A Pinta Wallop
I’m still gingerly enjoying The Greenwich Theatre Book, more from that another time, but today I’m curious about a newspaper cutting from 1970, which the incomparable Julian Watson saved – well, for reasons that will become clear.
The newly-reborn Greenwich Theatre was just stretching its artistic legs in 1970 and director Ewan Hooper knew that the only way it was going to survive was to appeal to a local audience of people who weren’t just from the posh end. But his ‘problem’ (one I suspect James Haddrell would give his eye teeth for in these rather different times of swingeing cuts…) ranged rather further.
As the Mercury reviewer points out in his review, nearly half Greenwich Theatre’s audience was coming from outside the South East London area – the story of the theatre’s renaissance had captured the imaginations of the great, the good and the famous – well-known actors were queuing up to play there. Audiences from as far away as Brighton, Coventry and even Scotland were being lured by the sheer quality of the cast lists – and the novelty of a theatre that had been recreated in the can-do spirit of the 60s.
But the theatre had been ‘sold’ to the locals who’d been responsible for stumping up at least some of the cash on being ‘for the community’ and Ewan Hooper was only too aware of it. Keen to find a way to get the whole town involved, he very wisely decided to consult Julian, who was at the time, working at Greenwich Local History Library. Julian suggested a new play, based on something that affected Greenwich and everyone in it.
The result was Down the Arches, a musical documentary telling the story of the building of the first passenger train in London – from London Bridge to Greenwich. We’ve talked about all that many times here, but I bet we’ve not even scratched the surface of the kind of things fetched up for the show – ‘Victorian skullduggery,’ dodgy deals and cheery navvies.
It told the story from the point of view of the Greenwich people – who, in 1970, would have been a much more static community, so many would have come from families that 120 years ago might have actually worked as those navvies, been proto-objectors or even been evicted to clear the way for the miles of arches.
Down The Arches sounds pretty multi-media for the time. We tend to consider slide-show backdrops and musical commentary as being modern, but this show had both. I’m guessing that it owed quite a debt to Music Hall, which was enjoying a revival at the time – the theatre had been partly funded by a regular Good Old Days-style night and the reviewer notes that many of the Music Hall cast had stayed on for this show.
It starred Derek Griffiths, who I confess for me is firmly locked in Play School memories. I used to love him as a kid – and I note he still does voiceovers for CeeBeebies – which is quite a career in children’s TV. Julian reckons he was brilliant in Under the Arches.
It was a huge success, and managed to attract audiences who’d never been inside the place before, who didn’t know the ‘niceties’ of theatre. Julian remembers that the staff had a bit of an issue with people who wanted to bring their beer into the brand-spanking-new auditorium – they couldn’t work out why that should be an issue; they looked on it more like a pub – if they hadn’t been regulars when it had been a music hall, their parents or grandparents had been. Of course, with the advent of plastic glasses it isn’t an issue these days…
I find myself wondering what would happen if James Haddrell was actually in charge of enough cash to put on more than one in-house production every year. I have no idea whether Under The Arches would translate to a 21st Century audience (I worry about the costumes – if a guy in the 1960s thought they were bizarre…) but I can’t help thinking that locally-based producing theatre would be a rather wonderful thing again. I bet the script still exists somwhere – and hey, perhaps we could tempt-back Derek Griffiths for old time’s sake.
Perhaps that’s the sort of thing we should be looking at for the Cultural Olympiad…
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