Location: Kingsdown, nr Dover
Interviewer: Susan Croft
Technician: Susan Croft
Topics List: David Cleall
For video timings see Mick Banks Video Topics List
00:00:00 Personal background. Mick Banks (MB) – born in Dover, where he now lives. Working class background, at secondary modern school he became interested in drama through school productions and amateur dramatic societies. MB cast in the BBC film The War Game [dir. Peter Watkins] 1964 when 17 yrs. It would have an influence of some aspects of his work with John Bull Puncture Repair Kit (JBPRK) such as the pyrotechnics and the depiction of violence. Influential teacher John Thurston gave him the confidence to go to teacher’s training college: Shenstone Training College, Bromsgrove (near Birmingham) to study Drama and Art.
00:07.38 College, art installations and performances. At college MB more involved in the art dept. than the drama dept. A tutor had attended some of the early ‘happenings’ by Al Hansen, Robert Rauschenberg and Carolee Schneemann [in places such as] the Judson Memorial Church [Greenwich Village] New York – ‘performers’ that had emerged from Abstract Expressionist art field. MB was moving from art and sculpture to the idea of performance and found these ideas energising. MB decided teaching wasn’t for him but important, in his meeting with college, he had met Al Beach (AB), three years older. AB left college first, then taught in Halifax. MB did some installations with him at the Calder Valley Arts Festival and in Halifax. They were interested in the work of Ed Kienholtz, installation artist and assemblage sculptor [1927–1994] and this inspired some of their early assemblages. The use of found objects and the use of colour became important elements in what they did – also interested in the sculptural work Simon Rodia (The Watts Towers). MB and AB’s performance ideas developed out of the premise that they would use image rather than language. There were very few companies around at that time that used this approach. MB and AB’s first performance-based project around 1968 Tower of Babel was with JF [John Fox, of what was to be Welfare State theatre company] on site specific, William Blake-inspired, project in Lancaster. JF was working as a librarian at Bradford School of Art. There was an energy in Yorkshire at the time, partly in response to the cultural vacuum that existed in this industrial area. ‘…It was a post-industrial landscape of empty factories, run-down buildings, huge quantities of machinery… on great scrap piles everywhere.’ Ideas began with a prop or an assemblage – they were inspired by these post-industrial ‘found objects’.
00:22.08 Bradford, Halifax and Hebden Bridge. 1969, after finishing art college, MB moved to the Bradford area living with Al [AB] and his wife in a small cottage in the Ryburn Valley. Early art projects involved the idea of paradox such as The Edible Chess Set and Black Ice-Cream. There was a ‘triangle of energy’ between 3 centres of Higher Education: Bradford School Art with John Fox; Leeds Polytechnic Fine Art Dept. where Jeff Nuttall worked and brought John Darling [ex-The People Show] in to run a sound dept. and there was also Bradford University. Two Bradford festivals were significant in bringing practitioners together, as was the Arts Council ‘New Activities Panel’ (NAP). Arts Labs were springing up all over the country – MB and AB set up one in a warehouse in Halifax ‘North Open Workshops’ (?) it lasted about a year before folding through lack of money. There was a sort of Arts Lab ‘circuit’ where often the same names would pop-up people like Ron Geesin and The People Show. Through the NAP various regional gatherings were organised, MB and AB organised The Awake Gathering (Hebden Bridge,1971) included The People Show, Roland Miller, Howard Brenton and Jeff Nuttall. John Bull Puncture Repair Kit (JBPRK) was formed after that – the name coined by JN, first gig being at Birmingham Arts Lab (director: Ted Little 1943-1999) with MB, AB and JN in Autumn 1971.
