Date: 4th Nov 2014
Location: Film Production Studio of Isabel Barlow Theatre, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario
Interviewer: John Fox
Technician: Associate Professor Clarke Mackie , Dept. of Film and Media
Running time: 01:11:49 (Video)
00:00:31 Joan’s background – meeting Peter Oliver. Born in Wales – the Brecon Beacons one of family of 5 kids. Working class. Mother a lady’s maid before marriage. Father hardly ever worked – lived on the dole – very little work in Wales then affected her whole life. Their youngest child was Down’s syndrome – her brother. Oldest sister surrogate mother. Another sister was very beautiful but an absolute horror.
Joan Oliver (JO) was an ordinary student – hated school because she wasn’t very bright – or so she was told. Later she did an Extra-Mural course in Philosophy at Birkbeck, U of London when they first went to London – magic. Got to understand the meaning of education, Liked Descartes but not Nietzsche, Kant was hard. Linguistics taught her a lot. It was magic because she felt important, because she understood some of it, after being brought up being told she wouldn’t amount to much.
John Fox (JF) asks about relationship with other students: Learnt how to lie – ‘I was very dramatic’. Also learned poetry by rote
Was there any other theatre? That came when she met Peter – who had just come out of Swansea Univ. She was volunteering in a girls club and he turned up in Slough as a part-time Assistant Youth Worker and we met at a dance. Peter met another volunteer who found PO could write so they started writing pantomimes for young people together. JO would contribute. Political? No – well maybe later at Oval. ‘ He always wanted to take risks. And it was the Sixties. It was exciting. We all though the Revolution was really going to happen – and it didn’t.’
00:06:34 Peter’s Background. His father was a v good musician and artist. Did all the silent film arrangements for South Wales. PO had been a youth worker prior to meeting JO but coming out of the army he wanted to be an actor. Had done some ENSA [Entertainment National Service Association] work. Was accepted at Bristol Old Vic but couldn’t get a grant. Education Committee said he could be a youth worker – too many men wanted to be actors. He was a Corporal. A funny man. JF says he knows PO was always interested in clowning. Discussion about puppets JF gave PO and JO. PO was very bolshy in the army. Somehow got away with it.
How did he get to Oval House? They were working in Hyde. The Army had done a walk Three Peaks in under 24 hours – Snowdon, Ben Nevis, the Lakes. It was in the news. PO and some boys got together and a driver in a clapped out van got together and did it – it made the news. When the London job came up they thought they were getting this macho sportsman. He’d done 4 years in Hyde. The reference from one of the Board who didn’t like him was simply: ‘Mr Oliver has been employed here for 4 years. He is very artistic’. They treasured it. There was another job first and they moved in 1961 to London. That’s where he started doing more theatre work. ‘It was very hard. The world was macho then. Girls didn’t matter. In fact they weren’t in youth clubs then. They were separate
Boy Scout Movement did big concerts. – Ralph Reeder. PO would enter the lads – one was at Victoria Palace. Six boys did – straight – the Dance of the Cygnets – not a send-up – wearing white trousers – did the steps perfectly and it brought the house down. JO was always involved but was Joan, Mum. She did step in once at Oval to do a dance piece
00:13:15 Early Days at Oval House. It was a boys club then. Change was never planned. Freezing cold old vicarage where Lord Montgomery was born. Needed to raise money to put in heating. Closed for 3 or 4 months for this and as they wanted to re-think. Did a survey of the area. No-one in about 20 clubs was doing any of the arts. All doing boxing, soccer. PO refused to blow up the balls, JO to wash shirts. They lost the soccer team. It made a space to do new things. They hated competition. They ran a poetry evening, a folk evening. The few arty youngsters came. Area was pretty rough. They inherited a gang – wonderful- she describes them as creative in their anti-social activity. Very funny. Also some rough girls. Connie [?] helped form a dance company. Odette[their daughter] was in it, aged 12 or 14. Girls- not many – met twice a week in the house. Only allowed in the club once a week to do gym. Boys spied on them changing. Re-opened as an arts space. Ben Bennison came on a Sunday to demonstrate mime – they loved it. Roy Hudd, later John Cleese – Sunday nights. Stuart Hall came along and spoke – lectured on teenage heroes like James Dean.
They had freedom to book whoever if they had the money. LCC youth money. PO would write the application. He was always up before the committee on some infringement. ED Berman (EB) was running a game involving holding your hand on the place where you were touched – boys were touching girls – an inspector called in just then and PO got called before committee. Tretaux Libres, a French group, caused a riot doing Oedipus Very good but not youth work.
