It’s a good way to keep his memory alive,” he concludes. “I think Esher’s only just waking up to the fact that they had a considerable celebrity in their midst.”

RC Sherriff: Journey’s end

Sherriff’s archives can be seen at the Surrey History Centre, Goldsworth Road, Woking His sporting kit and brother Cecil Bundy Sherriff’s wartime diaries can be seen at the Elmbridge Museum The playwright’s passion for rowing lives on at his old school Kingston Grammar and the boat club bears his name. The school and the Scouting Association, also benefit from the copyright of his work. Persephone Books has re-issued Sherriff’s novels A Fortnight in September and The Hopkins Manuscript.

For more information about the RC Sherriff Trust, visit the website, www.rcsherrifftrust.org.uk, or call 01932 235990