I am feeling increasingly guilty at having borrowed The Greenwich Theatre Book for as long as I have, so today I thought I’d take one last look at the spirit of the ‘new’ Greenwich Theatre back in 1969 before popping it back to its owner, looking at the ‘extra-curricular’ activities that were going on in the theatre all the time of the rebuild. All great ideas and, who knows – perhaps one day…
The theatre part-funded its rebuild through the raucous Music Hall nights held at the now-long-dead Green Man. As the Greenwich Theatre Book was being written the pub was just about to be demolished and although at the time another pub was mooted to be built on the site (it never happened) they realised it was the end of an era for Greenwich. But it had been an incredibly popular fund-raiser and no one wanted to see the nights end, so they were continued in the newly rebuilt theatre as an appetiser in between the serious drama that was now the main course down the hill. They still happen every so often – usually as charity performances.
Folk music was enjoying a renaissance during the 1960s and the Greenwich Theatre re-builders, always looking for new fundraising methods, started its own Saturday night club at the Gloucester Arms (the Greenwich Tavern for more recent Greenwichians) in August 1968. I’m going to talk about folk in the 60s and 70s in more depth another day as I recently met one of the founder-members of Skinners Rats who used to play for the fabulously-named Blackheath Foot & Death Men and I want to pump him for memories (and photos) but it rapidly grew to be one of the big names on the folk circuit.
Folk music’s enjoying another revival just now. Just a thought. Though I’m hazarding they’d need to find another venue…
We’ve already looked at the way Ewan Hooper encouraged the whole community to get involved, even down to schoolchildren knocking on doors fundraising (can’t imagine that happening now) and it seemed only a short step to starting a Youth Theatre. Hooper started it in Woolwich, and it was one of the very first projects to begin, in 1966. it was ambitious – Brecht’s Threepenny Opera was an early production, but in true Keith-Johnstone-1960s spirit, a fair few of the productions were entirely spontaneous improvisation for invited audiences.
The Youth Theatre was not to be confused with the Bowsprit Company. This was essentially Theatre in Education before TiE was invented. Actor-teachers based at the theatre presented shows in schools illustrating curriculum (note the small ‘c’ – no ‘Curriculum’ then) subjects and local themes – the first one was the Thames, which affected all the schools in the theatre’s catchment area, which went as far afield as Whitechapel and the Isle of Sheppey.
There was one other ‘extra-curricular’ activity the Theatre had right from the start. The Art Gallery was the first part of the theatre to be finished, in 1967. It was all part of Hooper’s cunning plan – he wanted local people as well as folk from all over London to establish Greenwich Theatre in their minds by actually going there – ostensibly to see the art, while at the same time seeing an exciting theatre building in progress.
They made sure that they attracted ‘names’, though I have to confess that being a total philistine I can’t tell you which names from the List of Pride in the Greenwich Theatre Book are the big hitters. I do note that one of the early exhibitors was Terry Scales whose Greenwich paintings are brilliant and who often exhibits at Paul McPherson’s Gallery these days.
I do wonder whether a gallery is something that would be relatively easy to reinstate – and perhaps even bring the theatre a few quid. The walls in the bar always feel rather bare to me these days. For a long time there were photos from past productions but I don’t recall that they’re still there (I might be maligning them here; I actually can’t remember, which is shocking given the number of times I’ve been in the past three weeks…)
Ah, so the end of the Greenwich Theatre Book. I can’t help feeling it needs a new one though – much, both good and bad, has happened since 1969 and the theatre’s rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-respectable-attire story would be well worth telling…