Date: 23rd January 2015
Location: Wood Green, London
Interviewer: Susan Croft
Technician: Sara Scalzotto
This is the 2nd Unfinished Histories interview with Gavin Richards. Topics from the 1st interview can be viewed at Gavin Richards 2011 Topics List.
Audio timing – 01:57:52
00:00:00 The Front Line (FL) commissioned by Shop Stewards’ committee of Vickers Armstrong in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. They helped develop the show, opened at the Boilermakers’ club on Gateside. Their first real show and work that started to gel how they would work. Combination of extremes [actors], some from 7:84 some from Ken Campbell’s Roadshow. Several classically trained and worked in mainstream, some hadn’t. Concerns about musical element and brought some into FL. Looking at contemporary music to use – Rock. To use what was immediate for audiences. Kaleidoscope – bit like Adrian Mitchell says – bit of this, bit of that. Style always changing — which came from Joan Littlewood. FL developed through Jim Murray’s story, who was convenor of Shop Stewards. Thinks that show was presented at Workers’ Control Conference in Sheffield. Lot of people were ‘acquired’ when they did The Reign of Terror and the Great Money Trick – adaptation of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists [Robert Tressell]. John McGrath’s (JM) idea to bring 7:84 together with Belt & Braces to do it. Both of these were between 1973 and 75. Bollocks was first show – GR was in the Ken Campbell (KC) Roadshow, and had done work with 7:84. One day KC walked out and left some of them to pick up the already-made bookings. GR, Eugene Geasley, Jenny Barnett, Andy Andrews. Did gigs in Germany and then some up North. GR did all business stuff. Stuffed half of income down his socks and gave out rest to company. They didn’t know what was going on. Mainly Ken’s material. Did this for about 6 months. He turned to others, having saved enough money, and they agreed they would start their own company – creation of Belt & Braces and did Ramsey McDonald the Last Ten Days. Bollocks was the last Ken Campbell show, the first Belt & Braces.
00:07:27 Early Belt & Braces (B&B) shows. Long tour of Ramsey McDonald – very pubby, very political. Followed by John McGrath’s (JM) suggestion to join forces with 7:84. They did Reign of Terror. Quite a lot of tension: about the music and the style – questions of internal organisation style e.g. should you have a leader, should you have a boss? Whole debate about collectivisation and how do you run a collective. At that time B&B more wanting to be more of a collective than 7:84 were. Ended up with a lot of 7:84 members joining next B&B show which was The Recruiting Officer with Gillian Hanna and others – Vari Sylvestre. B&B thing: rock music, 7:84 into folk. Previously GR had been in 7:84 doing The Ballygombeen Bequest by John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy. This had used folk music. Manner of working came from Joan Littlewood. Needed to be warm with audience. JM didn’t have that. He’d started in TV and his contacts were mainstream theatre people like Jonathan Griffiths, who GR’d worked with in 7:84. Good work but not right in your face, in difficult venues, in working class communities. 7:84 playing theatres — trying to encourage those communities into theatres. B&B said if you don’t go out to them they won’t come to you, why should they? Some KC company members had worked with Joan Littlewood. Work had to be of high standard but robust enough to take rough knocks. Some of them couldn’t face that. Kind of class conflict in a way. This fed into debate about collectivisation. JM eventually responded and did same work with 7:84 Scotland. He’d moved a long way from writing theatre to writing theatre in the community – that goes out to them. JM wrote bits of Reign of Terror and taught others how to write scenes for themselves and drew it all together. Most democratic show.
