There Was No Birdsong

Uranium 235 1951In 1947, Joan Littlewood‘s Theatre Workshop took Ewan MacColl‘s anti nuclear play ‘Uranium 235‘ on a tour of Germany. While they were there, the tour organisers – the services entertainment corps – ensured that they became history’s witnesses. In this short documentary, two of Joan’s group, Maggie Bury & Jean Newlove recount their experiences of that time.

Maggie & Jean witnessed the immediate aftermath of WWII.  In these times, when the far right is rising we must be willing to learn from history.

Here is a link to the short documentary:

There Was No Birdsong





The Importance of Being Joan

Joan Littlewood in action.

The theatre you see today is the theatre that Joan Littlewood created 

So said Stanley Reynolds in The Guardian in 1984

I couldn’t agree more. 

From her earliest days Joan’s creative contributions were about exploration and change. Her own creative process was constantly adapted in order to keep any production alive and accessible.

This is according to anybody you speak to (or read about) who actually worked with her. 

Joan broke up the fabric of British Theatre. She, to a certain extent, disorganised it out of it’s old forms and began an internal revolution in the theatre in the way that plays were produced. 

So said Harold Hobson 

This is very true but in my opinion it also doesn’t go far enough. Joan’s influence on every aspect of the theatre process and on every form of theatre changed the way we work and the way in which we receive work. 

Joan re-ordered our responses to the classics

So said Professor Robert Leach during his interview for the documentary ‘In the Company of Joan’
Artwork by Chris Hall for ‘In the Company of Joan’
Available to see for anyone who wants to see it. 

Joan Littlewood most certainly changed the way in which classical work was produced and performed. Her vision opened a door into the world of the classics for working class actors and audiences alike. 

She changed everything. 

A Unique Training System

What follows is a memo sent by Maggie Bury (Walker) to Joan Littlewood & Gerry Raffles in the Summer of 61.

It is the first ever ‘official’ document created by the founder of east 15 Acting School – or so she told me.

It might be of interest to anybody who went to East 15 Acting School and has wondered about the lineage of the school.

Maggie Bury Walker was a fourteen year veteran of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop. When Joan left the company headed for foreign parts in 1961, Maggie decided (with help from her Theatre Workshop friends) to carry on exploring the working practices they’d developed during their time with the company.

Here are the words from that founding memo:

Summer 1961

RE School
From Maggie to Joan & Gerry

Theatre Royal School: Stratford East.

Project: To open a Theatre Royal School in October 1961, this school is to give full-time tuition to a limited number of students (suggest 24) over a period of two years.

Premises: Classes to be held at the Theatre Royal, Stratford. It is hoped to locate alternative premises.

Classes: To include study of acting methods, history of the theatre, dance movement & history of the dance, speech training and fencing, in a general course to prepare the student for work on the stage. The course to include the production of at least three plays a year, to be given in the first instance, a sunday night preview to the Theatre Royal Club. At the end of the Autumn Term it is hoped to arrange a tour of of the schools of the area with a Christmas play, and during the Spring and Summer Terms to tour “TWELFTH NIGHT”

Academic Year: Three Terms in the year, ending in first and second year examinations. Students who do not reach the required standards , will be advised to leave. Prospective students to be auditioned during the first week of September.

Fees: £40 a Term. Fees to be paid in advance at the beginning of each term, and notice in writing of the proposed withdrawal of a student should be sent to the Secretary at least 14 days before the last day of the current term.

Auditions: Will be held at the Theatre Royal, Stratford during the first week of September. The entrance fee is 10/- and this should be sent, together with a letter of application, to Mrs B. Murphy, the secretary, Theatre Royal School, Theatre royal, stratford, E.15. Candidates will be asked to perform a set piece, to improvise round a set theme, and to perform a piece of their own choice, not more than five minutes in length.

Maggie Bury

In the years that followed, the school further explored the methods and practices of Theatre Workshop as well as adding the techniques of a vast array of experimental, radical directors to its canon.

Maggie was principal of the this unique actor training experiment for the best part of four decades – others have taken the wheel in the years since, however, the roots of the place lie firmly in the working practices and in the spirit of the Theatre Workshop ensemble. 

A documentary about the life and contribution of Maggie Bury Walker

Community Driven Screenings

It’s satisfying to note that ‘In the Company of Joan’ has been shared, not because I’ve pushed it or advertised it, but because those who’ve chosen to screen it in their communities are passionate about Joan’s story and why it matters.

So, who are these people?

