Cotton Famine Rd… a lonely stone track on the moors above Rochdale. You’d be forgiven for thinking it a road to nowhere since it just stops midway across the moor!
But you’d be wrong, because it goes right back into our shared history, and it reaches right across the world, to cotton fields of the American South. It tells of Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, of the millions that were made by merchants here out of that misery. And ultimately it tells us how the weavers of Rochdale played their small part, and suffered hugely, in bringing it to an end.
It came about as a result of public subscription in 1863, deep in the midst of the cotton famine of 1861-65 when the southern ports were blockaded and the mills of the Lancashire were starved of raw materials. As the blockade began to bite the mills went form short time working to complete shutdown – and the weavers were thrown into penury and starvation.
But for all this at a meeting in Manchester in December in 1862 all threw their full support behind the blockade, and the Union cause in the American Civil war, the fight to end slavery.
Stand up on it and you can see for miles. You can see a big picture, one of people uniting in common sacrifice for something that mattered more – principle.
Mick and I are undertaking a new journey into the past, over the moors via the Cotton Famine Road to Rochdale.
Bent Architect are a Bradford based, Arts Council funded, theatre company led by Mick Martin and Jude Wright.
The Northern School is our 5th production and is a fully immersive theatrical event with film and live 50’s rock n roll band, it takes place through the whole of Bradford Playhouse from October 4th – 8th. We aim to bring the Playhouse back to life as it was during the heady heyday of The Northern School of Acting, to recreate the zest and excitement of a new young generation of working class kids who dreamt of changing the world they lived in.
It was actually whilst researching something else entirely that I accidentally stumbled across the name Esme Church, and first heard of The Northern School of Acting, which ran at Bradford Civic Playhouse from 1945 to the start of the 60’s. I read on and discovered a whole fascinating, yet largely forgotten cache of my home city’s creative history, that I never knew existed.
It turns out Esme was a well known West End face in her time, who’d worked with them all, Olivier, Gielgud you name ‘em. She was part of the group that took the Old Vic Theatre to Burnley to escape the bombing during the war. Needless to say the second peace came the theatre folks decamped en masse back Shaftsbury Avenue way, except for Esme, who stayed north. To her friends bemusement,nay outright horror, she took the job of Director of the amateur Bradford Civic Playhouse.
Once there she wasted no time in setting up The Northern School of Acting, offering young hopefuls from this neck of the woods to get a proper drama school training, comparable to anything in London. Classes ran in the evenings, students had to audition to get in and pay their weekly subs. Esme taught them how to think, walk, smoke a fag and above all talk like real actors, and that meant losing their deep ingrained flat Bratfud vowels and glottal stops!
Through the school went people like Billie Whitelaw, who went on to be Samuel Beckett’s muse, others included Tom Bell, Edward Pethebridge and Dorothy Heathcote who would become one of the original driving forces behind the whole Theatre in education movement. Esme wanted the very best and would settle for nothing less, and she wanted it in Bradford!The more we read about the school and just how groundbreaking and visionary Esme’s ambition was, the more we were inspired by her. And the more we wanted to do a project about it.
Bradford of the 50’s was very different to the multi cultural, multi lingual, omni-shambolic yet buzzing, busy, dirt poor and rough as a dogs arse one that we know and love today. It was a time when the first teenagers threw off the shackles of the war years and let rip to the sounds of rock n roll. They had a bit of money in their pockets and they wanted more than their parents had known. They were growing up in a city that had confidence, jobs, money, new houses going up everywhere as the back to backs came down and the city centre was ripped apart in what passed for progress, but turned out to be just a lot of concrete.
As the 50’s wore on the new voices of the angry young men got louder and by 1960 the British New Wave of cinema, aka the ‘kitchen sink’ era was about to flower with films like Billy Liar, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life. Coronation Street is just round the corner and The Beatles are tuning up in Liverpool. A confident, youthful, humorous yet passionate northern voice is finally about to get onstage and in front of a camera!
The germs of a play began to form. Esme’s generation was all about the London stage, the actor as a thing of beauty, vocally perfect, who must look and sound like Gielgud and Olivier. But in the north change is brewing, young people are starting to want to look and sound like themselves! From this premise our project, The Northern School, began to take shape. It is the passing of a baton from one generation to another. But without Esme they would never have had the chance at all.
