The 70s, Part 2: Coarse Acting
Marking forty years since my first paid job in the arts (Evening Times music critic), this is the second in an occasional series of retrospective (aka nostalgic) blogs, looking at ‘then and now’:
This month, September, it’s thirty years since I took up the post of Director at the Crawford Arts Centre in the University of St Andrews. One of the peculiarities of St Andrews then (and probably now) was that it had a hugely active student drama scene, precisely because, it seemed, it did not have a Drama department. Somehow student drama could be more inclusive if there was no division between those who were ‘doing’ drama and those who just wanted to tread the boards. But the absence of a formal academic qualification hasn’t stopped many of those St Andrews students from going on to successful careers in the performing arts. One, who also became a good friend, is Philip Howard, so there’s a pleasing circularity that this month also sees the start of his tenure as co-director of Dundee Rep. Scotland being a very small country, I also have a link with Dundee Rep, but a much more humble one. Having acquired a provisional Equity card through my BBC contract (see Part 1 in this series), when that contract came to an end, I went to the Rep as an Assistant Stage Manager, in September 1977.
Dundee Repertory Theatre had been founded in 1939, and it had had an honourable and sometimes starry past. Cast lists from the 1960s included early appearances by the likes of Lynn Redgrave, James Bolam and Michael York, and Scottish actors of the calibre of Brian Cox and Hannah Gordon had started out there. But in 1963 its home of almost 25 years had burned down, and the company had moved into temporary quarters in a disused church. Fourteen years later, I found them still there.
It’s hard to exaggerate the sheer squalor in which the company was working after existing for so long as theatrical refugees. Fortunately I’ve still got the photographs I took at the time to remind me. Backstage was no more than a bare passage (christened the anus terribilis), the two communal dressing rooms were simply converted landings on the stairs to the gallery, and the only way to the control box was through the female dressing room and up through a hatch. Oh, and the only shower in the entire building was a single cold tap set at a height of six feet. To cap it all, some years earlier a misguided Job Creation team had painted the entire theatre—foyer, auditorium and bar—in the same revolting shade of what I believe was technically called ‘thistle’ but looked like maroon on an off-day.
Since 1982 Dundee Rep has been housed in a handsome and well-equipped custom-built theatre, and in recent years it has rightly received considerable critical acclaim for the work it has achieved with the only fulltime company of actors based in a Scottish theatre. Just let that sink in: the only theatre which is able to employ the same company of actors, not just throughout a full season but also from season to season. In the 70s, it was the norm to engage a company for at least a full season, with a few guests appearing for individual productions. And these were not small companies. That season of 1977-78, Dundee Rep tackled, among other things, a full-scale Shakespeare (Taming of the Shrew) Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, which needs a cast of nine, and Philip King’s hoary farce See How They Run, which needs eight. All told, the theatre mounted ten new full productions that season, plus two late-night one-acters, all produced entirely in-house. Nowadays, the unique in-house Ensemble at Dundee mounts barely half that number of productions in a year, the rest of the season being made up with visiting companies.
However, with the thrilling experience of the Edinburgh Fringe only just behind me, I was in for a shock. Like much in the Dundee of the 70s, the Rep seemed locked in a time warp. In a year in which London audiences saw the premieres of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, David Edgar’s Destiny, and Mary O’Malley’s Once a Catholic, Dundee Rep was opening its season with Who was that Lady?, a Victorian musical. It was not even a real Victorian musical, but a ghastly pastiche which was neither accurate enough to be interesting nor outrageous enough to be funny. But clearly someone felt that Dundee audiences had an insatiable appetite for such fare, for the season would end with an equally dubious recreation of a Victorian Music Hall programme.
It will be apparent that the productions at Dundee that season did not fill me with enthusiasm. Indeed, with hindsight, it’s hard to believe that the funding bodies, especially the Scottish Arts Council, tolerated such consistently low standards. While some of the blame must lie with the near-slum conditions in which the company had to work, in the end the choice of programme, and the poor quality of many of the productions, can only be laid at the door of the Theatre Director. This was Robert Robertson, who would later achieve some fame as the pathologist in the long-running Glasgow cop series Taggart. He was very much an actor-manager of the old school, a big bearded man with a booming voice, slightly resembling—in character as well—James Robertson Justice in his most famous role as Sir Lancelot Spratt in the Doctor films.
Another facet of the Dundee company, which would now seem surprising, was how many of the actors were not Scottish. This particularly applied to guest artists, joining the company to take the lead for a single play. The best production of the season—the work of a guest director—was Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady, a sharp New York comedy which had recently been a West End hit for Elaine Stritch. In Dundee that part was taken by Carole Boyd, best known, then as now, as Lynda Snell in The Archers. Carole gave a marvellous performance, and was a lovely actor to work with, but she is no more American than I am, and there must surely have been more than one Scottish actor around then who was equally capable of impersonating a New Yorker. But that rather summed up how Dundee Rep felt: aspiring to be a middle class theatre lifted from some English provincial town and dropped in the middle of largely working class Dundee. It seems somehow fitting that the largest single group booking of the season was from Dundee’s Dental Association.
Today, Alasdair Gray would probably label the choice of Philip, a Yorkshireman, to be co-Director of Dundee Rep as another example of a ‘Scotophobic appointment’. But the theatre that Philip heads has opened with the Scottish premiere of David Greig’s epic Victoria, the Rep ensemble company members and associates are almost entirely Scottish, and the visiting programme is largely made up of interesting work by Scottish touring companies. Contrast that with the cultural cringe of the 70s Rep, under a Scottish director, and you’ll see that it’s not that simple. This is not to say, though, that the approach is parochial: Philip’s first season includes Frank McGuiness’s version of Euripides’ Hecuba and the Christmas show will be an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG.
It’s an intriguing paradox: today’s Dundee Rep may not have the means to mount as many productions as its 70s predecessor, and it may be now the only Scottish theatre with a resident company but, at the Rep as at other theatres, standards are immeasurably higher (of audience comfort as well as of artistic achievement), and Scottish writers and performers are far more prominent. Gains, it seems to me, far outweigh losses.
© Robert Livingston