Star Turn was born on 9 January 1988. It was the day of the first demonstration against the proposed Section 28 (then called Clause 14 in the bill).
It was announced in the middle of December 1987, and we had three weeks to organise the first demonstration against it, with Christmas holidays intervening. The fact that we managed to get 9,000 people out on the street in that time indicates the depth of feeling that the measure aroused.
It was a very scary demonstration. The march ended in a rally on some waste ground just outside the Imperial War Museum. Hundreds of riot police in full gear surrounded us, many on horseback. The mood of the rally became very antagonistic, with a large section of the crowd wanting to charge the police.
It was a compere’s nightmare: do you go with what the crowd wants, or try to calm things down, however unpopular you make yourself? I could see from the stage just how large the police presence was, which maybe the marchers didn’t realise.
Clearly a charge against the police would have been a suicide mission, and many people would have been hurt. There were also children on the march.
Chris Smith, Britain’s only out gay MP at the time, appealed for calm. My co-compere was the popular lesbian comedian Robyn Tyler, then on a visit. She too appealed for calm. The crowd wasn’t very responsive.
So, I described exactly what I could see from the stage: the numbers of police, the back-up forces on horseback in side streets, the paddy wagons and police cars. The crowd went quiet, clearly weighing up the possibilities. Eventually, they grudgingly dispersed, more than ever convinced that this was a measure that set us on the road to a fascist state.
After all this, I had tickets for Sir Ian McKellen’s solo Shakespeare show at the Playhouse Theatre. The actor had only recently come out as gay but couldn’t come on the demonstration because he was playing a matinee. I was exhausted and emotionally raw.
In his show, McKellen gave a speech THE speech from Sir Thomas More. It is the only bit of a play which we have in manuscript in Shakespeare’s own hand, though there are serious questions about how much of the play was written by the Bard.
But the speech! It occurs when More confronts a rampaging mob in the City of London, out to expel foreigners by violence. Nothing is new, it seems, not even the National Front. More’s defence of strangers, of difference, is passionate, and after the events of the day, the tears streamed down my face.
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to th’ ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I'll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self-same hand, self-reasons, and self-right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.
I was so moved by this that I went back to read the whole play. The problem was that the rest of it is pretty bad, and this great speech was floating unanchored in the middle of it, with little chance of general currency.
So, I tried to create a context in which the speech could be said and used in a different contemporary drama. At the back of my mind was also the sad history of Peter Wyngarde, an actor best known for a kitsch British TV series of the 1970s called Jason King, although he was also a fine Shakespearean.
Wyngarde fell from grace almost overnight, after he was convicted for gross indecency on being arrested in a cottage in Gloucester bus station. He became unemployed – unemployable? His most significant role after this was in the movie Flash Gordon, and for it he was required to wear a mask throughout.
Because we had moved on legally and socially, I needed a fictional offence more serious than a grope in a toilet; I came up with a relationship with a 15-year-old boy. I thought by locating the boy at that age, I would place the character on the cusp of audience sympathy. Some would regard it as paedophilia, and some wouldn’t.
I had already written a prototype of the situation in a little fictional vignette, one of a series of similar snapshots which opened a polemic about the nature of consent in an anthology called The Betrayal of Youth (see footnote 1).
I also had the enormous if lazy talents of Simon Kennett at my disposal, and he had credible film star looks which could be aged up.
Although Wyngarde provided much of the impetus for the character, I really had in mind Dirk Bogarde, whom Simon resembled, and I also adopted some of Bogarde’s vocal mannerisms.
Bogarde had a prickly relationship with the press over his sexuality, and most famously burned all his papers in his garden in front of the cameras, and for the benefit of Russell Harty who had tried to get him to come out in a needling interview.
Bogarde was also very fond of Jon Whitely, his preternaturally talented young co-star in both Hunted and The Spanish Gardener, and I remember reading that he wanted to adopt the boy during the filming of the second picture.
This is not to suggest that in life Bogarde had the same kind of relationship with Whitely that Babbage has with Sunil.
The story is seen through the eyes of Babbage, so the audience must be alert to the possibility of an unreliable narrator and make its own judgement about his version of events. As with A Good Ol’ Boy, the theme is redemption.
Babbage bears the burden of responsibility for plunging the boy into a nightmare of court proceedings and ruining his life. Can that burden be lifted? The play also touches on the issue of legacy for gay men; nowadays gay and lesbian couples adopt children – or even have children – with comparative ease.
At the time of writing, this was not a possibility, and even now I suspect a single gay man having a child would be greeted with deep suspicion.
To come full circle, at the end of Star Turn Babbage is fired to change his audition speech and recite More’s speech about strangers. It is a blistering performance. Does he get the part? Does he meet Sunil again?
