Andy Jordan on Bristol Express

Andy Jordan’s personal appraisal and thoughts:

‘During the 16 years in which Bristol Express (BE) was most active, 1978 – 1988, and the years 1987 – 1994 when the company presented an extraordinary and unprecedented annual programme of R&D as a Festival of New Writing called The Play’s The Thing!, we were performing in a country run by a Conservative Government. Our ideas and work was far from and had nothing to do with the prevailing values of the time, particularly those of the Tories. In general terms, we supported Labour’s social values, which were reflected in much of the work we did. However, BE was not an avowedly political company in the sense of only presenting plays with a socialist theme. It took three years for the company to distil its artistic policy, namely its commitment to new writing. When the company began it was not solely committed to new writing. Its programming policy was artistically eclectic.

Early years

Over the first three years of the company’s existence it became clear that we would have to make specific choices about policy if we wanted to receive public subsidy, the most important of which was to become a national touring company. For a short period of time in the 1980s, BE were a leading new writing national touring company. We performed in the same venues as most of the other leading alternative and fringe companies of the time, be it Joint Stock, Gay Sweatshop, Black Theatre Co-Op, Foco Novo, Lumiere & Son, Women’s Theatre Group, ATC, Cheek by Jowl, Beryl and the Perils, Hull Truck, Common Stock, Lip Service, Kaboodle, Major Road, Avon Touring, Monstrous Regiment, Paines Plough, Red Ladder, Solent People’s Theatre, Sadista Sisters, and many, many more besides. The company did not, however, fulfill its full potential. It was hampered in doing so because of three factors.

1) It did not achieve ACGB revenue funding, ie, the company was not regularly and permanently funded over a defined three year timespan. Instead, the company remained an ACGB project funded company, which meant its funding was irregular, unreliable and unpredictable. It is a sobering fact to note that in 1988, ten years after its inception, only 4 of the company’s 36 major productions had received public subsidy.

2) In the period immediately following the significant success of its first season at the 1978 Edinburgh Fringe where Lunatic & Lover won a Fringe First Award, the company’s founder Andy Jordan chose to go to drama school to train as an actor and then pursue a number of high-level freelance directing commitments. What the company should have done was to build on its initial success by touring Lunatic & Lover as a way of securing ACGB funding. In not doing this at that point the company lost momentum and three valuable years.

3) The company’s director should have been more strategically-minded in his decisions, and more committed to the company’s future potential rather than his own personal ambitions. If, when the company was formed, he had defined the company’s policy and started to tour then the story of BE might have been very different. The benefit of hindsight makes it is easy to see what should have been done. But at that time in my life I was curious to say yes to the various opportunities and challenges that were coming my way. I was also somewhat schizophrenic about still wanting to go to drama school and be an actor, something I had dreamt of doing since I was a child. The ugly truth is that this desire, whilst in part achieved, took my eye off other possibilities, and held back the company’s progress.

However, my own personal ambition was not (then) to run a touring company, but to get to the point where I could, with my directing hat on, produce whatever work captured my imagination and inspired me. I felt my natural home was probably one of the national companies, the RSC or National Theatre, or one of the leading regional theatre companies such as the Manchester Royal Exchange or Bristol Old Vic, and I had a good go at getting into them, initially as an assistant director and, eventually, as a regular visiting freelance director. But this ambition ultimately, and quite quickly, came to nothing very much – I was either not selected, or I rejected and messed up opportunities I was offered. Thus it was that I found myself at a crossroads in my still very young ‘career’ (if that is what it ever was), confused as to whether I should concentrate on directing or acting, or whether I should focus on new writing and new work, or on revivals and the classics. Somewhat reluctantly it has to be said, I chose new writing and new work and decided, in 1981, to make something of Bristol Express.

It was clear that if BE was to secure funding of any type my own eclectic interests and tastes had to be reined in so that the company’s policy could be honed and refined. So we moved the company’s operation from Bristol to London and launched a season of four new plays at the Old Red Lion Theatre – introducing three new writers, all of whom have gone on to significant success as playwrights, screenwriters and film directors. The aim was to attract the attention of the ACGB, and the wider industry (critics, actors, writers, producers). The move worked very well. Meanwhile, I had set about negotiating a series of co-productions with leading regional repertory theatres, something no other small-to-middle scale national touring company had done at that point. Such co-productions are now commonplace, thanks largely to the pioneering work of BE in this area. The development of this notion of small-to-middle scale touring companies co-producing with regional repertory theatres is one of Bristol Express’s most significant contributions to the history of touring theatre in the 1980s.

