Location: Soho, London
Interviewer: Susan Croft
Topics List: Gallin Hornick
00:00:00 Early life. Born 1936, grew up in Coulston, Surrey (then more a rural village than part of London). Very absorbed in countryside, and little creatures. Father, with brother Len owned and ran a chain of butcher shops along the Kent coast. At outbreak of war was a successful businessman, by the end of the war was an assistant in a grocer’s ‘and had nothing’. He’d been too proud to apply for the govt’s War Reparation after shops & vans were requisitioned. Sent into the army as a Private. Mother: ‘the most important person in my childhood’. Managed to put good food on the table all through the war. Kept hens for eggs, and grew own vegetables as most people did. Bonfire celebration up on the Downs at end of war, with fireworks. Passed 11+, went to grammar school. Interested in languages, but didn’t go to university; sent by father to an office job in London after O-levels. Architect’s office in Victoria – within 3 months, running the office.
00:11:15 Early interest in theatre. AW had a marionette theatre when he was young, devised shows for it. The family went to pantomimes every Xmas. Continued with the marionettes after school, used to drive around doing shows at children’s parties. Made the puppets himself; at the peak, he had 82 of them. Doesn’t remember what the plays were about (and never wrote anything down). Built a permanent theatre in the attic, complete with electrically-operated curtains. Interested in producing original material for shows.
00:16:45 Early awareness of being gay; telling parents. AW experienced difficulties regarding not feeling able to tell anyone – from at least aged 8. In London, tried to find ways to meet other gay people, but didn’t like the milieus he found himself in (predominantly effeminate men). Got called up to the RAF whilst at the architect’s office, returning after 2 years. Had been getting more and more unhappy about being gay; ‘puzzled, confused and alone’. Aged 17, had approached mother for help; she pretended it wasn’t happening, father later attacked him. Parents went to family doctor, who referred AW to a psychiatrist whom he saw for about a year…and who was actually very supportive and sympathetic (a very lucky thing, he later realized). Parents never talked to him about it again, effectively rejected him – leading AW to realize he could be a responsible adult without Mum & Dad. Subsequent reconciliation a couple of years later (by this time parents running a café in Brighton). Brother never had a problem with it.
00:33:30 Suicidal thinking; English teaching. Whilst at polytechnic, AW came very close to suicide; saved by his ‘wise self’. By following week had left home, getting a bedsit in Bayswater. Fed up with being an architect. Sold all he owned (including a brand-new car); had a tent, a backpack and a ticket to the Mediterranean; stayed away 3 years, gaining some experience teaching English. This led to his taking an English teaching job at a school in London. He produced an English language textbook which ‘changed all textbooks’; sold 500,000 copies and led to traveling worldwide lecturing about English teaching. In 1966, living in Piccadilly, started work at International House, and was soon put in charge of their language laboratories. Ran training courses.
00:44:30 Gay rights movement. Heard about Middle Earth, a homosexual club in Covent Garden. Going there was ‘a key moment’ in AW’s life. Discovered hundreds of people like him. Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) as compared with Gay Liberation Front (GLF). The movement started at the LSE; then from Middle Earth to All Saints Church Hall in Notting Hill. ‘Consciousness-raising’ groups; very good for forging friendships. (Distressing for AW to see them break up into ‘fighting groups’.) First attempt to go on a gay demo; he realised he was actually ashamed. LSD experience. Withdrawal from GLF because of ‘warring factions’. Departure of the women from GLF.
01:05:30 Save Piccadilly Campaign. Working on projects, including a play about honesty, set in a city incorporating a series of dramatized encounters between strangers; ended up as 3 playlets, Coffee (total dishonesty), Tea (a bit of dishonesty) & Wine (total honesty). Gay Sweatshop (GS) happened around this time. Ed Berman (EB) contacted Roger Baker to assemble a gay theatre group (1972/3). AW had met EB through the Save Piccadilly campaign (which included a cyclorama around Eros). GLF supporters attending events where they were to be discussed without having been invited – ‘zapping’; which was encouraged because it produced a lot of feedback.
