We're not here to take, not born to indulge, we are here to kneel T.S.Eliot
In the foyer of Southbank Centre is a permanent exhibit since considerable time now, of a video made after the war: it has the enduring image of a boy who begs a penny off several revellers at the Festival of Britain, so he can enjoy the boat ride to ferry him downstream to Battersea Festival gardens, also a creation of the postwar celebration. What is worth knowing about the gardens is that they were actually in an area that was officially designated a slum, where unwed mothers were given council accommodation to keep them far away from sight so that tourists would not notice their erring ways.
In stunning contrast to this is what would take place in Battersea ten years later, precisely because it had become a ghetto, yet in sync with the sentimental education that draws on Romanticism, when Jeremy Sandford met the polished authoress Nell Dunn, a distant descendant of Nell Gwynn, he was itching for adventure, with his gypsy mother's mother, disrespecting the class system and seeking out what most in government wanted blotted out. Nell starts work in a sweet factory so she can mix with all these people, and in fact is "soon so in love with the local characters who frequent pubs", a new postwar egalitarian sport, that she starts writing vignettes of their lives, published in a book "Up the Junction". One of the stories had a harrowingly personal meaning for Tony Garnett, as it relates a backstreet abortion which goes wrong and causes the death of the mother, which really happened in Jim's mother's life, with the added horror that his heartbroken father took his life a couple of weeks later. The impact of this story on Garnett and Loach led to their first 'Wednesday Play' for t.v., which rocked the upper echelon of authorities within government and BBC, for its objective portrayal of laws that contributed to unwanted deaths.It also heralded the start of a new wave of realism, merging documentary and drama that immersed itself in exploring lives as led,with Carol White and powerful Ray Brooks in lead roles. I grew up Ray's neighbour and played with his daughter Emma, who was the same age, watching him voiceover Mr. Benn, our childhood favourite, or Rupert Bear, or hearing of him acting with her as her father in a production, I sadly fell asleep in front of as I was only five. He received particular acclaim for his lead as Reg, in "Cathy Come Home", which came about as he played with Carol White's children when visiting them with his wife Sadie, in Putney. She at the time was married to a jazz musician, but when the role came up, as Ray was a good babysitter he was asked to play Reg.
Having followed his life,chatted over the years and seen him support good causes, like small shops, or how to be less wasteful during recession, it is illogical that Carol White who slid into drug addiction after her success, is still hailed as more important, although Jeremy Sandford has written uniquely insightful and brilliant observation of Carol's life in his online diary. She was driven by a contempt for the world of men that saw her grabbing and drugging to her untimely death.
Ray by contrast has written up humble memoirs of the time, with a stab at tearing apart the world of clownish tv that now passes in front of us, 'like a circus act, red noses and headstands' as he potrays it, with a short stint in EastEnders as Wendy Richards onscreen husband, where he is unable to become a part of her life. She and others apparently have lost their identities over the years to the soap. It is banal but funny, with Ray soon off to use the handsome pay to self publish his own stories, bringing us full circle.
There are so many parallels to Jeremy and Jean taking on the homeless toughs of Edinburgh, or going to Berlin, Brecht's cradle of theatre where they fell in love with the seamstress, or cook, or technician under the massive Volksbuehne, sharing their lives so that we would eventually mix all in a play about East and West.
Without a doubt the contribution of theatre to life is to afford life a meaning. The ancient Greeks did this when at the same time as philosophising they developed theatre about the gods, and this theatre was a way of looking at all the emotions we are capable of: love, anger, jealousy, lust, envy and so on. Who would have guessed that our work at People's Stage, Berlin would change the direction of European theatre, Frank Castorf, long recognised by dissidents in the East came to watch and soon shook hands with all the street folk, organising a party in the underground canteen where Wally Schmitt gave Orders of Lenin in hilarious fashion filched from the old, now defunct regime, always seeking a way to forward the social honours into the future, with her son Paul now acting Europewide, or earlier when she had set up the only Independent Actors Union in the German Democratic Republic. The final stroke was her speaking as a feminist activist to hundred of thousands in front of Alexanderplatz, and then fighting tooth and nail to make our production with street homeless happen.
Finding the biggest budget in the history of European theatre for theatre, not socially aware like Edward Bond or Brecht might be, but actually putting the homeless centre stage. The most memorable image of this time was when the homeless from West and East Berlin soup kitchens started rehearsing in the People's Stage. They were able to walk freely around a public building, in itself a rare honour, but soon they realised they could sleep under the stage. Jeremy chatted to Jean about everything, putting her opinions above his own, and was soon convinced the scene would be superb in the play. The homeless could interrupt a Moliere play, when out of the trap door they would peek and climb, asking the way to the cantina for lunch.
"Don't you realise you are interrupting a professional production?" the outraged actors would say.
"Don't you realise we are also rehearsing here?" Jumbo would respond, an actor from the circus we had supplied from a soup kitchen. He was defiant and his heart leapt visibly with joy at the opportunity to perform this role..
The Grassmarket Project,in Edinburgh started with a relatively happy couple Jean Findlay and Jeremy Weller deciding to reach out to the poorest in Edinburgh, after studying at Goldsmith's together. Jeremy had suffered the worst most humbling blow a brother can, the loss of his sister, but given this he wished to understand the motivations of such an action. So like the Greeks we are faced today with the same themes, as in the case of Carolyn his sister it was the emotion of jealousy that had forced her lover's hand. Although the work would go on to inspire our most celebrated female dramatist of the last twenty or thirty years, Sarah Kane to become a practitioner of experiential theatre, it was Carolyn that led Jeremy to seek theatre that answered deep personal issues as for example why a lover can kill. Jean was as heartbroken as Jeremy and his family, for Carolyn and he were extremely close. She had in fact also wished to become a successful artist and this was exactly what had annoyed her love.
By seeking the lower depths, this brought questions as to the ethics of art, which for Jean and he was to act as a form of self therapy:"all theatre is a model for a society that is all inclusive, just as the gods in Greece were there to represent all our drives and obsessions so for modern man he must be able to see himself reflected in theatre.
"The creation of a play is similar to the creation of an ideal society: all are treated with respect and dignity." That was what Jean wanted Jeremy to believe in a Romantic Scottish sentimental education that would revive his belief in Albert Camus' 'living in good faith'. The same applied to Nell Dunn, descended from the loving acrobat of Charles Second's dreams, Nellie and named after her, when she left comfortable Chelsea to work in a sweet factory in Battersea which at the time was assigned by government as a 'slum'. The experiences that she and Jeremy Sandford had would have enormous impact on the development of cinema and television that still leads the way today with Ken Loach working for justice.
"A Cathy Come Home for the Nineties" is how Independent on Sunday's Irving Wardle described 'Glad', a play with homeless from Edinburgh, performed in a hostel which Ken Branagh described as "deserving all the support it can get". It did that with British Council funding for Paris Pompidou,a Prudential and Fringe Firsts, year after year with the BBC following us to Berlin, where we guested at the magical Volksbuhne, the first social realist stage, dating back to 1889, still renown as leader of anarchic experimentation. In fact we were asked to then develop homeless work there, comparing East and West as Glad was their first hit in years, "showing the streets of the West aren't paved with gold". They then asked us to and gave us the budget to work with street people there, unthinkable at the National, but there it led to an Academy of Arts' Prize,and reintegrating homeless in the most expensive play ever staged. They still have an office and tour as the rats:Ratteite. We had risen from outsider eccentrics to be invited to work at the National Theatre, while in Edinburgh, Sarah Kane attending MAD,our third in trilogy, after homeless men in GLAD and offenders in BAD, about real women on the verge of breakdowns,often spoke of it, as quoted in Aleks Sierz's book, as giving her life a drive, to theatre. Italian cinema and Polish theatre were both responsible for making Jeremy and Jean reach out to the street for inspiration.
Jean Findlay was without a doubt the magician at the heart of Grassmarket,unashamed of her affairs of the heart, who having perceived the deep hurt of homeless and Jeremy driving himself insane to harness their hurt on stage, decided to make a play along side of MAD,called the Big Tease,which profoundly altered the dynamic of the company.
As a photographer Jean had used black and white pictures to document the street characters, Jimmy, Cowboy, an old man who dressed in Cowboy gear, as well as Terry Francis Rigby and Cecil who had sung in music halls, with such power that half of what people found themselves doing was going through the programme notes, each of which consisted of a full page portrait and biography of them. It was remarkably effective at bringing them out as actors as well, as it gave them such dignity. They were handled with kid gloves,she administered Terry's daily Carlsberg, as much as providing him company. Sally and Lala her closest friends also would take it as given that the street living men should each have plenty of attention.
Similarly then with the BIG TEASE the women were given an opportunity to explain why they were go-go dancers in the first place, one for example reenacted her conversation with her pimp about wishing to study. With a stroke of artistic integrity and genius though Jean would employ the same dynamic of black and white artist portraits of the women projected across a screen, at the back, which worked extraordinarily powerfully to highligh the difference in their inner beauty, compared to the lives they had to lead to get by.
