My Pop Life #185 : Between The Wars – Billy Bragg

LicheinsteinintheskywithDiamonds

Between The Wars   –   Billy Bragg

Call up the craftsmen bring me the draughtsmen build me a path from cradle to grave     and I’ll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage

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I wrote the piece below in the Spring of 1985 as this song was released. I was 27.

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Blackpool.  Monday afternoon,  a wet October,  1984

Six actors, a director and a writer meet each other in the lounge of the Pendale Hotel (just off the town map) and plan their assault on the Labour Party Conference :  the largest collection of journalists to be found outside of a Fleet Street pub.  Our mission: to explore their world, their obsessions.  We have (valued possessions) press passes saying ‘Joint Stock’ pinned to our clothing, currently providing simple entry to the Winter Gardens.  We are naive, optimistic, nervous, brave.  We move in.

A fringe meeting upstairs from the bar is getting underway.  Entrance is through a sea of leaflets thrusting at you from Nicaragua to the Kent coalfields.  Inside, a large surreal Spanish galleon of a room is filling up.  TV cameras at the front, lights.  A sense of excitement.  The speakers tonight are Livingstone, Benn & Scargill.  I am looking for journalists.  What do they wear?  How do they talk?  Who do they vote for?  Why are they journalists?  Will they even talk to me?  I see two, identifiable by their press passes, and sit down next to them, a youngish woman and an older bespectacled man.

Hello,’  I offer boldly.  ‘Can I talk to you?‘  They look at me.  I launch in.  ‘My name is Ralph Brown and I’m up in Blackpool with Joint Stock Theatre Group and we’re researching a play about journalists and we don’t know what it’s about yet, and can I talk to you?’   They are both from The Sunday Times, covering the conference – she is on the Insight team, he is the local man in Lancashire.

‘We set the agenda for this conference’ he claims, ‘Three weeks ago our front page said Kinnock would be in trouble on three fronts at this conference – the police, the miners, the local authorities.  And that’s the way the conference will go.’  He evidently felt that this was the legitimate role of the paper, but perhaps feeling he had said too much started to move away.  ‘Talk to Ros,’ he said, ‘she’s the expert on the miner’s strike.’  Could I meet him later I asked, at the Imperial Hotel perhaps?  He smiled and nodded and moved off. The woman grabbed my arm. ‘Do you know who that is?’ she whispered.  ‘He’s the one you want to talk to. That’s Michael Jones, political editor of The Sunday Times.’  I was going to have to be a little smarter over the course of the next three weeks.  There was a stirring at the front of the hall.  Scargill was entering – he timed it well, and the room erupted as their hero moved onto the platform. The feeling was quite extraordinary. Suddenly the press became noticeable leaning against walls, slouching in chairs, bored. Even so, notebooks were produced, pens from inside pockets, and attention brightened a little: the studied boredom of their poses couldn’t quite smother the sense of history.

Arthur Scargill, leader of the miner’s union at the Labour Party Conference, 1984

Later, the bar and foyer of the Imperial Hotel provided the true flavour of the conference. The place was full of journalists and politicians, and Joint Stock valiantly camoflauged within.  Peter Hillmore (Observer) peered at my press pass suspiciously, exchanged a sentence with me and decided there were more important people to talk to. Sir Robin Day was decidedly the worse for wear and tottering on the steps with a young woman in black. I cornered Mick Costello, industrial editor of the Morning Star, smoking cigars and hobnobbing happily with capitalist comrades from the Telegraph and the Express. In fact there was an awful lot of hobnobbing going on. I think everyone there was drunk. I met Michael Jones again, he welcomed me with open arms, told me the play didn’t have a hope of understanding “the relationship between me and the office”, confessed to always having had ambitions to being one of the opinion-forming elite, and wished me the very best of luck, young man.  ‘Of course, it’s very different when the Tories are here,’ a wobbling hack confided.  ‘Last year it was wonderful though, Parkinson – you remember?’ Little did he suspect that the Tories would provide the best story for a decade only ten days later.

       

    It was Scargill’s week, undoubtedly. Adulated by conference, hated and adored by the press, ‘Coal Not Dole’ stickers everywhere and buckets being rattled at every door.  Quite a time.  We all had our adventures.  Simon Curtis followed a Sun reporter for one afternoon hoping to catch some juicy bit or other, and was spotted trying to listen in on a conversation.  I was finally confronted by this man, a stocky Scot, who told me that if my friend didn’t lay off he would receive a crack on the head.  I talked to him.  I was getting quite good at asking the right questions.  He told me how he’d always wanted to be a policeman and had fallen into journalism at a Spencer Davis concert in Glasgow.

