Date: 25th November 2011
Location: Home in Blenheim, New Zealand
Interviewed & recorded by: Tim Wood
Topics List: Susan Croft
This is Unfinished Histories 1st interview with Gavin Richards. Topics from the 2nd interview can be viewed on Gavin Richards 2013 Topics List.
00:00:00 Born North London, parents very poor, lower middle class, dad a clerk, Mum a secretary. Born 1946, classic baby boom child, aspirant parents – father worked on papers and ran Classical Opinion, music magazine, mother ended up secretary to Roy Strong at V&A – classical music – he Wagner, she Debussy – father played Beethoven on piano as Gavin Richards (GR) was being born. When he was growing up though, they had no foothold in that world – grew up in Tufnell Park, then a place where Irish labourers were being dumped, working on the precursor to the ‘lump’.
00.02:27 Passed 11-plus and went to grammar school in Swiss Cottage, a revelation, but split him in two from working class environment, though the classical music already created some split, 2 Classes in the school – wealthy local kids and others like him from a few miles away, large Jewish contingent. Split quite unsettling. Met Nick Chelton who became a great pal, Maths master put on St Joan – Jean Anouilh – The Lark, shared influence of radio plays, both ushers at school play. Shared interest in theatre, he had a toy theatre. They put on Pinter and absurdists. GR auditioned for school play – An Enemy of the People, Ibsen. He did the lighting and ended up working for Theatre Projects. Put on Waiting for Godot at school.
00.06:40 Went to drama school, Bristol – 1962 – lots of luvvies as you’d call them now. He, Shane Connaughton (SC) and 2 or 3 others came from different backgrounds. Their response was to put on Bond’s Saved just after it came out, with SC. Edward Bond came. Slow waking up to finding his way. Went into rep – Leicester, Manchester Library Theatre, playing to audience of regular theatregoers. Then to Liverpool Everyman – where he could at last wake up. Peter James was trying to make it a writers’ theatre and bring in new kinds of performers. Then Alan Dossor who brought in John McGrath (JM) and others. GR met Ken Campbell (KC) and saw him taking his troupe with Bob Hoskins and others into unlikely spots, dodgy pubs etc – influenced him.
00:13:10 Movement in Labour Party for concerted cultural programme, funding different types of work, beginning to articulate political discomfort, started their ‘little creeks’ – through Everyman working with John Arden (JA), Trevor Griffiths etc who, in the theatrical houses, were taking on the material. Meanwhile KC was out there in the community taking on the audience – GR wanted to blend those 2 things – he was about 24 at the time.
00:14:54 Belt and Braces. Four of them: they sat in the pub – Eugene Guizeley, Irish sign-painter brought in by KC to replace Sylvester McCoy, who had been plucked out of his world as KC said he should be an actor; plus Marcel Steiner and Jeni Barnett. They thought they knew everything. First show: Ramsay McDonald: the Last Ten Days – took it into pubs, managed to take off the usual Thursday strippers. Very successful. Also did shows with 7:84 – GR directed JA’s Ballygombeen Bequest at JM’s request. It upset people including JA for adding a torture scene, played by Stephen Rea – stopped by injunction. Fringe venue in Shepherd’s Bush. Cast of 12 or 13 + band, playing to early Time Out crowd generally, but barman had never been to see one of these weird plays came up – hugely moved, stood at the back with his fist in the air – sometimes they connected with whole audiences – such as playing in early days in Glasgow shipyards. Meeting people in the movement, trade unionists, environmentalists, feminists. A bit of Marxist analysis – think you know it all. Confidence far out-stripped his knowledge. Changed structure as they grew, KC had run away – had a sort of breakdown. They went to Germany, doing Ken’s material – in the end he came too. They were paid in cash. KC got 10% royalty – they split a proportion but made c£20,000 profit, which GR kept down his sock. They formed a company – B&B – and then after the Ramsay McDonald play got a grant. Did a joint show with 7:84 based on Robert Tressells’ Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – took on riskier bookings – pulled 7:84 in new directions. Welfare State and others were already out there. Need to get to different audiences – as well as shaking up traditional theatre. Built up from there.
