Roland Muldoon Topics List

Date: 13.11.2004
Place: West London
Interviewer: Susan Croft
Technician: Jessica Higgs
Topics List: Gallin Hornick

Audio timings
Length 02:48:39
For video timings see Roland Muldoon video Topics List

00:00:00   Early life, education, first employment. Born Weybridge, Surrey. Father an engineering worker in WW2, at local aircraft factory. Due to Roland Muldoon(RM)’s pneumonia, family moved to a council house. They were a political family – mixed allegiance. RM a ‘Catholic altarboy, pro-Tory’ to start with.
Father was of Irish extraction; mother had convent background – their Catholicism not necessarily compatible, though. A very volatile family. Older sister married a local man and went to live in South Africa, where they became rich. She took up the Black Sash; got friendly with the resistance movement there.
RM went to St Charles [Boromeo] School, expelled – then to St James’, a Protestant school. Felt well-served by being exposed to both cultures. Left school at 15; couldn’t bear thought of a factory-type job as not confident with technical stuff, took job as a clerk off Leadenhall St (Lloyds), 1956 – coinciding with big cultural changes; Mods appearing in the City (contrast with his Rocker/teddy boy background). Sacked after 1-2 yrs for taking excessive leave. Becomes tea-boy with water company, a union job so quite well-paid – colleagues were  country-type people, many may have been part-gypsy. The work was digging up and re-laying pipes in the Surrey region. Then got involved with a used-car business, trading in car parts. Became good at conning people; considered everyone’s a mug – subsequently, some remorse about this attitude.
Hitch-hiking to Devon/Cornwall; work on fishing boats – then to Bristol; as building worker met people going to drama school who encouraged him to apply.

00:10:50   Bristol Old Vic, meeting Marxism. Applied to Bristol Old Vic as well as working on building sites – auditioned with Shakespeare (Richard II) & Tennessee Williams. Seen as too maverick, but taken on as a technician. Thus RM could watch theatre being made without the angst of learning parts etc. 18/19yrs old at this time. Working as an electrician’s mate: Electricians Trade Union being persecuted at this time, so became politicized. Often not much work to do, met many political people on the sites including ‘obblys’ from the USA. Was living in Clifton. Met wife Claire at Bristol, also the Marxists. Influenced by the New Left idea. The bureaucracy was quite down on young people – RM gravitated to the anarchic side of things, with a bit of politics.

00:15:15   Left Wing Unity Theatre. After Bristol, RM tried to go on a Directors’ course but failed to get grant. Building site work in London; Left Wing Unity theatre – Clive [Eastwell] & Brecht; role of stage director. Claire also there. All voluntary. Real working-class communists, often Jewish. Lionel Bart had written for them. The Communist Party dictated what went on there, were quite rigid. Some people tried to transform and change this. RM was expelled from the outfit for allegedly trying to sell the theatre to Brian Epstein. Also accused of being a ‘Freudian Trotskyite’!

Into rock & roll, ‘Performance’ and a fan of The Goon Show as a kid. Encountered The Alberts (Bruce Lacey), ‘the first alternative theatre group’, and an impressive cartoon version of Ubu Roi. Reading Brecht etc.
Unity was also very good at music hall. RM realised young people not very interested in theatre, so would need to adapt style.

00:22:05   At the Working Men’s College. To Working Men’s College, Camden; the dissident group set up as teacher & class. There was suspicion around; they didn’t seem to be doing proper theatre. To please them, they put on Beckett’s Endgame – however crew was unruly and wanted to apply their own, less rigid approach. Ran another play, called The Nightmare of Joe Muggins at the Peanuts Club. Minimum 2 nights/wk at the WMC, also ran the film club there. All doing day jobs (‘Living the Contradiction’); RM on Victoria Line as chain man. Lived in cheap flats or sharing flats, but sometimes homeless; might sleep at theatre (especially if there was a bed on set!). Moved into present flat in 1969.

Red Saunders and Ray Levine, along with Claire and RM, were the founder members of their group. Ray lived in Whitechapel, classic Jewish background, also Communist background – was learning dance with Ernst [Burck]; very good movement people, responsible for the physical movement in films like Tarzan of the Apes. Met Ray at Unity Theatre. Red could play any character, anything, and was a photographer. He and RM became partners, setting up a photographic studio (‘Red Studio Partnership’).

