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How PoW Sam Brearley turned Stalag 383 into a theatre
Sam Brearley
Sam with a picture of himself with Peter Cushing at the Lido in Rochdale

Ninety-seven year old Sam Brearley, who was finally presented with his World War II medals after 65 years, has even more remarkable stories to tell.

Sam, from Whalley, formed a close friendship with the actor Peter Cushing when they were in Rep together.

This love for the theatre helped him turn a German prisoner of war camp into a mini West End.

The prisoners performed regular shows, wheeling and dealing with their German guards for props and costumes.

'Something daft'

Sam's theatrical career started when he was a teenager living in Bacup. He would perform Gilbert and Sullivan comedies on stage with his father, sister and brother.

"If you can do something daft to make people laugh, it's a good life.

"That's how it started. I got the bug... that was it," he says.

Sam joined the Rep theatre in Rochdale, where he formed a close friendship with Peter Cushing. "He was a grand lad," smiles Sam. "One of those lads you can't help but like.

"I asked him to come home with me for a good meal at the weekend, and he was thrilled... to have a real bit of home life."

Peter Cushing
Sam's friend from Rochdale, Peter Cushing

Dream to perform

The two kept in touch, even when Cushing went elsewhere and the actor turned to Sam when he was performing at the Opera House in Scarborough. He needed a jacket and sent off a letter hoping Sam could oblige, a letter Sam still has today.

"I rolled it up and put it in a parcel and sent it off. He needed it before he opened the show the following week. He would have looked a bit funny because he was taller than me," Sam remembers.

Sam also still has the letter Cushing sent offering his sympathy when Sam's mother died.

Sam'e letter from actor Peter Cushing
Sam still has the letter Peter Cushing sent to him when his mother died

Sam enjoyed his time at the Rochdale Rep, especially when there was a visit from Gracie Fields - a star of the time.

But Sam remembers more about her father's behaviour: "All I did was guide her father... who was so drunk, wandering around the darkness. I put him right and led him back to her dressing room."

It was Sam's dream to perform and he soon found himself at Rada: "It's the most amazing place," he says.

Possibly made even more amazing by the fact that he was one of the few lads taking his place among the 200 girls.

Famous names

Sam still hoped to make the big time and had his picture published in the famous Spotlight Casting Directory, alongside many famous names - John Mills, Arthur Askey, Michael Redgrave and Douglas Fairbanks.

By chance he was also photographed by the Picture Post, a well known publication of its time and another memento in the Brearley household.

Sam as a young man in the Spotlight Casting Directory
Sam as a young man in the Spotlight Casting Directory

Sam left Rada in March 1939 to work in Rep, because he needed to earn a living and was enjoying himself on tour.

But WWII intervened, and Sam signed up with the 1st Armoured Brigade.

By 1943 Sam found himself in a German PoW camp, Stalag 383, after being captured in the port of Kalamata in Greece.

But life in the prison was not that bad, helped by Sam's theatrical skills and with a friendly commandant in charge. Sam was to be at the centre of a remarkable arrangement with their hosts.

An old barn was converted into a theatre, and Sam became the producer for a whole host of shows and productions, many from Gilbert and Sullivan.


The photographs from the time, which Sam keeps in his living room, show how impressive the productions were.

stage production
The PoWs made incredibly detailed costumes and sets

The PoWs even took on the female roles and paid the guards in cigarettes so they could get programmes printed.

"We had to do something, so let's do the best we could," says Sam. "There were so many willing helpers.

"I don't know anybody that didn't want to do something."

They made costumes and wigs, bartering with their German guards for props: "If you wanted anything you asked for it, and amazingly it always came," says Sam.

"There were so many clever lads around, there wasn't a job or anything you wanted that couldn't be produced."

The actors played to packed-out audiences of up to 300 people, PoWs and guards all enjoying the show.

The arrangement was almost like a scene from the famous American television series of the 1960's, Hogan's Heroes, where the atmosphere was less confrontational.

But Sam says there was still an escape committee, and he actually helped two Australians win their freedom. They wanted to look more like workmen, so Sam got to work using his theatre skills in make-up using mud and pencil to age them.

No regrets

Sam also inspired a fellow prisoner called Trevor Hicks to take up a stage career. Trevor joined the famous D'Oyly Carte Opera Company where he spent the next 60 years touring the world.

The programme from Stalag 383
The programme from Stalag 383 in 1943

Sam had lost touch with Trevor but was delighted when he recently got in touch with a Christmas card and words of praise for how Sam had helped him: "I was really pleased to hear from Trevor after so long. He told me I was to blame. I had set him on his way!"

When he returned home at the end of the war, Sam never resumed his theatre career full time, choosing instead to open a newsagent.

He watched on as Peter Cushing made a name for himself, but he has no regrets: "He went his way, I went mine. It had to be different."

Though he wasn't too impressed by the horror roles for which Cushing became famous: "It wasn't him. He was a comedy man, he was a real comic."

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