There’s quite a lot of romanticisation surrounding the early years of harsh struggles faced by the ever-growing band of dedicated artists who made up Theatre Workshop, however, their reality whilst creating theatre by the people – for the people in the 1930s 40s & 50s takes the notion of ‘struggling artists’ to towering new heights.
Dedication doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Maggie Bury Walker (company member from 1947 – 61) said in her interview for the documentary ‘In the Company of Joan’:
“We would often have to disband in order to go off and earn some money, then bring it back and put it into the kitty so that we could continue”
The summer of 1950 was one occasion when Theatre Workshop found itself scattered to the four winds. They were all gathered back together in the Autumn by Joan Littlewood.
They met up in Manchester, pooled their meagre resources and made plans for an extended series of one-night stands, beginning with a tour of Welsh mining villages.
For £25, they bought a flat topped lorry that had once served the GPO. For £3, they bought the body of an old removal van, George Cooper (a builder’s draughtsman from Leeds who’d joined the company in 1949) was made foreman and the gang fitted the two vans together. However, the mudguards were continually falling off & Gerry Raffles (Theatre Workshop’s General Manager) once had to stop a radiator leak with a cork! Gerry was the driver and company members have since described his road style as “continental”. However, the trusty van carried its party of players around these shores even if at various times it demolished a tree, took a drainpipe from a wall and accounted for a few Belisha beacons.
At one stage, they had an intercom rigged for communication between the cab and van. People in the back used to scream into it:
“Slow down or we’ll jump out!”
They’d also make ‘subtle’ criticisms of Raffles navigation, such as:
“Surely the sea should be on our left, not our right?”
Finally somebody tore out the intercom and threw it away.
Returning from shows, Joan would sit in the back and strike through a box of matches to read her notes on each performance to the actors.
One day, they encountered a man who owned a garage. He allowed the group to use his tools and equipment for an hour. The luxury of this situation ran away with the actors and six hours later, they had the lorry painted. But only along one side so whenever they arrived in a village wanting to make an impression, they were always careful to present the lorry ‘painted side first’.
If they were invited to a ‘do’ before or after their show they borrowed outfits from the wardrobe and the men slept on the trousers the night before to give them a neat crease.
On one occasion, they planned a grand entrance to a small town, but the lorry broke down 300 yards from base. Luckily they always carried with them a board fitted with roller-skate wheels, so they used this to take in their equipment. That said, it took them sixty journeys along the main street – shattering all hope of their grand entrance.
The lorry’s most effective breakdown occurred on New Years Eve, 1950, when a gasket blew on a snow-covered country road outside Shrewsbury.
Sixteen people were on board, bound for Rhymney Bridge, South Wales. Some began hitch-hiking. Others went to Shrewsbury to look for a hotel. Raffles and half a dozen others stayed all night in the lorry with a bottle of rum.
Later in that tour, they met Howard Greene, an Art Master at the local grammar school in Rhymney. He had a reputation for performing side-splitting sketches at social evenings. His friends urged Joan to take him on. One conversation later he was in: that is, he exchanged his £15 a week teaching job for ‘food and cigarette money’ and a make-shift bed in the back of a clapped out GPO van. Within three days he was acting in Shakespeare!
For their tour of mining villages, Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles wrote a play about mining, ‘The Long Shift’; they went to Newtown Pit, Swinton, Lancs. for their facts.
This time they were more determined than ever to take their work to the people but convincing the people they needed a theatre at all was sometimes a wearying task. There seemed, for instance, to be a tradition in Wales that only women went to see plays.
The actors had to go from door to door, talking the men into giving the thing a try.
But there were those who were always delighted to have the group visit and often a small town would bring out its brass band to greet them and miner’s wives would lay out a spread on trestle tables because they knew the actors were poor and they wanted to make sure they ate so they could lug their equipment in on the energy gained from a plate of chips.
Often the village electricity came from the pit’s supply and the stage lights dimmed as the pit cages carried the night shift down to work.
The players stoically faced difficulties that would have sent most actors into screaming hysterics. They went to places where most Arts Council backed companies didn’t.
Appeals to the Arts Council for a grant didn’t even bring replies at that time and they strongly suspected they’d been labelled as communists. It turns out they had.