00:28:00   Peanuts Club and Genesis of C.A.S.T. Peanuts Club, Liverpool St – poetry and folk music; club started by some poets who objected to Harold Wilson saying the CND movement wasn’t worth peanuts. Jeff Nuttall wanted to write a play for them, but they fell out; they’d already developed a music hall/rock’n’roll/commedia dell’arte-style theatre which made sense to them. John D Muggins Is Dead (JDM) and Marcel Carne film  Les Enfants du Paradis were important in establishing this style, which included specific interaction between mime artist and speaking actor. JDM was an American GI; the object of the play was to ensure Britain doesn’t go into the war in Vietnam – it was saying ‘Look what’s happening to the GIs!’. They played in folk clubs – very fast, in the interval! (Poetry, let alone theatre, was not welcome at these places.) Became successful; performed at Festival Hall, Roundhouse, Peter Brook filmed it (for US). For 10yrs didn’t consider earning a living from the theatre work; continued living the contradiction. (Although, if they played at universities they would be paid something.) They always had somewhere lined up ahead to go to, to perform; there were various possible venues. One of the best places was the occupied LSE – RM remembers Ralph Miliband (father of the brothers M) watching. Eventually got invited into the ‘Anti-University’ set up by RD Laing – ‘a serious nightmare’. The lesson they tried to get across: the Left should get their act together – why not doing good posters? – why not slicker? Their act was very tight, not lazy/sloppy like a lot of other acts. Living in Goldhurst Terrace (West Hampstead) when came up with the title ‘Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre’ (C.A.S.T.). The ideal: it was a collective, everybody shares and is equally responsible…but in practice RM & Claire were often ahead of the others, through discussing stuff together overnight. Why ‘archetypical’? Charlie Chaplin/music hall actors play working-class characters larger than life, so ‘archetypes’. Development of  the Muggins characters – clown types, for whom nothing goes right; 4 plays around these, which would include a Chorus, whose function was to hurl ‘ultraleft’ [Trials of Horatio Muggins] accusations against a working class who seemed to follow all the crap’. One of these plays taken to Nancy, France: imagery and movement more than plot. New actors joining – trained up in the company style. At times the group got too big, too ambitious. Actually it was hard to bring people into the group.

00:44:45   Working Methods, and splitting of the group. Workshopped ideas – eg come up with an archetype, then someone else mirror it. Not confined to scripted process, at least until Arts Council (AC) involved. Director agreed as having 100% authority, but in this context everyone had freedom to improvise. Could take very long to get material together. Only movements were rehearsed, and each actor expected to fit themselves in – like jazz players. Claire wrote descriptions of what was planned, though this would change. A lot of video/film of the work they did – but ‘forced, not genuinely relating to the audience’. Whole group moved into the flat [nr Edgware Rd] in 1969 – rehearsed there too. Group split 1971 in Berlin – fell out about babysitting Laura, RM/Claire’s child. Also arguments about whether or not to accept Arts Council money. Eventually the ones who left became the Kartoon Klowns.

00:52:15   Harold Muggins Is A Martyr. ‘We loved John Arden’. Said he wanted to write a play for them. They’d already been expelled from Unity Theatre(UT) but were still putting on plays there; ‘they were kind of proud of us’, having moved further to the Left, a better theatre group playing to better audiences…but they (UT) wanted JA to sell the transfer rights of the play into the West End; ‘John went mad’. JA, with Margaretta D’Arcy, invited Welfare State and a crew from Liverpool (Albert Hunt), who put their stamp on UT (e.g. doing alternative theatre outside) also went round local council estates, which annoyed UT. Fell out in the theatre; JA had written a huge script. Argument in particular about a nightclub scene. JA and MD also falling out with UT. Harold Hobson slated the play. (Later labled) ‘proto-punk anarchists’. Outside were decorated, painted things; knockabout things, physical stuff; putting up the red flag (too provocative for UT). The whole HMIAM thing was a nightmare, though it packed UT. ‘Arden was a great playwright, but we had another style; our approach was completely different.’

01:00:00   Planet of the Mugs, Kartoon Klowns. 1970, falling apart as a group; hardly talked to each other during filming. Influenced by Renoir. It bankrupted them. Kartoon Klowns: same style of theatre – very good, but not as ambitious. Red involved in setting up ‘Rock Against Racism’. Huge concerts all over Britain with big bands…meanwhile RM crew reforming as a new theatre group. Getting by: stealing from supermarkets (Claire didn’t like it) – ‘I don’t think you should steal from the poor but I think you should steal from the rich if you can.’ Arts Council funding came 1976; before that CM sold jewelry on Portobello Rd, RM worked for the Counter-Information Service (opposing some big corporations) who eventually got an office in Poland St.