We never know, and it shouldn’t matter. The important issue is whether Babbage’s dark burden has been lifted.
1. This has been quoted extensively out of context on the internet by members of the Christian Right anxious to show that all gay men are paedophiles.
Read the script for Star Turn
View the YouTube recording of Star Turn.
Star Turn is available for performance. Please seek permission from Peter Scott-Presland - email firstname.lastname@example.org
I explained earlier that I chose an age of fifteen for Sunil because I wanted something which was sufficiently hazardous to precipitate Dick Babbage’s steep fall from grace but might be on the cusp of sympathy.
However, Mark Bunyan, the only actor I wanted for the part, felt this was too ‘cutting edge’, to put it politely, and asked that the boy’s age be raised to 17.
This has necessitated several changes in the script, most obviously around going to school since the school leaving age was 16 at the time this is set (the play is set in 1988/89 and describes events round 1979/80).
For comparison, it is sufficiently different to make it worth posting separately. I will leave the reader to decide which one is the stronger script.
Read the script for Alternative Star Turn
Blue Moon Café, Edinburgh 12 to 29 August 1988
Various pub venues, October and Nov 1988
In 1986 I went to America to have a baby. It’s a long story, and maybe I’ll put it into a blog some time. Most of the time I was staying about 15 miles outside Huntsville, Alabama.
Huntsville itself is rich and serves the US military/industrial complex but outside there is the most abject poverty. Opposite the house I was staying in, there was a tumbledown two-room wooden shack with no electricity or running water.
In it were living a poor white family of eight. All their money, which wasn’t much, went on keeping their clapped-out pick-up truck going. Without transport, you die. The father went hand-to-mouth from one seasonal agricultural job to another, a classic sharecropper.
Up the road there was an almost equally tumbledown store, of the kind that you see in classic Westerns. A wood-burning stove in the middle, traditional farm supplies, chewing tobacco and sarsaparilla.
The other thing which struck me was the sheer number of churches. In the South, all churches seem to be self-defined. So, every other house seemed to have a sign outside: ‘First Church of Christ The Redeemer’, ‘Second Church of Church The Redeemer’ etc. Classic Bible Belt redneck country.
From this background came the idea for A Good Ol’ Boy. Like many of my plays, its theme is redemption. I always believe people can be changed, even our enemies. If they can’t be changed, there’s no point in political activism and no help for the world.
But it can be challenging. So here I asked myself, who would be the most unlikely candidate for redemption, and what would it take to shift him? This story is the answer to that question, and I had the idea that somehow people’s very prejudices could be harnessed as forces for change.
The central character is a died-in-the-wool redneck, racist and homophobic. He’s old, a relic of the old agricultural economy in a new world of hi tech and fast foods. He works as a cleaner in a drive-in restaurant.
The framing device is a phone call. The Good Ol’ Boy is on his break at work and hesitating whether to make this call. The call would be to accept a thank-you dinner invitation from the gay couple.
He wrestles with his prejudices; the prospect of a good steak dinner for poor white trash is hard to turn down. Will he pick up the phone at the end of the play?
I have banged on elsewhere about the need to create some kind of dialectic within a central character in order for a monologue to work as anything other than a two-dimensional piece of storytelling. The phone call is the focus of that dialect.
This play finds its drama both in the violent central incident, and in the conflict within the mind of the character. I was also at the age (39) where I could no longer play the cute young things and looking for a character and a virtuoso piece I could continue to play for a number of years! It was last revived at the Rosemary Branch in Islington in 2002.
Between times, I offered it to BBC Radio 4 as a thirty-minute drama, but they turned it down on the grounds of offensive racist and homophobic language. If there’s a way to present a racist, homophobic character without using racist homophobic language, I have yet to find it.
View the YouTube recording of A Good Ol' Boy.
A Good Ol' Boy is available for performance. Please seek permission from Peter Scott-Presland - email email@example.com
London writer Eric Presland has brought two one-act monologues to Edinburgh, both being staged at the Blue Moon Café, and both with gay themes.
Star Turn, acted by Simon Kennett, finds an old actor at an Othello audition.
There are some wonderfully witty comments on the thespian world, and it doesn’t take too long to realise how desperate this man is for work, to regain the early days when he was a somebody.
On one level it’s quite pathetic, as he bores the younger auditionees with tales of the good old days, how he’s after this part as he’d be ageing up for it; but interspersed with this industry talk is the story of a court case which ruined him, as a young lover – starring for the prosecution – exposes their relationship.
When he gets in to audition he unleashes Shakespeare’s beautiful speech from Sir Thomas More, where he confronts a mob set on attacking foreigners just because they’re different, and asks the mob “whither would you go” if they found themselves banished. I found the whole monologue quite moving.
