Watching some preachers, particularly of the American-style tele-evangelism kind, you would think they’d been to drama school such was their gesticulating performances in the pulpit.
But there was one part of church life in the Sixties and Seventies where such amateur dramatics were the ‘norm’ - the annual Presbyterian Sunday school Soiree!
This was where anyone and everyone in the Sunday school who could dance, sing (even out of tune!) recite a poem, or dress up got the chance to display their talents before a ‘live’ audience of the church congregation and their pals.
The platform of the church hall became the stage, equipped with lights, and curtains, along with my dad as the minister acting as MC for the evening.
For weeks beforehand, we would meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school in the church hall for rehearsals with the ever-patient church organist Mrs Sadie McWilliams. She had the patience of the Biblical character Job - she needed it as it was - until the evening of the performance - a total mess about time!
While it was a case of ‘It’ll Be Alright On The Night’, talent-wise, Simon Cowell and his judges would have been blasting on their Britain’s Got Talent buzzers the second they heard us in action!
We were divided into four sections - junior and senior girls, and junior and senior boys. No matter how young or old you were, if you were in the Sunday School, you got a spot in the limelight before a packed audience.
Next to the communion services and harvest events, the annual Soiree was one of the top attended events in the church calendar. Initially, we dressed in our ‘Sunday bests’ for the opening devotions, then as each act followed, we changed into our costumes.
The comedy was clean and slap-stick; there were no rude jokes, double-entendres or innuendoes - nothing that would have embarrassed a clergyman! In spite of an excellent public address system for the event, some kids were so shy on the ‘big stage’ you could hardly hear them whisper!
But who cared! We were the actors and actresses of the future as we performed our amateur (and I mean amateur!) dramatics with enthusiasm and gusto. Who cared if we missed our lines, or even forgot them; we were performing before a live audience who would clap and cheer with fanaticism no matter how ‘wick’ the act.
For the quiet wee preacher’s kid, the annual Soiree was a real confidence booster. As a budding wannabe Ozzy Osbourne in the making, I could belt out the hymn tunes no matter what key Mrs McWilliams was playing in and I would receive thunderous applause from the audience - everyone was a winner on Soiree night!
Of course, some of us - well, me alone as the preacher’s kid! - would sometimes push things to the limit. One year for Christmas, some of us lads had asked Santa for the ultimate gift at that time - a plastic gun known as a Johnny Seven The One Man Army. It looked like an RPG7 rocket launcher, bolt action rifle and M60 machine gun combined, but it was the super toy of the Sixties!
One of the choruses we would sing at the Soiree was about being a soldier in the Lord’s Army (not the paramilitary group of the same name, but a reference to being a child of God bound for Heaven).
A number of us lads - the so-called Junior Boys that night - had Johnny Sevens on display and part of the chorus was where we fired the machine gun noise on the ‘weapon’.
However, we had been given very strict instructions by our tutor, Mrs McWilliams, that under no circumstances, were we to fire the grenades into the audience in case someone got hit by the plastic devices.
Stuff this, I thought; this is a chance for us lads to make a political statement to the Kirk Session elders. I arranged for the lads on this singing event that instead of firing the machine gun noise on the Johnny Seven, when Mrs McWilliams gave us the cue to ‘shoot’, it would be the grenades which would be launched at the elders!
There was only one problem; with lights out in the hall, and the stage lights on us, we couldn’t see where members of the Kirk Session were sitting.
The rehearsals had all been completed. We did the dry run, but that had been during the day time and the wee members of the Junior Girls had all ducked when we fired the grenades - evoking a severe telling off from Mrs McWilliams that there was to be no repetition of this behaviour on the night.
And that fateful Friday night came in the Sixties; all the lads arrived with their Johnny Sevens; grenades primed and ready. Our act was about half way through the evening. Then dad announced what we’d all been waiting for - the Junior Boys and their rendition of ‘We Are In The Lord’s Army’. It was action stations.
The curtains swished aside and there was thunderous applause as we stood there, bedecked in our combat gear and Johnny Sevens; no one suspected the mayhem we were about to unleash. But where were the elders sitting; we couldn’t make out who was whom.
There was only one solution - fire the grenades and hope for the best that we pranged an elder. Then came the cue - shoot! - Volunteer Coulter stepped forward, breaking ranks - Johnny Seven grenade launcher locked and loaded; safety off - and then I fired!
There was a sharp intake of breath from the audience as the hard plastic grenade sailed into the darkness of the congregation; followed by a yelp from an unknown victim; a hit, I had scored a hit! But on whom? I turned to my comrades to see how they had fared, but only then did the horror strike me.
The other lads had bottled it, or to be fair, obeyed Mrs McWilliams’ explicit orders not to fire the Johnny Seven grenades. My chums were staring at me in disbelief. Mission failure as I got a severe telling off after the Soiree. I didn’t hit an elder, but I’d made a point - the preacher’s kid would not following the ‘norm’!
Still, at least the Soiree would end on a high note with terrific suppers - sandwiches with every filling imaginable, tea and tray-bakes Presbyterian-style, along with buttered fruit loaf, known affectionately as ‘spotty dick’!
Large farmers would carry giant kettles around, shouting out ‘tea with sugar’; ‘tea with no sugar’, ‘black tea’!
Clearly no professional agents attended the Soirees, so I never got that audition to be the next James Bond, but the fun was outstanding.
By the time the Eighties came around, the Soirees seemed to have disappeared from the Presbyterian calendars. It was a couple of years ago; dad had long since retired from active politics and only preached occasionally. It was almost 40 years since we had last attended a Presbyterian Soiree together.
Suddenly it was announced there would be a Soiree in the Clough church hall in north Antrim. Dad and I attended that wonderful event as people laughed and clapped at the amateur dramatics and songs on stage - and yes, the tea and ‘spotty dick’ afterwards were just as delicious.
I’m glad dad and I got the opportunity after so many years to enjoy another Soiree together. Several months later, the cancer claimed him.
Perhaps when the lockdown is over, and the virus contained, the churches will once again have the chance to host their Soirees. So my appeal to the Christian Church is simple - please bring back the Gud Auld Dayes of the Sixties and the Sunday school Soirees for a great evening’s good clean fun!