The Wandsworth Warmers

Company name: The Wandsworth Warmers

Founders:  Su Elliott and Pippa Sparkes with Sally Greenwood, Jessica Higgs and Bryony Lavery. Buffy Davis joined the Warmers for Unbridled Passions (1985).

Established: 1984

Reason: To provide work for themselves as unemployed actors

Current Status: Disbanded – last performance was in 1986

Area of work: Women’s

Policy: To create entertaining shows for its devoted band of followers, to make money and to ‘not get too pissed before the show’.

Structure: A group of friends functioning loosely as a collective, with any profits shared equally

Based: London – Wandsworth naturally

Funding: None. The company functioned by splitting box office takings with the venue

Performance venues: Mostly performed in fringe theatrical venues, such as the Drill Hall, BAC, Riverside Studios, and New End. Occasionally performed at bigger venues, including Piccadilly Theatre and the Lyttelton Theatre for a Platform Performance.

Audiences: Often performed to feminist audiences (though not exclusively) and had a devoted following, particularly at the Drill Hall. The Wandsworth Warmers also performed to political audiences, such as at the Labour Party annual conference, post-conference party, and the Miner’s Strike Women’s Benefit Concert at Piccadilly Theatre.

Company work and process:
The original Wandsworth Warmers line up in The Wandsworth Warmers at the Drill Hall (1984) was Su Elliott, Sally Greenwood and Pippa Sparkes, with Jessica Higgs as Piano Warmer (aka The Young Musician of the Year) and Bryony Lavery providing the ‘Warmer material’. This was followed by their Christmas Carol Concert (again at the Drill Hall (1984), where they were very popular). In 1985, Buffy Davis joined the company for Unbridled Passions when Pippa Sparkes had other work commitments.

All of the original group were friends who had worked together before in Les Oeufs Malades, some with Incubus.

Performances were a combination of comic sketches and songs, part cabaret, part theatre, taking the form of ‘an evening with the Warmers…like you might find us every night’(Pippa Sparkes), ‘making statements about things, who we liked, who we didn’t like, what was interesting, and then we’d just go into a song.’ (Su Elliott)

Typically, performances began with preparations for the ‘evening’. As the script puts it: ‘The Warmers come on, have a look at the audience. Chose a chair. They get out their warming equipment – drink, many, many packs of cigarettes. Finally, they all put on their warmers together. They are ready.’ (The Wandsworth Warmers script extract) The ‘warmers’ were socks with the feet cut off, and used to cover the arms and wrists. Following this introduction were recitations of who the Warmers were or what they did, for example: ‘All Warmers are women. All warmers have tiny incomes and no waists. All Warmers drink. All Warmers wear bits of old jumper tied round their wrists in cold weather.’ (The Wandsworth Warmers script extract)

Drawing on the company members’ own lives and humour, sketches included a role-reveral sketch, where ‘we were two lairy women in a pub chatting up unfortunate men who didn’t want to be disturbed’ (Pippa Sparkes) and a discussion of Warmer ‘fantasies’. Sally was often put through her paces in a literary quiz (Literary Corner) by the other Warmers to prove her ‘Warmer’ credentials. Su Elliott explained, ‘we used to interrogate Sally…she wasn’t quite what we wanted.’
Su: Where do we read Geogette Heyer?
Sally: On the tube..(claps hand over mouth)
Su and Pippa sit down, disappointed.
Sally: Never on the tube. On the tube we read Anthony Trollope.
(The Wandsworth Warmers script extract)

As the ‘Young Musician of the Year’, Jessica Higgs would often be the butt of the Warmers’ jokes, having been tricked into playing for them. However, Su Elliot points out, ‘we always gave her a piece. We allowed her to do something’, such as a song or poem, or, for the Christmas panto, unbeknown to the them, she brought on a male voice choir, which ‘outraged’ the Warmers.

In addition to their three main shows, the company also performed ad hoc shorter cabaret versions at various venues and events including: the Miner’s Strike Benefit (1985) and A GLC Night Out (1986) at the Piccadilly Theatre and a Lyttelton Platform Performance (1985) at the National Theatre.

The company drifted apart due to members’ competing work schedules. The work involved in putting productions together and booking performances became too difficult to fit around their other paid work. Their last performance was in 1986.