They were there 13 years. Theatre work started in 1964. Arts work was on Sundays at first until young people made more and more demands and the old guard left. The Olivers were living in the vicarage, the White House.
JF: You were completely tied into the job. Did you get space for yourselves?
We used to run away on Thursdays – his night off – to the NFT or NT. Otherwise a 24 hour job – woken at 1 a.m. by mad guys. But lots of creative activity. Surrey Tavern opposite. Some of the old guard boys went there – didn’t like them ‘ the Olivers are ruining it’ PO built a Committee of creative people. Head of Admin at BBC and the vicar next door were not very supportive though.
Peter got an assistant – a very liberated woman – Sally Price from Youth Work course at Leicester. She did youth work and Peter arts – the new regime, she was very good. They had youth work funding and ILEA youth theatre / TIE money.
JF: Extraordinary mix of youth club and the avant garde.
Bill Martin, drama teacher, performed at the Roundhouse – also TIE [Contemporary Theatre] Events leading to a situation from which people find themselves unable to escape – youngsters wrote music, research on youth in custody. Audience primarily probation officers, policemen, teachers.
JF remembers it as very anarchic and funny.
JO – up till 2 and 3 in the morning because it didn’t close. 1968: Nick Hutchinson (NH)came to the Oval after the Paris riots looking for something to do, to find space. Best things for her were reactions of the youngsters. She likes process not the end product. Funny anecdotes would remember them, write them down. Took the young people to NFT: West Side Story, theatre – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning boys were impressed at how real it could be
00:30:00 Politics. Became more radical through the people involved: Ian Hinchliffe (IH), Mark Long got him in. He wanted a wardrobe. Describes performances. Work with Jeff Nuttall – pretty hoary – peed in Pierce Brosnan’s lap as part of The People Show! IH threw a brick once. Often ended up drunk and crying especially when PO was with Pip Simmons Group (PSG); she’d put him to bed at their place. While PO was away she’d do the admin, talk to people. PO had done programming, also Sue Timothy who’d been appointed.
Printing Workshops – Big Sister. Printed programmes. Pooled money to buy the press. Never got paid. Brian Eno owes them money! Ros Price worked with them. Got in touch with Time Out – they did a great deal to publicise and support Oval. Tony Elliott would deliver it on his bike. Café was very important. Roland Miller and Shirley [Cameron] performed in café They did a laundry in the café – you’d take your shirt off and they’d wash it during the evening – Washerettes and something – slow performance art. Size of audiences – maybe 50 if you were lucky. Radical work – not opposed as they were out of the hands of the youth service by then. None of this was planned. It came from PO wanting to be an actor – 5 nights a week at the movies as a kid – Judy Garland, Micky Rooney: ‘Let’s put on a show’ Oval was his garage. Liked musicals and foreign films, [also good horror, Bergman, Bunuel, says Clarke] Tap-danced when young – there’s a photo aged 12, top hat and tails.
Audiences from all over London. Also local people
JF: How did you cope with family life? ‘Ask Odette’.
PO took risks. She didn’t. She’d talk to the young people. They tried to declare UDI one night to run the place. Did that with Insulting the Audience [Peter Handke] No, that was EB, lunchtime theatre. NH asked to form a group with their youngsters put on this show where they picked PO up bodily and put him out the door as a dictator. He gave them the keys. JF always saw him as a true anarchist. JO agrees. Challenging work – risk-taking work and political in that respect. Some issue-based work [apartheid, nuclear disarmament]. Not consciously choosing to do Black work but did the first production of South African work – [Athol Fugard] when Robin Midgely approached them. Gave space to Black Panthers when no-one else would.
00:42:48 PO and JO’s political differences in early days. She was Labour, he was Tory – he came from a bourgeois background. Changed in the 60s and 70s and they came together. PO much better at strategy – he knew the words to use to get money. I was just mouthy – would go on demos and get bonked. JO thought the revolution was going to happen. PO was much more cynical. Demonstrated on George Jackson, against Thatcher stopping school milk wore gym slips and socks. Made no difference but they felt better. One of the boys wrote her poetry – a tough guy from down the road sent across London with a suitcase of money from a bank robbery. Told her ‘You fucked my mind’ She opened a window for him, but he couldn’t cope. It wasn’t his background. Divided him from his pals. She feels guilty about him. Had to make it clear – I’m not your friend. I’m a social worker. A new world opening up.
