Theatre Workshop had to fight for everything they had – with a little help from their friends.

Joan Smashing ConventionsPicture by Theatre Workshop member, Howard Greene

Immediately after WWII, the five company members of Theatre Workshop who re-formed were Joan Littlewood, Ewan MacColl, Rosalie Williams (an actress discovered in the Manchester University Stage Society) Gerry Raffles (ex RAF pilot) and Howard Goorney (newly out of the army).

Howard Greene's EwanPicture by Theatre Workshop member, Howard Greene

Their pooled cash didn’t add up to much and after buying equipment they had £300 left to keep them for a time and to pay their rent.

Gerry as a Young Feller.jpg     Gerry Raffles

The company began rehearsing on the top floor of an old warehouse in Lower Mosley Street near Manchester’s Central Station. They kept a ruthless eye open for other talented people who could be of service.

While travelling with a BBC recording car (to earn cash to bring back to the company) Joan became interested in the skills of a young sound engineer, David Scase. She had to find a way to get him involved.

First, she let drop a hint to Scase about a good-looking young woman that she wanted him to meet. Then she invited Rosalie Williams to the BBC, placed her in a waiting room and said: “I’m going to ask David to come down here. I’ll introduce you; then it’s up to you to ‘do your stuff’ – get him involved”.  Rosalie took David out for a drink, talked him into giving up his well-paid job and bringing along his savings.

Within ten days David Scase had married Rosalie Williams!

 

The Proposal 1949 H Goorney and Rosalie WilliamsTheatre Workshop’s Howard Goorney & Rosalie Williams in ‘The Proposal’. 

 

But before his wedding, David Scase had found himself unemployed, shirtless and acting upstairs in a warehouse with the rest of this unique group.

One day, knackered, Scase stood listening to Joan Littlewood criticising the group.  One long-standing company member piped up:

“You say we can’t move, we can’t breathe – how on earth have we managed to live all these years?!” – Howard Goorney

Scase admired Howard’s bravery in the face of Joan’s ire!

 

Reynolds News Joan

 

At weekends the group went walking in the Derbyshire Peak District. From other ramblers, they heard a rumour that there was a crashed aircraft on top of Bleaklow on the Yorkshire border.  Thinking that the aircraft’s landing lights might be modified for stage use, the company scrambled up the mountain.

They found the wreckage almost fully buried in the peat. They dug down and soon discovered an Aladdin’s Cave which had lain abandoned for years

The aircraft, an American plane, had carried a film unit. The group of theatrical diggers unearthed Hollywood Kleig Lights, some of them still intact.  Then, loaded like pack mules, they stumbled down the mountain and rebuilt the pieces into one of the finest stage lighting sets to be found in Britain.

Work developed fast in every department, David Scase, whenever he could get his shirt on, built up the sound equipment and thrilled the others with his ability to keep six turntables going at once with every needle in exactly the right groove.

Bill Davidson, another recruit, who had worked on wartime glider development, adapted aerodynamics to building theatre equipment, including a lightweight, portable revolving stage.

Ewan MacColl, the resident playwright, took a two-hour lesson in nuclear physics every day from Davidson and H. Verity Smith, the lighting expert: when he’d learnt his lessons he wrote the play URANIUM 235, which was to eventually bring Theatre Workshop great acclaim and influential friends such as Sam Wannamaker

Much later, at the 1951 Edinburgh Festival, they swept the boards with a new, full-length version of Uranium 235. Henry Sherek saw them there and praised the play to Sam Wanamaker who went on to see Uranium 235 in a cellar in Manchester.  He worked tirelessly to get them into the Embassy, Swiss Cottage, then one of London’s most interesting fringe theatres. (Now the Central School of Speech & Drama)

Wanamaker sold batches of seats and even the whole house to organisations – making it a real success.

Critics were impressed. So much so that Theatre Workshop moved the play, under their own steam, into the Comedy Theatre in London’s West End, where it played for a month to bad houses and so they headed Northward again as badly off as ever.

“What your Nan fought for, and your grandfather – you’ve got to bloody well fight for too” – Joan Littlewood (Community Arts Event, Trafalgar Square, Late 1960s)
**Information included in this blog was taken from the John Ennis articles, written in 1960, for Reynolds News. The paper included a series of four pieces over a four week period about the Theatre Workshop Story and the journalist was given access to probe Gerry Raffles. It has been my great fortune to have each of these papers gifted to me (for the sharing) by Brian Astbury whose books on theatre and writing are must reads. They will also be of immense use in the upcoming documentary ‘Maverick’ which delves into the politics and working practices of Joan Maud Littlewood. 
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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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