WARS OF THE ROSES
Blood Red Roses begins
on Channel 4. author and director John McGrath talks to Sarah Hemming.
A moving train is not the best of places to conduct an interview. Conversation tends to be punctuated by offers of tea. coffee and light refreshments and your most incisive question obliterated by reminders of what to do with your baggage. Nevertheless. John McGrath's designer became almost wistful as she saw us onto the .S'eotrail Express. ‘Forty-five minutes. . .' she said. She had been conﬁned to a scrambled ten minutes in the taxi and on the platform with McGrath to discuss the finer points oftwo forthcoming television projects.
John McGrath is a busy man. We were returning from a preview of the tv version of Blood Red Roses. his screen adaptation of the play first performed by 7:84 Scotland.(the left-wing theatre company ofwhich he is founder and artistic director) — an event taken in by McGrath on a sort ofgentle jog-trot between overseeing rehearsals for the company's ('hristmas show and work on two television programmes.
Blood Red Roses. going out on Channel 4 this December. tells the story of Bessie McGuigan. a strong-minded Scottish working woman. who becomes increasingly active in union battles and is eventually blacked for her pains. Based on a true story. the play is expanded to reﬂect the development ofindustrial action since the 1950s and give a sympathetic. though not rose-tinted. picture of the union militant. In the film version McGrath has brought it up to date. incorporating the significant recent union history:
‘There is another Tory election victory in ‘83. the Falklands happens as does the miners‘ strike. And all these things happen. as it were. to put the nails in the coffin ofthe industrial militant. The sight — which is in the film — ofthousands of policemen holding off pickets is— well. not the end of the story. but a very serious full stop on that kind of activity. You can see the way brute force is being used.‘
McGrath wrote the play in ‘7‘). when another strong-minded woman first came into her own. and the idea ofdoing a film adaptation was in part propelled by his feelings about
Thatcher's Britain seven years on. Those seven years have seen the virtual disappearance of 7:84 England. sister company to 7:84 Scotland. After their grant was withdrawn in the Arts Council of Great Britain's much-debated ‘Glory of the (iarden' report (a move described as ‘policy decision') the company mounted their final tour. All the Fun ofthe Fair earlier this year— funded this time by the equally ill-fated GL('. The company is now engaged in what McGrath succinctly describes as ‘a holding operation'. but without funding is operationally defunct. ‘The TUC have given us an office and a telephone in Congress House and Norman Willis takes a kind ofpersonal interest in making sure we survive the difficult times. But to mount a touring production in England you need something like £50—£(i0.000.'
Nevertheless. McGrath remains optimistic. feeling that the actual demand for political theatre is on the increase.‘l think if] was going to feel cynical. I would have felt cynical in ‘7‘) when the Tories got in after we'd been thundering around for eight years trying to say something different.
"l'ouring has actually become more emotional. because what happens now. and this is particularly true in England. is that audiences seem to come out almost to make contact with each other — you feel a kind of resistance movement. The last tour we did in England play ed to over 3.000 in Sheffield. 3.400 in Newcastle and about 1.300 in Manchester. You felt there was a kind of need to make contact with each other in a way that wasn't moaning about the situation. but that had some spirit and fight and an ongoing sense ofthe future.‘
With 7:84 England reduced to a name and a number. it must be with no little sense of irony that McGrath
John McGrath directs Blood Red ' B0888. '
embarks on a documentary for Down the Line on the relative health of touring theatre in Scotland compared with England. 7:84 Scotland is still going comparatively strong. and McGrath feels that. in general. the tradition of touring companies is much sounder North of the Border.
‘C'ompanies in Scotland face huge problems. but they're on the increase. I think because it's had a bigger response from audiences. that touring theatre in Scotland has tried to make contact with audiences. rather than to operate from a very metropolitan base. Theatre in London is very inturned on its own developments and its own fashions. and that tends to be carried out onto the road. really as a way of keeping the company alive. rather than as a way ofgoing out to audiences. I think in Scotland companies have been much more conscious of having a real sense ofcommunication with audiences.'
In line with this view. 7:84 Scotland tends to divide its productions between what it has identified as two fairly distinct audiences: those for the small-scale community venue tour ofthe Highlands. and those for the larger-scale tour of industrial areas. Many will still remember tours of The ( 'hei'iot. the Stag and the Black. Black 01/. Blood Red Roses and more recently In Time of'Sirije and The Allnomaeh. There can be little doubt that most Scottish touring companies generally. and 7:84 and Wildcat (the other major political company) specifically. enjoy an extremely healthy following. and Mc(irath attributes this specific success partly to the readiness of Scottish audiences to embrace political theatre. lie is wary though of following the correlative argument that popular support for the Labour movement itself is more noticeably in evidence in Scotland. ‘I
used to say that very glibly — that the Scottish working class are much stronger. Actually. when you look at what's been happening in London —I went along to the last night ofthe (iLC rally on the South Bank. 11 was incredible. They said in the papers that there were some 200,000 there. but there were actually about a million people. It was huge — a fantastic demonstration of support for what were. really. socialist policies.'
Mc(irath himself remains based in Edinburgh. where he spends much of his time now occupied with Freeway Films. an independent company. informally affiliated to 7:84. Future projects include further adaptations of 7:84 stage shows. including. tnost immediately. the recent There is a Happy Land. It's a policy that to a degree lays Mc(}rath open to the twin accusations of treading water and nostalgia. lle realises this:‘lt's good adapting stuff you know and you've worked on and that you know the strengths of. But. on the other hand. I'm very keen to write new stuff'
New work on stage next year will hopefully include a full production of a play by Ena Lamont Stewart. given a well-received reading by the company recently. Meanwhile. television offers a wider potential audience for proven pieces of work. and in the case of Blood Red Roses adaptation has purpose. allowing an apposite update of the story's significance. The landscape has changed in more ways than one since the play was first written. however: the changing face of Labour perhaps lends a touch of unlooked-for irony to the title. .\lc(irath maintains. however. that changes on the Left should have little effect on 7:84:
‘With 7:84 what I've always tried to avoid is being identified with one sect or faction. either in the Labour Party oron the Left. 1 think really what we're about is the things that unite people on the Left. The things that divide people on the Left are very important. but they are not the kind of things that a theatre company like ours ought to be getting involved in. I think people have to make their own minds up where they want to put their energy — privately. What we're about is saying there's a need for energy to be spent and this is why. If you like it's pre~political politics.'
And as Blood Red Roses is screened. 7:84 Scotland will be engaging in pre-politics for beginners. with their first ('hristmas Show. The liieredihle Bree/tin Beetle Bug. ()n this occasion the company's name (7"; of the population owns 84"} ofthe wealth)coined when they started in 1971. has changed its frame of reference a little: ‘We've just designed a poster which says 7"} ofthe children ofthis country get 84"} ofthe pocket money. Subverting the minds of the younger generation. . . it's dreadfull'
Blood Red Roses. ('hmmel 4 on 4.11.181m: The Incredible Bree/tin Beetle Bug begins 5 Dee. George Square Theatre. lirlinhurgli; The
( 'hei'iol. the Stag and (he Blue/s. Black ()illlilm) ism (111’. T. 2‘) .\'()t'.
The List 28 Nov — ll Dec 3