I returned to London in 1979, having spent five years in Birmingham. For much of that time I’d been running a theatre company called Pub Theatre Co, as well as developing theatre at the new and thriving Birmingham Gay Centre, with a company called One in Ten.
My first play Latecomer (1975) was performed with both companies and there were several revues.
In London, the first and most important LGBT Theatre Company, Gay Sweatshop, was in crisis after four years of touring and energising communities all over the country. I had programmed them at the Birmingham Arts Lab in 1975, as well as giving them a performance home on the Edinburgh Fringe at the Hill Street Theatre in 1977.
This was the first and I think only occasion where a Fringe Theatre was given over wholly to LGBT work for the entire festival. Sweatshop’s productions were rooted in our community and our politics; their plays were avowedly polemical in the cause of coming out and fighting oppression; their banner, like Consenting Adults, was seen on many demos.
However, to the Arts Council, Sweatshop was ‘unprofessional’, by which they meant its physical production values weren’t high enough and its scripts were contaminated by purpose. So, they lost their grant and it took something like eighteen months for them to get it back, aided by some high-profile supporters like Ian McKellen. They started producing again in 1983.
I stepped into this vacuum. I was encouraged as soon as I arrived by the opening of Gay’s the Word bookshop just round the corner from where I worked, at the Tax Office in Tavistock Square. The bookshop had a piano, with the sheet music of the Ivor Novello song of the same name on the music stand.
Here I performed my first cabaret. I also found a pub theatre where I put on my first solo performance play Grand Passion, which was written in Birmingham as a reply to a Robert Patrick play, One Person, which I felt was a whinging play. This was done in a pub in Islington – I forget the name.
But one person does not a company make, and so, having moved into the Pink Triangle Short Life Housing Co-op, a subset of Islington Community Housing [ICH], I scouted round for somewhere to act as a base for a community theatre company. I found the Thornhill Neighbourhood Centre, on the Caledonian Road, rather run down and under-used.
Adverts were placed in Time Out and the rebellious rival City Limits. The first week we had about ten people, and it grew over time to about twenty people. Every Tuesday for the next seven years, actors and non-actors alike came along to explore their sexuality and their politics through drama. We had women and men in equal numbers, and several people with disabilities. Gender fluidity at this stage was not an issue.
There was from the start a tension between what I will call the ‘drama’ wing and the ‘theatre’ wing. Some of our participants were keen to get plays produced. They wanted ‘theatre’ to perform, and they wanted to be part of plays which had openly gay characters and themes, in contrast to the dire sitcom fare in the West End and on television.
Others wanted to improvise scenes to act out the dilemmas of their lives and the internal conflicts they felt about coming out, relationships, sex, and work. This is what reflected their lives and drama was a vital form of self-expression and conflict resolution.
I felt conflicted about this dichotomy myself. I was working for Gay Icebreakers, the gay telephone advice line based in Brixton. Icebreakers were acutely conscious of the need to direct people very firmly towards coming out and asserting themselves politically.
They also knew there was no point in coming out to a gay scene which was exploitative and treated new arrivals as ‘fresh meat’. Because of this they also ran weekly ‘tea-parties’ in collective members’ homes and organised their own weekly discos. So, I could see how ‘drama’ could be used as a steppingstone and a stimulus on the coming-out journey; further, that it could provide the actors for future ventures.
On the other hand, I was a writer and performer. I liked writing scripts without reference to what a collective view might be. I felt I was entitled to the purity of my vision, untainted by the need to create idealised characters or moralistic endings.
From a dramatic point of view, doubt is more interesting than certainty and flawed characters more dynamic than perfect ones. I was also arrogant enough to believe that what I penned was better crafted than any ‘non-professional’ input created for totally other purposes could be.
Our first production (1980) consisted of a triple bill by people outside the company. The Gasman Cometh by Alan Wakeman had been done at the Almost Free five years before.
A simple comedy two-hander between two people unable to speak their lust for each other in the confines of a ‘professional’ relationship.
Image: David Milton & Tom Perkins in The Gasman Cometh (1980)
A Nice October Day by journalist and short story writer Peter Robins had been written for a Sweatshop competition in partnership with the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, on themes of old age. It didn’t win, but it had important things to say at a time when older gay men were off any agenda for LGBT rights.
The third piece was a 1960s American classic, The Madness of Lady Bright, by Lanford Wilson, a monologue for a drag queen who goes mad. At the time it was hailed as one of the first ‘realistic’ portrayals of a gay man, although history has been less kind.
Image: Madness of Lady Bright (1981)
Even at the time I had reservations about its association of gayness with screaming effeminacy and going do-lally, but Robert, the play’s chief advocate, was one of our most talented, and seized the stonking part with relish.
You will find at the end of this Introduction, links to the plays which Homo Promos performed between 1980 and 1987, with introductions to each and the script.
The only one that can’t be included, for copyright reasons, is Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, which we did at The George pub in 1984, a year before the supposed British premiere.
The original novel is written in dialogue, so it was a comparatively easy matter to fillet the novel and shape it into a play. I played Molina, the camp movie-obsessed hairdresser (played by William Hurt in the movie) and Neil Bartlett played the straight left-wing organiser Valentin.