JF: How did so many names come to visit? John Cleese. Adrian Mitchell – ‘Tell Me Lies About Vietnam’
Sal’s Meat Market knew lots of people. Word got around that Oval didn’t charge, were radical, you could try things. Playwrights started coming. Coffee bar important to exchange information. Howard Brenton, David Edgar, Snoo Wilson, Malcolm Griffiths.
Atmosphere in London then. Arts Lab Under Jim Haynes closed, Oval took its place. Bread and Puppet Theatre – EB brought them over but the gig failed. He asked us one Sunday morning if we could accommodate them and word went round London and it was packed. They had no money so we put a basket out. They stayed with us and did A Man Says Goodbye to His Mother. About 10 of them then. Blocked lavatories.
Later the Angels of Light came – with pounds and pounds of glitter and did Busby Berkeley stuff on the floor – left a huge phone bill. Tokyo Kid Brothers in East is East, West is West – magical, with a Honda.
Freehold were big with us. David [Aukin], Emil Wolk. Did The Duchess of Malfi .
A most magical children’s show in summer where they were convicts and the kids fed them and the Mums thought they were real and called the police. Then they turned up as film-makers in a great big limousine. And an air-show. EW stripped of his clothes. He was amazing. Circus summer project for kids. Freehold did commedia. Kids’ comments. Di Stubbs pregnant.
00:57:42 De Lantaren. John Bull Puncture Repair Kit at Oval. Liked the people but never understood what they did, tho PO did. Had them at De Lantaren. JO was invited to run some festivals while PO was with PSG. Knew Ron Brumster [?] who ran De Lantaren JO ran, in different years a Science Fiction Festival, a Women’s one and a Children’s one. Worked maybe 9 months in each. Knew all the groups in England. Possibly JBPRK had a bathchair made specially – charged you 2 guilders to look in the box – upside down face – John Darling would speak to you – it was great So creative. PO’s policy – you learn by mistakes. Paddy Fletcher always remembered that.
00:59:54 Key achievements. JF: Key achievements of 60s and 70s? Excitement, freedom. Radical theatre stuff – you never knew what was going to happen. Was frightened at first – thought they’d lose their jobs – and their home. ‘In some ways I was PO’s conscience as well’
It ended because Pip Simmons (PS) came along. PSG had worked there free – providing Oval got the first show. PS wanted to do the Holocaust show [An Die Musik] PO got a scholarship to go to US – 1972 – Churchill Fellowship – we came back and knew we didn’t want to work at Oval anymore ‘We knew where it should be going but we didn’t want to go there’ It needed to move on. PO bored. Had seen Cesar Chavez with Chicanas, some mime theatre – exciting. Nixon was in power. JO felt that young middle class [white] people in America had nowhere to go. Indian people had got their crap together and Blacks certainly. Young middle class hippies had no causes anymore.
70s generation somehow let down. Work at Oval was good, unplanned but seize the time. Re-thinking. Writers were joining legitimate theatre – Snoo Wilson apologised. They wanted their own spaces.
Then PS offered PO a job. My brother had died at 46 without ever doing what he wanted to do – play jazz. Trapped in paying for big house, cars. PO worked with PSG for 9 years – very tiring – constant touring. JO went with them mostly.
JO argued a lot with PS but it didn’t reflect on PO. PS could be brutal in his criticism. But very good. JO was always glad he was in their life.
Work was very worthwhile. Did a lot for theatre. Sorry young people nowadays don’t have that freedom. Everything is commercial. Passion is not there. ‘We did have passion: I know that from watching your work [Welfare State]. There was a passion about it’
PO had a big influence though very modest – that was part of his ego. Clashed quite a bit with PS. Proud of the work especially An Die Musik and Dream of a Ridiculous Man. JO couldn’t stand Tempest – PS knew that – not good, too long, she had to get rid of 2 ton of sand at end of run before they went on tour!
Proud of what they achieved – especially the partnership with Peter. Went on to run an arts centre in Canada in the little town where they settled. Even did The Vagina Monologues – ‘you can’t do that here’ they’d seen [Eve Ensler] and read the script. Had two teenage girls in it – they were great. It was packed including with lots of men and teenage boys.
Always passionate about working with young people. PO even more so. Felt they had a raw deal, especially in the arts – elitist. He just released all that. If she had money now she would give it to young aspiring actors, set up a hostel, a space where they could rehearse, fail, still eat.
I just want to keep saying failure is not failure, if you learn from it. You have the right to fail.