HOW many of us visit the theatre but never really stop to wonder at all the planning, the logistics, the skills, and the sheer hard work that go into a successful production? And how many Westcountry towns the size of Holsworthy can say they have their very own theatre and large amateur company of diverse talents – which to date has staged over 140 shows?

Well, Holsworthy has HATS – the Holsworthy Amateur Theatrical Society – and its secretary, Mrs Annette Dennis, was the latest guest speaker at the Thursday Friendship Group at Bodmin Street Methodist Church. She took her audience behind the scenes and through the stages of HATS – from its foundation in the 1970s, through its purchase and conversion of the town’s old cinema, and on to a long list of plays, musicals and pantomimes.

Annette – who first went on stage in her teens - brought along a vast collection of programmes, photographs and scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings, and with the help of HATS wardrobe mistress Mrs Mary Barfett, showed off some spectacular costumes created and adapted in-house over the years. A special guest had flown in for the afternoon – the human-sized Polly the Parrot, created in fine “feathers” and brought to comical life by cast member Lesley Wonnacott in this year’s pantomime, Treasure Island.

A theatre for Holsworthy was the dream of the late James Crumblehulme, head of a theatrical family who had moved to Devon from Blackpool in the 1950s. His daughter and son, the late Mary Kelley and Bill Crumblehulme, who sadly died this month, were to become integral in the founding of the Theatre Club in 1957 and in the early days of HATS, and onwards, producing many shows between them.

The town already had a well-established dramatic society; this merged with the theatre club in 1970 – and HATS was born.

Early-days rehearsal facilities for pantomimes in the Market Hall and later, the Memorial Hall, had been basic, with unheated rooms in pub cellars and old grocery premises. Floors were unstable, scenery flats didn’t always match, spotlights were created from coffee tins and jam jars. One of these once fell on the head of one of the actors – a veteran panto dame who still bears the scar!

“It was hard work, but they were lovely times,” said Annette, “really, really happy days.”

There were some sceptical voices when the idea of a theatre was put forward at a public meeting, one saying that Holsworthy was “trying to be a Rolls-Royce town on a Henry Ford income.”

Undeterred, HATS finally managed to buy the old cinema in Bodmin Street – for £1,700. Tip-up plush seats were bought at £1 each from an old cinema in St Austell and lights, tracking and a screen were procured from one in Trowbridge.

Two years of tireless – and mostly voluntary - hard work followed, including the digging of the orchestra pit by members of the town band and an army of volunteers. There was no heating. “It was so cold we needed thermal underwear,” said Annette. “The building was a shell, and backstage looked like a bomb site.”

Mother Goose was the last panto to be staged at the Memorial Hall, in 1971; in January 1972 Hansel and Gretel played to a packed audience on opening night at the HATS Theatre, with the wife of the then local MP, Peter Mills, cutting the tape.

Since then, the theatre has evolved into a well-equipped, 250-seat venue that the town can be truly proud of: a two-storey extension has been added, along with modern toilets, disabled access, a foyer counter, and lighting and other hi-tech installations for the backstage wizards.

The mightily impressive HATS teamwork can involve 130 people per production, from directors, stage managers, actors and musicians, scenery-makers, painters and shifters, props people, publicity people, costume designers, seamstresses and dressers, to ticket-office volunteers, and front-of-house ushers, programme and ice-cream sellers.

The costume department alone, said Mary, involves a team of dedicated and talented women, designing, cutting, stitching and adapting at home or sometimes backstage. “It means a lot of hard work, a lot of late nights – and a lot of fun.”

Most ticket sales are now online; and electrics are so sophisticated that one spotlight bulb can cost £80. It may cost up to £3,000 to put on a play, while a pantomime – “the financial backbone of HATS” – can demand £4,000-£8,000.

From the early days of Hansel and Gretel 1972, there follows a long, long list of triumphant and polished shows as varied as HMS Pinafore, The Wizard of Oz, Toad of Toad Hall, Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady, Steel Magnolias, Blackadder Goes Forth, Goodnight, Mr Tom, and The Vicar of Dibley, right up to this year’s colourful Treasure Island.

There have been classical music concerts and ballet, comedy acts, male voice choirs, and Rotary Extravaganzas. HATS Theatre even hosted BBC Question Time. There have been emotional and moving war commemorations, and a celebration of HATS’ half-century, when many of those involved in the first production at the theatre returned for a gala party.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Annette. “The theatre is our home, and we are so grateful to Jim Crumblehulme for having that dream in the first place.”

Annette also said that without an audience, there would be no HATS and no theatre – “We thank you all so much.”

HATS’ next production is a comedy, Pull The Other One, in May. The Mevagissey Male Choir will visit in June, and the Society is planning to stage Calendar Girls in the early autumn. New members are always welcome!

Mrs Marjorie Petherbridge gave a vote of thanks to Annette and Mary at the end of this fascinating, funny and enlightening afternoon, when everybody enjoyed refreshments and a look at all the HATS memorabilia on display.

The Thursday Friendship Group meets in the Bodmin Street Blue Room or chapel hall, from 2pm to 3.30pm, where everyone is welcome to come and share tea or coffee, cake and a chat. Guest speakers are regularly planned, along with games and quiz afternoons, and every third Thursday, there will be a short and informal act of worship, Reflect and Refresh, followed by refreshments.