Location: Bette’s home Notting Hill
Interviewers: Carole Woddis with Lucie Regan
Technician: Jessica Higgs
Topics List: Lucie Regan and Jessica Higgs
00:00:00 Family history. Born on 22nd Sept 1939 in Bangor North Wales. Mother was there to escape the war. Mother’s father was from there. Came back to Stoke Newington, Hackney, when six weeks old. Mother was born in Rhodesia [Zimbabwe] and came to England when 10 with her military father. Lived in Clissold Road during the war and Albion Road after the war. Went to Church Street School (now William Patten School). At 11 went to Upton House, in Urswick Road, Hackney.
00:03:55 First forays into theatre. At 4 years old he sang ‘Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else But Me’, at Stoke Newington Town Hall. ‘First Political Theatre’. In The Ancient Mariner at 7 years old. At Upton House he put on plays – Mr and Mrs Scrooge in which he dressed a cast member in drag and found it very amusing.
00:12:24 Relationship with Father. Occasionally he was very violent and BB was scared of him. He had a shitty life. It was a shadow over the home. Both interested in vintage cars. ‘I was trying to be a boy as opposed to a sissy. He knew and he couldn’t stand it. He was white middle class boy from Rhodesia. His father probably knocked him around.’
00:14:12 The Blitz. In the Blitz we used to run under the bed, and be giggling like mad. Never saw the newsreel violence. Went back to Wales for two or three years for it in a village near Bangor called Pentyrr.
00:15:03 Relationship with Mother. His mother loved life, loved him, introduced him to Am Drams and got the papers for Central School [School of Speech and Drama] and got Major County award – the grant for drama school. He is now an Honourary Fellow of Central. She had a lot of trouble with him being gay. He came out to her when 22 or 23.
00:19:07 Working in theatre before drama school. c1955 – 16 years old working in print shop then at The New Scientist and moving to work back stage as 2nd Dayman at The Garrick Theatre. The summer before worked at The Intimate Theatre, Palmers Green – painting and building sets and acting in the plays, with Jack Hulbert for instance, in The House Master.
00:21:43 Central School of Speech and Drama (CSSD). Went to Central in 1958 at 19. Auditioned with a piece from The Entertainer (which Lawrence Olivier was playing at the time in the West End) and Prince Hal [Henry V]. Gielgud, O’Toole, Finney and Tom Courtney were big influences at this time. Classical acting was way to get out of the shit of Hackney. Was afraid of revealing who he was, but did occasionally play working class actors. John Blatchley who took over Central in third year brought in working actors to teach such as Harold Lang, Ann Jellico and John Arbour. Had a strong sense of fury and rage.
00:27:41 BLOOLIPS. Dealing with difficult cast members – ‘passengers’. Would get rid of people swiftly if there was any problems to protect the group.
00:29:55 Drag Commune. ‘In the commune people started calling me Bette. Queer men often have feminine names given to them. I don’t like discussing Peter, is a life a left behind and to do with my father and my given name. Commune got chemical (drugs). And I don’t like that. I hung onto my own flat for which I was criticised. So I left the commune. I was working in the playground in Powell Square, employed by K&C. They didn’t know we were wearing lipstick and heels. My friend Maya Davis told me about Hot Peaches who were at Oval House.’
00:31:58 Gay Liberation Front. Lover Rex introduced him to Gay Liberation Front. Wasn’t into politics and left wing shit. An actor in the theatre and didn’t want his career threatened. Was encouraged as there ‘were a lot of gorgeous guys there’. Founded a political drag commune. It wasn’t about being women. It was about being gay men in frocks. They went out in groups for protection and on demonstrations. Was arrested. Was tried in Marylebone Court. Too political for some. So we’d say ‘Get a frock on and then you’ll know’. I was an up and coming actor but all that changed when I got into Gay Lib. It was partly to see how women felt. You feel vulnerable and very strong. It gave me authority. It made me very brave. It was hellishly scary as well. It got a bit chemical and one of the women was a dealer and the wrong sort of drugs people with no political ideal at all. Went to see Hot Peaches and knew what he wanted.
00:38:07 Hot Peaches. Went to see Hot Peaches in 1976. Two Lesbians, Peggy Shaw and Hell Ass, and three queens Jimmy Camicia, Ian McKay and Sister Tui in marvellous show called The Divas of Sheridan Square about street life, and trannie hookers working the west side in Manhattan, sit on benches and dish. Jimmy was a writer and great lyricist. Ian and he put it together and Peggy came in and was very influential. BB went down [to Oval] every night. Hell Ass was leaving and I asked to take her place. They loved it for a short while but they realised I was very good. I kept getting all my laughs. I was very, very naughty. Toured in Holland and Germany and Jimmy said you have to go back to London. Later asked to join again for the ICA show. I was desperately keen to be in that group. Like life to him.
00:42:30 BLOOLIPS. BLOOLIPs BB started June 1977. BB knew he wanted a gay theatre group. There was Danny [deaf actor, now deceased], John Church [also deceased], Danny one of real stars of group, Lavinia [Coop], Paul [Shaw – BB’s partner] – nucleus of players. Booked Hampstead Town Hall for £70, so had to get show together, called Just Myself – a 20 minutes show set at a gay dance. BB playing Australian queen who referred to women as ‘chicks’ and that kind of thing/language. Lesbians started throwing beer cans at him. Wouldn’t change the content of show as it was how this ‘queen’ spoke and behaved because ‘Just Myself’. Description of piece. This was followed by The Ugly Duckling at the Tabernacle, Notting Hill. That’s really when group got going. 9 of them in it, eventually got 3 who couldn’t do it. Had brilliant writer, Jon Taylor, who offered to do stage management and then said should he jot down a scene or two. BB outlined story of Ugly Duckling which started on ‘normality farm’ and ended up with the ‘transformation scene’ ‘it takes a—————-ges and then he comes up, Vincent, as this beautiful white swan’. Vincent – stunning looking young man, with red hair, just marvellous. That’s how it began, lots and lots of shows. Jon stayed with it for about 10 years. Then in New York they found a new writer, Ray Dobbins. We did his great Roman epic Get Her. Writing different from Jon’s, not so knock about.