The Joint Stock method meant that observation was crucial.  Each morning, we would present, one at a time, a character we had encountered the day before, with close attention to detail: accent, hand movements, figures of speech etc. Sometimes we would write notes. I found it easier and more accurate to rely on memory. If more than one of us had been there, we could present the group with a ‘scene’.  We slowly discovered which questions and lines of conversation gave the best ‘results’, but it was always the unexpected, the surprising, which caught the imagination of the group. It was for me a wonderfully exciting way to work.

Robert Maxwell, Mirror owner in July 1984

My final memory of Blackpool was a Daily Mirror press conference called by Robert Maxwell to present a granny from Essex with a huge cheque for one million pounds for winning Mirror bingo.  The scene was grotesque, and made its way into Deadlines – the play which resulted from this workshop – in all its surreal horror, with myself playing the elephantine Maxwell. I remember the poor woman standing there, with cameras clicking, TV arc lights, microphones and questions, a glass of champagne glued into her hand, a frozen smile on her bewildered face.  She turned to Marge Proops (Mirror Women’s Page) standing next to her and asked if it was all right for her to have a sip. Later, Kathryn Pogson and I spoke to her daughter. ‘ You’re not from The Sun are you? We’ve been told not to answer any questions.’   We explained that we were actors doing research and suddenly the woman recognised Kathryn: ‘You were on TV weren’t you?’  She immediately relaxed and took us into her confidence. ‘They’ve been ever so good. We’ve been to four hotels in four days. We had the phone call saying we’d won, and they just said pack a suitcase. We left the washing in the machine.’  Her son was whimpering. ‘Shut up,‘ said his dad, ‘I’ve bought you loads of things today.’  They had just won a million pounds. Mirror men were gently ushering people to a photocall with the trams. ‘Let’s hope we’ve got more friends than enemies’ was the daughters final thought as Kathryn and I left for the Big Dipper.

The local Sheffield paper : me, Paul Jesson, a journalist, Stephen Wakelam, Tricia Kelly, Alan David

The company left for Sheffield, the heart of the miner’s strike, and spent two days at the local paper – the Morning Telegraph and the Sheffield Star the evening version, who shared the same office, again asking questions and listening.  I suggested to the industrial editor (‘a close friend of Arthur‘ someone whispered) that being a local reporter was something of a luxury, being able to be accurate and honest and truthful. ‘No,‘ he said, ‘I just have to live here.’  It was becoming increasingly difficult to parry the obvious question: “What is the play about?”  We really had no idea, and the people we talked to, especially the journalists, couldn’t accept this.  ‘You’re going to expose us, aren’t you? All the drink and sex.’  And in truth we were beginning to behave more and more like journalists: finding ways of making people talk, being persistent, looking for angles.

The most famous photograph from the 1984-5 miner’s strike

Simon Curtis and I visited some picket lines at Maltby and Silverwood collieries and spent one afternoon talking to two miners who were on strike, one of whom, Jim, became a character in the play.  Throughout the two and a half hour conversation, Simon had been fingering a five pound note in his pocket, preparing to give it to the fund before he left. ‘Do you have a collection?’ he asked the young miner. ‘Sure, just give it to me, we’ll mek sure it gets t’ reght place.’  Simon pulled out his note and offered it. They both looked at it.  It was a twenty pound note. (more like a hundred pounds in today’s money). ‘Oh’ said the miner.  Simon’s eyes glazed over. ‘Oh thanks a lot’ said the miner. Simon’s fingers released the note, and he smiled weakly.  We drove off, Simon in some shock.

The company then moved to the hustle and bustle of London, Fleet Street, the TV Studios and radio stations.  The journey was important. The people we’d talked to 200 miles north were filtered and made into ‘news’ down here in the capital.  Stephen Wakelam (the writer) was particularly affected by this geographical change, and the play’s sweep covers the quiet of the South Yorkshire countryside to the claustrophobic newsrooms of London.  My favourite place was BBC Newsnight. ‘We’re doing a play about the media’ I offered as an introduction to Howard, sleeveless-jerseyed, Guardian-reading type. He swung round in his typical journalists swing-round chair. ‘Media!’ He glared at me, managing to look totally harmless. ‘Don’t lump us in with the bloody Express, Mirror and Beano.  This is a television news programme.’ 