In May of 2016, the film was first shared here:

WCML Screenshot May 2016.jpg
Screenshot of the EVENT at WCML
It was an honour to take it to the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, the area where during the 1930s Joan Littlewood & Ewan MacColl started their revolutionary theatre journey together.
theatre union manifesto
The WCML contains a treasure trove of records – they have documentation for two-hundred years of workers rights campaigns. The collection began with founders Edmund & Ruth Frow and it continues to thrive, telling the story of Britain’s working classes.
So, the fact that they were the first to share ‘In the Company of Joan’ – a film made on a shoe-string budget which examines how Joan Littlewood opened a door in the arts to working class actors and audiences alike, was a moment of particular relevance and meaning. Following this screening, I recut the film but left an uncut copy with library staff, as this felt like the right thing to do.
In September of 2016, the film was screened again at a ‘bucket on the door’ event at Rich Mix in London’s East End.
Rich Mix Screening (Screenshot).jpg
SCREENSHOT of the online notice about the event
The event was organised by the founder of the Boundary Estate Fun Palace who worked tirelessly with Rich Mix Cinema to ensure things ran smoothly. The event was put on to raise funds for the Boundary Estate Fun Palace and the East End Women’s Museum.
Wendy & Ruth with Marlene Sidaway & Christine Jackson - Rich Mix Sept 2016
Wendy Richardson, Ruth Urquhart, Marlene Sidaway & Christine Jackson at the post-screening chinwag.
It was really pleasing to support local community organisations with the first London screening of the documentary.
Another Fun Palace organised a screening as part of their many planned activities at their Farnham event in October 2016.
I asked Joan’s ‘“Tigress” and one of Gerry’s “Activists”, Christine Jackson to join me at the event as her work with Joan & Gerry would make a relevant Q&A for the Fun Palace attendees, one example being the occupying of land to re-purpose it as playgrounds for local children.
At the event, it became clear that screening the film would be a bad idea, as there were many children present and the film contains swearing!
We all scrambled to create a new event – how very ‘Workshop’ – after all, we were with one of Joan’s own! We were kindly given a room by staff at the Farnham Fun Palace venue in which we would run “an impromptu audience with Christine Jackson”. This meant that anybody who might have come to see the film, instead got the chance to interact with Christine and ask her questions about her work with Joan.
Bubble City Page 4 (Christine Jackson moving rubbish).jpg
Christine Jackson & other “Activists”, clearing rubbish having occupied land on behalf of Joan Littlewood to repurpose it as a play area for local kids.
Then, in January 2017, Carine, who’d organised the Farnham Fun Palace, organised a second community event with an Eco Cinema. Part of the documentary was shared, along with other films which examined various aspects of community arts involvement. This was all interwoven with discussions with members of the Farnham Arts and Design Education Group.
Microsoft Word - Fun Palace doc.docx.jpeg
The next community screening was in Essex, in November 2017.
It was organised by Nicola Esson, co-founder of macTheatre (Maldon Actors Company) which was set up to raise awareness of the arts in the Maldon district, for the last two decades macTheatre has produced a variety of new and innovative small-scale professional shows, often in ‘found spaces’ or settings. They have an established community event with their Shakespeare in the Park initiative and more recently they’ve facilitated intimate music nights and workshops with high-calibre folk musicians, songwriters and performers.
For macTheatre, inspiring community involvement is what it is all about, so I was excited when Nicola said she’d like to share the film at ‘The Sunny Sailor’ Maldon, under the macTheatre banner.
Maldon In the Company of Joan Screening 17th Nov
The Maldon community watching ‘In the Company of Joan’ at ‘The Sunny Sailor’
They decided to run the film with an interval, making space for local folk musicians to introduce the evening (and the second half of the event) with original and specific songs which held connection with Joan’s story, giving proceedings certain echoes of a Theatre Workshop vibe.
Carol and Suki - folk singers opening both halves of the event at Maldon ,
Carol Bonard & Suki Swindale share original music & introduce ‘In the Company of Joan’ at ‘The Sunny Sailor’ Maldon
The next sharing was with ‘Film Vaults Manchester’ in the Autumn of 2017 – the organisers regularly run FREE FILM EVENTS in a Manchester pub.
One audience member contacted me after their screening to ask if they could share the film with a friend. This passing forward of the film couldn’t have happened without the dedication of the Film Vaults organisers.
In February of 2018, founder of Bruvvers Theatre, Mike Mould set up the latest community screening. I happened to be working in Newcastle Upon Tyne during the week leading up to the screening of ‘In the Company of Joan’ and all around town I kept finding flyers in pubs, libraries and theatres – without any fanfare Mike had produced and distributed a colossal number of flyers.
Mike Mould.jpg
Mike Mould of Bruvvers Theatre (Taking Theatre to the People of Tyneside)
The sharing was to be held at Alphabetti Theatre, a fantastic new venue in Newcastle Upon Tyne whose Manifesto includes a desire to create relatable theatre that’s accessible to all.
Alphabetti February 2018.jpg
The evening was well attended.
Afterwards, Ruth Urquhart and I got hopelessly drunk and chatted nonsense to anybody who’d listen. It was a cracking night for us thanks to Mike Mould, Steve Byron & the team at Alphabetti Theatre.
In sum, since completing ‘In the Company of Joan’ and the subsequent films I’ve witnessed a community of people who’ve gone out of their way to create events without fuss or payment because they believe in what Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop stood for and achieved. This community of do-ers have inspired me to plan my own ‘Pop Up Cinema’ for 2019
I’m calling this tour ‘Celebrate then Activate’ because whilst it’s vitally important to celebrate the vast legacy of Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop, it’s of equal importance for each community to consider how they can take inspiration from Joan’s work and move it forward in their own way.
**Please do contact me if you’d like to see ‘In the Company of Joan’ online, get a DVD or better still hold a FREE community event – it doesn’t have to be a huge scale thing, all sharings are greatly appreciated.