00:15:32 Weight. Early plays scripted with other people writing. GR first whole script was England Expects. Weight he wrote with David Bradford. A theatre piece focused on Kent miners for those audiences. GR wanted to write about how to remain a revolutionary when cut off from your roots. Narrative of Weight was about the strike leader who led the strike which took place during the war – Kent miner’s strike during the war took on the whole idea of patriotism – they won it because it was justified. Management was still private then. Part of the move towards Nationalisation. People going from being part of the workforce to management under Nationalisation. David and he worked on what happens when you get separated from grass roots, one of the problems of the Trade Union movement. Remembers a Unionist at Swan Hunter who wore Amani suits, very militant, great guy. Almost as a provocation on shop floor. Someone like that becomes lifted up, separated, how can they maintain understanding of grass roots? B&B saw that happening to themselves. The whole debate around Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
00:21:28 The Mother, England Expects, the Half Moon. That was conventional too in some ways, but music and Steve Gooch’s translation [of Brecht’s play] weren’t. All shows toured. Had Arts Council funding. Thought if they can do theatres, should be able to do other kinds of gigs too. That’s when discussions began about forming a band. Just doing music gigs. Strong relationship with Half Moon [Old Half Moon in Alie Street]. England Expects started there too (as well as The Mother). They were becoming attractive to a more bourgeois crowd and thought they needed to retrench, go back. So would do the gigs. Knew what the big debate in the Labour Movement was – between the reformists and the revolutionaries – those who wanted to take power and those who wanted transform the power that existed within the Labour Party. They were part of that debate. Putting a cap on wages was a Labour Party idea. Large sections were opposed to it. They decided to do a show to take that on and go back to grass roots, with lots of music – England Expects – about £6 pay deal. Time Out crowd supported Half Moon. Music and theatre were going together more – blending them. Half Moon did good theatre but not with grass roots audiences. B&B did both theatre and grass roots – going out to the car factories, ship yards etc
00:29:20 B&B songs, Can’t Pay Won’t Pay, Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Recorded 2 LPs in Sweden. Sweden work also helped fund their work – lucrative touring. Sweden, Holland and Denmark already doing band work, so had venues for the work. First time he saw Dario Fo was in Denmark: Can’t Pay Won’t Pay. They understood the themes and it was real. They Half Moon did and they thought it was a feminist statement and it didn’t work. GR saw Can’t Pay in Denmark, lots of good women’s parts. Rob [Walker] was doing it at Half Moon – he misunderstood it. GR asked if B&B could tour it with their own production. He said OK. He had a deal with Fo [Dario] to give out rights in UK. So they started booking tour in South of England but problems because Rob Walker had also sent out a production with Miriam Karlin taking over from Frances de la Tour. Asked venues if they’d take another. Yes. Said they were doing Accidental Death of an Anarchist before he’d read it. He got Gillian Hanna to translate it. GR horrified as there was only one part for women. Tour organised by women such as Maggie Steed. They got all ratty and left and formed their own women’s company. He re-wrote the play over Christmas, made if funnier and sharper politically. Speaks of play’s content and themes. Talked to Fo about it the central role. Fo didn’t like their version. Fo an aristocratic communist. They did it last year at Harvard , controversy over which version. Talks about difference between American Vaudeville and British Music Hall.
00:42:30 England Expects (EE). £6 pay deal basically was theme. Polly [Eileen Pollock] was not that prominent in the group. Nicely spoken and he got her to use her Northern Irish which released her work. She told him about her background and upbringing in Ireland. EE was in about 1975. The same time, or just before, the Portuguese Revolution had happened. A group of them went to Portugal, including him and Polly. Tried people in army to see if they could do some shows. Polly was the only person who could communicate as she had French and Spanish. She was in charge. 6 or 7 weeks in Portugal. Ended up developing a lot of material for the band. Polly wrote a lot of songs and on their return had an idea for their Irish show Not so Green as It’s Cabbage, which she wrote. John Fiske wrote the music. Quotes a Brecht poem where leadership should be fluid. Where those with the relevant skills lead the work. Tried to maintain equal numbers of men and women. But constrained by the strain of women wanting to go off and form their own women’s groups. One time they peeled off to become Monstrous Regiment, later Polly and her groups [Bloomers, Camouflage] . At different times different sense of priorities and these things needed to happen. Women left to pursue their own destiny — after you had tried to give women equal parts in the work. In leaving they enlarged the whole canvas. The right thing happened for the wrong reasons. They were actually acting out socialism. You’ve got to break the rules, oppose. Have conflict and resolve it. And if these things didn’t happen it wasn’t socialism (to him). Forces of control began to shut it down.
00:55:22 Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Fight for resources and audiences. Anarchy which reflects a capitalist anarchy. Lot of resentment about them going into the West End [with Death of an Anarchist]. Trying to organise a month’s run at the Royal Court. Whole production adapted around Alfred Molina. Fred wasn’t available for the West End and so GR took over the role. Slated by Michael Billington. B&B was hammered all round for going into the West End – issues around the production. It was the beginning of the end because of the resentment that was around. Professional jealousy and beginning of Thatcherism, which affected mood and attitudes. People were being individualised. Anarchist was eventually taken off by them. Too much work and too many conflicts going on. Story of Producers wanting him to re-cast Anarchist and how he realised how far he had travelled from his roots in becoming a ‘boss’. He pulled the show off and couldn’t get work for next 10 years. Rob Walker did production and tour of Can’t Pay Won’t Pay wanting to replicate the success of Anarchist.
01:04:30 More England Expects and A Day in the Life of the World. EE – story of a girl who is over from Ireland, who gets job as a spot welder and becomes involved in union disputes about the £6 pay deal. Has to make a decision as to whether to go over to the far Left or to stay in the more traditional socialist movement. Makes the jump and in turn gets arrested and interrogated by the Special Branch. Hugely successful as was Not so Green. First time he’d done an Irish piece was with John Arden back in 1973: The Ballygombeen Bequest. Very hard-nosed.
After EE, they did a play called A Day in the Life of the World. Jimmy Carter was in The White House. Mrs Colly Pepper was after that, with GR saying he wanted to go back to a simple, little play. Experiences of ordinary men and women.
