Oldest Edinburgh Fringe performer Gladys turns 90

Gladys Bell looks over her scrapbook. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Gladys Bell looks over her scrapbook. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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She’s spent more than 80 years treading the boards at theatres around the world, brushing shoulders with Hollywood’s rich and famous and even hiding under luggage to escape the gaze of zealous army officials.

But now an acting stalwart has celebrated her 90th birthday on an Edinburgh stage – and Gladys Bell is believed to be the oldest woman taking part in this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Gladys, a founding member of Saughtonhall Drama Group, marked her birthday in front of an applauding audience last week at the group’s spring show at Saughtonhall United Reformed Church, as cast and crew presented her with a one-of-a-kind silver brooch.

It was a fitting way to celebrate another year in the life of a woman who has devoted herself to theatre – meeting some of the entertainment industry’s most glamorous faces in the process.

Gladys, who lives in Glendevon Park, served as director of recreation for the US Air force in Europe for 31 years, overseeing countless performances. Based at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, her task was to organise non-alcoholic entertainment for the servicemen and women – a role that led to interesting experiences.

On one particularly memorable occasion, she was forced to hide underneath luggage on the back of a bus at a Turkish air base when her clearance documents failed to arrive in time.

And her work also brought her into contact with some of the entertainment world’s most celebrated faces – including Bob Hope, Bob Monkhouse, Disney star Dean Jones and academy award-winning actress Mercedes McCambridge, as well as children’s author Roald Dahl.

Now the pensioner will work as acting coach to the Saughtonhall Drama Group as they bring their updated version of The Cheshire Cats by Gail Young to the Fringe.

She said: “My house is like Paddy’s Market, with all the cards and flowers. I’ve got a walking stick now, so I can’t be on stage – but I still enjoy it and I’m still interested. I keep going to shows. I’m not really teaching the drama group – just helping out a wee bit.

“There’s so many memories from over the years – I can’t say what my fondest memory is. It was a very interesting life and I had a lovely time. Everybody thought it was such a glamorous life, but it had its ups and downs – although they were mostly ups.”

Gladys first performed for Saughtonhall Drama Group in 1948, putting on three short plays to welcome back troops returning home from the Second World War in the Far East.

She took up her role with the US army in 1954, before retiring from the position in 1985 when she was 60 and returning home four years later.

Christine Norrie, chair of the Saughtonhall Drama Group, said: “We were delighted that Gladys’s 90th birthday fell on a day we had a live performance. She has given so much to local and international theatre that we wished to pay tribute to all her work in a public way.”

alistair.grant@edinburghnews.com