Having visited New York and a filmmaker who took me to lunch with Quentin Crisp, I thought I had met the most curious man who ever lived. He was meant to be interviewing a woman I was invited by but instead explained that it was his ambition to talk with every one on the planet for fifteen minutes, so he interviewed me instead. Frustrating as it was to the woman who had made a film about a renown NY transvestite, he chattily spent the whole time asking me what I did and so I had gone into working with street folk. Equally in Jeremy I found another person dedicated to exploring human relationships with strangers.
In Berlin I took him to a party where he invited a woman home, who actually spent the night with him at hers, a condom placed neatly in the middle of his bedside desk, which he ignored and went to sleep. It reminds me of going to London to visit him with Annagret Hahn, the love of a renown German actor, Ulrich Muehe famous for the Oscar winning 'Lives of Others'. In the film Muehe plays a spy who changes sides to support the more progressive artists who are questioning the authoritarian regime. It showed how the Stasi, secret police, would go to people's flats and move things around, just so that they would feel a fear of surveillance, or make out that an innocent person was one of them. Jeremy and Helen came to meet us in the London hotel. Annagret told me on the plane back, she felt that many people regretted things they had said to the secret police under communism, implying that she had herself and was guilty. So life throws out all sorts of information at us.
"You love his soul, it's just his character you cannot stand," Terry Francis Rigby chuckled to Jean.
"Some are born great, but some have greatness thrust upon them"Jean used to say to Jeremy. It was true that his upbringing meant that he was often driven by suspicion of others, much like the street hards. Jean with her stunning Celtic looks,strong jaw and piercing blue eyes was inspiring, as much as her three sisters, the second eldest Annie, whom I had met at Third World First, a unique Edinburgh venture at the time, for having the power to bring African leaders in opposition to come and talk with a sympathetic crowd. They would beam as we tried to analyse how they coped with the regime they were struggling against, occasionally they came from South America as well. Annie impressed me immediately as the second time I met her, she was walking from the Meadows,having donated her coat to a freezing homeless man.
"Jeremy distrusts everyone, like I heard of Ken Branagh from people he knows. The moment someone like that from Belfast, or Jimmy from Gorbals, or Jeremy from his life as a soldier's son, going through twenty schools, makes a mark they assume they cannot hold on."
I nodded."It's like when he made me walk across the nine beds at the People's Stage, Berlin, to put the little black and white television up. He is aware how tenuous the hostel dwellers in the scenes relationship to the outside is."
"The soap they are watching is their padding in the cell, it lets them feel a part of things."
"That must be why soaps are so dysfunctional, to let us viewers feel better" I replied.
"That is like him, he is listening to a television that represents hope,hope that the outside is really there, that it might care."
It reminds me of the South American Mario Luis Cobos who I met and chatted with in one of his many centres of study, around the world. Talking under the Argentine dictatorship he started a poor people's philosophy which it always amazes me has remained such a secret tip,as opposed to the fashionable philosophies of Derida, Sartre or others who considered themselves an elite. Maria Luis or Silo as his nickname to friends has poor followers in favelas and India's slums who read his guides to personal growth and stability in over twenty languages, in fact he was invited by dictator Kaunda to Africa who much to his surprise listened to all his suggestions, then instead of asking him to leave the country, complied with his instructive works and changed the course of his country. There is a story an award winning story,called Kaunda in the collection, 'Day of the Winged Lion'. His generous embrace when we met reminds me of the different qualities of nations have. Like Wally in Berlin who had risen out of the darkness of dictatorship to speak of a generation that did not want to work for work's sake, but to celebrate a rich Brechtian tradition in his first theatre there is an innocence that our colonial past has lost. A world march for peace in 2009 to 10 led to an array of artists and followers from Pete Seeger,to Viggo Mortensen, President Carter of America, and the women leaders of Chile and New Zealand. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people. Annie also believed in the same leadership from grassroots.
"It's freezing, Annie, why haven't you got a coat on?" The wind blew across the Meadows and there she was, waiting to be huddled in to a cafe where she told me she had no choice but to donate her coat to a poor man. The Grassmarket Project which has influenced so many thousands of lives and created projects and homeless newspapers in Paris and Berlin would hardly have been conceivable but for her generous simplicity.
Jean was formidably independent of Jeremy, often more in touch with Sally and Lala, who studied with her, always about the practicalities of transferring a show around the world that was so dependent on fragile, vulnerable sorts, learning to take control of their own lives, revelling in it. As she took on The Big Tease it marked a chance by talking of her life and exploring the roles women played in life to get by to also have a dig at Jeremy.
"Your attention is drifting," she said, as he spoke of touring to some unknown country. "You have taken on the consciousness of the homeless men whose uncontrolled violence is soul destroying."
"You won't win your sister's conscience by descending to dubious levels of inner violence," I vaguely added,"if your attention span drifts from person to person, without ever reaching a state of equilibrium, you will take out the abuse on Jean."
"I feel abused" she told me.
It is a curious fact that women are often given a minor role when they work equally hard: Kane may have praised us for the third play about mental breakdown, but she failed to really understand what she was saying: the play led her to make theatre, but it was for her she boasts "inoculation against far more serious illness." What did she mean? I can only imagine that she would have let her rage at the world's suffering eat her up. All the same the angst she portrayed ate her up and emtied her quickly. Although all her major students know of our MAD inoculating her in a way she condoned the violence by not offering any solutions. There were no lives rising from addiction and self hatred towards creative goals. In Berlin our work gave the members of state theatres a first hand look at those suffering and they reacted as did journalists. Take the paper that wrote that Volksbuehne was like Battleship Potemkin: upstairs there was a business who had rented the main hall for a party, while downstairs Wally Schmitt was complying with her socialist instinct by donating Orders of Lenin to the brave hostel crowd who joked, danced with similar victims in Berlin. Some even took them home for a night. I met a Sirkha whose father had emigrated to the West and so had grown up without one. She invited me after a drink to her small home. It was clear that our theatre was a revolution in values.
"I know Brecht would have approved," said Klaus Trappmann a leading radio reporter. "He befriended homeless poets and was very keen that they and non actors should be on stage also."
"There are some who do not like us here,"I worried aloud to Sirkha, "as we have allowed the older men to piss into a bucket at the back of the stage. When they hit the base it makes a noise that echoes far and wide."
I was exotic to her and she gave me a drink and soon a kiss. Then she flew to London without warning and was soon involved in our cause, laughing in dimly lit bars as we bumped into the cast Les, above all,a gypsy who wanted to fight me for her, if my pal Calum had not intervened.
"I worry that your friendship with the street kids is upsetting Jean,my sister," he would say to Jeremy.
"Generally I agree,Lala is worried, everyone is, but I think as much of her Big Tease. She was superb in her empathetic approach, I doubt any one else could ever manage to get gogodancers to undress their souls as well as bodies,"I replied.
Having sat in front of her dancers I had seen the confusion and yet wish to share.
Like in De Sica's Bicycle Thieves young parents living rough were found there for a reason, adventure in part, as GLAD rose so high to tour, invited to New York and Moscow, simply because there were stories and real ones that were uncontrived and performed by people themselves who metamorphosed in the telling, from victims of cruel circumstance to be awarded, discussed and invited out. One of the street hard alcoholics in Berlin 'Hundert Mark', 'One Hundred German marks', was his name, a currency, found a journalist photographer, assigned to his story, fall head over heels in love with him. Unwittingly the work created a social revolution, with those affected now being talked of, now being made love to.
Within a year of Berlin beginning we heard of leading drama college's students wanting to direct the cult homeless Ratten at People's Stage. The actors had looked askance at us, some of them sitting in the canteen for three decades, unable to fathom whether the homeless we gave lunch money and shelter were meant to be there. Even West Berlin's own People's Stage, built on the Wall's construction, to show in the propaganda war was also capable of serving working class theatre, embarrassingly invited us to watch "Lower Depths". We went as relations between East and West assured us free entry but soon realised only actors performed the roles. We shuffled out in the intermission. We had sacrificed all to work with salt of the earth,underbelly, brash and supportive of our 'nature' performers who stood up to scream:
"that ain't fuckin' acting"
As most theatre is a charade of regurgitating the stipulated classics we felt a great deal of energy coming from our new audiences of young, disenfranchised, even inviting homeless and downtrodden street singers to workshop with us. It reminds me of a teacher Rory Stuart who told me the classics were only labelled as such by Mathew Arnold,in the Nineteenth Century. It was a nonsense, just as the celebrity society of today that tries to compete by rehashing Shakespeare.
We read through diaries of prisoners we encouraged and found as much to wonder at.