   Presenter Peter Snow (right) had an SDP poster up in the room where he was working. I desperately wanted to ask him if it was his, but couldn’t find the words. It was very very difficult to ask journalists about their politics. They pretended they didn’t have any. Or they said ‘I’m nosy’ or ‘I’m an observer.’  Others were more approachable, notably those at The Express, where a considerable number of the writers are members of the Labour Party!  I was devastated by this disclosure, although the Express journalists I spoke to found it totally normal : ‘It’s the same at the Mail, the Sun, the Telegraph. You’ve got to earn a living.’ I suggested the two things might be incompatible. ‘I’ve never written a word against the Labour Party in twelve years on the Express.’  The man seemed proud of this, as if his principles were still intact.  Fiona Millar, one of the few women on the paper had an even worse situation, surrounded by pin-ups, being given the Royal stories or the animal stories because of her gender.  ‘My generation is terribly disappointed in the profession we’ve joined,’ she told me.  She is in her late twenties, and moved from the local paper to Fleet Street just as it was going down the drain : bingo, tits and circulation wars.  She was consoled by the fact that the Express was ‘a writer’s paper’ rather than a subeditor’s paper.  Subeditors – the back bench – are a strange group of men (invariably) who sift the paras, reorganise the stories, and in many cases rewrite according to the paper’s politics.

The Sun was more difficult.  We trooped up to the office and were told to wait by the door.  We huddled there, feeling like intruders. A nervous face told us about The Sun glancing over his shoulder now and again. One of us was escorted to the toilet and back. We were not allowed to talk to any journalists.  The face we were talking to had a plastic smile which it kept putting on to reassure us, and only succeeded in totally unnerving us. ‘We are a family newspaper. We never print anything unless it’s checked. We write for an average reading age of eight.’ He did, however, tell us the name of the cabinet minister whom the whole of Fleet Street knew was fucking small boys. And somehow, this one rather sordid point was a believable oasis in the desert of his insincerity.

And so to the Tories.  We took it in turns to visit the Tory Conference in Brighton (only had two press passes) and Tricia Kelly and I found ourselves on the train down just hours after an IRA bomb had wrecked the Grand Hotel.  There was security everywhere. The atmosphere inside the conference hall was extraordinary. Resilience, survivors. Thatcher got an emotional standing ovation just for being there. Tricia and I felt like enemies of the people in the midst of the mob, protected by the legitimate neutrality of our press passes. It meant we didn’t have to applaud. We could look cool and detached and professional. This was a relief. Thatcher was finally introduced as ‘a great statesman’ and she spoke for the whole hall about Tebbit’s bravery, property, owners and earners, and got a massive, absurd standing ovation at the end. Tricia made our way to the door and stopped to watch this display of political football hooliganism.  We were ushered out by a rather embarrassed man, as if this was a private Tory moment not to be witnessed by the unfaithful.

Grand Hotel, Brighton, the morning after an IRA bomb, October 1984

   We moved out onto the beach.  The Grand Hotel had a huge hole knocked out of it, the beach was roped off, police were everywhere. Earlier, I had tried to have a few words with  of the Observer, one of our contacts.  ‘Haven’t got time,’ he said, rushing away. ‘Best story for twenty-five years.’  There were journalists everywhere.  Every paper and TV station had quintupled its Brighton staff. By now, we Joint Stockers were behaving like journalists ourselves, moving towards huddles of people instinctively for titbits trading information, becoming strangely distanced from the event. The process was not dissimilar : the workshop, the story.

I remember the feeling standing on Brighton beach, so clearly. An exhilarating sense of history. It was all happening around me: the strike, the conferences, the bomb. I felt at the centre of the universe.

