Report on visit to the church of St John Vianney Clayhall on 10/01/2009 – by David Sutton


Thirteen expectant and excited individuals arrived on a very cold Saturday afternoon to listen to and sample the sounds of a six rank (seven if you count the string celestes) Compton organ which started its life in 1937 in the ABC Nuneaton. When the cinema ceased to have a use for the instrument in the mid-sixties, the enterprising priest of St John Vianney managed to secure it, have it transported and installed on the gallery in the then newly built church.

On this occasion CLESO was joined with four members of the Cinema Organ Society and we were very fortunate indeed to have a marvellous introduction and demonstration - courtesy of the Cinema Organ Society and Helen Kerr Wallace the church organist – given by Richard Hills, a nationally renowned and very skilful practitioner of the cinema organ and resident at the Wurlitzer at the Habitat store Regent Street. Richard may be also known to readers of this report as one of the players at the Portsmouth IAO Congress some years ago where he presided at the Pavilion Bournemouth paying homage to the late Percy Whitlock. So he knows Comptons “inside-out”.

Richard, in a mini-recital (which was played impeccably without a “dot” in sight!), went through all the typical range of sounds available. Yes, the tremulant featured a good deal, but he also showed it could be played in “straight” fashion as well. The pipework is contained in two chambers with the Solo ranks in the chamber (and shutters) nearest to the congregation and the Accompaniment chamber housing the rest. The organ is also equipped with a full range of percussion and whistle effects. The main solo reed is the tromba – a fine example on 15 inches of wind (I hope I have got this right!). There is also another reed – Krumett (I did not make a note of the spelling) which sounds a cross between an oboe/clarinet. The diapason rank and other fluework (strings, tibia and gedact) are on 10 inches (again I hope this is right!!). We could see the pipework through the open shutters and the cut-up – leathered - on the diapason was the highest I have ever seen, and did not, to my ear, make the tone too smooth or forced. The writer likened a typical mouth opening to a mini Mersey Tunnel! Despite this the range of expression was impressive as, with the shutters closed, the fire within was dampened to very manageable proportions which is necessary in the context of a church service. The Melotone unit (which I am told could be temperamental) was in good form and, when used, sounded rather like a ghostly banshee. Unlike a cinema the church has a very spacious acoustic and the enormous power could be quite overwhelming but in Richard’s hands it was well under control.

The three manual stop-tab console and all the electrics worked as well as they did when they came out of the factory in 1937 – not bad for a seventy two year-old!! It was also in perfect tune. This is down the tireless efforts of Helen Kerr Wallace the organist and the Cinema Organ Society who have made this installation their “base” for the Southern region . The members who had a go were amazed at the response of the instrument to their various demands. I for one could not get used to the disposition of the tabs and how the ranks are spread over the three manuals where there are duplications on all three keyboards and so had to rely on the pistons – with double touch of course! Which swell pedal worked on what stops and then at various times confusing these with the general crescendo also caused some headaches! Despite the newness of it all those who did dare to have a go had a great time and let their hair down with “classics” of the music hall and other “standards” , and Richard was a terrific help and encouragement to those who got into trouble with the logistics of it all.

Huge thanks are due to Helen who laid on some very welcome tea or coffee on a freezing day, Richard for giving up a valuable Saturday afternoon and giving us such an insight into what must have been a new experience for some of us, the Cinema Organ Society for all their hard work and dedication, and last (but not least) the church authorities for allowing us the privilege of playing this instrument which is used every Sunday and is maintained so well.

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