01:07:15   Agitprop, Arts Council Grant. Living in Queens Park, meetings at the flat of people who’d later be involved in agitprop. These had a lot of enthusiasm for the Revolution (including discussing how to source carpenters/electricians for setting up the barricades). Involved in strike action – ‘Not A Penny On The Rent’. Worked very hard and had big support on the council estates, though RM cynical about them at the time. This group became Red Ladder, running parallel with RM’s crew, later evolving into a feminist-type position. RM’s crew also adopted women’s issue in Come In Hilda Muggins. Red Ladder went on to do large plays, getting the grants and the fame; fell out with them somewhat as they were ‘a bit straight and not artistic enough’, not really about theatre but about propaganda. Red Ladder moved to Leeds, becoming ‘state agitprop’ – supported by the council to put on information plays, according to RM. They did ‘play a really important parallel role to us’, though. Also, Belt and Braces: amazing; they gave RM’s crew their grant one year. And 7:84, the biggest company; plus North West Spanner; plus Bruce Birchall’s company, West London Theatre Company. In the end, lots of political theatre groups. Sam The Man: a good play based on Ralph Miliband’s view of the Labour Party up till 1945 – parliamentary socialism. Took the story forward, showing Labour audiences ‘the various periods of betrayal of the Labour Party since 1945′. The lead character could appeal directly to the audience’s ’emotional socialism’. (A film was made of it for educational purposes by the Open University.) Applied for AC grant; Mike Leigh was on the panel, came to see them at SOAS – ML recommended them for a grant (£35,000), in the end got £14,000 ‘…but we could live’. 3 plays in the first 3 months. Crew: apart from R & CM were: Derek Couturier (‘very important in the group’), Dave French and others. Subject matter: cuts, Prevention of Terrorism Act (PoTA), unemployment. Given a videotape machine by Sue [Triesman], on condition they hand over the film after a year; but after the year they refused to hand it over (‘These are our memories!’), so had to give the camera back. Cutting You To Shreds envisaged Labour coming to power in 1979 but acting as what became Thatcherite. PoTA play performed very rarely; most people angry with the IRA and this play saying the British were the problem. The third play not much happened with. Then came a redone Sam The Man – now The Return Of Sam The Man. AC grant lasted from 1976-85 – ‘amazing’, but took them away from Hackney; hardly ever played London again, lost all their friends (there was a touring requirement). Had lots of vans, VW vans that broke down. 2 plays a year…still based in this flat, also at the Diorama.

01:22:15   Controversial plays, California, Roundhouse. The new group; tried to keep the style as best they could, but it was sometimes difficult to teach new people. Goodbye Union Jack, about Jack Jones the trade union leader leaving and about modern technology displacing the working people (title caused some consternation). Increasingly under attack from certain regions – What Happens Next (1979), about the pre-Thatcher rise of National Front (NF), banned in Cornwall. RM would look after the kids while Claire went on the road to act in the plays; liked doing it. Claire very good at tracing the organizations which could get an audience, eg Anti-Nazi League, CND, the Labour Party; began to write plays specifically addressing these issues. Could be provocative, e.g. present a NF speech before an A-NL audience. Confessions Of A Socialist – a man who hates his children, wife, life, completely alienated…gets caught up in a revolutionary movement in Spain, returns to UK to find the revolution’s taken hold there too…wakes up, unemployed, gets a job again, lonely, observes rise of fascism… The play gains an award in US, but causes controversy in UK re: misogyny – a sign of the times (there was a split within the Left re: women). Although the views of certain characters were not endorsed, merely presented, the content alone proved enough to spark a lot of debate; RM’s crew took seriously the matter of how to deal with the objecting voices. Contact with San Francisco Mime Troupe/Ron [Davies] – ‘a very good company’. RM’s crew very linked with West Coast politics; occupations at LSE similar to occupations at San Francisco colleges. Playing at the Roundhouse…which was later ‘taken out of everybody’s hands and made more rigid’. Charles [Marowitz] and Open Space. Ed Berman: ‘Another one of those people who thought we ought to be doing something different’. A lot of people came out of Inter-Action, including clowns RM met later on in California.

