Let’s Put The Show On Right Here
I’m coming to the end of the amount of time I can hold onto The Greenwich Theatre Book before the guilt gets to me, so just two posts remain to be told about the extraordinary events of the late 1960s that led to the saving, then re-flowering of Greenwich Theatre.
Today, I’m most interested in the actions of Actor/ Director Ewan Hooper, who was the driving force behind the theatre’s renaissance and, more importantly the funding and how he went about it.
There’s not much about Hooper on the internet – most sites just copy the Wikipedia stub which basically tells us he’s a Scot, born in 1935, who appeared in movies such as Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, Personal Services and Kinky Boots, and best known for a role in Hi De Hi. In the Who’s Who at the front of the Greenwich Theatre Book, he describes one of his earliest memories as sitting in church in Dundee wondering what he’d do with the font if it was converted to a theatre. He didn’t manage that one, but the itch to create seems to have haunted him.
He went to RADA in 1952 (I believe he’s now an Associate Member of the school) which took him rather longer than he had planned to take when the obligatory National Service cut his training in two. He spent a lot of time at Glascow Citizens Theatre and Bristol Old Vic, which put him in mind of creating a theatre himself. Not just any theatre, though, but one which was part of the local community as well as an amenity.
It was the community that drove Hoooper all the way through recreating Greenwich Theatre. Hooper goes on to tell us how they went about the basics of creating the theatre. They canvassed, door to door, asking what people would like to see, and they raised the bulk of the money the same way.
That’s a lot of trudging. I mean – blimey. That’s a lot of trudging. I can’t even begin to imagine that happening now.
We’ve talked about, on numerous occasions, how the lovely old Crowders Music Hall had reached the stage in the 1960s where it was pretty much derelict, used only for storage and up for sale, demolition not only allowed but encouraged. Greenwich council had bought it to do just that, but that if it could be proved that people actually wanted a theatre in the town they’d support Hooper and Co. having a go.
Hooper and his mates had no money – well – not the kind of money you need for that sort of operation, so they did the trudging themselves. They roped-in other volunteers, including Roan school children on their holidays and by the end of the summer they had more than 3,000 pledges to support the theatre.
At the same time Hooper and the Council were having meeting upon meeting, where it was decided they’d set themselves up as a non-profit-making company to organise it.
Ewan Hooper admits he had no idea about fundraising. He says
This theatre was started by actors and teachers and housewives and councillors and school children and some young professional men; with notable exceptions we didn’t have the expertise in the business community to help us.
They formed the Greenwich Theatre Trust and went door-knocking again.
Then disaster hit – or at least, nearly did.
I’ve never properly written about the horrific proposals put forward in the 1960s to demolish Greenwich (yes, you read that right) and build a motorway in its stead. This is largely because it was one hell of a complicated business, and there are many more people (still) around who know much more than I ever will. I’ll tackle it one day, promise. I guess that in many ways though, it was fantastic for Greenwich. There’s nothing like fearing your home will be bulldozed to mobilise people, and out of the battle to save Greenwich’s historic buildings grew new communities (not least the Greenwich Society) historians and a new spirit. We owe those 60s fighters a huge debt.
Of course, Greenwich Theatre would have been in the firing line. Even if the actual road was re-routed so it didn’t go straight over the actual building, the community that Hooper and Co. were working with so hard would have been decimated. Hooper remembers that morale sagged in those days (understandably), even when the road was looking less likely. So he took another tack. He decided to put a show on, even if it didn’t have a theatre for it to be performed in.
I often wonder what the Green Man must have been like as a venue. The large, ancient pub stood on Blackheath – pretty much where the flats are now, near Rangers House. It’s mentioned many times in historical documents and seems to have been quite a landmark. I always thought it was demolished pre-war or something, but it appears that it was still going strong in the 60s. Hooper decided to try an idea by Peter Kay (no, not that one…) to do the one thing the old theatre was famous for – a music hall, in the large upstairs room at the Green Man. The actors performed free and the money went towards – well, it’s pretty obvious what the funds were for.
It was a massive, massive hit, and continued for many years.
Hooper realised that seeing results was important for morale, so he started community and youth theatres in pubs and church halls, ready to be slotted into the new building when it was finally built, and, as he wrote his piece for the Greenwich Theatre Book, he was just about to realise his dream.
And now the theatre is finished, the company is formed and we can show the people of Greenwich that the arts are about freedom and inspiration – not covenants and raffles and jumble sales. Thank you for helping us. Now enjoy your new theatre with us.
I can’t begin to imagine how Hooper felt in 1997 when the rug was pulled from under one of the most successful producing theatres around and it lost its Arts Council Grant. It must have hurt even more than the fate of his second project, the Scottish Theatre in the 1980s, another victim of Arts Council funding cuts after just eight years.
When the theatre re-opened in 2000, the goalposts had moved. These days it’s mainly a touring house, though when it does create an in-house production, it’s often superb. But funding, too, has changed. Those old days of begging, door to door would be unlikely to work these days. We are too world-weary to give door-knockers much of an ear. So we just have to support the theatre in the most fundamental way – by going.
Because you are vital to us. Obviously if you don’t come, we can’t go on. You are in our minds as we plan our productions. They will grow out of your experiences in South London – and ours. If the plays are rooted in this area, they will have a wider importance too.
I would like to see more South-London oriented productions – which, when they can, I think the current management try to do – I enjoyed the Oxleas Wood show last summer. I had high hopes when they had the deal with the video production company a couple of years ago to record classics for schools. Perhaps something similar can happen again.
I suspect the days of subsidised, year-round, in-house shows are gone forever but we still have a theatre. We need to use it.
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