Having support from a neighbour, Ray Brooks, Ken Loach's lead, in 'Cathy Come Home', and also his daughter Emma, I felt I was on a role, dreaming that we could make Ken's social concern into genuine change. Some liked us as little as Loach: the homeless smelled, they said, they peed on stage, fought outside the Pompidou Centre, and I had to accompany one to hospital. Jeremy and I went to the Bonner Biennale, always aware that we weren't accompanied by the street folk, so took the ornamental pineapples, displayed as gifts for our mothers. We plotted a scene in Berlin where actors in powdered faces of Moliere were rehearsing when someone pushed the trapdoor open and out poured a stream of homeless, complaining of the noise. "We have as much of a right to be on stage as anyone," they jeered,recklessly indifferent of the technical machinery little knowing that what we plotted would actually come to pass.
Before we left for Berlin, there was a Rupert Ferguson I had met who was offering a documentary to the BBC about how we rehabilitated drug dealers and set them on a creative course. With or without his knowing they had made contact with us and Richard Jobson would open the programme following our trip from Edinburgh, with Ken Smillie in his van, carrying all the beds, and minor props to drive there. Serendipidously Jean and Jeremy were both struggling in a Hoxton squat, where Rupert also had contacts,when he wasn't travelling to festivals as a mime artist,singer of actor and when we arrived in Berlin one of the most ludicrous scenes of violence erupted that must rate high on the Richter scale with tanks fighting squatters which reminded me of a Dad's Army view of Fritz. They lost and their reputation suffered with it.
Arriving back from Berlin with our street glad crew, there was Rupert chirpy as ever, letting me know that the new paper Big Issue was battling to start, naming founders Body Shop and so we went. When he spoke of any social movement so overcome was he with joy that it was like listening to one of Annie Findlay or Charlotte Pommery's guests at Third World First. He acquired knowledge of corporations that were using offshore accounts, or we discussed how Arthur and his men may well have been gypsies from India.
"That is where the idea of kingship first hails from," he explained,"so how can it be that there were no kings before then? Clearly they were travellers and were on a journey along trade routes, but with higher goals."
Ferguson was the only person from my early years, apart from Will Stockland who would donate hundreds in passing to Big Issue vendors to help them on their voyage to dignity.
He became a neighbour after Edinburgh in west london where we would converse on every conceivable topic.
"I suggest we all hire a tank," Will said, " so we can join in the effort in Iraq." It was light relief anyway, as he would often spend hours describing "going to India where my whole world changed. I met mystics and was thrown by their insights."
Whatever we discussed Rupert as the elder usually got pride of place with his depth of research. "Did you know Macbeth was a real king, and a good one? Because of the travesties of political intrigue Shakespeare portrays him and his wife as ill doers, although there is no backing for that story.
He had the cheery face of a mystic, revelling in delighting friends with his latest theories.As a young man walking through the gate of the main entrance to Kew Gardens, I did a double take, as Rupert spoke: "you see these deformed mounds?" Under the tree and bushes to the right of the Main gates we wandered. " I think these have not been dug up, because they go down deep below ground."
"You think gardeners could not remove them, so planted shrubs to cover them?"
"Yes, these recent work I have been doing on why Sheen is one of the first places of Kingship, then Kingston and Richmond, lead me to believe these are the remaining ancient ruins of Camelot."
I stood dumbfounded and shivered with the excitement at the water diviner, healer, astrologer and druid Rupert, not necessarily in that order. As said he had a water divining stick, which he showed me working magnetically drifting and winding round as though in a silent discourse with the wind,to confirm his statements.
Rumour has it that Gwyneth Paltrow and others have read his work on Arthur and legends of kingship and Merlin, which populist historian Melvyn Bragg, was too amazed by for his own dilettante and superficial skipping from topic to topic to be able to say more than: "fascinating stuff".
"Could it be that Gwyneth was Gwenivier and he Arthur?" Will was in awe as well, wondering if that table had really existed.
At the time Borrowers was being filmed around the corner with Gwyneth making her British debut.
"No one else could have written what he as about Walter Scott, 'Lay of the Last Minstrel' without an intuition bordering on the divine," I suggested, having a swig of beer to steady myself as he joined us outside in the sun.
Rupert was ruthlessly honest, always at odds with the system he saw as corrupt. He had no truck with time wasters.
"The problem with the singers who portray themselves as social revolutionaries is they are more concerned with sticking stuff up their noses.What change is Bob Dylan really achieving? the Times they are a changing' he might sing, but most of the crackhead dealers who sell drugs to underage kids for a laugh go to India to put a pendent with OM written on it around their neck,so we might consider them spiritual!"
"I sent my script to Billy Bragg and he has not sent it back. Cheeky bastard isn't he?"
Rupert was frightening when he was angry with someone, and we looked at our boots knowing that Billy Melvyn's brother perhaps was going to have trouble. As had Jail Bird, as he lividly described John Bird of the Big Issue.
'He's an alcoholic,"I muttered," he said so on television.Still no excuse for trying to keep you away from Big Issue writers, just cos he's jealous."
"There is no forgiveness, I roast traitors to the cause hung by the balls," he merrily added, as Will and I rubbed ours protectively or unaware.Actually that is not really fair, because Rupert made us giggle.
I want to wave a wand and believe it, so that we are transported back to the oldest origins of chivalry, for in spite of himself or naturally, Rupert has always attracted attention from women, as a young lad I enviously, distinctly remember.
"I used to ride a motorbike through Kew Gardens after closing as a friend worked there," he related. "I wish I could say that, but actually Freddie my brother and I used to find a way of climbing over the walls to the riverside, or paying a penny as it was all we had."
"Recently someone tried to send me to a trickcyclist, for derailing the arguments of a local politician."
"A trick what? Motorcycle?" "No a psychologist," he explains and I giggle hysterically because he has a way with words and rearranging them, as he feels like.
Rather like translating in Berlin People's Stage for Terry Francis Rigby who had cheated Death and kept going by pouring coffee down his neck, to appear a bit like the returning Knight in Jean's, Annie's and my favourite films, the 'Seventh Seal'.
"How is Terry? Or that other gypsy you housed, Roy?"he asks me, more concerned for the poor than others I know.
'He is a sort of Yorick, man of infinite jest, you would have thought someone in LA would have made Yorick the film on those bases alone,"I grin.
"I know you don't think piss of Shakespeare, since you saw Romeo and Julietby skins.
I start to feel that everything in life has a reason, founding Wand Review, while meeting Bettina Jonic, who shares my interest in Berlin theatre, as well as an amalgamation of friends,Professor Jim Haynes, John Dunbar both close to Yoko, the later introducing her to Lennon, or how I came to grow up a neighbour to Ray, Ken's best ever actor, as well as meet Jean, Annie Findlay sisters in Edinburgh who would introduce crazed director at the Edinburgh Filmhouse.
In Edinburgh one of the great followers of Saint Francis' dictum of simple spirits being more loving I think would have been Richard Holloway, like a character escaped from Alice in Wonderland, palywaly like the original white rabbit, he was our source of knowledge, taking us to Gorbals,meeting humblest which led to him being a Radio Four primetime philosopher. It hardly seems credible as I write it, that a man who talked of obscure authors, Dostoevsky or Schopenhauer could have any place in primetime in a populist age, yet the same could be said of Terry Francis Rigby, a street philosopher whose skull like face, like Yorick's, was capable of infinite jest and Jean was so attracted to him that inspite of her love of art and Jeremy would leave the beating heart of Hirst's contemporaries to go spend time here and in the highlands,researching fiction and discussing a community based theatre that could not have been further estranged from the Britart scene that beckoned. We all want to be alone, was a realisation of Virginia Woolf which may be differentiated for each individual.
It is worth rewriting history as history is written by the greedy victors, or "the most noise comes from the shallow end of the pool," as Holloway would tell us, as we travelled around Glasgow's Gorbel's estates where Annie Jean's sister would introduce me to local characters who looked confused when she told them that "real charmers serenade women with guitars". Then we were really living in a social realist Italian film, where Richard once a priest and now deserting the church forever as having been deceived that religion would solve social needs of the younger generation gaily abandoned it to become the leading supporter of the work we would start. Sitting on the Bridges of Edinburgh in a pub with Jeremy and Terry Francis Rigby laughing over a pint I realise there were flashes of eternity in our pity for the poorest that made us transmute De Sica's vision of care for the poor to
The meek shall inherit the earth, it says in the Bible or in Taoism the suggestion is that laws of nature make what is empty full and vice versa. Actually we might see the life of Jeremy Sandford as based on this philosophy: although he was married to Nell Dunn, of aristocratic family he and she were more interested in investigating his gypsy relatives and background,moving to the slum Battersea to write a book about hellraising or trailblazing,single women who had babies and had become addicted to various drugs: her first story collection "Up the Junction" was based on ordinary lives in Battersea and Clapham and was transformed into Ken Loach's first Wednesday play for today. Then in 1967 'Cathy Come Home' Loach's major landmark work further enhanced his reputation. It is often forgotten though how significant writers are, so for example, Dunn and Sandford who had researched homelessness and poverty in Battersea. It is hard to imagine the depth of feeling that made them explore these issues, but in recent years by contacting Ken Loach I have become aware he is also on an imaginative mission to uncover suffering.
