Base Jumping – Theatre Workshop Style

Members of Theatre Workshop were expected to muck in at all times. David Scase was once sent to arrange a tour by visiting education officers. He was given no money but he put on his best suit and set out, carrying a briefcase, to hitch-hike. He found himself leaping from a cement lorry on the outskirts of  Kendal, dusting his clothes and strolling in to town as if fresh from a first class railway coach.

The company got word that he had arranged a base from which they could work. They loaded themselves and their kit onto an open lorry and headed for Kendal.

A new member was Swedish actor, Kristin Lind. She travelled to Kendal by train. Meanwhile, the company were waiting for a bus to take them to an engagement at Grange Over Sands, 15 miles away, when Kristin swept up in a green Lagonda.

Kristin Lind.jpg

On her train journey she’d met Robin Bagot, a local squire and owner of the car. He shuttled it back and forth to take them all over to Grange. This was their first inkling at Kristin’s superb powers of persuasion.

In Kendal, for a tiny rent, they were given a rehearsal room on the top floor of the Conservative Club! This was the first of many strange billets they were to find themselves connected to in their wanderings. Years later, Gerry Raffles was to remark:

“We kept making moves torwards trades unionists and ending up amongst arisocrats”

On the day the results of the 1945 General Election were announced, news of Labour victories poured from the radio, the Tories sat downstairs in gloomy silence while above the actors danced in delight and sang ‘The Red Flag’ together. But when the Westmorland result came in. The Tory, Lt.-Col. Vane, had won. There was a polite knock on the rehearsal room door and a delegation of Tories trooped through and opened a roof light to put out the Union Jack. Silent now, the actors watched as the club hung out their flag, although it was a bit embarrassing when it all had to be repeated because the flag had been hung out upside down – in the distress position.

Two months later they put on another show, ‘The Love of Don Perlimplin for Belisa in His Garden’, by Federico Garcia Lorca – their names were mud after the opening night. They learnt from the alarm they’d unexpectedly caused and later on they’d describe this play in programmes as:

“An erotic allueta in four scenes”

This way, people knew what to expect. But the players had given no such warning in Kendal – a place where local newspaper stories about artificial insemination for cows were headed:

“Dens of Vice for Bulls & Cows”

Kendal was shocked by Don Perlimplin.

The townspeople had earlier made allowances for Kristen Lind’s appearance in the streets in Britain’s prototype bikini, but Don Perlimplin was a bridge too far.

The actors were avoided in the streets. Some shops even refused to serve them. Mothers dragged in children as they passed. An invitation to dine in a big house was withdrawn, without explanation.

The company held a public meeting to discuss the play and some people spoke in support of it; but it was time to leave Kendal.

They toured Lancashire and Yorkshire villages and eventually they found themselves at the Little Theatre in Middlesborough. When they entered a woman was cleaning the floor. She told them:

“You’ll be staying at my place tonight”

Ruth Pennyman.

The actors assumed they’d be spending a bit of a cramped evening at the cleaner’s place but they were grateful for the hospitality. Later on, a huge car pulled up outside the theatre. In it were Col. Jim Pennyman and his wife Lady Ruth Pennyman, she was the woman they’d seen cleaning earlier. They’d hit the jackpot as they’d been invited to stay at Ormesby Hall where they’d have space to rehearse, dormatories and a dining hall of their own. Theatre Workshop moved in without delay.

Ormesby Original.JPG

Gerry Raffles, Rosalie Williams, Joan Littlewood, Lady Ruth Pennyman, Howard Goorney and Col. Jim Pennyman outside Ormesby Hall.
Theatre Workshop had been rehearsing Ewan MacColl‘s adaption of a Greek play, ‘Lysistrata’ – which he’d renamed ‘Operation Olive Branch’ at Ormesby Hall, their numbers had swelled once again to include Jean Newlove – whose place in the company as the Laban Movement Specialist would become of vital importance. She would also go on to marry Ewan MacColl.
Jean Newlove Uranium 235.jpg
Jean Newlove – Movement Pioneer.
Then there was Maggie Greenwood – also known as Leila Greenwood, who later married John ‘Camel’ Bury – who’d himself come along to a summer school Theatre Workshop ran at Ormesby Hall.
Maggie as a young woman 2
Maggie “What’s in a Name?” Bury Walker.
Maggie’s father, who lived locally, had heard locals talking about a strange group of actors. She said, during her interview for the documentary ‘No Time for Memoirs’:

“It was rumoured that these actors were financed by ‘Moscow gold’!”

