“Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
‘Relax’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave!”
Songwriters: Don Felder / Don Henley / Glenn Frey
Hotel California lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group
All Fool’s Day. A wet and windy Good Friday. April 1st, 1983.
I parked my mini outside the place where I had an interview scheduled for midday and looked up in disbelief at the building. A ramshackle and run-down factory. Likely Victorian, certainly old, cold and extremely uninviting. I studied the map of Wolverhampton I had scrunched up on my lap (the days long before satnav 36 years ago). I looked again at the address I had been directed to find.
Zip Theatre, The Bluebird Centre, Park Lane, Fallings Park, Wolverhampton. Yep. I was at the right place. God forbid.
The address alone had conjured up in my mind, a sweeping, tree-lined avenue. Zip Theatre would have pride of place in the heart of Wolverhampton’s creative hub. There would be minstrels and musicians idly chatting and playing whimsical tunes casually seated on a herring-boned paved area. They would be wearing brightly coloured dungarees, second hand Dexy’s Midnight Runner boots, and crocheted beanies, loosely covering copper coloured hair. A water feature to the front of the building would be host to a pool filled with small silver coins…almost funny, the idea that this could’ve been the Black Country’s very own Trevi Foutain. The romantic fantasy of my furtive imagination….
The stark reality; the ‘and then I woke up’ moment’: this area could be better described as a forgotten wasteland. I could almost hear a country and western classic playing in the background. Where was Roy Rogers when he was needed to fulfil the painting -by-numbers scene? He should’ve been clopping along on a dappled mare lazily crooning:
Cares of the past are behind
Nowhere to go, but I’ll find
Just where the trail will wind
Drifting along with the tumblin’ tumbleweeds
Opposite the Bluebird Centre, an old Ever-Ready battery factory of yesteryear, was the recently closed Guy Motors. Wolverhampton’s industrial heritage was in the throes of being systematically stripped during the first five years of a rampant Thatcher government – hell-bent on destroying and diminishing the Labour heartlands. I later learned that Park Lane – far from the ghost of 1983 – was once a place where many thousands of Wulfrunians were employed.
Tumbleweed had almost certainly replaced the grinding wheels of industry, a painful metaphor of thriving communities drifting aimlessly into an uncertain future. A prophetic theme with chimes of Blondie’s 1982 hit record the island of lost souls.
And here was I parked on the boulevard of broken dreams. A cliché designed for this very moment. Surely this was a bad joke? It was April Fool’s Day after all. The fact that Duran Duran were number 1 in the charts with Is there something I should know? just added to the overwhelming feeling that I had been well and truly duped. Big time.
I sat in the car for at least 10 minutes. Oh bucaneer can ya help me put my truck in gear, can ya get me far away from here… In later years I relayed the story as this being the sliding doors moment of my early 20’s. I could’ve very easily just turned around and driven away. This job was not going to be for me. Surely?
It had only been a week since I had been seduced by the advert in The Stage: the attractive sounding administrator’s job at Zip Theatre, at the Bluebird Centre, Park Lane, Wolverhampton. I had been sitting at my desk, having just filed another story at The East London Advertiser. Now I was a million miles away from Paradise Row in Bethnal Green, London’s east end.
Then a little chuckle. From one Paradise Row to another! A joker’s paradise at least.
I decided I had to go in for the interview because three of the directors had agreed to meet me on the Friday morning – the Easter holiday traffic had prevented me from getting to the interview on time – 5pm on Thursday March 31st. Instead I had crawled along London’s north circular road and 2 hours later having only managed to get as far as Toddington on the M1, stopped and made a phone call to say I wasn’t going to make it.
Had I turned around, taken the next exit on the M1 and returned to Essex how it might have all been a different story, but because the traffic was just as bad going the other way, instead I carried on and agreed that my interview could be re-arranged for the Friday morning. I was staying with friends near Lichfield for the weekend so a slight deviation to the original plan might work in everyone’s favour – or so I thought.
As I sat outside in my car on that April Fool’s Day, Good Friday morning muttering words likely along the lines of: ‘what the hell? Where am I? this can’t be right?’ I finally decided to go in for the interview. It was my sense of duty to fulfil the promise that I would show up – because these people had given up their time to interview me.
I was wearing a grey silk pleated skirt, a rose-pink blouse and patent grey shoes – and immediately worked out that I was hopelessly overdressed for my appointment. This white, middle-class Essex girl had gone for the sartorial elegant look. Appearing almost frilly and frivolous in equal measure.
I was later told by the directors that although my choice of dress for the interview was just a ‘bit fancy’, I was the successful candidate because I had clearly demonstrated that I was not a ‘wannabe actor’ masquerading as an administrator, hoping that I could use the opportunity to showcase an inner starlet seeking a coveted Equity card.