1982 – 86

During the period 1982 – 1986, as an ACGB project funded company, we co-produced new plays with the Leicester Haymarket Theatre, Coventry Belgrade Theatre, Bristol Old Vic Theatre, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Dundee Repertory Theatre, Chester Gateway Theatre, and others, taking shows to towns and cities throughout the UK. These three years were the highpoint of the company’s work, and should have led to revenue funding. But this did not happen. Why? Well, possibly because the new plays we presented did not conform to a clearly defined genre or type, or indeed to the ACGB’s own agenda at that time. The subject matter of the plays we commissioned, developed and produced were (once again) eclectic, unpredictable, and a bit ‘arty’. Other new writing companies chose to concentrate on Black or Asian subjects, working with Black or Asian writers and actors, or on regional issues, working with ‘local’ writers and actors, or on political or socially campaigning subjects. Other touring companies offered small-scale versions of the classics or adaptations of period novels, or were exploring visual, experimental, mixed media or physical theatre. All these companies therefore had a very distinct profile and policy. BE did not. Instead, it did a little or a lot of the type of work all these other touring companies did, depending on the play or show we were working on.

In 1986, BE’s company policy statement said that it was ‘committed to the encouragement and development of new writers and new writing’ and was ‘exploring theatre which mixes genres, is eloquent and skilful while remaining entertaining and accessible…. We believe in drawing together a keen visual style with stimulating ideas, covering a larger area in language, storytelling and structure’, and that the company was ‘still firmly committed to national touring, to small, middle, and No. 1, playing our shows to all sections of the community and in a variety of venues.’ This was all well and good, and was probably very laudable, but it did not make the company stand out from the crowd. Moreover, it is probably also true to say that, in this period, 1982 – 1986, none of the plays or productions we presented really ‘took off’ to become outstanding critical and public successes, even though they were often praised and enjoyed.

We were finding it harder and harder to get project grants, a situation which hit rock bottom in 1985, when – because we had a project application turned down – we had to cancel a fully booked 15 week national tour of a new play about Winnie Mandela, a humiliating exercise for the company and an experience which changed the nature and direction of BE forever.

Bristol Express productions 1982 – 86
During the period 1982 – 1986 the productions BE produced were as follows:
Doolaly Days by Paul Unwin (World Premiere. Dir: Andy Jordan. Co-Pro with Leicester Haymarket Theatre. 1982/3)
Gulls by Robert Hewett (British Premiere. Dir: Andy Jordan. Co-Pro with Leicester Haymarket Theatre. 1984)
A Bloody English Garden by Nick Fisher (World Premiere. Dir: Andy Jordan. Co-Pro with Bristol Old Vic Theatre. 1985)
Prophets in the Black Sky by John Matshikiza (World Premiere. Dir: Andy Jordan. Co-Pro with Coventry Belgrade Theatre. 1985)
Elsie & Norm’s Macbeth by John Christopher Wood. Dir: Andy Jordan. Co-Pro with Birmingham Repertory Theatre. 1986).

1987 – 94

By the end of 1986 crunch time had properly arrived, yet another watershed in the company’s history. In the face of crippling debts as a direct result of no public subsidy, BE returned to a type of ‘mixed economy’ programming with which it had originally begun, nine years earlier in Edinburgh, and started to develop a successful commercial arm to its operations as an independent production company. It was entirely due to this commercial work that the company survived the rest of the ’80s. By late 1986 BE was organizing itself on a project by project basis, and the company’s attitude was ‘if you have nothing there is nothing you can lose’. It then embarked on a level of activity unprecedented even by its own standards.

The Play’s The Thing!