00:43.20 John Bull Puncture Repair Kit (JBPRK) early shows. In 1971 Chris Parr asked them to perform at the Pool Theatre, Edinburgh Festival Fringe (EFF). As they were not ‘performers’ they invited John Darling to help them ‘choreograph’ the show in this theatre setting. They used a soundtrack to provide the structure that could contain improvisation – a formula that they later used regularly. This became Four-Dimensional Condition and it became a cult hit at the EFF. It used a grid system set out by individual lights, performers: MB, AB and JD – JD’s wife Claire Darling operated the sound. The show’s success enabled JBPRK to become a full-time job – they got personal bursaries from the Arts Council. In addition to the theatre work they did various impromptu outdoor works such as Climbing Arthur’s Seat (with a set of yellow flags) and Conceptual Morris Dancing’in Princes Street Gardens. Beyond Edinburgh it was difficult to find appropriate venues for the work. Arts Labs didn’t usually have the technical facilities and JBPRK wanted to distance themselves from conventional theatre that was stagnating at that time and they rejected the idea of a repertoire of shows that could be repeated. Gallery spaces were more sympathetic than theatre spaces but again they didn’t have technical facilities these factors encouraged the development of outdoor work. JBPRK played Angles at a street theatre festival in North Germany (1971). In this show AB played an artist working in chalk on the pavement and various objects were dropped on his work that exploded in colour. They learnt from working outdoors that humour was a good way of engaging the public – this runs through a lot of JBPRK work. Account of JN’s work at the Leeds College of Art with Adrian Henri as External Examiner. It was considered quite normal to ‘guest’ in each other’s shows. MB was involved as one of eight performers in Roland Miller and Shirley Cameron’s Cyclamen Pink Cyclists that came out of the Bradford Festivals. A huge dice would be thrown to identify the location that would be ‘animated that day by the cyclists’. A touring version happened in South Wales. Albert Hunt (of Bradford Art College) work was at the other end of the scale more theatre than image, improvisations turning to scripts.
01:07.30 Fire Appliances, Earth Probes and Great Openings Ltd 1971. Outdoor shows used assemblages. AB and Diz Willis were brilliant at making things. Fire-Appliances started with a visual idea ‘let’s make a fire engine… we created our own emergencies [pyrotechnic disasters] and then dealt with them!’ They buried a [dummy] 500lb WW2 bomb at pop festival site and uncovered it during the festival. The fire engine was used in various locations always involving ‘pyrotechnic disasters’. Self-taught in the use of fireworks and had a useful contact at ‘Standard Fireworks’ to access fireworks. Some negative public responses ‘get your hair cut / join the army’ led to JBPRK appropriating military imagery in their work and indeed (later) getting their hair cut. The assemblages were beautiful objects in their own right. Orange Suitcases was a monochromatic piece using specially-made suitcases. Earth Probes was related to the moon landings. A Bedford van was their space capsule, ‘miked’ up – to amplify their breathing – they emerged on to a piece of derelict land, collected samples and carried out tests. It used humour and limited colour range – yellow and white to get contrast. Street theatre was quite new, it needed an infrastructure such as a festival to find an audience and then it was important to make the piece relate to the environment. Close relation with Granada TV, some work filmed live and broadcast on ‘OK’ (sp?) (a children’s programme) in the context. MB did administrative aspects – later AB took over this aspect. Working method: script conferences; planned sound tapes but didn’t do ‘rehearsals’ . Parallel company, Great Openings Ltd. evolved out of JBPRK invitation to create an event for the laying of the foundation stone of [Sam Wanamaker’s] Globe Theatre 1972 /73 – there were launches on the Thames, abseiling down adjacent buildings and ‘Rolls Royce’ wheelbarrows. Great Openings Ltd was the same people but specialised in (surrealistic) ceremonial stuff.
