The Arts Lab hadn’t worked out for a variety of reasons, so by early 1975 I was casting around for other things to do. Signing on in the 1970s wasn’t any hardship, checks were minimal, and many artists and performers used the dole as an informal arts subsidy.
For nearly four years I was able to write, perform, organise festivals and help to run the Birmingham Gay Centre without much more than a smile and a nod from the dole office in Moseley when I went to pick up my giro. Like the many other claimants in Moseley at the time, I would send them a Christmas card.
Whilst at the Arts Lab I’d produced a double bill by David Edgar and Gareth Edwards. Edgar was a strange mixture of contradictions ‐ plummy, rather adenoidal voice, a public‐school manner of entitlement, coupled with one of the fiercest intellects I’ve ever come across, a wit that took hostages and a passionate left‐wing commitment.
At this time, he had worked on a variety of fringe commissions, including one for the General Will in Bradford where the gay actor in the cast stopped the action in protest at the heterosexist nature of the material. General Will split, becoming briefly the first gay theatre company in all but name. That actor was Noel Greig, later one of the dynamos of Gay Sweatshop.
David’s three little plays Summer Sports were about sport, including a hilarious short, as I remember it, about Princess Anne being put down when she refused to take a jump. The evening was called Foul Play. Gareth Owen’s play, in which David played the lead, was Penalty, in which a footballer has a nervous breakdown mid‐match, which requires the team psychiatrist to be brought onto the pitch.
Gareth was a drama lecturer at a teacher’s training college, and a true local playwright and poet, in the best sense of local. An instinct for popular theatre combined with a gift for gritty theatre rhetoric and crisp northern dialogue. I learnt a huge amount about writing from him, just by observation. Later he presented Radio 4’s Poetry Please, before Roger McGough. There are several children’s books and adult novels.
Gareth also had his own theatre company, Pub Theatre Company; I say ‘his’ but it was run by a friend of his called John and featured several strong and attractive women who gravitated into Gareth’s ambit. In his early forties and with hypnotic eyes, he was an extraordinary ‘babe magnet’.
When John wanted to leave the company and other members dispersed, I asked to take over the name and build up the company again. I brought in a couple of friends from Oxford who were aspiring actors and had just graduated in the summer of 1975. I offered them no money but great parts and a huge amount of work. They were Peter Thompson and Christina Matthews. The beautiful Christina went on to be a formidable lead in West End musicals, and I believe now lives in America.
Peter, a pale Byronic figure with little of the Byronic ego, was Christina’s partner and they both wrote. They were joined by Kim Wall, who decided to carry on from the old Pub Theatre Company.
Kim later became a man the nation loved to hate, as love rat and confidence trickster Matt Crawford in the Archers. He remains a fine radio actor.
Actors came and went, and we produced an extraordinary amount of work. We were geared to new work, preferably by local writers. The Birmingham Rep was producing mainly classics, and there were few outlets for playwrights.
I also had a vision of a populist theatre which would go out to ‘the people’ in pubs. We were cheap and accessible. We built up a circuit of The Fighting Cocks in Moseley, the Spring Cottage in Walsall, a pub in Dudley and one in Edgbaston. We’d do two weeks in each, Wednesday to Saturday.
At the same time, we would also do free lunchtime shows, mainly revue‐style and lasting about forty minutes. These openings were staggered. It meant an insane workload where at worst you might be having to carry four parts in your head at the same time: the lunchtime and evening shows currently in production and the two which were due to open next.
On one occasion I remember I was the first actor to appear in two of the four plays, and actually went on stage and launched into the wrong one. I was meant to be a camp waiter in a Gareth play about a wedding, giving it the full Frankie Howerd shtick ‐ Oooh, no, look, don’t be like that etc. What I launched into was a sadistic headmaster in a play by Peter called The Worm, a philosophic riff on original sin and how to beat the shit out of it; Peter had his own peccadilloes.
I realised after about twenty‐seconds I was in the wrong play and desperately tried to turn it round; gradually the headmaster became more and more camp. “The Worm is in the bud, it’s eating us; no, really, it is clawing our vitals, yes, missus! Vada the worm", or words to that effect but nobody noticed.
Kim, Peter and Christina who were brave pioneers, left in early 1976, exhausted and frustrated at the lack of money and recognition but others came and replaced them.
Little survives in the way of a record of those productions, and few scripts apart from my own. But what there is will be available shortly.