In 1987/88, BE was the most productive company of its type in the UK, having created The Play’s The Thing! in December 1986, an annual Festival of New Writing, presenting writing workshops and seminars, play workshops, staged public readings, workshop productions, and full productions across London and on tour. The Play’s The Thing! was described by Time Out as ‘the biggest annual programme of new writing in London’. The idea was to achieve the creative and structured development of scripts in a critical working environment and to act as a showcase for both writer and play. This was done without public subsidy. We tested the work, encouraging and allowing writers to develop their skills and improve their play, a process which we hoped would lead to full productions – as it did in many instances.

The Play’s The Thing! was an extension of BE’s policy of encouraging and developing new writing and new writers which was described by Plays International as ‘distinguished by its almost unique ability to find writers of genuine interest’. By 1994, of the 59 plays included in The Play’s The Thing! up to that point, nearly a third of them had been fully produced. Drama Magazine said, ‘More than just another writers’ group, more than just a series of readings and committed to developing work beyond the workshop…it has proved a remarkable showcase for new work and new writing.’ The programme even attracted awards.

In spring 1988, BE produced Allan Cubitt’s first play Winter Darkness (featuring Mick Ford and directed by Susan Hogg), which had been developed in The Play’s The Thing! (Pt 4). It went on to be one of Time Out’s best New Plays of 1988 and received glowing reviews, including this one from City Limits, ‘If anyone doubted the value of Bristol Express’ The Play’s The Thing! project then Winter Darkness… triumphantly vindicates this ambitious R&D project…it has launched a powerhouse of creativity that could well change the face of British playwriting.’

Bristol Express productions 1987 – 94 (during The Play’s the Thing)
Please One and Please All by Rosemary Linnell (World Premiere. Dir: Adrian Bean. Bear Gardens Museum, London, and Midlands Tour. 1987)
Child’s Play by Jon Wolfman (World Premiere. Dir: Adrian Bean. New End Theatre, London. 1988)
Wide Eye’s Kingdom by Nick Fisher (World Premiere. Dir: Nick Pitt. BAC, London. 1988)
Between the Lines by Allan Cubitt (World Premiere. Dir: Andy Jordan. Co-Pro with Arts Educational School, London. Bridge Lane Theatre, London and Orkney Islands Festival Tour. 1988)
The Devil and Stepashka by Claire Booker (World Premiere. Dir: David Gillies. Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh & New End Theatre, London, 1989)
Boudicca’s Victory by Jean Binnie (World Premiere. Dir: Richard Osborne. Riverside Studios, London. 1990)
Heaven by Sarah Aicher (World Premiere. Dir: Andy Jordan. Lilian Baylis Theatre London. 1991)
Gangster Apparel by Richard Vetere (British Premiere. Dir: Daniel Slater. Old Red Lion Theatre, London. 1993)

The Play’s The Thing! (Pt 9) came to end in 1994 with a season at the Pleasance Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe of play readings, public lectures and a full production of Michael Meyer’s play A Meeting in Rome about an imaginary meeting between Strindberg and Ibsen. It brought to an end an extraordinarily ambitious and successful 7 year programme of unsubsidised R&D work the like of which has rarely, if ever, been seen since. Over 55 writers benefitted from the project, many of whom went on to considerable success in theatre, television, radio, film, and as novelists, biographers, poets and journalists, including Allan Cubitt (the Emmy award-winning screenwriter, and creator of the recent BBC series The Fall), playwrights Dick Edwards, Michael Wall, Renny Krupinski, Richard Vetere, James Pettifer and Howard Ginsberg, novelists, biographers and poets Michael Arditti, Carol Rumens, Michael Meyer and Elaine Feinstein, and screenwriters Bill Gallagher, Nick Fisher and Bill Stair. It remains a testament to BE’s commitment to new writing and new writers, and something to be proud of.

Looking back on the fortunes of Bristol Express

In discussing these remembrances with a BE colleague from back in the day – director Jonathan Banatvala, who went on to found the ACGB touring company – Moving Theatre – we gave some thought to the question, ‘Why did BETC never achieve ACGB Revenue Funded status’? These were some of our conclusions.

1) Luck (and the lack of it) – we suspect the Arts Council had at the time Officers who were not particularly understanding of or in any way pre-disposed to the company’s work. If they had of been then BETC might have done better.