*

Jenny Stoller, Tricia Kelly and Amelda Brown in Caryl Churchill’s ‘Fen’

The piece above was the last chapter in The Joint Stock Book, published by Methuen in 1997 and reprinted here for information. I do not claim copyright.  I think the book is now out of print.  Subtitled The Making Of A Theatre Collective, the book is a tribute to the working method of Joint Stock, a unique theatre collective in the UK as I was starting out in the 1980s.  It started around 1974 and had built a formidable reputation for itself as a producing house for new, often devised work.   The company operated as a self-managing collective with only one permanent member of staff, the administrator, everyone else was invited to meetings and made decisions, on a collective level.  I met a lot of very good people over the three years that I was involved with Joint Stock, including my next girlfriend, Rita Wolf, who had been in Borderline written by Hanif Kureishi and was thus on the collective.  The book contains contributions from members of the collective about the work of the company, ranging from Max Stafford-Clark to Roger Lloyd-Pack to Bill Gaskill to Caryl Churchill to Kenny Ireland to Danny Boyle to Miriam Margoyles to Pauline Melville.  It remains for me the finest way to create a play, both as an actor and as a writer.  I was lucky enough to do both – the play Sanctuary came two years later in 1987 – Deadlines premiered in Sheffield in February 1995 before touring the UK.  Both plays were written about and for a community : journalists and homeless youth.  Later in 1985 Jane Thornton wrote Amid The Standing Corn about the miner’s wives for Joint Stock.  She is from Yorkshire where my dad lives now (married to a Barnsley lass, dear Beryl) and Jane is also married to a Yorkshireman John Godber who is instrumental in my working life (A Clockwork Orange, Up’n’Under).  A strain of decency and pride running through the county.  I think the most rewarding part of both Deadlines and Sanctuary for me  were the nights when the community came to see the play they’d helped create.  When the journalists at the Sheffield Star came to the Crucible Theatre, sitting alongside striking miners and their familes.   When the homeless familes and charities like Centrepoint London came to The Drill Hall for a benefit one night to see themselves represented onstage.  The highest form of emotional.  Lucky to have experienced it twice.  To think that Thatcher had called the National Union of Mineworkers ‘the enemy within’ still makes me enraged to a level which frightens me to this day.  Turbulent times.  A historic defeat.  La lotta continua.  Here’s Billy.

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My Pop Life #156 : Paid In Full – Eric B & Rakim

Paid In Full   –   Eric B & Rakim

Thinking of a master plan, this ain’t nothing but sweat inside my hand, so I dig into my pocket all my money’s spent, dig deeper, I’m still comin’ up with lint

rapper Rakim with his DJ Eric B in 1988

It’s late ’87 and I am flying, and occasionally happy.  My hip-hop musical Sanctuary, a Joint Stock Production directed by dearest friend Paulette Randall has opened in Salisbury to good reviews and relief all round.  My girlfriend Rita Wolf is in the cast, along with Gaylie Runciman, Carl Procter, Kwabena Manso, Pamela Nomvete and David Keys.  It’s been the main purveyor of energy all year – the pitch, the workshop, the writing, the rehearsing.  It has been truly immersive and stretched me magnificently into being a writer.  Not a great one, or even a good one.   But OK.

I wrote about the play in more detail in My Pop Life #86 but I’m sure the subject isn’t exhausted.  By the end of October though as the tour came in to London I needed to get away from it all, and accepted an offer to play Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs in a film called Buster starring Phil Collins as Buster Edwards.  Looking at photographs from the early 60s I suppose I did resemble a young Biggs somewhat.  My diary from 1987 records that I wasn’t sure about accepting it at all – it seems that I was pretty fussy in those days.  Probably thought that it would all add up to a narrative of some sort and make sense.  Hahaha.  Now all we have is this random meandering blog with 20-20 hindsight.

In any event I couldn’t prepare for the role very easily since Ronnie was rather famously living it up in Rio, recording songs with the Sex Pistols and generally being an embarrassment to the establishment some 24 years after the robbery which had taken place in August 1963.  Almost all of the gang, including the mastermind Bruce Reynolds (played by Larry Lamb) had served considerable jail terms – double the normal sentences because of the high profile of the case.  Biggs wasn’t a key player in the robbery, but had fame and notoriety because he’d escaped ‘justice’.   Norma Heyman, the producer, arranged for me to have lunch with Reynolds so that I could discuss Ronnie Biggs, and gave me Bruce Reynold’s phone number.  When I called him later that day and explained what the score was, I asked Bruce where he’d like to have lunch.  Bruce’s immediate reaction was “ Who’s paying ?