01:21:15 Inception of Sweatshop. AW contacted by Roger Baker (RB); meetings in Roger’s flat. First several months: how to get performable plays? RB put ads in all gay press and some mainstream press, as well as all women’s magazines. EB’s idea: form a professional gay theatre group. Gerald Chapman (GC) – training to be a theatre director, was involved in play readings. First rule: every submitted play must be read by someone. (Of 62 plays, only 2 by women.) 90% fell at first hurdle; if passed 2nd stage (i.e. being read by someone else), they would read the plays to each other. AW, through comparison, felt emboldened to submit his own play, which got past stage 2. Not yet finished at this point; he undertook to complete the third portion. RB: talked and wrote like a GLF person, but not involved with them (involved with CHE). AW wrote a play for GS called Rumpdew, including lesbian characters who want children. (It was submitted but not taken further.) A play by Laurence Collinson, Thinking Straight, about the dilemma of being a gay playwright. Directed by Drew Griffiths, ‘a terrific success’.
01:41:15 Finding directors; first season. How to find directors? Discussion about whether poaching directors from other theatres would be ok. Victor Spinetti (involved with Oh What a Lovely War); took it seriously but decided not to get involved. GC, who was at Bristol; a friend of his, Oscar Watson. First season ‘a rip-roaring success’, with queues round the block and audience wanting follow-up discussion, which became a regular feature. Limitations (John Roman Baker), Thinking Straight (Collinson) & Ships (AW). Sat in on Limitations rehearsals as involved with sound and lighting side. EB suggests – a couple of days before opening – using the foyer for an exhibition.
01:53:30 Almost Free Theatre; the press launch; opening of Ships. The Almost Free: underground…foyer…no green room, a ‘very tiny, quite difficult’ backstage area. No memory of selling food/drink at the theatre. Above, a window display with a big sign for the theatre, which was semi-derelict. The press launch: ‘turned up in droves’– because it was such a taboo subject. First question: will there be any sex in it? At this time no evening play, just the lunch-hour theatre (1975). People being turned away at every performance. Whole attitude of the rest of the crew towards AW changed once Ships opened; i.e. now seen and respected as a playwright. First night: as play ends, thinking set, lighting, music perfect – ‘so if they don’t like it it’s my fault’; it was very well received. Peggy Ramsay. AW couldn’t get his parents to go and see it (and it was ‘not even a play about homosexuality – it was about how difficult it is to be honest in the modern world’). Has been staged in Poland, somewhere in S America, in N Zealand. Payment: thinks it was a percentage of the take.
02:11:45 Falling out (gay stereotypes). Robert Patrick (RP): offered one of his plays, everyone was ‘starstruck’. RP a pre-GLF playwright, depicting ‘gay stereotypes’. Led to an argument, with AW opposing RP’s type of plays; but people didn’t seem to see the point he was making. EB turns up and suggests doing both Passing By and the RP play; AW acquiesces but is not happy. Hates to see audiences laughing at gay stereotypes – unhealthy. ‘Healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ laughter: healthy = ‘the laughter of recognition’, ie laughing at yourself. AW felt ‘chastened’. GS asked to go on tour – Mr X – effectively an invitation to gay conferences, promoting GLF. AW now distanced, but still attends every play put on. AW has written a play called Innocence (unproduced). Spent a lot of years trying to get his English language course in France turned into an easy-access website; with a business partner, made a company and tried to raise money…but no takers.
02:25:45 Forming a band. Band: set up late 1969, before hearing of GLF. Whilst in Japan, AW so appalled by the traffic he wrote a song about it – ‘Motorcar Madness’, plus shown on BBC. As a band called ‘Piccadilly Circus’, recorded it; also made a film. Decided to write 12 environmental protest songs (band now called ‘Everyone Involved’); after encountering GLF adds 2 gay songs as well (apparently the first gay-themed material recorded in the world! He found out when an Australian guy contacted him as he was doing a compilation). Either and Or – optimistic or negative. Meeting Peter, the man of his life through the band -the most beautiful apparition. Warned not to fall for him as he was straight. When he came back after 2 years in the Philippines he was 19. They began a relationship. He was marking time – interested in a young woman. 14 years later he was killed in a car accident. He was a sound engineer with Dire Straits. Piccadilly Circus did a free gig at the Almost Free – AW has a photo but Pete isn’t in it as he was the sound engineer.