nichollsretirementproject

Archive for the month “January, 2017”

One of the joys of the Lake District.

Waiting for your father to stagger up the fellside 200 metres behind you.

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Just saying.

With Trident,

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Britain already has enough unguided missiles.

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We don’t need a visit from Donald Trump, thanks.

The petition at:-

https://petition.parliament.uk/signatures/31346581/verify?token=azc8bZRNd56Qbhmqt8v

passed one million signatures this morning, so there has to be a parliamentary debate on the issue of the proposed state visit of this man.

The debate won’t change the government’s mind, but it will be a very clear indication of how many people will be out on the streets of London when he gets here.

See you there?

Disintegration and Rebirth

So there was the poor old Blue Box, standing on its site within a few hundred yards of Derwentwater and, to be honest, after more than thirty years of touring, not looking its best. The word ‘eyesore’  started to be used and, at one point there was a move, by some of the good burghers of Keswick, to have the theatre demolished and carted away.

There was a huge public outcry and plans started to be laid for replacing the crumbling, trailer-based auditorium with a more permanent structure.  A lot of local opposition and scepticism had to be confronted and overcome, a lot of support had to be rallied, and a whole lot of money had to be raised.

Funds were applied for from all kinds of theatre trusts, the local authorities  and from the Arts Council.  Old friends like Judi Dench and Michael Williams were once again drafted in to offer their talents at fundraising events and on 19 August 1999 a new theatre was born, aptly, but to the annoyance of many of the local opponents of the scheme, known as the Theatre by the Lake.

It was given its official opening four months later.

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If you ever find yourself in Keswick, don’t miss out on a visit to the Theatre by the Lake, at least for morning coffee or lunch, but preferably to see a show.

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And have they kept the standards of performance up as they transitioned from the old Blue Box to the new theatre?  I would say ‘Undoubtedly.’

Over the years I have seen a lot of live theatre.  When we lived in Northampton, Linda and I used to volunteer as stewards at the Royal and Derngate Theatres, which meant that every Friday and Saturday evening we would show the audiences to their seats, direct them to the bar or the toilets during the interval and see them out at the end of evening. In the meantime it was our job to watch the show and just be on hand in case of an emergency.

We saw all sorts of incredible performances ranging from a production of Othello set in a billiard hall that had walls that moved and swayed as Othello descended into madness to a one-man play about dealing with assisted dying to the Rocky Horror Show, where half of the audience turned up in costume.

(For about half an hour before the show, the foyer was a riot of risqué costumes, some of which were, as anyone who has seen the Rocky Horror Show will know,  utterly outrageous. I found myself standing next to a very smartly dressed lady of a certain age who was looking somewhat bewildered by what was unfolding before us.  She confided in me that, despite her advancing years, this was, in fact, the first time she had ever set foot in a proper theatre.  Her comment was “Goodness me!  I’ve never seen so many men’s bottoms in all my life!”

I tried to reassure her that Rocky Horror was not typical of the plays offered by the Royal and Derngate.  I don’t remember seeing her at the theatre after that!

One of the most memorable plays I have ever seen, in over 50 years of theatre-going, was at the Theatre by the Lake in 2008. It starred an actor called Krissi Bohn, of whom I had never heard.  Actually to say that she starred in the play is not correct.  She was the play.

The piece was called ‘The Bogus Woman’ and it was, in effect, one long monologue, during which Bohn introduced us to nearly 40 different characters as she told the story of her own nameless character, an African poet and journalist, who arrives in Britain seeking asylum from persecution in her own unnamed country.

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It was a brilliant performance from a very talented actor and it deservedly won considerable critical acclaim.  A critic from the Independent newspaper wrote “The Bogus Woman might upset those of a delicate disposition, but it is essential watching for its cutting indictment of the way in which we, as a society, fail those who rely on us for fairness, freedom and compassion.”

I can remember walking out of the theatre feeling like I had been kicked in the stomach, completely emotionally drained.  That’s how powerful live theatre can be at its best.

In these post-Brexit, Trumpian days, when ‘fairness, freedom and compassion’ seem to be qualities in retreat, the Bogus Woman should be an essential set book on every school curriculum in the land.

