A special day for an amazing Norwich woman

Derek James wishes Doreen Donnelly a happy 100th birthday.

As an actress, director and Norwich charity fundraiser Doreen Donnelly has known many highlights in her life – but nothing as momentous as the latest – her 100th birthday.

She celebrated at her cottage home in Unthank Road, Norwich, where the dining table was full of cards, including one from The Queen and friends were calling all day.

Born in South Wales, young Doreen showed an acting talent at school and went on to join the profession. She often appeared at Oxford Playhouse, but having married young and divorced, she decided to do office work as well to ensure the wellbeing of her children.

When her two sons and daughter were older she moved to South Africa, where she had family and was a professional actor in Johannesburg and then director of a multi-racial theatre group in Durban.

Family reasons brought her back to Britain and she settled in Norwich where her daughter, Elaine Bell, was an assistant librarian at the UEA.

She acted for the Maddermarket, the Great Hall Players, directed various groups and occasionally presented her one-woman show in which she acted all the roles of Under Milk Wood.

Most Read

She directed for the Norfolk Opera Players at the Theatre Royal and it was at the theatre that she started an extraordinary series of successes by devising and directing a variety show in aid of Chatterbox, the talking newspaper for the blind.

She had joined Chatterbox not knowing that one day she would become blind herself.

Former theatre boss Dick Condon heard about the talking newspaper's need for money from former Evening News editor of the time Bob Walker, who was also the first editor of Chatterbox.

It was produced by reading out the news of the week from the columns of the Evening News.

Charismatic Dick offered the theatre for free on a Sunday afternoon and the Hello Chatterbox variety shows were up and running. The people loved them.

Having spent months looking for outstanding amateur talent Doreen directed the first one in 1980 with the help of Yvonne Marsh, well known to Norwich audiences and they proved that Norwich really does have talent.

Doreen directed fun-filled shows, reached out for sponsorship and support and raised more than �20,000 – a huge sum in those days – helping Chatterbox to buy its own premises in the city and the latest equipment so it could carry on sending out hundreds of tapes to its customers every week.

The success of the dozen or so shows were down to all Doreen's hard work and determination to make the colourful productions a hit for the whole family.

Among the visitors to help Doreen celebrate her centenary were Tim Edwards and Maureen Marr from Chatterbox, bearing the latest tape, which had a special tribute to Doreen. It had contributions from the likes of Theatre Royal boss Peter Wilson and former Evening News arts editor and actor Neville Miller, who worked with her at Chatterbox and appeared in her productions.

Today, her main supporter is her daughter, Elaine.

Doreen's elder son, David died recently, and a younger son, Christopher, lives in Liverpool with his family. There are five grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.

As she sat, surrounded by friends, cards, flowers and bottles of good cheer, she said: 'I'm very lucky.'

And so are we – many people have a lot to thank Doreen for.