The BBC said it couldn’t be done…
Many years ago I sent a radio play of mine called Ancient Pinnacles to the BBC (at their request) about the American poet Walt Whitman. And although they liked it they informed me that their schedules were full, sorry. Not to worry, I said, I’ll start my own theatre company, and get it staged that way. Their reply was that people didn’t start theatre companies anymore.
Some months later I was at a party. It was a glorious summer’s afternoon in the garden of a house in Stratford, where I was introduced to another Stratford playwright, Ian Harris, who’d just had a play of his optioned by a London agent. We helped ourselves to another drink and started talking about writing plays, talk which eventually, and probably inevitably, moved into the area of theatre companies, and how hard it had been to even get a play optioned, let alone performed. It was then we were joined by another, older, Stratford playwright, Reg Mitchell, a Yorkshire man who’d retired to Stratford a couple of years earlier. Now Reg was a seasoned playwright and director, having produced and directed over eighty productions before moving to Stratford.
To cut a long and repetitive story short we came up with the idea of starting a new professional theatre company of our own. We agreed to meet the following day at the Garrick Inn to sort it all out. That was back in 1997. How time flies. We called ourselves The Bird of Prey Theatre Company as a sort of antidote to ‘The Swan of Avon.’
Three or four pints later the deal had been done, papers signed, and a venue booked for our first production — a new play (a two-hander) by Reg, about a day in the life of Shakespeare and his wife. It was performed at The Shakespeare Centre and proved to be very popular (very well written too) and took enough money, we thought, to pay for it. When it closed we were out of pocket by a couple of hundred pounds. It still felt like a success.
It was decided to change to a less expensive venue and find somebody who might just support the shows financially. All of which we achieved. We had three months before our next show.
Reg’s play was followed by a gritty and very funny drama by Ian set in the Hollywood of the 1940s, with the action taking place in a cell on death row. It went down well and was later selected for the RSC’s Fringe Festival.
In truth Ancient Pinnacles wasn’t my first play. In the mid-1980s I adapted a short story by London writer Rosemary Taylor, into a very short play. It was first performed at the Half Moon Theatre in London, then at the Coventry Festival, finishing up at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It got some pretty good reviews too, which, I have to assure you, was down to the great acting and not my writing.
My interest in writing plays withered after that and I turned to writing RSC reviews for a couple of national magazine; something I continued doing for over twenty years. It was a great learning experience in the art of writing and staging drama.
Then, out of the blue I was commissioned by a jazz singer to write and direct a dramatic vehicle for her and her all female orchestra. It had to be done quickly and staged before The Bird of Prey’s next show. It was a joy to do, especially when I was able to use some Duke Ellington numbers from the early 1930s, the period when the show is set. It worked well, with a lot of humour, with just a hint of The Godfather about it. It premiered at the RSC Fringe, followed by a short tour of South Warwickshire venues. It was huge fun and a great way of creating a good ensemble of actors, some straight from college.
With that finished I concentrated on re-writing Ancient Pinnacles, and somehow managed to get Walt Whitman to stand up and inhabit the stage. My dear friend, Pete Cubitt, played the part of the old Whitman, and Tim Guest (who has had his own theatre company for many years now) playing the young Walt Whitman. They worked brilliantly together, even becoming different characters as the play moved along. A big box full of different hats is an important requirement. The action of the play takes place on the last day of Whitman’s life in 1892, with the young Walt arising out of piles of discarded papers and assorted rubbish on the floor of Whitman’s front room. And it was when Pete’s Whitman started to speak of the boys being about early (with the Brooklyn Ferry’s whistle blowing in the distance) that the shivers went up my spine, and I knew the real Whitman was right in front of me. I’m sure the old man himself would have been pleased.
The same thing happened with my next play, A Summer Garden, where Edward Elgar and Frederick Delius meet one summer’s afternoon in Delius’s garden in a small village south of Paris in 1933. By that time Delius was paralysed and using a bath chair (an old form of wheel chair), pushed about by his silent German nurse. The two composers spent several hours together, drinking champagne and talking, often joined by Delius’s wife Jelka. It was a simple idea that worked very well.
What they had spoken about no one knew, so it was a joy for me to put words in their mouths. Hitler had taken power that same year, so their response to that came in, as did the differences in their styles of music, and their respect and undoubted love for each other.
In the original production the part of Delius was played by an actor who was suffering from MS, and therefore confined to a wheel chair. Imagine my joy when, rummaging around in a BBC props warehouse in Birmingham (long gone) I came across the bath chair the BBC used in Ken Russel’s 1960s film about Delius working with Eric Fenby in the 1920s. When our Delius, dressed in a white suit and white fedora, was wheeled on that first time in 1999, the members of The Delius Society who attended the first night gasped. He had become real.
Since then, as the novelist John Wain advised me many years ago, I have concentrated on writing about historical characters the audiences may be familiar with. I’ve concentrated on writing about real people ever since, including Ernest Hemingway, Genghis Khan, Winston Churchill, Lawrence of Arabia, and more. This led to an American magazine inviting me to write a feature about the art of dramatically recreating people from the past.
A good example is, 1651: An Evening with Oliver Cromwell, a dinner play set one evening a few days before the Battle of Worcester in 1651, where Cromwell and Major General Thomas Harrison dine with the audience around a large table, discussing the forthcoming battle, family problems, spies, love, death, and all the rest. We ensured, as best we could, that the food and drink served was of the period. The show included several new songs and has played at several venues, including a performance for The Battle of Worcester Society.
In 2016 I was commissioned to write and produce a play for The Worshipful Companies of Bakers, in the City of London, to commemorate the 350th Anniversary of The Great Fire of London. The result was The Great Fire of London Remembered: An Evening with Samuel Pepys, which was repeated over five nights in the Baker’s Hall (just along from the Tower of London) as a dinner party play. It was a great success, and starred my wife Hilary, Steve Devey (Sam Pepys), me, and Kay Whittaker. Again, we sang some new songs written by the four of us, and changed the script to suit a new audience pretty much every night. It was a confirmation, yet again, that people love to see recreations of historical characters brought to life, especially when they’re within touching and jesting distance.
And although my two fellow co-founders of The Bird of Prey Theatre Company moved on to pastures new some years ago, the company is still in business.
Currently I’m writing an opera with a wonderful Stratford composer.
What do the BBC know?