 

 

 

A New Home for an old Blue Box

Year after year throughout the 1950s, 60s and into the seventies, the Century Theatre lumbered from town to town, an unwieldy caravan of trailers bringing high quality drama to communities all over the north of England. Occasionally the cultural caravan would venture into the Deep South and on one occasion in late 1963 the Blue Box journeyed from Keswick in Cumberland to Guildford in Surrey along  Britain’s narrow post-war roads.  The distance was 400 miles.  The journey took a full two weeks.

Finances were always a problem, particularly in towns where going to the theatre was not really part of anyone’s idea of a good night out. And so the  company’s financial viability  lurched from pillar to post, dependent on the size of the audiences they could attract and the grants they could secure from the Arts Council.  And all the time they were at the mercy of the considerable and often unpredictable costs of  touring.

The passage of time also took its toll on the vehicles and trailers and so the directors had to face the fact that the only way the Century Theatre could continue to operate would be to find a permanent home and to develop its audience over time. The town they chose was Keswick.

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Keswick is a small market town at the top end of Lake Derwentwater in the Borrowdale valley. It sits at the foot of Skiddaw, a brooding mountain of some 3000 ft.,

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and within easy travelling distance of several of the Lake District’s highest, most beautiful and dramatic fells

It has a population of only around 5000 permanent residents.  However, from about April until October, and again at Christmas, the town is overrun by thousands upon thousands of walkers, hikers, climbers, boating enthusiasts, dog-walkers, general holiday-makers.  If the weather turns bad, and hat has been known to happen, the centre of Keswick become a constant slow procession of Berghaus jackets, plastic over-trousers and sturdy hiking boots shuffling disconsolately between the  coffee shops and the outdoor clothing stores with their never-ending ‘up to 50% off’ sales. (What that usually means is that ‘selected items’ are up to 50% off, which is great if you are looking for a set of cheap, aluminium camping saucepans, a pair of bright purple plastic gaiters or a new acrylic Christmas pudding bobble hat.)

Keswick, because of its wonderful location, has never had to work very hard to make money.  It provides beds, breakfasts and restaurants for the annual invasion of visitors, but very little in terms of entertainment, unless, of course you are  fascinated by the history, development and manufacture of the pencil, in which case the ‘Cumberland Pencil Museum’ is just the thing for you.

So when the Blue Box started to visit Keswick on a regular basis, offering high quality entertainment for rainy afternoons and long summer evenings after a day on the fells, the company found that its seats could be filled and its coffers replenished thereby enabling it to continue with the expensive business of touring.

Gradually the Century Theatre built its audiences and, more importantly, its reputation.  No-one else was bringing Shakespeare, let alone Shaw, Moliere or Pinter to the mill towns of Lancashire.  The old Blue Box started to win some well-known and influential friends.

Every three or four years, the theatre needed to be taken off the road for repairs, refurbishment and refitting.  During these periods, the Company was offered a residency at the University Theatre in Manchester and in 1966 the by then world famous film actor , Tom Courtenay was persuaded to join the company for a season.  For the Century Theatre, this ensured a summer of full houses, a financial lifeline and a great deal of publicity.

For Courtenay it meant a huge drop in salary but it satisfied a need within him to return to the challenges and rewards of live theatre.  Some years later, he wrote “It was a delightful experience, – great fun and invaluable practice.  From then on Manchester became the base for my work in the theatre – something I have regretted for scarcely a moment.”

When the iconic Manchester Royal Exchange was transformed into a state-of-the-art theatre in 1976, Courtenay became one of its most prominent players.

Two other prominent and long-standing supporters of the Century Theatre were Judi Dench and her husband, Michael Williams, and this is where I get to do my bit of name -dropping!

I mentioned in a previous posting that, when I lived in Carlisle, I used to go out with a producer from BBC Radio Carlisle.  In October 1977, the radio station learned that Dench and Williams were coming to Keswick to do an evening of readings as part of the Century Theatre’s 25th anniversary.  My girlfriend was duly despatched to meet the couple at the Blue Box and to get an interview with Ms Dench. Well. I couldn’t let her go on a mission like that alone, could I?  And anyway, there were a couple of free tickets attached to the deal, so what could I do?  It would have been rude to refuse.

The show that they had come to perform was called “The Monstrous Regiment,” a title that goes back some four hundred years to what we would now call an anti-feminist diatribe published in a pamphlet by John Knox in 1571.