As if! I would be hopeless on the stage! The only person I can ever be is ME. The drama in my life is without a spotlight although there is something in my make-up that thrives in the company of the mavericks, the magnetic and the mysterious – I have learned that of myself over the years.
So, this is where it all began.
Something was stirred in me. It was raw and without pretence or ceremony and the start of a love affair with both Zip Theatre and Wolverhampton.
I had been seeking a new challenge, away from the comforts of suburban Essex and this was it. I had done my stint in local journalism and the call of Fleet Street – so often the beckoning of newly qualified reporters fresh with an NCTJ* qualification – did not appeal to me.
- The year that the average house price was a little over £23,000, a litre of fuel was 39p and a yearly average salary around £6,000. It was the year that saw the introduction of the £1 coin, the compact disc and compulsory seat belts. Return of the Jedi was the film of the year and Boy George and his Karma Chameleon was the best- selling single.
It was also the year that Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party was re-elected for a second term in June 1983. The tumult of British politics and the decimation of communities was to continue unabated – these were the Thatcher years. The UK has never quite recovered from the onslaught of her ideological and ugly intransigence.
She was the full-throttle Valkyrie of our generation.
“I don’t believe in the Society,’ observed Crass. ‘I can’t see as it’s right that an inferior man should ‘ave the same wages as me.” to quote Robert Tressell in the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
Save a tweak of the words here and there and the shrill of Thatcherism pierces the eardrums….
I was the first administrator of this very young touring community theatre company, based at The Blue Bird Centre, Wolverhampton. I worked in a cold office, with an old Remington typewriter, a calor-gas fire, two dogs (who hogged the fire constantly). The silk skirts and shiny shoes were soon replaced with gloves, scarves and anything thick and woolly. I worked with the craziest men, women and children on the planet. They were actors, musicians, dancers, artists. They were every age, creed and colour and they were tempestuous, temperamental, and on a few occasions tortuous to be around. They were passionate, persuasive and political. You could not be an essential player at Zip Theatre without being political. Such was the climate of the world we inhabited. It was tough and unrelenting, and we worked around the clock, tirelessly because we believed that what we were doing was making a difference. Participatory theatre is a powerful tool. It is an enabler, an educator, the ultimate communicator. It provides a platform for expression, for collaboration, a sense of belonging. Little wonder that community theatre has become the scourge of successive right-wing governments. It gives a voice to those who have become the diminished, the demoralised and the demeaned of today’s society. And that angst, the vocal free-wheeling of injustice and inequality, the unpolished sound of the working class is an unbridled cacophony that the privileged and monied minority, those who make the decisions, the power players will continue to turn a deaf ear – cloth ears and the parsimonious purse – it has always been the domain of dominance.
We had to be as hard as the old chain and lock makers of the Black Country’s heritage to withstand the rigours of Zip Theatre and Thatcher’s Britain of the 1980’s.
This was a community like no other. The company performed in dark and dingy rooms, classrooms with leaking roofs, community halls, working men’s clubs, pub gardens and car parks.
Or as one snooty visitor from the (previously known as Arts Council West Midlands) observed and sarcastically remarked to Zip Company Secretary Cathy Pemberton ‘You’re really hitting all the high spots’ as she was handed a touring schedule, which in one fail snipe highlighted the complete lack of understanding of exactly what the company was all about.
Zip worked with the ‘dis’ groups – the disaffected, disengaged, the dysfunctional. In addition to issue-based theatre – and over the years the company wrote and performed plays about a multitude of social issues, staged in venues where those who might have been the subject – or subjected to the message – was aimed. The hours were long and the environment on many occasions unyielding. If anyone was ever under the misapprehension that an actor’s life is glamorous, a gruelling pantomime season at Zip was typically a 6-8 week winter tour involving 2 shows a day at primary schools across the region. Start time was often before 6am and the day would end around 8pm. The performing crew had to set up and strike the set too: strength and stamina was required as well as an actor’s bonhomie – to turn on the fizz and sparkle for an eager and excited waiting audience. There was little opportunity for any blossoming prima donna, and a burgeoning ego was strictly confined to a battered tour bus as it toured the West Midlands – and beyond – as Buzz Lightyear might have commented triumphantly.
Zip was the mixed Martini of its time: a unique blend of people driven by the collective desire to take the theatre to any place, at anytime and anywhere.
‘Zippies’ were glued together by a special bond, a relationship stitched together by a common thread: the ethos of the company was its determination to be an essential component of the community it served. The analogous reference of Mohammed and the mountain is so resonant of Zip Theatre and its legacy – after finally closing its doors after 33 years of relentless activity in 2013 – will be that this very special organisation enriched the lives of a generation – of the million plus people who watched a show, played music, completed training or enjoyed a workshop organised by Zip – or of the 432 actors, musicians, designers, writers, directors, composers, stage managers, technicians, tutors and other professional staff who were employed by the company over three decades.