00:48:40 Why BLOOLIPS was formed. BB started BLOOLIPS so he could be in the middle and be boss. No other noble reasons. Worked night and day to maintain that. Taught all the others, except Jon who was already a pro. None of others had done anything [in theatre]. Had to shape sentences, give stresses, taught breathing, about curve of a sentence (with a feather up its arse). Teaching very technical stuff to very talented people. Had talent there. Didn’t care if they liked his methods – that’s what there was. ‘So deal with it’.
Making the shows good. Very bawdy – sings the famous Bananas song. Very bawdy, people loved it. Great material, and rather well performed… Gay Sweatshop asked him to come in and give notes for a show they were preparing. They didn’t like his accurate notes and was never invited back. He thought name [Gay Sweatshop] was insulting. Noel [Greig] and he fought tooth and nail. Drew [Griffiths] was big talent in company. A great actor and great person too.
BLOOLIPS never funded. Got enough for a van. Hot Peaches gave them their van before they went back to NY. It broke down before they got to Dover. Europe is dotted with broken down BLOOLIPS vans. No knowledge of mechanics except BB. Marvellous shot of it in his film with Mark Ravenhill. Lavinia [Coop] has a lot of archive material.
BLOOLIPS was about his ego and he wanted to make a gay theatre company. Very inspired by Hot Peaches. Jimmy and Ian looked after Peggy Shaw’s child, Shara. More about Hot Peaches company members – Jimmy and Ian break up. [People at that time] cruel to each other sometimes and very good to each other too. Story of Sister Tui being thrown out of company one night. In NY BB asked him to be in cabaret and Tui decided to have a black baby in the act. BB couldn’t believe it – he was really crazy. Everyone horrified as BLOOLIPS were political careful. Had a well-built script, built into them the stresses, the breathing, sentencing. Whole thing very worked out. BB always finding the light [to stand in].
01:01:51 BLOOLIPS lasted 25 years. Finished 2001. Paul and he did last BLOOLIPS show. He and Paul still have a show they do called A Right Pair back to La MaMa. Very keen to have them.
They’d done enough [BLOOLIPS], Ray got ill and lost confidence in some way. BB had been working with Neil Bartlett and the RSC. Lot more going on for him. Paul also felt that they’d done it. And when you get 3 people in NY in the audience it’s saying it’s over. They didn’t have any money, perfectly good show. People did come, all sorts but it wasn’t really enough. Story about Crystal Fields who runs Theatre for the New City. BB loved working in NY when he was younger. No longer has that kind of energy. Been with Paul 37 years. No tapes of records of work which is fine. NY central archive were offered Hot Peaches archive and they weren’t interested in 40 years of high class gay theatre. So a book has been written about it by Jimmy . BB asked by him [Jimmy] to direct one of his plays. Story of first rehearsal and walking out.
Worked a lot with Neil Bartlett. Ace in BB’s book. Works harder than most, contributed to gay theatre, work strong and tight, and makes tremendous mistakes sometimes in rehearsals – eg given.
Currently doing Macbeth, just finished film with Mark Ravenhill. Interested in new things.
01:13:57 Difference between ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ – when BB joined GLF he used the word ‘queer’, his period. Then got into Gay Lib and it was ‘gay’. Then in the punk period ‘queer’ back came back in. So grounded, so real. ‘Reclaimed’ it. Likes queer because it upsets people. Like ‘Bette’, they know, they just know and have to get over it.
Did a BLOOLIPS workshop with CSSD students once. Describes a session.
01:16:53 Working with Jon Taylor and the company. First show he wrote was The Ugly Duckling. Came up with script. Duckling is down on ‘normality farm’. Jon wrote the funny lyrics. They fought tooth and nail over every single idea BB suggested. Finished after 12 years of work together. Both interested in the others talent. Jon from Queensland, Australia. John escaped to UK. Very difficult 11/12 years between them. Eventually BB fired him as he wanted to take over the group. No, no, no. BB hung on. BB’s company. John brilliant comic writer. Good for BLOOLIPS. Known as ‘Jon Jon’. Did a lot of staging of the dances. Done no theatre since they broke up. Jon was very angry about BB being called Artistic Director. They went to NY with a show written by John and he stopped them doing it. But in NY they met a new writer, Raymond, who was absolutely the right person for the company. Ray’s writing was much gentler. More humane and full. Jon Jon’s was more knock about. Wonderful but quite different. Eg of a Ray gag. He became ill and lost his nerve. BB’s job to hold the company up.
BB’s input was directing and performing. Danny, Lavinia and Paul were all strong performers, and Dotty [Alex Harding] who was really funny. 5 really strong talents – stayed together like that for about 18/20 years of it. Got through dross quite quickly. Quite brutal in getting rid of weak people who were ‘passengers’.
Touring could be 3 months or 5 months.
01:27:04 Dealing with the money. Wherever they went they insisted they were paid in cash. Describes how it was divvied up after a performance. Equal shares and one portion kept back for company funds. One time when BB had kept back 6K they elected to take their work to NY . A great hit there. Stars came to see them over 9 months, 11pm at night. Playing in Theatre for the New City. Most exciting time was with BLOOLIPS was in NY, being a smash hit. Real success stays with you and gives you a type of confidence.
Video ends 01:33:17