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The evening consisted of excerpts from a range of plays and poems featuring women making their way against the odds in a man’s world. Two of the speeches I can remember came from Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing and St Joan from the play of the same name.

Although Michael Williams was a distinguished actor in his own right, he wasn’t Judi Dench and so, as soon as we arrived, my girlfriend, armed with her BBC portable tape recorder, whisked Ms Dench off into the auditorium for an extended interview, leaving Michael Williams and me kicking our heels in the Blue Box’s tiny bar.

Williams was a surprisingly ‘ordinary’ man, in the sense that he was relaxed,  easy to talk to and didn’t give any sign of being a famous actor.  As they would say in the north of England, “There was no side on him.”

We chatted happily for about half an hour, during which I was able to tell him that ten years previously in  1967, I had actually seen him on stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon. He was playing Petruchio in “The Taming of the Shrew.”

I was sixteen or seventeen years old at the time and I had never seen anything like it! I can still remember the feeling of being pinned back into my seat by the sheer energy and vigour of the actors as they burst out onto the open stage at the beginning of the play.  I was hooked on live theatre!

At that time, Williams was playing in Brecht’s “Schweik in the Second World War” in the West End.  By sheer coincidence, this was a play for which I had done the stage management when it was performed by the Manchester University German Department  at the University Theatre in 1971, so I knew the play well. Williams invited me to go and see the show in London  and to go round backstage for a drink afterwards.

Sadly,  Carlisle proved to be just too far away from London, even on a Metal Box salary,  so I never got to take him up on his offer.

Ah, well. At least I got a good name-dropping story out of it! Read more…

The Blue Box

Confession:  The story that follows is really just one long, elaborate and shameless excuse to engage in a bit of  ‘name-dropping’, as you will no doubt realise if you get to the end of this post.

Ever since medieval times, actors have toured the small towns of Britain to bring entertainment to the masses, usually performing on village greens or in leaky barns or draughty village halls.

Theatre has been an essential part of British culture for as long anyone can remember and , indeed, for  a long while before that. And yet, at the end of the Second World War, very few British towns outside of London and the South of England had proper theatres and so people in those areas had little opportunity to experience live theatre.

(For the benefit of my younger readers, I should point out that there was a time, within the memory of some people who are still alive, when there was no TV.  Really, no TV.  Can you believe it?  I think I was ten years old before we had a television in the house.)

During World War II, when most of the professional theatres were shut down, a number of independent theatre groups were formed in order to provide entertainment for the troops and to keep up morale at home. (The companies also had the added advantage of keeping otherwise redundant actors in work.)

It was a chance conversation between three men involved in some of these groups, John Ridley, Wilfred Harrison and Richard Ward, which led to the proposal to build a fully independent, travelling theatre which could tour the towns in the North of England and bring high quality drama to towns where live theatre was seldom, if ever, seen.

And so, in 1947, the idea of the Century Theatre was born. The theatre’s auditorium and stage were to be built into three large trailers, all painted blue, which would be towed around northern towns by ex-Army trucks.

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They would set up on car-parks, on village greens, anywhere where there was a reasonable certainty that the wheels would not disappear into the mud. The Theatre would stay for a week or two in each location and would then move on.  It came to be known as the ‘Blue Box’.  Three huge trailers making up one complete theatre.

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Further trailers would contain the generator, the box office and the bar, and, most importantly, the living accommodation for the entire company of 12.

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It didn’t matter if you were the director, the leading man or the company cook, everyone was paid the same, (originally £2.00 per week). On arrival in a new town, everybody had to help to assemble the theatre and, at the end of the run, to take it down.

The sides of the auditorium trailers had the seats already screwed in place, so that, as soon as the sides were lowered and secured, the auditorium was ready.

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I can  remember going to the Century Theatre for the first time one wet and windy evening in the mid-1970s while the theatre  was visiting Keswick.  I can’t recall what play I saw, but the experience of climbing up the steps into the box office trailer and then walking through into this huge auditorium was unforgettable. My most vivid memory was of the buckets in Row F.

You have to bear in mind that this ramshackle collection of trucks, caravans and trailers had been touring, more or less continuously, along Britain’s narrow, winding and underdeveloped highways since the theatre  first took to the road in 1952.  It had taken four years to conceive, design and build.  But twenty years on the road had taken its toll on the fabric of the building and by the mid-70s it was a well-known fact that no-one sat in Row F if it was raining.