Developing the ‘Art of Change’

Joan Littlewood was all about change – she once famously said to director Philip Hedley, when he was interviewing to be her assistant in the early 1960s:
“I built my life on the rock of change”
And indeed she did.
Joan Littlewood always created change. She never settled into one process or way of working, her company had to always be open to her only constant – change. She would often introduce an ‘unexpected event’ during shows, in order to shake her actors out of any ‘state of comfortableness’ that might have crept into their performances. She hated complacency with a passion. It’s evident that she would continually challenge her actors, often doing things they weren’t expecting; such as, letting live chickens loose on stage during one performance of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Arms & the Man’.
Arms and the Man.jpg
Joan Littlewood’s production of Bernard Shaw’s ‘Arms & the Man’.
Maggie Bury Walker who played Catherine Petkoff in ‘Arms & the Man’ speaks of this in the documentary No Time for Memoirs.
No Time For Memoirs .jpg
No Time For Memoirs
Maggie, who went on to set up East 15 Acting School, with the assistance of some of her old her comrades from Theatre Workshop (including John Bury, Jean Newlove, Brian Murphy and Clive Barker) would – amongst other practices borrowed from her fourteen years in the company of Joan – have her “actors in training” understand the importance of the fluidity of the moment.
At East 15, actors would be asked to immerse themselves into the world of their characters – using the ‘givens of the text’ to further explore relationships and scenarios.
The Joan Littlewood tactic of asking actors “What happened before?” would be utilised, followed by the setting up of that scene for improvisation. East 15 actors were required to “live the role offstage” – Maggie understood only too well, from her work with Joan, that actors need to be ready for any eventuality.
She said “You need to know your character as well as you know yourself”, which is kind of impossible, but a nice quest! – Alex Giannini (East 15 Graduate)
Maggie directs rehearsal of the dream in epping forest.jpg
A rehearsal on location for A Midsummer Nights Dream
The following quote was printed in an East 15 Acting School prospectus, from the 1970s:
We believe the greatest actors are nurtured in a group of give and take.
If you do not give you will never receive.
If you have no talent we cannot acquire it for you.
We believe in discovering reality before harnessing it to theatricality.
We must understand the truth of life and living, before we presume to act it.
We base our training on the uniqueness of the individual and his or her ability to change, adapt, extend, perceive, accept and reject.
Prospectus .JPG
Also in that prospectus, was a quote from Moshe Feldenkrais, whose revolutionary approach to changing your movement in order to create new possibilities changed many lives:
The average person avoids any serious change and vegetates in some sort of static equilibrium. When a shock or crisis occurs it may be strong enough to make him or her lose balance – Dr Moshe Feldenkrais
“You have two words to describe Theatre Workshop” 
To everything, turn, turn, turn…
Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too – Terry Pratchett (A Hat Full of Sky)

A Sheer Delight for Young & Old!

TW Edinburgh .jpgTheatre Workshop in Edinburgh.

In the summer of 1949, Theatre Workshop had no permanent base and not two groats to rub together. They’d been to Edinburgh and whilst their work was appreciated, appreciation doesn’t fill yer belly, so after much deliberation, it was communally decided that they’d try their luck with a commercial venture – in a now desperate attempt to change their fortunes.