The Train Robbers : Bruce Reynolds is 4th from the left

I replied that the film company were paying.  “Then we’ll eat at Manzi off Leicester Square” he said, and that’s where we met a few days later.  A tall, bespectacled charming and erudite older man greeted me, and I liked him almost immediately.  Bruce Reynolds was a major criminal, and for five years from 1963-68 was Public Enemy Number One.  He had planned the Train Robbery from start to finish and got the main characters together to pull it off:  Gordon Goody, Roy James, Charlie Wilson, Jimmy White, Tommy Wisbey, Bob Welch and others, including Ronnie Biggs who was an old friend, and roped in because he knew a train driver.

The robbery itself involved switching the signals on the Glasgow to Euston Mail Train in the wee small hours of a dark night, stopping the train, uncoupling the engine and the carriage with the mailbags from the rest of the train, then driving to a Bridge where the gang- all dressed in army fatigues in case they were spotted – would simply roll the cash down the embankment into waiting Land Rovers .  They stole £2.6 million pounds, the equivalent of £50 million in today’s money, the largest haul to that date in Britain.  The robbery had been carried off according to plan, but the establishment had thrown everything into the chase and investigation.  Bruce had evaded capture and eventually gone to Mexico and lived high on the hog for years with his wife and son before a strange scorpion spiral movement found him back in England via Canada and the South Of France and back doing little jobs again before eventually being arrested by Flying Squad chief dog Tommy Butler (“Hello Bruce…   “Cést la vie Tommy”).  Bruce was given 25 years, of which he served 10, in Wandsworth, Durham, and the Isle Of Wight mainly.

Oddly, when I met Bruce Reynolds he was 55 years old, younger than I am now.  I don’t know why this feels odd to me.   Probably because I haven’t been in prison.  We talked about Ronnie Biggs, the robbery, films, books and prison life, and he was charming, well-read and funny.  Manzi was an expensive fish restaurant opposite the Swiss Centre behind Leicester Square and one of the poshest places I’d ever been to in my young life.  We had a slap-up meal with wine on someone else’s tab.  But then Bruce had spent his entire life on someone else’s tab.  My friend Jan lent me his autobiography last time I was in England, and I finished it today.  A scallywag’s journey through burglaries, safe-breaking, fast cars, hanging off gutters and crawling across flat roofs, running through the streets pursued by plod, drinking in bars and clubs with off-duty plod, swanning around Cannes with women, fast cars and the odd robbery accompanied occasionally by his wife and son Nick and then inevitably serving the odd bit of monotonous, violent, and dull time in prison.  Visits to the South Of France, wearing Turnbull & Asser shirts, drinking Dom Perignon, always the best suits and shoes, cars and watches.  He’d made it sound exciting, daring, nail-biting and terribly sad depending on which page you were turning.  I knew nothing of this in 1986 – just a young actor meeting an old master criminal who was happy to eat at one of his favourite restaurants and now pay the bill, and he said marvellous twinkly things like – “Bread before morals, Ralph –  Goethe“.    He didn’t mention me in his book so I clearly didn’t make much of an impression on him. lol

On the press night of Sanctuary at the Drill Hall I was filming the train robbery on a night shoot in Leicestershire with Phil Collins, Larry Lamb (playing Bruce), Michael Atwell (who would later be cast in New Year’s Day), Chris Ellison and John Barrard, all together we were The Firm re-making the biggest robbery in Britain in the 20th Century.  The main prop was a 1960 Diesel train in full working order.  I still have a black and white picture of Phil, Larry, me and Mike in front of the train on the wall in Brighton.  I’ll see if I can find it online.  (I can’t)

Me as Ronnie with Larry Lamb as Bruce in “Buster”

 Collins was reasonably friendly without being warm, I think he thought I was a bit of a cock, and I probably was.  Playing the most famous train robber was also definitely A Thing, and the following year when Terry Wogan had Phil Collins on his show as a guest, one of the Wogan questions was “So, Phil….who’s playing Ronnie Biggs in the movie then ?”  Collins was ready for this curve-ball attempt to take the shine of his moment and answered “Oh some new young actor, can’t remember his name…”

Larry, me, Mike

Back at the Drill Hall where Sanctuary, my hip-hop musical about homeless teenagers was playing, I was making mental notes of other knives hovering over my back – how the business of Show really works, no honour among thieves like in Bruce’s gang, just sharks, peacocks and jealous judgy cats, or even worse I now discovered, people simply not coming.  To see the play.  Not bothering.  Absense.  I found the power of absence to be quite profound, and remembered every person who didn’t come.  Yes, that petty I’m afraid.   But it is a real thing.  And I was absent on Press Night myself, absent from my company, my director, my company manager and the audience.  I called Rita at 2am from a field and she told me it had gone well.  The punters seemed to like it.  Another day of life.