01:44:30   Jazz as structural influence, Labor Theatre of NY, Sedition 81The improvisational aspect; also part of rock and R&B which RM’s crew moved on to. But didn’t really like street theatre; preferred to play in venues. Killer On The Loose, about health and safety in the workplace – ‘a disaster’, lot of work went into it. Waiting For Lefty [Clifford Odets] – mates with NorthWest Spanner – AC took their grant away, RM’s crew took part in the first fightback. Combining the 2 companies, put on the first ever professional production. Didn’t really suit either of their styles, but very much liked the writing.  Labour Theatre of New York – brought them over to UK, The Bottom Line went down very well. Mainly made up of fringe of NY theatre. Politically different from RM’s crew; pro-Trade Union movement. Sedition 81 – ‘Thatcher was in power, the writing was on the wall… We could see we were all going to get done’. At this time moving in the direction of cabaret, as the public preferred the comic style. RM discovered he could do the show stoned; there was a period of life where he was ‘stoned all the time’, including during radio/TV interviews. Very popular play, though the Left didn’t like the subject matter. It disturbed the AC. Bill MacDonald.

02:01:45   Hotel Sunshine, New Variety, ‘Reds…’. This play written for the anti-nuclear lobby. Involved a group of people living in an underground bunker. Ray Meredith (also in Sedition 81) got hepatitis halfway through the tour; had to cancel tour. Concentrated then on New Variety in Brixton. Still had AC grant, so had to produce another play: Reds Under The Bed. RM did spots (solo) at the Comedy Store, but didn’t really take to it…though in the end ‘it’s stand-up that takes over’. RM’s crew sought out their venues (pubs, hotels, TU Hall). Had a circuit of 8 venues, and receiving GLC money at this time; but the end was nigh, even though getting big audiences for ‘Reds…’ all over UK. Prof. John Pick from the AC came to check it and liked it, but ‘the writing was on the wall’ in terms of cutting the grant. The end coincided with the end of the miners’ strike, the end of the GLC and the end of CAST active play production.

Alternative Comedy
‘A whole generation of acts earned money from us.’ Julian Clary, Ben Elton, Harry Enfield, John Hegley, Paul Merton… Turnover of maybe £250,000/year. Paid collectives to look after each venue, all RM’s crew had to do was arrange the acts, maybe compere the shows.

02:12:00   Search for permanent venue (Hackney Empire); management of finances. Were offered the Hackney Empire [HE] – not a playhouse but a variety theatre. Arranged a deal involving the Theatres Trust, as a result of which they had to become more responsible, i.e. ‘gamekeepers rather than poachers’.

Never went into debt, because didn’t believe anyone would ever save them; other companies did go into debt. Paid above union rates, collectively.

Taking the HE ‘was the biggest adventure ever…anyway, we had nowhere to go’. AC had got rid of them; RM etc had hoped GLC would support them but they did not. Still receiving a London Borough grant, for them to take stuff around London. HE much bigger than their regular venues, but they had the acts to fill it (see the names above). Fly-posted the shows themselves. Lots of battles internally, but kept it for 20 years. Raised money to rebuild; put on black theatre, opera.. HE became a real hub.

Hackney Council ‘hated us’ (noise, traffic). Black Heroes In The Hall Of Fame – took a fortune, establishing HE as a Black theatre. Slava Polunin – toured him around Britain before anyone else did; Frank Sweeney.

Very hard to run the HE.
New Act of the Year – launched new talent.
Russell Brand: ‘Such a star; he was good’.
Nina Conti: ‘The most wonderful act ever’, via Ken Campbell. But ‘we weren’t really in the same world as Ken’; he was more mystical than RM’s crew ever wanted to be.
Stuart Lee, Harry Hill.
Took over The Cock in Kilburn for a while (2008).
Their acts were very loyal, despite being ‘used too much’.

02:29:15   Celebration of 150th Anniversary of the Communist Manifesto (1998). ‘I don’t think I did anything really.’ Some general discussion of comedy acts in the modern age. Still auditioning acts every week; some dire, some are the future.. Advice RM recently gave to an aspiring theatre group: ‘Don’t think about trying to earn a living; live the contradiction, do it for the art of what you want to do.’

Recording ends 02:48:39

Back to Roland Muldoon