However, she saw no red flags and there was certainly no evidence of any ‘Moscow Gold’! This company were living ‘hand to mouth’.

Ben Ellis – another recruit, was due to play a lead role in Ewan’s production. Unfortunately, due to very bad experiences he’d had in the war he suffered from PTSD and possibly due to the pressures and stresses of production, he had a total meltdown. If he saw anything made of glass he became out of control and was he discovered at one stage, smashing up everything in his room.

He was taken to hospital. His doctor said that his recovery would be easier if he went on in his part. Probably every other producer in the world would have said “No” – Joan Littlewood said “Yes”.

The other players applied Ben’s make-up, well away from any mirrors.

The doctor sat on standby in the front row.

The play went without a hitch.

Tom Driberg wrote in his Reynolds News Column that Sunday:

“Theatre Workshop productions have a freshness and vividness – a quality of startling you, by a flash of strange beauty, into thought – that I have rarely encountered elsewhere. After last Monday’s first night, bookings for the week were sufficiently good to justify a special issue of cash all round next day for a special treat, lunch out – a one and threepenny meal at a transport café”

This was one of the first mentions of Theatre Workshop in a national newspaper.

Tom Driberg did not know it, but he was mentally docketed as a friend, to be used later in furthering the Theatre Workshop vision.

Maggie Bury Walker said of their time at Ormesby Hall:

“All day we rehearsed with Joan. At night we would sit round the great fire in the kitchen singing folk songs and songs from the Spanish Civil War against the Fascists. I knew nothing about politics– but I sang lustily like every one else”

The Ormesby Village locals undoubtedly saw Theatre Workshop as eccentrics. Local gossip was rife. The station-master reported that a lion had arrived at one point for Gerry Raffles and he claimed that  Joan Littlewood had stormed into the station demanding it be returned to sender.
Col. Pennyman would sometimes invite his society friends to have a look at the company, as if they were his private menagerie!
Col. Pennyman

Col. Jim Pennyman

Also at Ormesby Hall, Joan and Ewan began a campaign to convince everyone that they had a retired admiral, with a wooden leg, living quietly amongst them. They made casual reference to the admiral until the others could not be sure he didn’t exist. To bang home the illusion, they let the others see them writing to a zoo-keeper, asking for a parrot for the admiral and then they showed them the zoo’s return letter refusing the request.

The company went away on one of many tours. of which Maggie Bury Walker said:

“We went by train with set, props and costumes in the guard’s van, traveling every Sunday – ‘fish and actors on a Sunday’, so was the saying – to Leeds, Glasgow, Dunfermline, to play in old very ‘distressed’ venues to audiences more accustomed to music hall. The tour was a financial catastrophe”

When the company returned Joan and Ewan announced the admiral was gravely ill in bed, in the room above where they all stood. There were then sudden bangs on the ceiling and a nurse dashed through, rushing upstairs. After this, Joan and Ewan wrote to the ‘St Neot’s Rest Home for Retired Admirals’ asking if their man could be taken on. The others wouldn’t believe there was such a home until a letter came back with a printed heading, accepting the patient. Following the letter, an ambulance came and two uniformed men carried out, on a stretcher, a figure wearing an admiral’s hat.

The ambulance had been borrowed through Col. Pennyman’s influence, from the St John Ambulance Brigade: it was some time before the puzzled company discovered the deception.

Theatre Workshop were very fortunate to have the Colonel and Mrs. Pennyman as their benefactors, allowing them the use of the servants’ quarters and the stables at Ormesby Hall – rent free for fifteen months.


Finally, here’s that Theatre Workshop Conservative Club favourite, ‘The Red Flag’!

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Free For All

I find myself constantly inspired by the work & legacy of Joan Littlewood. All the best people have an MI5 file!

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