01:26:15 In 1972 they had some revenue funding and the company had solidified around five people AB, MB, DW,JD and George O’Brien. The Great Sale was a show based around enormous piles of ‘scrap’ clothes at NUS drama festival (Bradford). Initially the audience were locked out of the theatre and amongst them were the company dressed as old ladies. Entering, the audience sat on three sides of the, smelly, pile of clothes. The ‘ladies’ emerged from the crowd and interacted with various items from the pile. There was a JD soundtrack and the show lasted a typical length about 45 mins. They took the show to the Oval [Oval House] but ran into some criticism regarding gender stereotyping. The scrap clothes idea was further developed by AB as a giant colour wheel was created by sorting the clothes into colours and hanging them on coat hangers on an enormous wheel frame. This was performed at Royal Agricultural Show – and evolved over four days, they were in evening dress with surgical masks. Gun Man was their second indoor show using a soundtrack by JD – a show of contrasts – red wrestling costumes revealed beneath dinner-suits, wrestlers striking absurd poses using crisp-bread. It toured in Denmark and Germany. Absent Friends was an installation in De Lantaren, Rotterdam (JBPRK returned there many times) – it was a Christmas season piece, a banqueting table was exquisitely laid out for 40 people but only four people take their seats at the table. Over the run of 10 nights the four moved down the table with the place settings successively getting wrecked through the previous night’s action – exploding jelly, etc.- a bride (Diana Davis) sat silently throughout. De Lantaren was very well equipped and they could ‘fly’ objects down with carefully controlled lighting effects. (This was a precursor to later JBPRK Christmas Shows). The Wheelbarrow Formation Flying Display – wheelbarrows were fitted with smoke capsules, emulating the Red Arrows display. They did a residency at the Serpentine Gallery, [London] Arts Council funded but it didn’t really find an audience in that location. More successful elsewhere, such as outside the Edvard Munch Gallery, Norway. At this time people were starting to think of new types of venues, Roland Miller initiated the idea of hiring space at agricultural shows, where there was a captive audience – and JBPRK played a few such show grounds. The Colonial Bungalow was at the Bath and West Show. It was a big build and then they inhabited the bungalow – the organisers weren’t very happy with their use of junk materials for the build [Film of this exists].
01:49.07 ‘Performance Art’ , ‘John Bull Film Crew’ and 1973 shows. At Leeds Polytechnic in 1972, JD and MB were discussing terms that could be used to describe their way of working and they hit upon the term ‘performance art’ as far as MB knows, the first use of that term. The John Bull Film Crew’starting in 1973 became their longest running show (on and off over five years) because it could stay fresh responding to different locations – one venue was the Walcot Festival, Bath (Arts Council ‘Delta Stopover’). A film crew were (apparently) making a film on location called The Trial – the scenarios always involved pyrotechnics! It was popular with audiences and went from strength to strength, sometimes they brought in guests such as Lol Coxhill and Iggy from IOU. Also in 1973 Morbid Interests in the Arts and Science started at the Oval. The set featured 1,000 bottles of milk, more and more being delivered during the show it involved a parody of an Agatha Christie whodunnit where the murder victim was a bottle of milk [further description of this show later].
02:00:37 Ultraviolet and other shows in 1974. They began experimenting with ‘black lights’ to create ultraviolet effects whilst playing the Holland, smoking-dope, club circuit such as The Milky Way [Melkweg] where they used UV to create psychedelic effects that replaced the performers. They discovered that thimbles covered in UV paint enabled drawing with coloured light in the air. The One Way Membrane’(aka The Black Hole Show) came out of these UV experiments. Floor marked as UV grid, four characters say goodbye in their individual ways and towards the end of the show they disappear into the grid. Unsilent Night a Christmas Show based around a four poster bed that AB made with four characters asleep on it, this was originally for the York Arts Centre. It used Christmas imagery ‘but turned on its head’.
