I was trying to figure out the other day, about the changing world of theatre and why it had come about. What started me thinking was I saw Michelle Collins (of Cindy fame in EastEnders and Stella fame in Coronation Street) who told me she is about to star in a tour of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Bizarrely I saw a production of this play at the Pinter Theatre in the West End in 2018. I went with my grandson, Harry McHale, who is studying to be an actor at Mountview Theatre School. We both loved the production. It was the first time I’d seen a Pinter play for I don’t know how many years. And now they’re like buses – two come along together – well not quite together, two years apart, but for Pinter in the new millennium that could be classified as being together.
When I first became interested in drama, and in those days becoming an actor, being a writer wasn’t really on my radar, I would read any play I could lay my hands on. In our school library there were various play collections as well as a number of single plays. How or why they were chosen to adorn those educational shelves I have no idea. But I read them all – everything from Osborne to Sophocles, Wesker to Shakespeare, Orton to Chekhov. If it was a play – I read it. Don’t ask me why – I have no idea, I just loved them. I loved them so much, that many of them were never returned, and are still in my possession … not that anyone really noticed as I think I was the only person in the school that read plays.
One of the first plays I read was called The Caretaker by none other than Harold Pinter. It had been premiered in 1960 and although my mother had never seen the play, she had heard about it and when she realised I had an interest in drama and plays, she encouraged me to read it. This must have been 1964. Four years earlier she’d encouraged me to read something else, not a play a novel. It’s hard to believe now but D.H. Lawrence’s book Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was first published in 1928, had fallen foul of the censorship laws of the time. It’s description of sex and use of the word ‘fuck’ were considered unacceptable. In 1960 Penguin books published an unexpurgated version, which became the subject of an obscenity trial. Penguin won and the censorship laws in Britain were rocked. Hard to believe, when now you can log onto the internet and watch whatever sex act takes your fancy and listen to obscenities that wold have shocked Lawrence on your average late night comedy show. Twentieth century Britain was different. When Penguin won the case it was big news, and everyone was talking about it. I happened to make some comment about the book, to which my mother asked if I’d read it? Of course I hadn’t read the book, it was naughty … it was dirty, even if I had have read it I wouldn’t have owned up to it. The next night, on my bed was an unedited version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I loved the book. Yes – it was the sexiest thing I’d ever read – it knocked Ian Fleming’s description of Honeychile Rider emerging naked from sea in Dr No clear into touch. I went on to read virtually every D.H. Lawrence novel. So when she urged me to read The Caretaker – I was there.
It didn’t have the same impact as Lady Chatterley’s, it had a completely different impact. I’d never read anything quite like it. The story is really a psychological study of power between a tramp and two brothers. It’s full of undertones and complex characters. If you’re a drama student I urge you to read it or better still, if possible, see it.
Around the same time, I read John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, Wesker’s Chips With Everything, Entertaining Mr Sloane by Joe Orton and loads more. So when I eventually did go to study to be an actor, I had a wealth of knowledge not only about modern day plays, but also classic drama.
At the time I didn’t realise it, but I was undergoing a massive learning curve. These plays were giving me a solid grounding about what writing a play involves.
At college that knowledge and understanding of what made a good play and the structure of plays was expanded even further. Like Harry, my grandson, I’d go see anything and everything I could. Fringe theatre was just starting to really blossom and at that point in time musicals had not got their strangle hold on the West End. You were spoilt for choice about what you could see.
But this access to good drama wasn’t just available in London, because of the repertory theatre system that was then country wide, all types of plays from Ray Cooney farces to Edward Albee’s tortured dramas were accessible to all.
And there were a number of first-class touring theatre companies, plus the National Theatre, which toured and played to full houses, even in Bradford. Whilst writing this I realised that in an earlier blog – Sucking The Life Out Of Life, I lied. I said the first National Theatre production I saw was The Advertisment at the Old Vic, which wasn’t strictly true. The first National Theatre production I saw was a touring version of The Three Sisters, starring Joan Plowright and directed by her even more famous husband Laurence Olivier. It was 1967 and the Bradford Alhambra showed its appreciation. I loved every minute of it and especially when at the end of the show Laurence Olivier thanked the audience for remembering him.
Harry, that same grandson, vehemently recommended we should go to see the current production of The Three Sisters at the National. I thought it must be just another production of Chekhov’s great play – not so. Russia is nowhere in sight. We’re in Nigeria from 1967 to 1970 in the middle of the Biafran War. I have not always been the biggest supporter of the reworking of the classics, it seems such a hit and miss affair, but this was, in the words of David Jacobs a definite hit (for those not old enough to remember Google Juke Box Jury). It took the premise of the original Chekhov play and transposed it to that war-torn country. You can tell when a play’s good – it doesn’t leave you. This was theatre that was up there with the best. But of course nowadays unless you travel to London you won’t get a chance to see it.
The world of theatre has changed. The reps have gone and along with them the chance to see drama that wasn’t just a mainstream musical or a pot boiler thriller. Don’t get me wrong, both have their place, but a bit of thought-provoking entertainment can’t be a bad thing now and then.
I cut my teeth in rep earning to begin with £20 per week. I could hardly keep myself for that, let alone my wife and son. But somehow, we managed. We would attract loyal audiences that came and watched a variety of shows. It was hard work, but speak to anyone who was there at the time and I believe the majority of them will tell you they loved it.
So is it just the vanishing reps that have caused this change, or are there other contributing factors? Whoever it was that said teenagers only have an attention span of ten seconds was surely a contributing factor. MTV can’t have helped. 50 TV channels has certainly played a part. And the need to sit for hours in front of mindless video games has got to have taken its toll. All these combined created the change which we now experience.
Then of course – there’s the X Factor. I wanted to be an actor, so did my friend Simon Rouse who has had a really successful career playing a real variety of roles. There was no thought for either of us of being famous, the main thing was to get a job and do what you wanted to do – act. Simon still has that need to act.
Nowadays drama schools are producing fodder for musicals and soaps. Neither are a real apprenticeship for an actor. Of course some go on to carve out a career, but most slip away into the abyss of oblivion. It’s the same with writers. If there were writing degrees when I was starting out, I didn’t know about them. I just had to write. It’s not something I had a choice about – I had to do it, I still do. I’m fairly certain if I’d never earned a penny from writing, I’d still be doing it. But like the would-be X Factor stars a lot of people only see cash and celebrity – that’s why they want to write and that’s why they take courses, paying hundreds and thousands of pounds every year in an attempt to buy fame and fortune.
I’m regularly asked to give lectures/talks at Universities, colleges, events, even dinners and if I can, I will. Not for the money, but because I like talking about writing. Talking about my career and my approach to being a writer, nearly always reignites in me the reason I started to write. It wasn’t for the cash, it wasn’t to be on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, it wasn’t because I wanted to write myself a cracking role (when I still acted I never once wrote a part for myself) – it was because I liked telling stories. Last year I gave a talk at a Uni where the students were doing a BA in creative writing. The majority hadn’t ever read a Shakespeare, they didn’t really know who Dickens was and their foremost point of reference was Dr Who. Maybe the fact that nobody is telling these students the truth and allowing them to carry on in some delusional state thinking that writing a script or a novel is a piece of piss, and there’s no work involved or no understanding the form, is another contributing factor to the dearth of drama in the provinces.
If you see The Birthday Party is coming near you, then throw caution to wind, live dangerously and go and see some Pinter. It might be the last chance you get, Caretaker the musical can’t be that far off.
But having said all that … I’m deeply optimistic that one day we will again see the reps rise up and regain their rightful place.