Local policemen often behaved as if they’d discovered a group of anarchist bomb-plotters when the Theatre Workshop van arrived in town.
At one place in South Wales, a police inspector went to incredible lengths of intimidation, warning the company’s local sponsors that unmentionable troubles would befall them if the show went ahead and warning the owners of the hall not to let the players rehearse or there’d be trouble.
When his warnings were all ignored, he turned up at rehearsals and stood, glowering, from the rear. Joan responded by asking who he was, then offering him a part in the play!
For ‘The Long Shift’, the actors wore mining helmets and singlets, with streaked coal dust for make-up. They entered at the back of the hall and tramped down the aisle to the stage as a sound effects record played the clanging of a lift-shaft bell.
One very cold night they put on the play in a hall where they could reach the back only by going outside and walking round to the main entrance. Real miners, dressed in their Sunday best, refused them admission. They said:
“You ought to look better. You’re not coming in here in pit clothes. Go home and have a wash”
The actors tried to explain whilst they listened to the lift-bell inside clanging and clanging and clanging.
The play began only when somebody burst from inside the hall and convinced the doormen that they were holding things up.
The summer of 1951 found the company living in communal poverty in a couple of rooms in Oxford Road, Manchester, known as ‘The Ballet Club’.
It was the year of the great fruit glut and one day, when funds were particularly low they found out that tomatoes and plums were going to waste in the Vale of Evesham. Here was an activity after their socialist-idealist hearts. They’d pool their money, buy tomatoes and sell them to deprived housewives in the backstreets of Salford & Manchester.
Their scheme would help keep art (well, the artists at least) alive.
George Cooper stumped up his last thirty shillings, Gerry Raffles along with John and Maggie Bury took the lorry and a tent to Evesham and bought thousands of ripening tomatoes for a penny a pound. They also got permission to strip a plum orchard for free.
Then George, John and Maggie trundled the barrow around the backstreets of Salford & Manchester, selling tomatoes at 4d per pound.
In Salford, a greengrocer accused them of taking away his livelihood. So they took the lorry, loaded with tomatoes to Hyde, Cheshire. For ten minutes, trade was vigorous; then a policeman tried to arrest them for trading without a licence.
They had to hang about the police station for hours, their stock ripening by the minute, while the desk-sergeant read up the law and found that they did not, after all, need a licence to hawk fruit.
Once they were released, the sergeant sent a bobby after them to see the broke artistic hawkers obeyed the law by keeping on the move. This ruined trade, as it was hard for Maggie to weigh tomatoes while walking beside a moving lorry.
Every evening in The Ballet Club, the members of the Theatre Workshop Tomato Syndicate held long sorting sessions, and the heap of tomatoes that were too ripe to sell grew formidable. While the others were out, Joan cooked a lot of suppers of tomato soup.
The plums were too ripe to sell so they took out the best and gave them away to children. John Bury brewed the remainder into an alcoholic drink they called ‘Plum Jerkum’.
Profits from The Tomato Syndicate worked out at £4 a head.
They decided to stick to acting.
Soon afterwards, the company began to rehearse a new play by Ewan MacColl, ‘The Travellers’. They camped in the grounds of Tom Driberg’s house in Essex and rehearsed in his loft.
A running battle went on between Joan and Harry H. Corbett (who’d joined the company in 1950 with Avis Bunnage). She wanted people to always rehearse and he wanted them to work on a neighbouring farm, where, by bean-picking they could make £50 with which to renew their attack on the next Edinburgh Festival.
Howard Greene, by now recognised as a man of brilliant ability was sent ahead to build the set for ‘The Travellers’. Joan gave him a bag of nails and a hammer and sent him on his way. Maggie Bury was also sent ahead to sort out somewhere for them all to sleep – she hitch-hiked to Scotland from Essex.
Then, after another critical success at the Edinburgh Festival – the company settled in Glasgow – money was still their problem, though they continued to find good friends who helped them keep going, including Glasgow Unity Theatre
**Information for this blog was compiled from interviews with Theatre Workshop members as well as from a series of articles in Reynolds News by John Ennis in 1960 after he’d probed Gerry Raffles and Howard Goorney. (These were gifted to me by Brian Astbury who wrote Trusting the Actor – available on Amazon)