THE years rolled away, and for one night only, Winchester's Centre Players took centre stage again.

Members of the amateur theatrical company that entertained the post-war estate of Weeke with dozens of plays, pantomimes, variety shows and concerts between 1955 and 1980 gathered at their old stamping ground.

They had returned to the Weeke Community Centre, off Taplings Road, for the unveiling of a new pair of stage curtains. The old curtains had done sterling service for more than half a century, but time (and cigarette smoke) had faded their royal blue to a drab olive green.

The centre's social club and North Winchester Community Church raised the £3,400 for the new set, made by Louise Langstone of House of Langstone in Shawford.

The evening was an occasion for swapping memories of a glory era for amateur drama in Winchester.

After the official opening of the new curtains, some of the former Centre Players took to the stage one more time, treading the boards on which they had performed all those years ago ... although in the very early days, they weren't boards at all. The community centre, built by volunteers, opened in 1954, but with no stage. So until the stage was built several years later, again by volunteers, the plays were performed on (health & safety inspectors look away now) trestle tables.

Heather Riley (nee Baker) recalled: "I still have vivid memories of a chorus line of beautiful line girls dancing, as the stage bounced up and down alarmingly!"

Carole Steel (nee Gilbert) made her debut in those trestle table days and stayed with the troupe long enough to appear in pantos alongside her daughter Alison in the mid-1970s.

“It was lovely because everyone who came to watch knew you,” she said. “It was very homely, a great spirit in the dressing rooms, plenty of laughter. A really, really great time. I remember my mum saying, ‘We won’t get those days back again’.”

Former Hampshire Chronicle reporter Lisbeth Rake (better known to Weeke audiences as Lisbeth Roder) echoed the sentiment. Mrs Rake, who was part of the Centre Players from 1967-71, said: “My memories are of the high standards achieved by a small group with very limited resources.”

Modern audiences would regard the lighting as basic, and as Mrs Riley recalled, luxuries weren't as readily available in the early years: a line of black paint down the back of a chorus girl’s leg had to stand in for a stocking seam.

But, Mrs Rake said: “The costumes were fantastic, the sets were beautiful [and] you did make very good friends.”

It was an especially poignant evening for Phil Yates. The 91-year-old paid for the original curtains in 1965, donating "about £150" (close to £2,800 in today’s money) of a legacy left to him by an aunt.

Mr Yates joined the Players in 1960 when asked to fill in in a panto featuring detectives Pinchem and Findem. The Players already had their Pinchem; now they'd found their Findem. Thus began an association that lasted until 1974, when he quit to devote his energies to the campaign to save the Theatre Royal.

The Centre Players disbanded 37 years ago – people moved, married, joined other theatre companies or just dropped out -- but the standard was taken up by P & G Wells University Bookshop manager David Simpkin in the early 2000s.

His Christmas pantos -- he is writer, director and Dame – feature a mix of locals and Winchester University drama students. They have entertained new generations of fans from Weeke, Winchester and beyond (a bemused group of French tourists sat politely through one performance, but left little the wiser about this great British theatrical tradition).

The new dark blue curtains, christened Eric and Ernest by Mr Yates, will make their official debut at Mr Simpkin's 16th Weeke panto, "Alice in Pantoland", which runs from December 12-15.