A Good Ol’ Boy, acted by Eric Presland, is set in an Alabama backwater and again shows the oppression of gay people, as the Good Ol’ Boy unleashes his opinions on 'nigras and white trash sissy boys'.
The piece captures the nuances of folk with those racist and homophobic attitudes. The satire is strong, as is the very gutsy irony.
Presland’s powerful acting creates a character you want to pick up and shake some sense into, all the time knowing, having lived in rural America, that there’s a thousand more like him for every bigot who finally looks beyond skin colour and sexual preference.
Juan Hyde, The Scotsman, 30 August 1988
Eric Presland is always endearing, which is the main problem with his monologue A Good Ol’ Boy. He manages to make a racist, cissy-hating Southern US bigot seem very nice really, just misunderstood, in a tale of conversion to grudging liberalism which is too formulaic to overcome its overwhelming sentimentality.
Since there is never a genuine sense of hate from the performance, all you get is the half-hearted character-assassination of a social worker’s report. A pity that Presland’s own script lets down the best acting I’ve seen from him.
While he looks for a better writer, the rest of this double bill desperately needs an actor. Simon Kennett is awful in Star Turn, an implausibly constructed melodrama about a film star imprisoned for his relationship with a fifteen-year-old boy. It might set the pulses racing as an Afternoon Play (on Radio 4) but in this context it’s simply quaint.
Carl Miller, City Limits, 6 October 1988
Taking plays around tiny theatre clubs can be soul destroying at the best of times but taking something that you’ve written yourself must be really nerve wracking. Eric Presland has been doing both for some time now, and his latest venture is two monologues performed by both himself and Simon Kennett, each directing the other.
The first piece, which Simon performs, is called Star Turn, and concerns an actor jaded by age and haunted by a cruel paedophile court case. A fifteen-year-old black boy idolises the actor, lives with him, and then falls foul of his homophobe sailor father, who prosecutes him and gives the thespian newspaper reviews of a type he never wanted.
The piece has an ironic twist in the tails but is far too long. The actor continually pauses to reminisce, until his lolloping self-pity makes you want to shout, "Pull yourself together and get on with it". Better pacing, less sentimentality and a little pruning would sharpen up this piece.
The second monologue is acted by Eric himself, and deals with an old Alabama man, whose hatred of ‘nancy boys’ is matched only by his loathing of ‘nigras’. Called A Good Ol’ Boy, it shows the man cussing in his dungarees, unknowingly stuck between hating people (but not really knowing why) and wanting to approach them (but not knowing how).
It takes the potential double danger of a ‘nancy boy nigra’ (the line is really ‘cissy boy nigra’ – Ed), who turns out to be very civilised thank you, to jolt the bigot out of his rut. The monologue is very well constructed, well acted and touching.
I can’t help thinking that old ground is covered here; a gay actor getting weepy over his past, an American red neck who’s [sic] idea of a good time is a night out with the Klan. Fairly easy targets really, and it is the handling that should make them different. The scenes with the actor are contrived to include huge chunks of Shakespeare, which make their point about fear of ‘strangers’ but at too great a length.
The second monologue featuring the bigot is the better of the two and perhaps should have been seen first.
Jason Whittaker, Pink Paper, 4 October 1998
These are two new monologues which deal with the subject of prejudice in very different circumstances.
The first is delivered by an ageing ex-film star who is now reduced to auditioning with unknowns for a production of King Lear ('Othello' actually – Ed). As he awaits his audition, he talks to the young actors waiting with him, and to the audience.
A sad story of loneliness, failed ambition and thwarted love emerges. The actor has only recently come out of prison after being discovered with his teenaged Indian lover, and now finds himself with no friends and little hope of work.
Some moments of this monologue are very touching, and Simon Kennett, as the actor, evokes just the right kind of bluster which hides a broken spirit.
The second half of the show is performed by Eric Presland himself. He played a typical Southern American redneck who lives on burgers and beer, makes jokes about ‘cissy boys’, and hates blacks with a vengeance.
In this short piece, the character makes a complete unexpected progression towards some kind of tolerance, after an incident involving a black man and a gay white man in which he becomes entangled.
Presland is completely convincing and quite menacing too in his explosions of blind hatred, and in the originality of his convictions. There is much humour in the performance too. Asked by his young son why he allowed a certain black man in the house and not another, he replies: "Well, that one was an African, and this one was a nigra".
This monologue is a delight, which makes the show worthwhile.
Kfir Yefet, Capital Gay, 14 October 1988
Footnote: Eric Presland changed his name to Peter Scott-Presland in 2000. This has made it difficult to identify references to him on the internet. On this site, all performances, scripts etc prior to 2000 are attributed to Eric Presland, later ones to Peter Scott-Presland.