The director was James Neale-Kennerly, who went on to become Co-director of Gay Sweatshop in the 1990s. It was a difficult production. James was not a director who worked easily with actors, having more abstract concepts. It was difficult to interpret what he was getting at, so it took a few days of performance to get the pitch of the space right.
However, it was during the run of Kiss that I got the best compliment I’ve ever had in my career. After one performance I was down at the bar getting a drink and someone stood next to me trying to order as well. He started making conversation while waiting. “Have you been watching the play?” he said. This threw me a bit. “I think it’s a great play,” he said. “The guy playing Molina is terrific.”
The show played in a tiny upstairs theatre, and nobody was more than twelve feet from the stage. I wore no make-up, though admittedly the flouncy yellow shirt and the shorts were different. I couldn’t believe he didn’t recognise me. I wondered if he was just stringing me along. But I preferred to take this as a tribute to my acting. I would, wouldn’t I?
I should also mention the extent to which we felt embedded in the community. We did a lot of cabaret work, the details of which can be seen in the ‘Cabaret’ section.
We toured a lot, taking a complete programme of plays, workshops, and cabaret to the Gayfest at Sheffield in 1982.
Image: Eric Presland performing in bar for Sheffield Gayfest (1982)
We took the banner on the Pride March to Huddersfield in 1981, the only occasion when National Pride has moved out of London. The banner came in handy when we had to get to the Student Union after the rally, and we had to run the gauntlet of the Huddersfield skinheads. It became a lance to charge through groups of them, forcing a way. Fortunately, they were all mouth, no trousers.
Image: Gay Pride March Sheffield 1981
We produced a record, Coming Out – Ready or Not, which featured a host of lesbian and gay performers at a Switchboard benefit at the Albany Empire (they’ve dropped ‘Empire’ now).
The headliner on that occasion was Tom Robinson, newly returned from Berlin, who premiered his new song, War Baby, which went to number six in the charts and was subsequently banned by the BBC during the first Iraq war.
The gig, which filled the Albany to bursting, planted the seed of the idea for gay ‘mega-benefits’, which came to fruition with The Pretty Policeman’s Ball.
From that we formed a little roadshow: me, Richard Coles, Toby Kettle and a very fine singer-songwriter, Chris Ransome.
Image: Eric Presland & Richard Coles performing in a bar for Sheffield Gayfest (1982)
When we toured the West Midlands, we incurred the wrath of a vicar in Newcastle-under-Lyme, who wrote to the local paper denouncing the use of the Town Hall for such sinful purposes.
The paper, scenting a scandal, got in touch with Mary Whitehouse for a comment, with which she obliged: “I haven’t seen it, but I’m sure I disapprove of it.” We used the line on publicity and in Press Releases for many years after.
Cabarets were good fundraisers, and easy to put on. We supported Act-Up and Outrage, the radical political organisations, and we were involved in various prototypes of the London Lesbian and Gay Centre, when experimental programmes were put on in Derbyshire House in the East End, and at the University of London Students Union.
Once the centre itself opened, it became the base for shows both for Consenting Adults, the spin-off Outcast Theatre, and the successor Homo Promos. Perhaps the biggest benefit we did was a Maupin Marathon in aid of Gay’s The Word bookshop, harassed by Customs and Excise who hoped to force its closure by making it bankrupt.
Over 2,000 books were seized, and the legal fight was on to get them returned, and charges of importing obscene articles dropped. Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books were at the top of the best-seller chart, and the sixth book, Babycakes, had appeared in the US but not here.
Armistead arranged for fifteen complete sets of all six books to be flown over. They got through Customs and a cast of thirteen read them all from midday on Saturday 27 April until just before closing time the next day. The readings were opened by the local MP, Chris (now Lord) Smith, and various celebrities dropped by including my lovely friend T Robinson. At the end, all copies of the books were signed by the cast and auctioned. We raised something like £3,000, which today would be £9,000.
Eventually, the tensions between the two aspects of Consenting Adults became too great. Neil had long been replaced by a job-share between Graham Pyper and Jane Hanna, who were great exponents of the ‘collectively devised’ school of writing and performance.
I was finding it increasingly demanding to hold weekly workshops, put on productions, and to write new plays. More than ever, I saw myself as a writer, and particularly of musicals which demand huge commitments. Conveniently, the Section 28 campaign came along. This started as Clause 14 before morphing, and forbade local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.
Being the shallow soul I am, my immediate reaction was, “What a great name for a theatre group!” It was and 'Homo Promos' was born.
Peter Scott-Presland, December 2020
ULU Programme 1981
Gayfest Programme 1982
Madness of Lady Bright 1981 & LLGC 1st Anniversary Magazine
Huddersfield Programme 1981
Pride Benefit poster 1981 & Can Gay? Will Gay? poster 1983
Review of Coming Out 1982
Outrage Benefit 1983
Chris Ransome on Tour 1983 & CAIP badges
Eric Presland on tour 1983
Chris, Richard Coles & Toby Kettle in the van 1983
Croydon Cabaret 1983 & Proto Gay Centre 1984
Proto Gay Centre leaflet 1984 (front & back)
Proto Gay Centre leaflet 1984 (pages 2 & 3)
LLGC Sampler Day ULU 1984 (front)
LLGC Sampler Day ULU 1984 (reverse)
GTW Maupin Marathon 1985
Outcast Theatre Workshop 1987 & GTW Benefit 1985