Just this year he has spoken, for small crowds of people, in Camden and elsewhere about his earliest work as part of his commitment to housing. There I saw an excerpt of Ray Brooks, standing in the scene at court in which he is evicted as Reg, Cathy's husband from his home. Intoxicated by memories of growing up as his neighbour and playing daily with his daughter Emma, who died in 2006 of cancer, it left me feeling insufficient for having been on the receiving end of so much generosity. I remember well that I had watched Mr Benn, sitting on a pouffe with Emma, when mum would call us in to tell us our favourite children's programme was on.
David McKee did the artwork and has since drawn a picture of Ray with his arm around Mr. Benn, and since publishing his autobiography, "Learning My Lines" has also set up his website as 'MrBennsFriend'. When he once read on 'Jackanory' Emma watched and then went round behind the television asking, "where has dad gone? Ray grew up in Brighton, and recalls as a boy fantasising that a tunnel went all the way from the seafront to Rodean Girl's School, where he was able to access girls galore, but Ray did not need it as turns out, because he met the young love of his life Sadie and they have been together ever since.
No doubt they have on occasion annoyed each other as she related to my mum, "Ray is in the pub again", but equally Ray is a man of great charm, once canvassing at our door for the Liberal Democrats and suggesting that if she had been his wife he "would never have left you."
Of course he was being innocuous and lightheartedly chatty which must have been a relief seeing as he was always charged with different responsibilities,when not "roped into canvassing". He relates that when he met Carol White who played Cathy she had two children who would need babysitting and so he was roped into that, which led to him playing the lead. In his memories Jeremy Sandford writes at great length of the unstable relationships that Carol's increasing success led to, eventually even to her drug fuelled death. Jeremy is a remarkably good storyteller and this perhaps lies in his gypsy roots, the best known picture of him is holding an accordion as an older man, as children and adults dance in woods in a circle.
Ray also claims some gypsy blood, but bringing up three children made him a less eccentric wanderer and he still lives not far from the Thames, and some pubs I visit, holding the attention of all around, with wife Sadie, where on weekends in younger days he would take his children cycling along the towpath as far as Hammersmith Bridge, so his wife could have a break. Like many mothers the work of nurturing children takes precedence over other things, so it is a lovely anecdote that when Ray was pursued by Inland Revenue for slowly working up decades of interest up to half a million on a loan, as the children grew, one of the tax officials meeting his accountant recognised him as 'Mr Benn's friend' and took pity on these grounds of personal affection,cutting the bill by about ninety per cent.
Ray would also unexpectedly be lead in the 'Knack and How to Get it', chosen for Cannes film festival where it won the Prix, with The Beatles attending the premiere and John Lennon sat next to him. He enjoyed the high of Cannes' best hotel, which was extraordinary to Sadie and him, who were picked up from the airport in a limousine and never paid for anything, having left their small, rented shared flat in Putney. It reminds you that the empty are filled up as Tao tells us and the meek occasionally inherit the earth. Just as Jim Haynes, one of our friends who for thirty years has invited people to stay with him, between starting the ICA and Traverse and International Writers' Conference that still is the leading forum in the world.
Jeremy, Ray and Ken are remarkable also for being parents, as well as for reasons of shared imagination and insight into the lives of destitute poor: they all have daughters, Ray and Ken, called Emma, and sons beside. Maybe this is also the reason they have kept abreast of basic needs of the young for housing and dignity and never lost touch with their understanding of what trials life brings with it: in the opening of Ray's brilliant autobiography he relates his disaffection with EastEnders: he remarks with the great wit, for which he is known locally at his pub, where as a teenager I would go and listen with a schoolfriend at his feet, on the way in which actors who are leads in soaps may actually lose their own sense of self. The role they play becomes them, as was partly the case in Wendy Richards,his onscreen wife;it must have been a struggle as she grew iller too, as like Ken he is not interested in the media drivel of television dope that is the bread and butter of the modern world. As Ray also points out the world has become a disturbing and complicated place so it is easy to hide by a screen avoiding it.
Ray is disaffected and disappointed in what the world has to offer from page one of 'Learning My Lines', talking of how TV drama has "turned to wearing red noses, or standing on one's head", while Ken related and showed in his recent Q&A and talk how some of his work was forbidden for decades, including a charity broadcast he showed made for Oxfam. Always showing what he saw, just as he had asked Ray what he might say in a scene walking across a field in 'Cathy' so the drama of the 'Spirit of '45' is often a spontaneous film sequence of what the actors, chosen not for names but for what is the basis of their way of thinking. Like Grassmarket Ken is about the only filmmaker who has chosen actors as themselves, interviewing them countless times, as he relates, if that is likely to bring out the dignity of whom they might be and how that might be best exploited to shine in an improvised scene. "There is no other director as actively involved today I can think of who would seek the personal traits of an individual," I tell Jeremy. "Rather like Fellini to some extent in his actors of all shapes and sizes, or De Sica who chose the father and son in Bicycle Thieves, on the back of how they were when the father interviewed him as journalist. He immediately offered him and his son the roles which they accepted."
It is the same technique which Jean Findlay employed in her play "The Big Tease" with Gogodancers as themselves, which was undervalued by journalists who wrote as though the conflicts of those who work in the sex industry out of economic necessity, are less valid than the concurrent play "Mad" Jeremy was working on. "My mother said Jeremy would go mad if he made it," Jean related to me very authentically enough for it always to remain in my mind.
His play involved women who moan about being mentally ill and after I had played the director for days in London Drill Hall, Jean was on the phone: "how are you dealing with it?" "I have to have the scepticism of the director who does not know which of them is really ill or maybe can see the advantages of seeming ill."
"Like Sylvia Plath perhaps?"
"Or like T.S.Eliott's wife who comes across mad in his "The Wasteland". The classic hysteric has now become the classic of poetical thoughts. It is obscene like with Plath who had told Ted she did not want "the Belljar" published, only for him to publish it within a year of her suicide. Her mother was horrified by it, but Hughes sister was behind it and had never really gotten on with Sylvia. Anyway how is the "Big Tease"?
"Painful but revealing that women can think profoundly in spite of circumstances. It makes me dizzy and is confusing to be bringing out a performance from a girl who is using dancing for men to finance her studies. Her repulsively John Knox quoting Calvinist boyfriend attacks her ethics, but what is there for her to do? He cannot pay for her studies?"
"Maybe she is exploiting the system and not she who is being exploited."
"I don't know, maybe" Jean responds as pensive as ever.
"What really makes you pure is your desire to find the answer though, Jean."
"Thanks Charlie," she laughs,"I have to considering these next series of portraits"
"In black and white?"
"yeah, as always"
"You give them dignity by doing that."
"Yes. Well deserved, they look like they are in a film, do you remember in Berlin when Frank looked at the photo of Les, the gypsy Cockney who always claimed he was a better actor than Terry?"
"He looks like Gary Cooper, isn't that what he said?"
We laughed and said bye bye, but the new woman I had auditioned for in Mad was walking with me to the bus stop. "I feel like I am mad," she murmured, making me wonder if I had missed some of our conversation.
"Do you?" I replied, looking concerned. "Why is that?"
She looked at me and started: "Don't you worry Charlie, I'm not gonna go mad on ya!"
I laughed embarrassed at where the line was meant to be drawn between us. Jeremy had chosen me for the lead role, as I brought out their characters with my desire to validate them, dignify what they wished to say, and bring out the best of my compassion to exchange with their desire to look back and see themselves as new, not bound by their experience.
"Go home and have a shower and wash it all off,"Naomi told me with a hug and a much needed smile. She had been relating all her anxieties all day.
"Do they all have mental illness, do you think Jeremy?" I asked him.
"I think there are a few red herrings," he replied.
"You can all afford to have breakdowns, but I cannot," an Indian actress had stood up early and said in the improvising," in Indian life you just have to bloodywell get on. Your breakdowns are a luxury you can afford."
The other women in the room stood in hushed silence at this. Later then I added it to my questions:
"Is that right what the Indian woman said about breakdowns? Are they just a luxury some of us can afford?"
"That is a red herring, "Jerry added. He liked his red herrings, maybe instead of mackerel on toast in the morning. With a pinch of salt?
The way history puts things into drawers, so it can label and identify them is probably one of the most dangerous elements of Western civilisation. It reminds me how we would have a mighty impact on the future of British theatre with this experiential theatre. First of all the blurring of lines creates confusion in the voyeuristic audience, who feel they are not in control of their senses.
"It's like you water boarded your audience," Jean and Jeremy, I would say to them over dinner one evening.
"It is a sad thing, Sarah Kane as a young woman coming to see Mad," Jean confessed,"and saying it inoculated her against a much more serious illness later on."
"She said she was ill for a few days after seeing it, but then started her theatrical writing," Jeremy said.
"You sought her out, and she was happily the student, but the relationship altered when she became the bigger name, within her dreary angstridden theatre horse of the apocalypse." I smiled as I spoke because it is a fact that the world and the press wish for spectacle.
"Our company has resisted doing what Sarah did, putting the spectacle of murders and rapes on stage like she was in a peep show for a dictator's regime."
"I do believe you hit the nail on the head Chas," Jean chirped.
"You have allowed me to question what is the essential difference between what we did and what is usually done," she added. "By planting peoples' lives centre stage, you plant a seed simultaneously in the audience member, like Plato would have said in Greeks times, there is a goodness in all of us."
"The Plague is what needs to be healed," I added. "After the start of the war but before much had really happened in 1940, was it? T.S.Eliot published the second of his Quartets, which begins The illness must become much worse before it can grow better."
"That is the title of the play for Berlin, "the Plague", Charlie. I know you have organised a lunch with George Steiner which we ought to drive to Oxford to attend," he added guiltily, looking at his diary.
"Is that what Plagues are then?"Jean asked. "The need to be ill,to grow out of it? Maybe that is why Virginia Woolf is actually called Adeline Virginia Woolf."
"Little noble one is what it means."
"That's right, Edel means noble," I replied.
"So her nobility was to be able to express the feelings of the lost generation after the Great War?" Jeremy was thinking.
"Noble as it may have been, she could not do anything to resist the madness."
"I think you're right, Jean," I responded. "She was not all there!"
"Yes, but she was. A reincarnated Cassandra, born to know and see the truth but unable to change anyone so they would believe her view."
"You don't need to tell me that, I am called Jeremy, after Jeremiah the prophet who was destined to follow the corrupt and warn them of their doom."
"Yes, well, I prefer that than Sarah Kane, treading the plank of doom as she wrote." I smiled wryly.
"Jeremy Sandford and Nell Dunn left the comfort of artificial Chelsea life to live amongst the downtrodden single mothers of Battersea."
"Mothers?" Jean asked
"Yeah," I went on, "the government had a policy of placing them there. The unmarried mothers were to be kept out of sight of tourists."
"So they corralled them in flats in Battersea.Very interesting."
"Yes, but the fact is although you read now of how they lived in a ghetto of poverty," I ventured on
"A slum they call it," Jeremy muttered.
"Yes, a slum, but contradictorily Nell described their house there as "having the most beautiful garden she had ever seen."
"So what are you saying," Jeremy looked shocked, "that spectacle was what people want."
"They want to think the worst," Jean snorts,"see the muddy footprints of naked children in their mind eyes."
"Wretched mothers hanging themselves on the washing line," Jeremy quipped.
"Yes, they do not want to see that Nell with her aristocratic background going back as far as Nell Gwynn was a happier person falling in love with the salt of the earth."
"Salt is it? I suppose they must have some Scottish blood, salt in the porridge."
"They wrote books, "Up the Junction, Cathy Come Home"I replied.
"The truth is that Jeremy wrote Cathy Come Home about a couple who lived next door and were evicted because of their rent."
"they couldn't pay up, you now that is why Ken Loach still goes on about homeless figures and the lack of housing every week: he still attends his protest party."
Jean grasps what I am saying,"he wouldn't have made his way if he had not highlighted the poor living next door to his friends."
"Add to that he has children, he knows what pain people pass through to find somewhere they can just be, he has a party, Left Unity for that," Jeremy pondered.
"Still the only film maker with a political party."
"So that is where we have to come from,right Chas?"
"You hit the nail on the head, somewhere in the muddle of Virignia or Sarah is a lesson, they lived through, the only way they could.
"So what you're saying is that Virginia wasn't mad for hearing voices, it was because she was sane. She heard the voices of the people with their inner conflicts and violence."
We all thought.
"Maybe it reveals much about our society that a journalist for the Independent wrote about the Big Tease as being set in a sleazy disco, because he could not see beyond that.
"He comparing it unfavourably to Mad which had a journalist in it, Aaron Hicklin, raving in a diary he wrote about it in the Scotsman, that was why. It had been authenticated by a brovver journo and was more conventional than women wanting to share the pain of being objects, God forbid they should be given a second thought or taken seriously."
"The slums are clearly a state of mind," Jean says reminding me of her Franciscan halo, which is a directive.
"You are in the hell you create yourself."
"Let's not oversimplify," Jeremy says, " after all Virginia or Adeline Woolf or whatever her name was is a victim of circumstance. The lost writer of a lost generation, who could draw a picture in a mind of a caterpillar crossing a path in Kew Gardens,and you always remember it.
"How is it possible that you can describe madness without descending into it."
"Yes,we've been here. Sarah for all her rape scenes and canabilistic visions is a sensationalist," I dare myself to say.
"We all carry spells inside us, which invert if we do not let them out. It is all about spells, like the Wand of Merlin, it has to be handled. If you don't use them they will burn you too."
Examining the play Mad which delivers mixed messages about the characters, one of whom has been a victim of abuse, but then switches roles and acts out the abuse on a young male actor who she strips and kicks on stage, it appeals to the uneasiness of the audience who may feel purified by having to sit through and watch the pain entailed in living these lives but while also it is questionable as to how much we are gaining from being invited in.
I would question the validity of judging plays however, , which would lead Sarh. The one exception would be his 'Poor Cow', which starred Terry Stamp but it may have proved that his experience as Ray and Jeremy's with Carol White, swallowed up by her desire for a life of luxury to the point where she no longer remembers who she is. Jeremy Sandford's diary on his experiences with her are one of the most revealing books you can read. It is again of interest to note how far Carol White would go, from an impoverished mother who Ray and his wife Sadie, would visit with her first husband in Putney to becoming a sensation.
Coming back to the present, serendipity does have a way of bringing together like minded people, because when I grew up in my Twenties in the Nineties I would meet the Grassmarket Project founders, Jean and Jeremy, already in contact with luminaries like Jean Renoir, Joseph Beuys and Sean Connery, with the Demarco Gallery in the Royal Mile providing free rehearsal space to them, under Richard Demarco, one of the most outlandish if farsighted of Edinburgh's impresarios, who would show off that he had been to the East ninety-seven times before the fall of the Soviet bloc, and that Mi5 had approached him several times as a result convinced he must be a spy. When asking if he might join their ranks, he replied that he wished to spread understanding and cooperation with the East, not distrust. He was responsible for the start of Edinburgh having an independent reputation as a capital of culture, by initiating the Traverse theatre, as well as International Writer's Conference with Jim Haynes, a friend of John, Yoko, Germaine Greet and Editor in Chief of 'Suck', a sex magazine, breaking all convention and the International Times.
John Calder and his wife Bettina Jonic, who sang Brecht, Weill and Bob Dylan's songs were also in their inner circle. It was Bettina who would later write of her close liaison with Sam Beckett, which is worthy of a chapter of its own, as she has recently completed two books on the subject, which brings me on to the subject of how women continue to be played off, for the love of men, by some of the most esteemed writers, TS Eliot, whose wife is very conventionally portrayed as a classic hysteric, or Gywneth Paltrow today, whose disastrous attempt to make marriage to Chris Martin work while expressing herself as an individual with interest in health, yoga and contemplation, has been derided often by some of the most supposedly opened minded intellectuals of our age, for the reason that she is privileged, which is contradictory as we would not be reading if it was not for this. Somehow pseudofeminists. Guardian article by a woman, Brigid Delaney, "leave Gwyneth alone", in March 2015 is the exception to the rule, pointing out how hypocritical all this poison and gossip is.
As Bettina would separate from Calder, after having a daughter Anastasia she would nonetheless go on to work with Peter Brook and the Little Garden would be a source of intellectual open-mindedness in the late Nineties that has continued to be taboo in many circles. As her assistant and publicity manager I was sending letters to Edward Bond, whose letters I also had to sort through at the Berliner Ensemble, filled with handwritten corrections and beyond the understanding of most of the staff. Bettina wrote of personal exile in terms of her forward thinking theatrical method,which with the philandering of Calder, also reminds me of the way Woolf saw Eliot, whose renown work, the Wasteland was published by hand by her Hogarth Press. She spoke and wrote of the egotism of Eliot keen to have it reprinted by another press, without even a thank you.
Again Woolf is portrayed as cracked, when in fact it seems the time she lived in were cracked her. As we today may live in an age so disturbing that people dope themselves with tv, in her age to feel unwell at what was happening is hardly surprising. A film might be made about how she found her London home gutted, by Hitler's bombs, which drove her then to live in Monk's House with the poor Jewish Bloomsbury It is a sad reflection on our time that terms such as bipolar or schizophrenia are liberally applied to people living under duress of hellish times. Perhaps some one one day will have the courage to ask if hearing voices was not a reflection of the instable times she inhabited, subject to the warlike forces of men. In literary history Thomas Mann fills a big space as a renowned intellectual but in fact wrote in support of Hitler in his aggressive young days.
No one questions the value of his work as a result, but as Eastern intellectuals like Heiner Mueller, will happily state he never read a single one of his verbose tomes, like Faustus, or the Magic Mountain, securing them a place in a deflated world where Guenther Grass might well fit, in which the simple is valued above the complex narcissism of that age. It might well be questioned also why Henrietta Garnett's book Family Skeletons is not considered every bit as good as Magic Mountain.
To return to the subject of the East and Demarco who first invited Beuys and Kantor from Poland a day in the life of a homeless men's hostel was suddenly invited to the East of Berlin. Glad was a play rehearsed under Demarco's auspices that would never have been taken anywhere if it had not been for his Edinburgh Enlightenment background where culture should represent everyone. The cover photograph of this article shows Sean Connery who had been model at Edinburgh Art College watching Kantor in the middle of one of his play. Unable to find a venue and not officially in the Fringe, the Water Hen would nonetheless be the talk of the Festival, put on at the old Edinburgh Poorhouse.
Neither interpol, Mi5 or journalists were able to decipher what was shown which added to its mystery and led Jean and Jeremy to take time off from their Goldsmiths College Degree to stay in Krakow, observing a theatre which had a central role in the spiritual life of the nation, semireligious in its taking inspiration from dissatisfaction with life in socialist or fascist Poland, depending on viewpoint. The work inspired Jeremy to put a director on stage, often in the form of Chris OConnell to question what could be portrayed, just as Kantor stood on stage guiding as a conductor the action.
Launched into the spiritual realm of theatre with a cause as the antithesis of theatre rebels without a cause in the West, the People's Stage in East Berlin would invite a further sojourn there, allowing six months to a year to find what made the East and West of one city so different. It is highly unlikely that Grassmarket Project ever would have arrived there if it had not been for Walfriede Schmitt, a renown dissident in the East pushing with all her might to allow Glad to guest at Rosa Luxemburgh Square. The play took the city by storm, setting a precedent for funding a play exploring the spiritual struggle of East and West as centred in Berlin. Walfriede had shortly before the collapse of the East spoken at a rally in Alexander Platz in front of crowds of tens of thousands, questioning the legitimacy of the German Democratic Republic.
In the East there were terms for dealing with the dark past, such as self-criticism, taught at school and a book by Ernst Bloch called the Principle of Hope, that suggested nationbuilding and self-awareness extend from the good intentions of collective faith. Rigorously after the war the East German government took steps to penalise and imprison in some cases, those judges, lawyers and local councils that had gleefully followed Nazism. By contrast in the American controlled sector of West Germany judges and councillors were allowed to continue without criticism. This attitude was what alienated the East and made Brecht feel more at home there when returning than in West Germany. It was a unique experiment that with its collapse has been swept under the carpet by philistines such as Reagan who were only interested in portraying the East as an Evil Empire. The mockery of the East must have been influential on Jean and Jeremy keen to see what was valid and worth preserving in the ensuing play Plague. They chose a course of action which differs by a quantum from the Britart scene. Damien Hirst had included Lala Vula in his first exhibition, but then she, Jean and Jeremy had left for a tangential, more Nell Dunn and Jeremy Sandford style of work, mixing into the squatters scene of London and then Edinburgh to pursue a different more thoughtprovoking career.
When preliminary interviews began in the Red Room of the People's Stage, we were made aware of Ben Bradshaw, a young correspondent in charge of running the British World Service, who made a one hour documentary for international broadcast on the avant grade homeless. Later when we returned to Berlin Aaron Hicklin a Scotsman and Guardian journalist also joined us who has gone on to be Grand Editor of OUT, the leading American gay magazine. Aaron Hicklin had in fact Jewish roots and enjoyed reading poetry by some of those who died in concentration camps, so when he first arrived he had a view of culture that entailed the Germans as a frightening aggressor who might be sobered up by portraying them as rats in a play entitled Plague. He referred to those serving food in the canteen, with a snide Danke Wanker, though his suspicions would be radically altered by meeting the actors, some of whom were Jewish and to this day he reads about Berlin, perhaps shaken at his lack of compassion for people in the East who invited Edinburgh's young rebels to make what might have been the most expensive play on homelessness, involving those affected in both East and West, in history. They kept a homeless office at the People's Theatre and toured with homeless as far as Finland. The Rats07 as they like to call themselves even would win an Academy of Arts Award and some started a newspaper, similar to Big Issue. Deep down there is a quality in Aaron of a Romantic who wanted to see how theatre can transform experience from the isolation of individuals trapped by circumstances, and drawn to sharing with others. In that sharing lies the pain and strength of community to create a rapture from a crowd or the release of guilt at one's ineffectuality in society to face or confront criminals.
It is a theatre that has now higher goal than to put real problems in front of people who are confronted with reality, with the victims as well as perpetrators and in the blur of not knowing who is to blame for actions is the whole spectrum of emotions.
Ben Bradshaw would go on to be Culture, Education and Health Minister in the last Labour government. It perhaps reflects the diversity of Berlin with its outlook as a bastion of peace in the cold war, as it was leaked in the Eighties that it would be the first place bombed in a limited nuclear battle, as projected by Reaganism with Thatcher. So Walfriede Schmitt unsurprisingly also supported goals of international understanding rather than domination of one system. He like Aaron Hicklin has attained a diverting combination of celebrated and respected status in the gay world, being the first MP to marry his male partner. It reflects on Berlin as an alternative place, as well as Jean and Jeremy who had a gay man from a bookshop as the social worker in the play toured there from Edinburgh. Both are intellectually motivated enough to delve deeper into whatever subject than most. Diversity as a way of finding new adventures interestingly also as Richard Jobson who directed the BBC dcumentary was married to Mariella Frostrup before later deciding he was gay. It is part of the vision of what Grassmarket has represented that Berlin was the first adventure with its film 'Coming Out' portraying people at the time of the thawing of the Cold War, showing an alternative culture lived away from the monolithic authoritarian regime which saw men and women in straight marriages providing offspring in the propaganda war for supremacy. Notably Walfriede Schmitt who fought so hard for the play Glad, also was the mother of the gay young man coming out in the aforementioned film I saw at the Renoir in London.
Frank Castorf would also play a part in the new Berlin, a man who although the son of wealthy business man Castorf whose blinds, curtains and drapes were a thriving shop in the heart of Pappelallee, Prenzlauer Berg, had been working as a director in Anklam, putting on plays that laughed at the regime.
At the time of our arrival in Berlin with homeless actors from Edinburgh, a giant squatting scene had erupted and the BBC documentary following the guesting of Edinburgh's Glad play started with Richard Jobson, walking down Mainzer Street where tanks had battled young with Molotov cocktails, setting German's selfimage on the international stage back by decades. Undoubtedly the Western authorities had foreseen the East as a place they would dominate and hurd back lost sheep to the fold, were left reeling confronted by the reality that, as in the 1920s, Berlin had an alternative beating heart, far from the conservative traditions of Bonn, its temporary capital which they had no understanding of. Politicians who had planned a triumphant return to Berlin after the Weimar and Bonn interludes were sobering up to the fact that it was not really their city, nor one that appealed to them. They would be better off staying in Bonn and commute which many still do to this day.
Since the Wall had been built the West German authorities had encouraged young people to repopulate West Berlin, as an alternative to military service, as their outpost of freedom,but this led to a mix of radical culture, not those who first supported the Axel Springer Verlag building, towering twenty floors over East Berlin from the tiny Western island in its midst, intended to show Kapital's supremacy. As described the East which Lala of Albanian hailed from, speaking German as well as also, was a place where self-criticism was a prevalent part of society's fabric and hope that it could be experientially developing. Far from shock tactics as in chopping up a shark as her Hirst contemporary, who encouraged her to exhibit. On reflection sharks represent an unintended allusion to Mack the Knife dominating by violence.
Grass refers to sitting on his mother's knee to an older age than most, which was taken as a separation of self from the a humble viewpoint, reflected in the woman's movement in Berlin, whose goal was peace at any cost to avoid the waring would also speak of Mothering artists.
Personal revolution is part of what makes good theatre, as Jeremy and Jean had taken time off working on film to discover some of the outlandish folk who stood round Edinburgh's Grassmarket. What revolution is depends on one's viewpoint. We turned the Nineties' theatre inside out, Sean Connery would say, by putting on a thoughtful play with those who were genuinely 'glad to be alive' (as was the complete title) because they had no fear of society and were happy to live on the edge, telling funny stories. Like a latter day gathering of philosophers around Socrates we would rather 'corrupt ' with our awkward anti theatre and drink poison than join the National Theatre.
The National embarrassed at having no contact immediately phoned us up. They wanted to show they understood by inviting us to work there with real actors on "The Lower Depths", By Gorki.
'Thanks, but we would like to take the homeless from under Waterloo Bridge and put them in it.' Jeremy knew it was not going to keep him interested, with invitations from Australia's Ayers Rock to work with native Ossie's and Brazil's Recife asking for us to join some street girls on a project at casa de pasagem.
'What we are doing is transforming theatre,' the renowned Bishop of Edinburgh who was our chairman said. 'This is theatre for life's sake, not for art's sake,' Independent critic wrote. We may have matured and realised there are some people you cannot change and work with some amazing professionals since then, but the reality is theatre has been fractured by years of docile prepackaging of classics, when there are people walking outside who want more immediate input.
Plays are often supposed to be based on reality and to make us think but when I met Thelma Holt, one of the best-known of Britain's theatre producers at a ceremony in which we were awarded a Prudential Nomination she was immediately impressed that we let real people on stage to speak for themselves. Jean Findlay co-founder and producer of the Grassmarket Project, as well as Jeremy Weller,director, and I were all there to meet our contemporaries.'It is fashionable to go and watch 'the Miserables','she said, 'climbing over the homeless begging on the steps to cry over actors in carefully-torn rags they have designed for them.
We set our standards low. For us theatre could only come from the dark heart of suffering. Jeremy had lost his sister and so we spent a year hovering around homeless who were equally traumatised to try and cauterise his wounds. If you have been burned and numbed it maybe takes a further burn to enable one to understand or feel anything. By seeing violence around you you are incapable of fearing as you are wrapped up in the horror of the moment. A sort of sesame to let oneself through. As time went on, he felt used and using others by letting them perform scenes of horror was able to escape also from the isolation of the horror.
The theatre breaks convention by inviting homeless, ex-cons, young offenders and women who had breakdowns - in Glad, Bad and Mad - to live out scenes and show their own lives.''It's disturbing and it makes for more immediate theatre," I replied,"which is why we were sold out when we took Edinburgh's tough kids and street life to Berlin, to the theatre Brecht started at, People's Stage which continues to be innovative. It won the Best Theatre Award in Germany the year we started working with local homeless there from Former East and West too. We also won a special 'Progress Prize' from the Berlin Academy of Arts." Thelma Holt dazzled me with what she said next: ' I think you should stay in Brecht's house.' She was willing to support this herself! The point was that since our debut in Edinburgh we had felt the touching need of audiences to personally congratulate the homeless participants, who shook their hand at the door and some of whom asked for change.Our work though is not about pitying the poor: nor guilt either: it is more about helping them face the issues of every day life and by involving professional actors, giving them a chance to express themselves. Actors such as Chris O'Connell of Theatre Absolute based in Coventry, written up 'In Yer Face', by Alex Sierz for portraying criminals and victims as equally capable of violence, there is a touch of the mystic about him: a man who is buried talks from his grave unable to let go of his family, also lost in death as in life.
When Jeremy, Chris and I were invited to a luxurious festival in Bonn Biennale of theatre from around the world, they put on a feast in the foyer that had ornamental pineapples on the top of other bowls of food, which I immediately took one of. "I will give this to my mum, I told Jeremy and he was so approving I no longer thought about spending the rest of the evening walking around with it. The festival organisers chatted with us, like we were delinquents who might take anything we could. As had Thelma Holt, before being equally generous and offering us Brecht's house. It was as though we were a circus act, who had the audience in the palm of our hand, we also for our part were unashamed to be representatives of the poor and poor ourselves so ready to grab anything.
So far we had not worked out what we were doing or how we would survive doing it, but support from British Council and Arts Council, Tudor Trust and Gulbenkian would follow.
Chris as an actor went along with us to meet Max von Sydow who towered above us, but was remarkably humble. We joked and laughed about theatre of the people, but he opened his big eyes wider like he understood instinctively everything we were saying. It was the same as Aaron the Romantic wanting to be involved in discovering himself by taking time off from the independent to attend rehearsals and eventually perform with women who had suffered mental traumas,investigating as a director might. I had been the director in the auditions in London with Jeremy keen I should explore thir lives with a certain distance as he did, so I would ask questions of them, pull and push at them, so as to find out what it meant being an artist, being a director, being deeply lost in oneself. Some of the women were sex addicts,some were lonely, some driven to despair by their lover, so it reflected in some way what Jeremy had been through with his sister falling to her love.
The worst of it was Jeremy felt like a criminal as he told, because in the time leading up to it he had avoided questioning her when she came home bruised, and she would brush it aside as a bump or scratch, only to lead her deeper to the arms of her jealous obsessed lover. He wanted to stop her exploring her potential,to be a wife in Gloucester, but she was as keen as Jeremy to be involved in mental wanderings, encountering his friends who had met at Goldsmiths.
Her loss at the man's hands and the judge's decision to let him off, as it was a crime of passion meant that Jeremy's mother would continue to meet the man; the hell is that it will never be over, so Jean and Jeremy set out on a spiritual path, going to see Kantor deal with injustice in the East, anything that would lead them away from the deadening sense of not having done enough.
When you feel that you are a criminal you carry that weight until you have healed others. So maybe this is what it means to heal. It is only the work of expanding consciousness that feels sufficient and solid enough. Chris was equally drawn by the tortuous process of working out what drives the minds of homeless, or offenders, even participating in emulating the questioning of how groups work together, by playing in the "Lord of the Flies" in Munich. It reflects also on Jeremy's examination of a primitive urge for survival that keeps those in difficult circumstances going and the ethical responsibilities and decisions we take, when we cut others down. Peter Brook was an inspiration precisely because he had dared to look at the dilemma of primitive drives in children, left to their own devices.
Then also there was David Harewood, who starred later in 'Homeland' made a habit of touring to Berlin, Paris, Munich or even New York to participate in work that was diverse and welcomed all cultures.Jeremy Weller who founded the Company in fact has made a film, 'LIMBOLAND' produced by Lars von Trier which won the highest honour in Denmark, a Robert Award, recently - high validation indeed. Since these beginnings we have had invitations to work with Australian aborigines on Ayers Rock as well as Brazilian street girls who might have become prostitutes without the chance to develop self-expression through drama, which Susan Sarandon wishes to make into a film having attended workshop.People's Stage at Rosa-Luxembourg Square has long been a place for dramas of ordinary working people, starting in 1890 with Gerhart Hauptmann's Naturalistic plays. We fitted very well in this tradition when it was suggested by then Mayor of Berlin coming to Edinburgh Festival that we should bring the play 'Glad to be Alive' there.It celebrates the fact that many of the characters we had encountered in Edinburgh's Grassmarket (after which the company was named Grassmarket Project) were enjoying life having a gladness in life in spite of poverty that made them remarkable.
With Sean Connery saying 'it would be a great shame if the work failed for lack of finance' and Ken Branagh and David Parfitt saying it 'deserves all the support it can get', the Leith Theatre also was given to us to use, so that by the third year in Mad, a play about women with mental difficulties was put on there.Sarah Kane came along and was so inspired that she often referred to it being the reason she 'knew what she wanted to do'. It is interesting also that the National Theatre called us up when we were invited to Europe's famous stages, feeling they needed to show their awareness of what we were doing. The conversation ran amusingly:'We would be interested in you putting on Gorki's 'The Lower Depths', at the National.'Jeremy and Jean were excited at first.'I suppose I could do something when we return from Berlin, Moscow and New York with Glad. I like the idea of putting homeless on stage from Cardboard City under Waterloo Bridge.'
''I see, that is not at all what we envisage! We were hoping you might allow us to put on some real actors who are inspired by your vision.''
"If you were that inspired you would realise our work is about letting people tell their own stories."
''We appreciate that.''
"Don't you think that they can tell of their lives more movingly than you with your actors - because that is our experience. The audiences have a biography of the actors written in the programme, with beautiful black and white portraits I make,"Jean added. "That allows people significant insight into their lives, so they then go and talk to the street actors, validating them.''
"Yes, I do grasp what you're saying.''
"The street folk also feel very touched that they can be appreciated. That people applaud. It could do a lot for the dispossessed in central London who feel like they are so anonymous and passersby who feel afraid to start a conversation.''The logistics are what are mind-boggling,' the answer came back fretfully, thoughtfully.'I think this is what our work does best: we inspire a conversation with the underclass.''I would love to be of support but I cannot see it happening here. Good luck.''
We did not really mind because the compassion the audiences around the world showed was enough to convince us our work served people,' I told Thelma.I highly appreciated the chats we had with some of the older folk who toured to Berlin and was hugely encouraged that Berlin's People's Stage gave us £50 000 to start to portray people in the area of Mitte with their participation and with Frank Castorf who still runs what is regarded as the most innovative stage, in Europe wishing to involve actors from the street in his Dadaist plays.Most memorable for me was the fact that Sean Connery was projected across the screen in one play Frank directed,as clearly an exotic touch for Berliners, when I had grown with my father receiving visits from Sean who gave me my first play pen, trying to edge his way from playing James Bond to more theatrically serous roles.To this day I also would rather see a production which has at least half real characters...once you have seen how moving it can be it stays with you.Jamie Downey would be in a production which Bank of America supported the National Theatre in inviting those who were out of education to perform in, which Jeremy again directed and I assisted. I maintain a contact with Jamie and others who have gone on to better things: he played in Harry Brown with Michael Caine, also in Camelot.I have also managed to continue working with Big Issue backing and Camelot Lottery funding as well as Restart Lives on producing gritty work that has the added benefit of being transformational.'There is no way you can tour Europe with us, Jimmy if you're addicted to heroin,' Jean and Jeremy had said years ago, but his response was:'Ok, I will give up and get Kevin, my pal, to also.' He was as good as his word.''Giving up his life of crime for a better use of his creativity,' was what CrownCourt Judge said anticipating our leaving Edinburgh and dismissing some minor offence.'You have found a better outlet for your creativity. I think it is more true than ever that young audiences wish to see something to relate to life, something that inspires and grips and we drove for a new form of theatre that brought new audiences. Anti-social behaviours reflect a society losing its grip.
So what have l learnt? You set energy free when you break with the consciousness of past generations.
When Rupert was not showing Richmond Olde Deer Park, or making films about it, or Jean was not sitting over an unwanted drink with a street admirer, while Lala did sign language with Sally to plan escape, we invested all our time in returning stars like Susan Sarandon or children from Recife streets, to a belief in the simple creed of truthfulness. We cried not for ourselves when working on all through the night for an opening, but for the pain cathartically released. When Wally was not pinning medals filched from regimes on Lenin's bitter followers in a close emulation of Mack the Knife, I was listening to the dramaturg of twenty years, Sabine: "those who have lived off their nerves in the street understand more of dialectics than Brechtian academics. I always want to thank her, for putting into words what I also believed.
When you break away from the mainstream you put people in a quandary,as it takes an effort
The Scottish Enlightenmen is bleeding in to the street as like John Beloff, Bruno's father, head of the Parasychology department, philosophers put real people on stage as a question mark to Stephen Taylor Woodrow is in the "Thames and Hudson" book of "Performance Art with "Living Sculptures".
We feel moved and frightened at the same time, remembering how Jeremy and I had to chase Jimmy through the street of East Berlin in the dark when he lost his voice and left the stage. He spat with others in the foyer, not as an insult but as he did not recognise the theatre as sacred. Maybe he made it sacred with his spit. When I finally stop him he has a tear in his otherwise hard-as-ever face,"I was crap. No one could hear me speak."His voice is hoarse."It doesn't matter at all Jimmy - you were great! They understand life in Edinburgh's street here in East Berlin,it's your spirit, they way you talk and the emotions that you portray that they are listening too. They do not understand the words, as Russian was the first foreign tongue." We got back after ten minutes just in time for Jimmy's scene. Once again everyone stood up to applaud. They could sense Jimmy's doubts and wanted to share with him their compassion and show that empathy works and the play works.
That was what made us so powerful. Here were people putting their real lives out there, that was making their peers come to see, as well as fifteen invited homeless from soup kitchens in East Berlin that were given nightly free tickets.
It was, in effect, as I stood on stage in a scene at the start and the end with old Terry translating improvised witticisms about Greek heroes and homespun philosophy as best I could, a fulfilment of Brecht's desire to show real life.I felt tears well up again and again as I saw the seriousness of young people watching, with the "the streets of the West aren't paved with gold" as headlines in different languages wherever we went..
Jimmy holds a knife to the neck of the director in a particularly memorable shot Jean took.
It is a bit like Fellini's 'La Strada' with the last scene of the strong man, having killed the two most caring people he knows, clicks suddenly,comprehends he is dead now, with Fool and Gelsomina dead. He falls to his knees on the beach and then on his own in the sand by the ocean, pounding his fists, cries at his isolation and cruelty. The devastating desolation he experiences is like the character Jimmy plays, because as Terry the old street philosopher presciently says
"The weak must be mixed with the strong, for it is the strong have brought the world to the edge of ruin."
I think deep down we wished to blithely destroy art, not in a negation of creativity, but as a way of applauding the illiterate, like fifty‐year‐old Vincent who came with us from the men's hostel in Edinburgh's Grassmarket,only able to put a thumb print in place of a signature when applying for his passport. While critics might harass us occasionally, "they smell" "real life is not as interesting" the high was to sit in my early Twenties at a press conference in Volksbuhne the World's first People's Stage, once the world's biggest revolving stage in the 1920s with a bunch of raw walking wounded street characters and children trying to improve their lot in life. It would be years later that I realised no National Theatre director had achieved an invite there. It was an act of fate that we were invited, like falling off a log. Ben Bradshaw was our interviewer, became Health Minister later in the Labour Cabinet then for Culture, did an hour long programme on us for BBC World.
"'We only believe in the impossible,'" is what is scrawled in giant letters across a Berlin building," I tell Jeremy.
"That is why they welcomed us with open arms, they wanted to see the street people enhance their self worth by being themselves," he replies. "Berlin has been like that since the Weimar Republic and before.
"I would say the very best of Sally, Lala, Jean was in the suffering."
"You are completely right," Jeremy adds.
"Although Calum losing his sister to abuse is much worse. The Blues that inspired modern rockers from the Stones to the Beatles was from the music the slaves sang in their pain to themselves. That was where the warmth came from."
"My sister is remembered for being a sunny person." Jeremy has changed since becoming a father, searching for positivity.
"The sun of warmth growing in us. Is that a healing sun in an inverse world? " I ask.
"We are not diminished by sharing pain, but grow,"Jean adds.
"Even when Les wanted to beat others for not wanting to date him. Are you feeling raped by the attention?" Jeremy asks.
"At least he did not carry out those threats,"I answer."You also,Jeremy were driven to explore suffering in a new context, when you asked what Jimmy had been through, or Terry coming back from the war,a street homeless."
"Churchill's hope of reintegrating heroes was of no relevance, but then forty years on he became more himself on stage."
You cross boundaries when you invite people off the street with no parents to come into your life," Jean answers.
"The challenge remains though when you invite people to escape their inward loneliness. To be heard, as Judy and Catherine Arton put it, recently with their film about abuse, driven entirely by those who had been abused," I add.
"Maybe Judy would not have had the depth to make the film, if she like Virginia Woolf and her sister she had not been abused by touch, by relatives, cousins, whoever," I reflect.
"Maybe that is what makes them so deep,"Jean asks.
"You become a conscience."
"Laura and I took part as a conscience, with Laura in 'BE HEARD" a film about abuse, Judy Goldberg and Cathy Arton made, 'Be Heard'. It breaks convention by confronting what most avoid."
"Phoebe Gibson joined forces as well, one of the women from London Screenwriters Festival,Lucy Hay, generous to a fault, all of them."
"Being touched means diverse things.Goldberg means 'gold mountain', like Spielberg 'play' auspicious names," Jean laughs.
We need rejection to find what really drives us.
Rejecting the invite to the National Theatre who didn't want the homeless under Waterloo Bridge, coming in their doors, as proposed, eventually led many years laternto their eventually putting on 'The Boys' on the Lyttleton Stage, with kids who were out of education.Whatever wayward paths we took our ventures make us believe in change, if struggling to keep our feet; internally in my mind,Jean's eyes look glazed, then she comes out with some satirical cool, reminding us that Scots are stoic, that we can stand outside and "watch the wheels", that our love has made a journey possible which the whole world press is watching breathlessly.
There are people who you meet early in life that feel like they were put there for your self‐knowledge and Annie Findlay,who introduced me to her three sisters and two brothers is one of them.
I am fortunate to feel I always land on my feet, with the women who come and help me out of a sense of staleness with new words and new deeds, like Angela Neustatter, who wrote the most profoundly positive review of our theatre company Grassmarket Project, when it was premiering at the National Theatre with East End kids.
"Epiphanies may not come every day. But, of the group in The Boys, Abigail has signed up for sixth-form college to do performing arts and some GCSEs; Jay will start work experience with a printer; Paul worked through the summer as a sports coach and is going to college to do a media course this month. Isabel, who is pregnant by a man she describes as undesirably similar to the drug dealer in the play, says she listened to the boys in the group asking, "Why d'ya let him treat you that way? Why you staying with him?" and began to see that the relationship could only be bad for her and her child. "I'm not with him any more," she says proudly. She, too, plans to do a work training course when the baby is born.
We have no statistics measuring what we achieve in terms of social reform. But we havs seen enough changed destinies to be irredeemable optimists.
Sean Connery as guest of Rikki Demarco; first production of our homeless play in Edinburgh,was thanks to him granting us rehearsal space. Few would have allowed it with its very experimental edges, let alone encouraged us. Photo by courtesy of Richard Demarco's gallery
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