I need money, I used to be a stick-up kid, so I think of all the devious things I did                           I used to roll up, this is a hold-up, ain’t nuttin’  funny, stop smilin’  and still don’t nothing move but the money…

Rakim, Eric B in 1987

It seems incredible to me now, but Sanctuary had been researched, written and presented before Public Enemy‘s 2nd LP It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back  had been released.  An album I place in the highest esteem.   Fuck knows what I was on.  But I was certainly on Run DMC, Roxanne Shante, KRS-One, Salt ‘n’Pepa, Schoolly D, Big Daddy Kane and Sweet Tee with Jazzy Joyce aswell as the mighty Rakim rapping with Eric B,  Eric B & Rakim, fellow New Yorkers on the first wave of hip hop.  This was the title track off their first album.  A landmark moment.  A lazy, loping sample from Dennis Edwards‘ great 1984 tune Don’t Look Any Further featuring Siedah Garrett.  A list of the managers, agents, record company and A&R people involved with Paid In Full.  This is a manifesto.  This is how you get Paid In Full.  You go into the system. Get representation.  Inside the wheels of production.  Here’s our list.  “Who we rolling with then?”  “Rush”  “That’s right Rush Management…”   Then the verse –

Thinkin’ of a master plan, this ain’t nothin’ but sweat inside my hand…

 just one verse, and they’re out.  This classic was remixed somewhat controversially six months later by production crew ColdCut as Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness) and featured Ofra Haza‘s hit Im Nin Alu and plentiful spoken word jokes “This is a journey into sound” and Pump Up The Volume with “I think you’d better speak to my mother”  and so on and so forth.  It was early days of hip hop, and I was up to my neck in it.  The following year I would win an award for Sanctuary then take the show to Washington D.C. to become Sanctuary D.C. (see My Pop Life #136) and soon after that write a new hip-hop play for the BBC (set in D.C.) which remains un-performed to this day.  Definitely not paid in full.  Who we rollin’with  ??

MTV Raps (what’s the haps on the craps)

Coldcut Remix Seven Minutes Of Madness

 

My Pop Life 108 : Sumer Is Icumen In

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Sumer is Icumen in   (Summer Is A Coming In)  –  traditional

sumer is icumen in ludu sing cucu

bloweth sed and groweth med and springst the wood anew

*

summer is a coming in, loudly sing ‘cuckoo’

Seeds blow, meadows grow, the trees are sprouting anew..

*

Old old song.   It appears in one of the world’s most famous medieval music manuscripts, Harley 978.   Written in 13th-century England, (c1275), probably by the monks of Reading Abbey, the book in question also contains the fables of Marie de France and the poems of Walter Map, medical texts and recipes and a glossary of herbs.   

But the key text is this one :  the Featured imageMiddle English rota “Sumer Is Icumen In“, a composition for six voices to be sung in the round, written in square notation on a five-line red stave.

The manuscript is the oldest known musical round (rota) with English words.  Singers, however, can choose between the Middle English lyrics in black ink which celebrate the arrival of spring and the rising of the sap, or the lyrics in Latin (Perspice Christicola) written in red ink which are religious.  The tune remains the same.  This double version was not unusual in those days.  A straight holy song and an earthy secular song using the same tune.  Which came first ? We shall probably never know.

I first heard this song in a rehearsal room in Liverpool in 1986.   I’d finished Return To The Forbidden Planet at the Tricycle Theatre (written by Bob Carlton, started life at Liverpool Everyman)  in the spring of 1985, and then talked the director Glen Walford into casting me as the lead in Macbeth at the Liverpool Everyman the following year.   I walked up the stairs to her Old Compton St flat in Soho and said I wanted to play the tragic Scottish king.    It was a fateful move.    Little did I know that the entire experience would put me off doing theatre forever.