A Day in the Life of the World was an attempt to make an opera. It failed – whole sections which were opera, and whole sections of drama. That Joan Littlewoody thing of different styles coming at you. Dealing with the big picture of what Capitalism was up to. People believed Capitalism would wither away the State, out of which Socialism would arise which GR thought utter nonsense. A show therefore about how big the State was and how easily it could crush us if we didn’t get our act together. GR scripted out of discussions. John Fiske did music. Large venues and very successful. Went to Sweden. Two ‘wings’ – one doing big shows, the other little ones and people crossed over. Little shows were mostly band shows. More interesting shows to him rather than the bigger ones. Work became tiring after 10 years. People wanted a bit of success then. Created stresses. Did shows with sketches, no sets. 3 or 4 performers. People were talking about doing stand-up. His ideal to be in a big theatre. Anecdote of going to Bolshoi ballet with room for ordinary people off the streets. GR never wrong about going to West End and organised £1 seats. Creating theatre for working class audiences.
00:14:20 Mrs Colly Pepper. Mrs CP was a small scripted show – the same as Do Not Go Gentle. The poem was impulse for the show. The lead – came from Hull, with Maggie Steed. Can’t remember her name. Developed for a film which was eventually chucked out because he was a man writing on women’s subjects. At start struggles of say Feminism or being Gay you forget class. But if you forget class within the struggle you end up with Sarah Palin. He found it difficult to deal with. Feminist laid down a carpet for Palin and Madonna. Same as the way the Labour Movement has gone into retreat.
01:19:34 Personal situation, company management and meetings. GR had girlfriend but was committed to the work. Sympathetic to those who had children in company and paid them a little extra. Company based in Vickers Road, Gospel Oak. It was the top floor of a church. No typical day ever. Every show had its own world and dynamic. By time they got to West End they’d set up an apparatus, an administrative apparatus and a store for props etc. Prior to that all admin side done amongst themselves. Became clear they couldn’t operate without knowing who was overall in charge. Debated whether they should have an artistic director or not, voted on it. He thought it necessary because decisions had to be made. Especially artistic one. Long company meetings & what they discussed. He once demanded a debate about the women because they were having their own meetings. He demanded observation rights. Bit about that situation. He feels they [women] always had more power than they thought. Women’s meeting weren’t feeding back into the main meetings. Women still don’t understand how powerful they actually are.
01:27:50 Band shows, Night for Blair Peach. Astrid Proll Benefit (and others), Rock Against Racism – played with other groups. Open air gigs – Victoria Park etc. Quite a lot of B&B people were musically orientated and others just actors- some learnt instruments. Smaller musicians group for gigs. Band split off while Accidental Death was on. Band went off to Sweden. Made 2 LPs. John Fiske and Paul Kestle now married and settled there. Byproducts and spins-offs are what it is and they become the next thing. Red Rock Review & Anderton Archipelago – band shows. The Night for Blair Peach –went on demonstration following week after his murder. Friends of Blair Peach approached Edward Bond and decided to put on evening at Royal Court. B&B organised it all. Used their band and other bands, Misty. Demonstration was ‘intelligentsia’-based. GR talked to Tariq Ali about what happened and the evening. His support was real. Predominantly Asian demonstration on behalf of white teacher against police. Silent march. At police station women began ululating. Tense time. Did gig. GR tried to rock it up a bit. People from Southall came, management were throwing them out, they brought them back in the back. Made effigy of head of Special Patrol Group which was dropped into audience. Taken out into Sloane Square and burnt it in middle of square. Further about content of show.
01:41:12 B&B bits and pieces. Designers employed if required. Stage Managers usually from within group. Some externals were employed at different times. Everyone Equity or became Equity during their time there. Coming Up written & directed by Kate Phelps – thinks B&B funded it. They funded Sedition 81 – CAST/Roland Muldoon. Money came from proceeds from Accidental Death. Part of Roland’s movement towards working at Hackney Empire.
01:45:44 End of B&B. When Accidental Death came off, B&B basically came to an end. After a TV version of it, GR was knackered. Band was getting offered work abroad. All core people began to peel off and make different life for themselves. Movement was splitting. GR felt completely lost. Couldn’t get any work off the ground. Interested working with others and was getting hammered down all the time. Very distressing. Thatcher was in power. He had a different job to do but he didn’t know what his was. By 1985 the lady he was with had a baby. Tried to keep connections. Trevor Griffiths put him in his Oi for England on TV. Driving Ambition on TV – making women central protagonists on TV. Done a few things through the 80s, tried to get a show off the ground supported by GLC: Britannia Rig – never happened. Bit about that and the times. Was able to make a living. Asked to do one episode of Hi de Hi and that led to ‘Ello ‘Ello. He was personally lost. He thought everything he had fought for had gone. Ended up with Eastenders which let him live but he found the work shameful. Went to New Zealand in 2002. Did show there about children in war. ‘Found’ himself again in New Zealand but price was enormous. System has devalued everything. Quotes from a poem Lucifer – ‘Everything of value is defenceless’.
Audio time 01:57:52