The Theatrical Years, 1960 through to 1980132
Neville Croft had tried his hand at acting – having some very minor roles in various Reviews – before his foray into playwriting and the dramatic failure after two days of the unfortunately named All Year Round. His brother Maxwell Croft had been a costumier before sensibly leaving the theatre behind and establishing a successful Regent Street fur shop.
All Year Round was a Chekov-style drama that followed the lives and loves of three sisters over a thirty year period. It caught the eye of the respected director Frith Banbury and was booked to open at The Duke of York’s, a beautiful and major London playhouse on St Martin’s Lane. Annie Get Your Gun was playing to sell-out audiences at The London Coliseum opposite. Unfortunately, the play opened on Friday October 9, 1959, the night after a general election which returned Harold MacMillan’s Tory administration.
Newspaper articles reported gaggles of drunken people celebrating or, perhaps, bemoaning the government’s re-election. Unable to get into Annie, they staggered across the road and bought Upper Circle tickets for All Year Round.
FAVOURED HAUNT OF ROALD DAHL Try the truffles featured in my uncle Oswald
Angered by the lack of music and dance – they’d wanted to see Annie – the drunkards heckled the actors as early as Act One and continued through Acts Two and Three. The performance was ruined and the critics refused to review the play. Without favourable reviews, its financial backers immediately withdrew support and it closed after the Saturday matinee and evening performances.
Neville would have seen the opening at The Duke of York’s
as a breakthrough in his writing career. Over the course of
three hours on a Friday night, he witnessed his career and dreams destroyed by a bunch of drunkards. Distraught, he never wrote again.
Fortunately, he had a wonderful brother. Maxwell was a frequent customer at Prestat’s South Molton Street shop and he became aware that Tony Dufour was looking to sell. He stepped in, buying the business and immediately handing the reins over to Neville and his wife Elisabeth.
Neville took to the business like a duck to water. He divided his office off from the shop with a red velvet curtain and took to
appearing with a theatrical flourish and a large hat whenever
he heard a customer of note making a purchase.
Prestat had enjoyed a celebrity
clientele from its inception.
Antoine Dufour had created a special
chocolate – a type of inverted violet crème
– for the actress Sarah Bernhardt in the 1910s
and the Crofts’ theatrical connections resulted in
frequent visits from actors such as John Gielgud
and Peggy Ashcroft.
Prestat was also a favoured haunt of Roald Dahl, author of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, who made Prestat truffles the centrepiece of his novel My Uncle Oswald. In the book, a raucous comic romp, a love potion hidden inside irresistible Prestat truffles is secretly fed to Europe’s monarchs. In the real world, Prestat had for many years supplied (unadulterated) chocolates to the British royal family and in 1975 it was granted a Royal Warrant as Purveyors of Chocolates to Her Majesty The Queen.
These years were Prestat’s brightest since the heyday of Antoine Dufour in the 1920s. Famous customers included Cher, Tina Turner, Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney. Peggy and Dilys were swooning behind the counter. But although the basement kitchen was booming, problems were creeping up again.
By the early 1980s, Neville and Elisabeth were suffering poor health and had no natural successor. The lease on South Molton Street was coming to an end. And there was new legislation that would effectively make it impossible to continue chocolate production at the shop.
It was time for Neville, a great showman to the customers and an inspiration to the staff, finally to hang up his hat. The business needed a fresh injection of funds and leadership to meet the challenges that lay ahead.
HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN