Campfire was the fourth and last performed of the Heath Plays, which had started on midsummer night 1981 on Hampstead Heath, with Teatrolley.
With the exception of the collectively devised and overtly political offering for 1984, It’s an Unfair Cop, Guv!, all the Heath plays were written by Eric Presland.
For four years the audiences on both Hampstead Heath and Clapham Common had been growing from the 200 or more puzzled cruisers who edged out of the cruising ground to find out what was going on.
By this year, the midsummer night play had become a fixed part of the gay calendar, and when we went to leaflet in the early evening in the nearest gay pubs (the William IV in Hampstead and the Black Cap and Laurel Tree in Camden Town) we found them already heaving with people intending to come up to the Heath. Likewise the Two Brewers for Clapham Common.
When it came to the actual performances, there were over 1,000 people on the Heath, and the event had become an excuse for a glorious outdoor party under the moon. My feelings about this were mixed.
Image: Andy Smart as Hodgekiss and Francis Knott as Nosebag
The original idea for doing the plays was to reclaim a gay space, a cruising ground, by insisting that it was a valid social space, and that sex in the bushes was a valid form of sociality. The play made for a bridge, a point of discussion, a transition from the mostly wordless pure sex among the bushes, to a form of socialisation.
It made the Heath less anonymous; it made those who were in the closet, or ashamed of their sexuality, less ashamed. Fucks could begin to become friends.
However, the parties which now took on a life of their own could achieve much the same effect without a play. As a result the play took second place to the roistering in the wooded natural amphitheatre which had become our natural home.
These plays were never miked, so actors always had to project well. This year they not only had to project, but they also had to bellow. A couple of people lost their voices after thirty minutes. At the end of an hour, we were all run ragged. After this, we decided that enough was enough for the Heath Plays.
There was another reason to stop. Margaret Thatcher was in the process of abolishing the Greater London Council, which had been very LGBT friendly and had given permission to use the Heath. It would go out on 31 March 1986 in a blaze of glory.
The control of the Heath passed to a partnership of the City of London and Barnet Council. All enquiries as to who would be responsible for granting permissions for plays such as ours were met with blank stares; the City and Barnet were woefully unprepared to take responsibility.
I did have a change of heart, and started to write Cruising Speed, a Plautine comedy whose form will be familiar to anyone who knows Frankie Howerd’s Up Pompeii or the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. But I abandoned it along with the attempt to penetrate the new bureaucracy. Nowadays the Heath plays, with their cheerful improvisation and anarchy, would never be allowed because of health and safety, insurance, etc. Hey ho!
The play, like all the Heath Plays, also had a life in a theatre. In this case, a new gay pub in Hackney, ‘The Royal Oak’. This was run by Tony, a gay Tory, and his partner. His political views were to the right of Nigel Farage, and quite out of place in Hackney, but he remained unremitting in his commitment to Gay Rights and support for gay causes. In retrospect he was a true pioneer and very brave.
The combination of boy scouts and leather men could have been incendiary if anyone had taken the farce seriously, and I could hear in my head the shocked cries of ‘paedophilia’ from virtue-signallers with no sense of humour.
To draw any potential sting from this, and emphasise the artificiality of the construct, we cast one of the thirteen-year-old scouts as a woman. In the 2021 Zoom revival, both the younger scouts are played by women. There are some things which have become increasingly difficult to joke about.
Peter Scott-Presland, December 2020
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