Personal appraisals and thoughts:

The idea and the reality

Pippa Sparkes: ‘I think that was the idea, really, that it was something to come back to in between, y’know, ‘respectable’ work – if we found any. Which wasn’t as easy was we perhaps first thought. Because what it turned into was in fact a show that needed a lot of rehearsal, a lot of work. It wasn’t just turning up and gigging like a stand-up comedian or something.’
Su Elliott: It had to be really tight, otherwise it descended into chaos. But we were five professionals, and I mean we really were and are. I mean, Bryony, Pippa, Sally, me and Jess. And we really did work hard on it.’

On the Warmers’ humour

Pippa Sparkes: ‘I think the reason why the Warmers didn’t corpse was because they didn’t find themselves very funny.
Su Elliott: We took ourselves very seriously.
Pippa Sparkes: So we couldn’t corpse because that would mean we found each other hilarious, and we didn’t at all. In particular the pianist was particuarly non-funny.
Su Elliott: We called her the Young Musician of the Year, and loads of people asked whether she really was. And I thought, hello, it’s called irony.’

On the songs (click here to listen to some of them)

Jessica Higgs: Bryony wrote the lyrics and I then set them to music. The were all in the style of someone or something else – pastiches. For example, Eine Kleine Woodlouse, about poverty in Thatcher’s Britain, was a tribute Brecht/Weil’s Surabaya Johnny; Hello England (sadly not recorded for posterity), a rousing patriotic number of Elgarian pomp; and the sensitive Requiem, Wandsworth Eleison, courtesy of Faure. The Young Musician of the Year was a rather superior classical musician. She wrote the words and the music to her songs which were a revenge on the Wandsworth Warmers for having tricked her into playing for them and their little show.

On the audience

Su Elliott: ‘We had a rather devoted following didn’t we, and that was very pleasing, and that people wanted to see more of the Warmers. So I think there was, because of that, a very good rapport between us and people who saw the show, generally.’

On criticism and risk

Pippa Sparkes: ‘I remember on the first show one of the reviews said all Warmers, they were quoting our speeches, ‘All Warmers live in Wandsworth,’ and, ‘All Warmers are women of a certain age and are anti-men’. And we didn’t mention men at all. The nearest we got to it was in my sketch, which didn’t mention men really, it just referred to roles, but everything else didn’t refer to men at all, except for the fact we were rather keen on Ken Livingston and Alf Dubs. There was nothing anything anti-men about it at all, but the review said that ‘All Warmers were anti-men’. In fact, when you think about it, Julie Parker [booked the Warmers at the Drill Hall], hats off to her, because there were some very sort of extreme politics in theatre at the time, and she took a chance on us really, and we didn’t have a political agenda at all.’

Reviews:
The Wandsworth Warmers
‘After the interval there is a sharp shift of gear [The Wandsworth Warmers was in a double bill with Sue Frumin’s The House Trample] to high comedy as we’re introduced to the Wandsworth Warmers. Warmers have tiny incomes, no waists and feel the cold. Warmers smoke a lot and always wait until the host passes out so they can finish the scotch. Warmers read Georgette Heyer in private, Anthony Trollope on the tube and are frightfully well informed about what’s happening in The Archers. Warmers fantasise about being selected as England’s first radical separatist swing bowler and worry about nuclear waste trains…..they are hilarious. Don’t miss them.’ (Lyn Gardner, City Limits)
‘And under Lavery’s viciously funny pen, the talented Warmers are also exceptionally adept at making an audience fall about with laughter. Diminutive Jessica Higgs (‘Young Musician of The Year’)  provides the music, recites wet poetry, and gets the brunt of sarcasm; other insults are heaped on the majority of the male species and the Tory government. Highly amusing – catch it while you can.’ (Eva Evagora, Time Out)
Unbridled Passions
‘Of course it’s all a deadpan chuckle and even in private conversation the Warmer will staunchly defend her manor of a council estate in South London. Even so there is a subtle sanity in their madness. A snap at the Prime Minister in the Brechtian song of Mrs Thatcher’s manicurist, a role reversal sketch about macho women trying out the pick-up technique on the men in the pub and a swipe at out cousins in the homily ‘Goodbye Canada’, complete with back projection flag motif are examples of their versatility.’ (Roy Robert Smith, The Stage)

Productions:
[table id=18 /]
Interviewee reference: Bryony Lavery, Su Elliott, Pippa Sparkes, Jessica HiggsJulie Parker.

Existing archive material: Jessica Higgs, Pippa Sparkes

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Pippa Sparkes and Su Elliott for their time and recollections when interviewed in October 2013. Thanks also to Bryony Lavery and Buffy Davis. This page was created by Jessica Higgs and Eleanor Paremain. November 2013

The creation of this page was supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.