2) BE was too heavily Artistic Director led. This perhaps gave rise to two problems – firstly, the work was hugely subjective, following the “fancy or heart’s desire” of Andy Jordan, the company’s director, from one moment to the next, which is a very difficult basis to operate a policy from. Also, it meant that the company never really benefited from a dominating producer figure, who could have handled the Arts Council with an ease that the Artistic Director could perhaps not do because he was temperamentally not equipped to do so and there was no one else in the company who had the knowledge or experience (at that point) to do it.

3) The nature of the company’s new writing policy. Andy Jordan once said in a strategic meeting which took place in the company’s office (which doubled as Andy’s bedroom) ‘our job is not to produce the best play of the year – that’s what the Royal Court is supposed to be doing – our job is to produce work that deserves to be seen’. This was entirely how the company viewed its policy then, and it did a good job of trying to stick to it. (Actually, occasionally we produced a play that would have more than graced the Royal Court stage). But, as a policy, it was quite a complicated one.

4) As a result of the above much of the value of a BE play came not in the originating script but in the quality of the production. It was the high production values that often made the plays the company presented stand out – it was perhaps about Andy Jordan’s intuitive relationship with lighting and set design, and with actors, that enabled him to take a promising play and turn it into something special. Again, it is perhaps possible to see how the ACGB might more readily project fund than revenue fund the company on that basis.

5) BE probably missed a trick or two by not being prepared to position itself aggressively enough within the Arts Council funding market place and claim to the Arts Council that if they did not fund the company they were misrepresenting a section of the community – whatever section of the community that might have been (ethnicity, gender, region, sexual persuasion, and so on). BE was therefore competing with too many other companies who appeared to conform to the funding prejudices of the ACGB at that time. It has, of course, to be said that most if not all of these other companies were fully deserving of their funding, as many of them contributed greatly to the development of British alternative and touring theatre in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, companies such as Tara Arts, Talawa, Black Theatre Co-Op, Gay Sweatshop, The Women’s Theatre Group, Joint Stock, and so on.

6) The quality of the company’s work itself was possibly more inconsistent than we care to remember, a situation influenced by inconsistent or non-existent funding and the frequently undermining exigencies this situation brought on for the company. The first few years of the company’s work, the 1978 – 1985 era, a period when its directors and creative personnel were very young, enthusiastic, ambitious and committed, brimming over with visionary idealism, was exciting and boded well for the future, but this began to pall somewhat when funding and wages were not forthcoming, and when it became harder and harder to get work on.

In conclusion

The Bristol Express Theatre Company deserves to be celebrated and remembered for its heartfelt dedication to new writing, for its providing a platform for countless writers, new and established, to have their work developed and produced, and for its determination and success in finding ways of surviving and flourishing in a world without public subsidy. BE should also be congratulated for it’s commitment to hot-housing new, young talent, as the company introduced not only talented new writers but also numerous gifted actors, directors, dramaturges, designers and producers, many of whom are now highly successful in international theatre, television, radio and film. Just a few names will suffice. They come in no order of importance, simply from memory (with apologies for any gaps in it), but they were all either given their first professional job with BE or were encouraged and helped by BE very early on in their careers:

Alex Jennings, Jenny Seagrove, Allan Cubitt, Paul Unwin, Jeremy Brock, Lynda Farran, Adrian Bean, Foz Allan, Sallie Apprahamian, Eileen Quinn, Dick Edwards, Conleth Hill, Michael Taylor, Julia Sawalha, Ramin Gray, Nick Pitt, Jonathan Banatvala, Michael Quinn, Richard Osborne, Jo Coombes, Jake Lushington, Olusola Oyeleye, Alexei Sayle, Laura Davenport, John Christopher Wood, Angela Clarke, Rob Jarvis, Annika Bluhm, Val Taylor, David Prescott, Shreela Ghosh, Bill Fellows, Pamela Nomvete, James Frain, Professor Andy Lavender, Carl Miller, Stephen Jameson, Richard Graham, Rachel Kavanaugh, Peter Leslie Wild, Charlotte Conquest, Jesse Lawrence, Daniel Slater, Louise Belson, Candida Boyes, Jason Watkins, Mathew Byam Shaw, Bhasker Patel and many, many more, to numerous to mention.’

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