A christmas show was prepared.

Joan Littlewood turned ‘Alice In Wonderland’ into a strange and magical production – with a chessboard ballet sequence choreographed by Jean Newlove, a stunning set design by John Bury and especially written music by Ewan MacColl.

Joan Paper.jpgThe Behatted One.


Gerry Raffles booked the show into five commercial theatres in Barnsley, Llandudno, Weymouth, Leigh and Theatre Royal Stratford East.


Gerry & Bury.jpgGerry & The Bury hard at work. (Gerry Raffles & John ‘Camel’ Bury)


The publicity for ‘Alice in Wonderland’:

“A sheer delight for young and old”
It’s been suggested that anybody who brought up that show with Gerry Raffles for years afterwards, might find themselves participant in a punch-up!
Things did not go well.
‘Alice in Wonderland’ opened in Barnsley during the christmas week of 1949, playing three shows a day. The theatre was booked solid, unfortunately, audiences expected a pantomime and sat bemused for the first few minutes, until Howard Goorney came on as The Duchess, sadly the disappointed crowd thought he might have been The Dame and things got ugly as the unsettled audience were presented with the strange, beautiful & often disturbing world of Lewis Carroll.
Confused, the Barnsley crowd threw pennies onto the stage.

At first, Howard Goorney thought:

“Hello, somebody’s dropped some money”

However, the throwing of pennies is an old music hall insult and a sign for the players to get off quickly before a coin hits them between the eyes.

Another clue that the audience is not best pleased is deafening boo-ing.

This boo-ing followed the coins in Barnsley.

Well, you can’t win em all!

But every cloud has a silver lining as little did the company know that one of the venues they toured to with ‘Alice in Wonderland’ would become their home within a few years.

**It’s worth noting that some of the better shows that most have us have ever been involved with, probably couldn’t even come close to the brilliance of this mis-sold Littlewood production.


***Special thanks again to Brian Astbury for the articles which assisted in the writing of this blog.

Poverty & Dumplings & Nude Shows, Oh My!


In Maryhill, Glasgow in 1952, Theatre Workshop met an eccentric man named Albert Ernest Pickard, known locally as ‘The Maryhill Millionaire’ – he often wore a policeman’s hat fitted with traffic lights to boxing matches and he’d stood as an independent candidate in the 1951 General Election for Maryhill, with the election slogan:

“Make ‘em Laugh”

Albert Pickard.jpg

The reality of the situation was that he owned half of Maryhill and so he rented out an old house to Joan Littlewood and company at a knockdown price.

There, poorer than they’d ever been, they lived communally. Despite it all, they continued to rehearse.

Albert Pickard would sometimes pop around to discuss the conversion of an old church on his patch into a theatre but it would appear he had big ideas, short arms and long pockets.

At this time, the company had to make a minuscule amount of cash go a very long way. They ate fruit from shopkeepers who gave them end of day bargains and consumed a lot of porridge and pots of tea!

John Bury discovered that he could water down the milk for use in tea, saving the cream to make everyone a rice pudding.

Joby Blanshard would mix mince and oats then wallop a decent splodge on everybody’s plate.

On only one occasion, George Cooper prepared stew and dumplings – those dumplings have since passed into Theatre Workshop legend.

John Bury said of them;

“He served the dumplings with the water he had boiled them in as a gravy”

Harry H, Corbett simply recalled:

“Iron hard dumplings”

George Cooper eventually confessed:

“Something went wrong with the herbs. The dumplings tasted as if they had been rolled on the floor”

After a while, Howard Greene got to know a local woman who taught domestic science and he took her out every Friday, on his dole money. In return, every Saturday morning she came round to the house with a basket of food cooked by her pupils. The Theatre Workshop diet improved.

Then, early in 1953, Gerry Raffles received a telegram from Rowland Sales, a theatrical agent who’d been losing money through a nudie-rudie show at Theatre Royal Stratford East, where he held the lease.

The telegram said Theatre Workshop could have Theatre Royal for six weeks at £20 a week – payable in advance.

This telegram meant that after seven years of wandering and poverty, Theatre Workshop would wander no more.

And as for the poverty?
Unfortunately that did follow them to London.

However, they now had a permanent home.

Theatre Royal
**With thanks, once again to Brian Astbury for the series of articles from Reynolds News October 1960, based on interviews with Gerry Raffles and Howard Goorney.