Many of us formed relationships with fellow Zippies – we were living, breathing and working in an environment that required us to trust, believe and have confidence in our fellow players. We spent an inordinate amount of time together. In common parlance we had to be sure we had each other’s backs.
After all ‘love’s chemistry thrives best in equal heat’ according to Restoration poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.
I will never forget, nor regret my own tempestuous, clandestine and passionate relationships, but they were possibly best served with a health warning: artists are challenging lovers and none more so than the mercurial musician. That intoxicating mix of flight and fancy, the capricious and charismatic guitarist. It is a testament to both men – entirely different characters, one more intense and melancholic, the other impossibly effervescent and fiery – that we have maintained lasting friendship long after the flames of desire have been subdued.
I reflect upon those heady days and ponder upon the words and wisdom of the wonderful Mary Weiss of The Shangri-las, in that inimitable breathy voice who recited in almost monologue style the 1966 recording of Past, Present and Future
Was I ever in love? I called it love, I mean, it felt like love
There were moments when, well, there were moments when
Yes indeed. There were most definitely moments. Minutes even…
Anyone who works in a community arts environment lives with a wearisome and nagging irritant: that of the voice of the ‘establishment’. The suits. Our language was simple. We needed the funds to support this work. To engage with our communities. We asked for very little – just enough to support the infrastructure which enabled us to do what we did. It helped us to keep the cost down for those who could not afford to go to mainstream theatre, the children packed in school halls, sitting on gym mats, the inner-city kids. Zip Theatre gave these young people the chance to scream, hiss and giggle at a gloriously over-the-top pantomime dame, to watch or participate in live and interactive performance, to improvise, to play, to sing, dance and to explore, nurture, develop and unlock their perhaps hitherto unknown creativity – when that little bit of artistic magic enables that child to grow wings. To fly. After all, as Mae West once said ‘an ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises’.
These were the children whose parents were the very ones who were employed at the car factory, the steel works, the blue collared workers with almost forgotten tales to tell of a proud industrial heritage. The men and women who became the tumbling human tumbleweeds of Thatcher’s generation.
Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain,
I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain,
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life,
The working, the working, just the working life.
Factory by Bruce Springsteen from the album Darkness on the Edge of Town
It is no surprise that Zip, along with the many, many other community arts organisations would inevitably succumb to the rigours of the swingeing cuts to the sector. In February 2016 it was revealed after an analysis of government data by Arts Council England (ACE) that between 2009 and 2014, regular local government spending on the arts fell by £56.6 million to £454m– a reduction of 11%. In addition, investment in arts and culture had declined by 17% since the Conservatives were re-elected in 2010**
Wolverhampton City Council – a Local Authority with a proud record of support and once even reported to be one of the greatest benefactors to its own arts and leisure organisations – faced the unpalatable spectre of tough budget constraints imposed by central government.
I love Wolverhampton. The City is the brontosaurus of the West Midlands, a giant and gentle beast. It was my ‘town’ for 18 years, my children were born in New Cross Hospital and the best of times, with the best of friends will forever be my happiest memories. When I’m driving back, I always feel that I’m coming home when I reach The Rock on the Tettenhall Road – the A41 into the city.
As the mythical reign of austerity enveloped local government, then so did the so-called ‘luxuries’ fall at the mercy of the decision-makers. The non-statutory services, community arts, the voluntary sector, the museums, libraries, youth clubs, public swimming pools, clubs and societies – all previously supported by local government community resources have been sucked under the wave of stringent Conservative malevolence, while the ‘magic money tree’ so often used as the Tory excuse for maintaining a rigid hold on the public purse – bears surprisingly bountiful fruit when required to bolster Conservative votes to hang onto power or to bail out failed pet projects.
The flag waving failure of the nasty party. Land of no hope. And not much glory either.
It would be disingenuous to report that my days with Zip were always harmonious. I worked for the company in 1983 for a year and then again when I returned for a second stint from 2001-4, by which time the company had moved to the more amenable surroundings of the Newhampton Arts Centre in Whitmore Reans. We were such a close unit, a team of diverse players committed to ‘the cause’: we loved each other but we could also fall out too, there is after all, the pure theatre of dramatic silence…
Zippies, past and present will probably agree that this all-consuming relationship was one that would bring out the best in us, we laughed a lot, we teased and tormented each other but we cried too. We were often exhausted and frustrated, but we were a family and as a team Zip Theatre was a formidable force –and never greater demonstrated than in shows like Wulfdance (Our Town Story performed at the Millennium Dome 2000) and the Wolverhampton Mystery Cycle (staged at The Grand Theatre 2004). The strength of the company drawing hundreds of players in from the local community to perform alongside the professional team.
It lives with you forever, it seeps into your bones, it defines life and love, people, places and unforgettable personalities.
Zip Theatre. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
As You Like It
In memory of and dedicated to Cathy Pemberton RIP
photos copyright Zip Theatre