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The Century Theatre’s mission was to bring high quality, challenging drama to parts of the country where such theatrical experience was all but unknown.  Even with the challenges of trying to attract audiences in towns where the theatre would only be in place for a few weeks, the company never lost sight of its commitment to quality.  Its first production, in 1952, was a play written by a long-dead, but not forgotten playwright from the Midlands of England. It was called “Othello.”

“So where is the bit about the name-dropping,” I hear you ask.

Well, in the tradition of all the best serial dramas, you’ll have to wait for the next episode before that is revealed.

I am indebted to Alan Hankinson and his book “The Blue Box – The Story of the Century Theatre, 1947-1983,” from which I not only learned about the history of the  theatre but also borrowed the photos.

 

Spring will come back, won’t it?

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The Art of Conversation

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Whenwe.

When we were in South Sudan, Linda and I lived in one small room at the Catholic Guest House in Rumbek.  The guest rooms were all the same size and intended for single occupation.  (Indeed most rooms has a set of regulations stuck to the wall expressly forbidding any form of co-habitation.  This had obviously been waived in our case.)

The rooms were built of concrete and ours was the end room of a row of six. That meant that we had three external walls, all of which used to absorb the heat of the sun during the day and radiate it out again at night. We had electricity (and therefore a fan) for three hours a night. At about 10.00pm the fan would stop working and the sweating would begin.  The trick was to try to get to sleep before the fan stopped.  In the morning we would hang out our sheets and pillows to dry.

With two single beds, two chairs, two small tables and a wardrobe, we had about 30sq ft of available living space.

We worked in the same office at the same ministry and sometimes shared the same desk.  We rode our bikes to work in the mornings and home in the evenings.

When we were sent to Papua New Guinea, our living accommodation was much better, but nevertheless, we lived in the same flat, walked to the same building every morning, shared the same office and worked on the same project and usually went for ‘morning tea’ together. Then, for exercise, we would walk around the campus most evenings.

In both placements social life was very restricted, so even outside of work hours we would usually be seen together. People got so used to seeing the two of us in the same place at the same time that there would often be comments if either one of us was seen without the other.

We  tried in vain to explain to people that we were, indeed, two individuals, that ‘Lindaandrobert’ was not, in fact, one person and that we were not, in reality, joined at the hip.

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Maybe they were right!

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I think I’ve been a bit unfair to Carlisle.  It may not be the most exciting city in the world, but it is one of the oldest.  I was once showing an American visitor around the town, (I honestly can’t remember who or why – it was more than 40 years ago).  As we walked past a hotel in the middle of town, my visitor expressed some considerable surprise and admiration when she saw that the hotel was built in 1887.

I didn’t like to tell her that the cathedral, which stood two streets away, can trace its ancestry back to 1133.  Now that’s old.

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The nave has a magnificent ceiling

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and they even provide a very useful mirror so that you can admire it without getting a pain in your neck.

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Two other things impressed me as we walked around the cathedral and the temperatures outside tumbled.

One was this stained glass window, which was an early example of glass recycling.

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And the other was a simple, brass plaque, set into the floor of the cathedral, in honour of one Mary White, who died in 1830, aged 72.

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There is no  better tribute that you could pay to someone who has died than to record that he or she was “deservedly respected.”

Competitive? Us?

I wouldn’t say that my daughter and I have a competitive relationship.  It didn’t take me more than about a week to get over the fact that many of the pictures of the Lake District that she took with her telephone were better than the ones that I took with a proper camera.

But then I struck gold!  On the day before we left I took what I thought was the photo of the holiday.  A duck reflected in the surface of Derwentwater.  A clear contender for the Wildlife Photo of the Year award, in my humble opinion.  I couldn’t wait to share it!

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Our daughter had already left for London, so I sent the photo via email.  I can’t remember exactly what message accompanied my email, but it was something along the lines of “Eat your heart out!”

I fully expected an immediate reply saying something like: “OK Dad.  I admit it.  You win. You are an amazing photographer”

But No!   Not a bit of it!

No admission of defeat.  No recognition of my superior photographic skills.  What I did receive, by return of email, was the following!

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No respect, this younger generation!

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