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After Macbeth, which is one of the nightmare memories of my life as an actor, I did one more play at the RSC in London, then there is a gap of nearly 20 years before I decided to do Mike Packer‘s brilliant punk comedy The Dysfunkshonalz at The Bush Theatre in 2009.  And I don’t see myself treading the boards again anytime soon.  No, the very woman who had seen something in me to allow me to play the lead in Macbeth with no previous experience of playing Shakespeare, was the same woman who would drive me out of the theatre with her ugly working methods and foul personality.   She wouldn’t allow any of the actors to hold the script during rehearsal – she would read the lines out loud and we had to copy her.   Loudly.  It was murder.  When I asked her at what point do Lady Macbeth and her husband decide to kill King Duncan? she answered “Don’t keep bothering me with all that psychological bollocks“.    I felt isolated from the rest of the cast who were almost all acolytes of hers, although they bore me no ill-will, I moved out of my digs into the Adelphi Hotel and spent the entire rehearsal period trying to learn the lines in my hotel room, and making a scrapbook for Rita Wolf my girlfriend.   I did actually call my agent Michael Foster during rehearsal and said perhaps I should drop out of the production.  I was hating everything.   He advised me not to, so I just buckled down and got on with it.

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Once we’d opened I took back the performance line by line, night by night.  Walford would give us all notes in the afternoons, but I stopped listening and ploughed my own lonely furrow.  It was already a high enough peak to climb and somehow I’d doubled it by falling out with the director, and isolating myself from most of the cast.   Much joy was had when one of the weird sisters fell ill and couldn’t go on, so Glen the director had to appear in costume and make-up as a witch.   The fear in her eyes when she spoke to me onstage was like sweet nectar from heaven.

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Many Liverpool actors came to see the performance and hated it, and me.    Ken Sharrock, a scouser and one of my mates from Berkoff’s “West” also came and told me that he couldn’t see what I was doing.   Until I came to the front.  “She’s done you Ralph, she’s taken your confidence” he said.   I carried on improving.   My feelings for Liverpool were not affected – I love the city, my favourite in the UK.    And it didn’t affect my feelings for the play either – my favourite Shakespeare.   It just all should have been better.   My father came across from Huddersfield towards the end of the run when I’d pretty much reclaimed the role for myself in its entirety and he enjoyed my performance and was proud of me.   That’s all I needed to make it all feel worthwhile.   At the last-night party the director got drunk enough to tell me that “people come here to see my productions, not to watch some Joint Stock actor wanking about onstage“.    But strangely this particular post is a happy memory of that time, perhaps because it is a musical one.

Awe blateth after lomb louth after calue cu

The ewe bleats after the lamb, the cow lows after the calf

The musical director for ‘Macbeth‘ was Paddy Cunneen, a tall straggly bespectacled enthusiast who whipped our unruly gang of actors into musical shape.   His girlfriend Andrea Gibb (now a successful writer) was one of the weird sisters.   And one of the things Paddy did was teach us this song, using the Middle English as written above. We sang it every day.

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It’s a merry little tune and the words are faintly rude –  Sumer Is Icumen In is an important historical song but it is also famous for being the first written recorded example of the word fart in the English language.  In Olde Wessex English it is “averteth“.   Apparently  :

Bulluc sterteth buc averteth ludu sing cucu

Bullock prances, billy-goat farts, loudly sing cuckoo !

Actors love a dirty joke so once this had been translated we were all onside.   We sang it as a round every morning.  This is normal for companies in rehearsal – there are various warm-up techniques, bonding exercises and vocal flexes, and singing a round achieves all three at the same time.  Previous songs I’d sung in rehearsal room rounds were London’s Burning and Rose Rose Red.  Readers may remember Frére Jaques (one syllable per word in French but always pronounced Frerer Jaquer in English…) from primary school.

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I don’t actually have this song in my musical collection, but online trawling has given me a number of interpretations.  The Hilliard Ensemble sang it as a standard round and I’ll post it to illustrate the effect of singing it in the round, but it is very strangely sprightly, polite and bourgeouis.  I rather suspect ex-Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson has much the better spirit when he sings it on his live LP 1000 Years Of Popular Music – track one, naturally.   A strange modern translation was provided by playwright Anton Shaffer in his screenplay for The Wicker Man (1973) and sung by the islanders as they burn Edward Woodward at the film’s pagan climax.  It’s a powerful cinematic moment.

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I find it rather fantastic that people are still singing a song which is probably 1000 years old.  It was a religious tune, a celebration of summer, and possibly a sexual innuendo (cuckoo being a multi-layered word in English).   It reflects a dark period in my life, but I take heart that even in these darkest hours, some light can shine.

The Hilliard Ensemble :

Richard Thompson :

The Wicker Man :