02:09:19 1975 shows. Ted Little had become director of the ICA [Birmingham Arts Laboratory 1971-74, ICA 1974-77], commissioned them to produce an installation in the gallery: The Stately Home inspired by the external appearance of the ICA. It used a labyrinthine structure that was like a parody of a stately home, peopled by JBPRK and other guest performers. Ran for about a week but got darker and darker. The rooms got smaller as you moved back towards a dungeon where Diz got electrocuted on an electric chair everyday. It got a bit out of control and was not a happy time for John Bull – marking the beginning of the end. ‘…By 1976 we were not getting as many enquiries as we should have been’. The earlier The Crime Show at Oval House was one of their most ambitious shows – it used the skeleton of a horse treated with UV paint (created by DW), the set used [what looked like] concrete pillars with ‘flown down’ exquisite packages on the top, when AB (as ‘Mr.Big’) drives a sports car into the theatre knocking the pillars over. When they took the show to De Lantaren, they also used a real horse. MB and AB had met DW through one of the Arts Council’s regional gatherings. He had an arts centre in a chapel in Norwich and was originally a poet working with JN and Bob Cobbing in The Poets’ Rifles – a touring poets ensemble. When JBPRK broke up he studied at Leeds Polytechnic. George O’Brien had been a dancer – working previously with Moving Being and moving up to Yorkshire to work with JBPRK in 1971 adding a professional performance experience to the mix. MB considers the extent to which their work was shaped by being an all-male company. When AB had been hospitalised, there was an example of a show with a female performer, Gerry Pilgrim, that resulted in one of their most subtle shows: The Black and Red Club. Here they had installed a club environment within a theatre and beyond the curtain, on the stage (unbeknown to the audience) they had brought in an avenue of trees, at mid-point the curtains were opened to reveal what seemed an extensive avenue of trees, with Gerry in an evening gown walking through the trees, smoking – one of their most haunting images in what was one of their last shows.
02:25:00 John Bull Puncture Repair Kit ‘s later shows and Southern Comfort. AB had had mental health problems since he was a teenager and at this point the JBPRK environment (drugs, pressures of touring, inter-personal tensions within the group) wasn’t a good one for him to be in and he was hospitalised. Welfare State was a bit of exception as a touring outfit – more of a fully supported community – but for JBPRK personnel were often balancing other commitments such as JD having a wife, children and a job teaching at Leeds Polytechnic throughout the JBPRK years. Different shows were fuelled by different people’s passions. Southern Comfort was a show that used biblical imagery performed only at York Arts Centre and at the Oval because the venues needed technical requirement to have ‘rain’ fall during the piece. It starts off with a sand dune, seeds land, rain falls, flowers grow, eventually a hand appears and an Adam type figure emerges (MB), there was an Eve figure, later ‘a flood’. There were no written scripts for any of the shows to survive, (some) sound tapes provide some record of shows. ‘God’ was played by JD, in a swivel chair with wings, AB played the devil (probably AB’s last indoor show). At the end only AB (as the devil) survives and sings the song Southern Comfort (AB being the only one with musical abilities). The Three Wise Men Christmas Show was without AB – DW, GO’B and MB not a very successful piece – without the full company it didn’t work so well. Famous Men toured Denmark (MB, JD and Gerry Pilgrim) – a taped narrator described the action that the audience are watching, an eternal triangle. Origin of the Species was a show about Charles Darwin’s father (MB thinks). Hamlet Part Nine was done for the Walcot Festival 1976 in the village hall – it had Iggy from IOU theatre company wearing a suit of armour but ‘this was not a happy time’.
02:46:19 After John Bull Puncture Repair Kit. GO’B went in a different artistic direction – drawing and illustration. AB recovered and formed his own group Le Blonde based in Bradford. MB sold up his cottage in Yorkshire and set up home at Bath with Corinne d’Cruz (CdC) [ex- Natural Theatre and festival organiser]. This coincided with the demise of JBPRK. In 1977 MB & CdC worked in Australia, including Sunshine Festival, and upon returning they set up their own company British Events. MB & CdC recently moved back to UK, to Dover and are currently working on a various projects. Interview concludes with discussion of a photograph of Morbid Interest Show 1973, where the second half of the performance takes place beyond the theatre, the foyer and eventually on to the beach. [see early account]