00:24:39 Q: What was the working process? Every show was different. GR was pivotal and was elected Artistic Director by collective. He was very confident and more experienced. Collective is the ideal but there are many attempts to undermine you financially, politically. Problems e.g. of how individuals vote against themselves – such as being redundant in a particular show. Loyalty of collective to the company, to the union, to the politics? Learning the politics. Debates were necessary, sometimes long and tedious but not a wasted second – disruptions, splits, divisions – all led to good things – they were teaching mechanisms though they didn’t realise it at the time – dynamism creates diversity. Women left to form a women’s company [GR says Monstrous Regiment, actually Bloomers] Hurtful at the time but a strength for the future.
00.28.30 Q: Did they have a specific political affiliation? No but came closest to SWP [Socialist Workers’ Party], also some WRP [Workers’ Revolutionary Party] members, some ex-CP [Communist Party], IMG [International Marxist Group]. Complaints that there were not enough parts for women wasn’t actually true – but there was a root problem they were learning to articulate their demands. Along the way there are splits and divisions, but that’s what we’re built on
00.30:27 Q: What happened when the 70s ran out of steam and some joined Labour Party, ‘some took up the bomb’ as it were? There was a crumbling because of a major sell-out. Social democrats on the back of 2 hugely successful Miners’ strikes made a social contract to do the job of capital. Q:Effect on theatre? Beginning of the destruction of the trade union movement. Without a vibrant movement you are a maverick, out on your own. As an artist the art has to be good. Wants to put his art at the service of a strong movement. When that movement falls apart I am going to fall apart with it.
00.32:23 Q: Of the early shows which stand out? They don’t: they go in chronological order as they form a kind of progression – first one funded by putting money down his sock and agreement to form company.
00.33:36 Then co-production with 7:84 (Ragged Trousered Philanthropists)– the most democratically put-together production – each person ‘wrote’ a section from the book – JM’s contribution held it together. Fraught with problems which emerged once the tour was underway – varying acting sensibilities, approaches to theatre, influencing the mainstream or not – real tensions, but process of creating was great. JM put himself at service of production and could also see beyond it – incredibly generous. Many of those involved became household names.Two companies went different directions: 7:84 wanted a command structure, JM did not want always to be servant – wanted to be collaborator on rehearsal room floor, controller behind the scenes; B&B went collective route.
00.37:38 Got funding wanted to do a show and talk about the military because of Northern Ireland – looked at George Farquhar’s Recruiting Officer, which had just been done at NT, decided put it into now, did lots of research on British army inc. ambition to become the welfare state.
0:38:59 Will go show by show – developing scenario (refers to private discussion with TW) on finding yourself part of a movement. Recruiting Officer connected them up with lots of groups around the place – audiences, organisations, through working on British army. All wrote bits and pieces.
00:40:20 New people came in many via 7:84 – Gillian Hanna, Jim Carter, Dave Bradford, Vari Sylvester, SC also came in again via 7:84. Desire to take to working class venues.
00:41:21 Commission from convenors from Armstrong Arms works –convenors of factory owned their own working men’s club asked them to do a show about them. GR wrote a lot more of it – major structural decisions were collaborative– he’d always written – influenced by KC and JM. Show about Vickers Armstrong . Very in-your-face, funny, moving. Huge confrontational scenes about reform or revolution – old CP trade unionist versus a young SWP – the big debate of the time. Fun, music, satire, history of factory, impact of trade union movement. Asked to perform at Workers Control conference in Sheffield for shop stewards from all over the country. Tony Benn spoke, they wouldn’t let B&B go. By then they were part rock band, part theatre company – deliberate policy – 4 or 5 encores. Then GR said ‘Over to you’ and they gave the mike to the audience – guys got up one after another and unaccompanied sang working class songs.
Video ends 00:46:01