Esme was an innovator in her own time,we felt that our piece should honour that by being as modern in form and style as we can make it. So it is more an event than a play, the bar will be open throughout, you will be able to buy tea and coffee in the Jazz café we set. The audience will be able to explore the building, backstage and front, discovering scenes and characters along the way.
Above all we want the project to mirror what Esme was trying to do, to open doors, give young people from Bradford and district the chance to work alongside professional actors and creatives. We want them to feel and believe that the theatre is a world they can be part of, that Bradford is a city they can be proud of, where good things have happened and will now - if we make them. Jude and I are passionate about this city and we just hope we’ve done it, Esme and The Northern School justice.
It wasn't until a young historian by the name of Dirk Dahnhardt undertook a thesis at Kiel University, published in 1977, which looked into the events in Kiel. His work tried to remain objective, removing the political interpretation of the facts which had so far clouded people's judgement of the men involved and their motives.
Our friend Klaus picked up on the research, and even visiting Lothar Popp, one of the main leaders in the revolt, in 1978. You can read some of his interview on Klaus' brilliant website here: www.kurkuhl.de We felt a strong resemblance to our very own Cyril Pearce, who had visited Arthur Gardiner - the main protagonist of England, Arise! - in the 60's.
Klaus has continued with his research into the history of Kiel since the 70's, and has recently started a History degree at Kiel University, which is fantastic! It may be that he can attend Dr Sharp's conference later in the year in Leeds, which would also be wonderful.
I am sure we will see lots more of Klaus and we are very grateful to him for his time and expertise.
Me and Mick are all ready for our trip to Germany with Dr Ingrid Sharp today. Passports, check, itinerary, check, bags packed... nearly!
I must say, I've been overwhelmed by the response of the good people of Kiel to my random reaching out about our possible Mutiny project. We are going to be meeting people from across the city, and the theatre also and I'm really looking forward to it!
It will be a road trip, as we'll be driving up from Berlin, which gives us a chance to see the German countryside too.
More to follow!
Dewsbury libraries. The display is well worth a visit. The work created by the young people is incredibly moving and creative and we were honoured that 7 of them joined us to present their work to an invited audience. James and Laura from the cast also contributed short selections from the play, but the day was really all about the young people.
Many thanks to the teachers, Kim & Pauline, the staff at Huddersfield library, but mostly to the young people who blew us all away.
The show began, and we were transported to the end of the night in less time than it takes to down a shot. Smudged make-up, take-away debris, loo roll stuck on the soles of shoes, all the signs of a well rehearsed night of rosé-fulled anarchy.
As the piece unfolded, we were metaphorically dragged onto the dance floor of the show, as we danced through the inner lives of these every(wo)men. Intimate confessions and streams of consciousness were interspersed with shouts of 'open or closed?' followed by shots (yes, shots) of white wine. We were absolutely on the emotional rollercoaster, headed 'up town' and back again, stumbling, puking, crying and screaming with laughter.
As the night came to an end, we left with the feeling that the hang over was already taking hold and we were going to suffer for it. But this is a piece worth suffering for. Moments of gut wrenching pathos call on us to ask ourselves as women what it is that calls us to hit that self-destruct button, what binds us together as we free-fall through the night, and how easy it is to fail to see beyond the make-up and glitter and really examine the fullness of the lives of young women today.
Do go and see this company - they are great!
Michael Portillo explores the possibilities for peace & protest during the Great War. The war that engulfed the world in the summer of 1914 laid bare the failure of European politicians to negotiate their way out of crisis. They weren't the only ones who failed. Pacifism & peace making had been a passionate liberal cause at the dawn of the new century. The growing power of the international labour movement had contained the threat to refuse to bear arms for a capitalist war. But the war had swept all before it. Who now would try and seek any way out of this conflict and at what cost?
I've been putting my head back into our upcoming German trip, after an exciting couple of days for us both - I'm delivering some work for the wonderful Freedom Studios around the Magna Carta, and also for the fantastic Peace Museum UK in Bradford, on the Choices project, and Mick is doing some top secret TV writing (more on all of those things to follow I'm sure).
The Beginning of the End (of the war).
1918 | 2018.
Is is possible to perform on water?
I am being speculative, contacting people in Germany who might spend some time with us to explore the possibility of a creative exchange project which explores the parallel stories of the Huddersfield Conscientious Objectors and those who resisted the war in Kiel, Germany.
I have a notion, in my mind, of performing afloat on the water, telling the fantastic stories of these ordinary people whose will and determination shaped the future of their community.
I will keep you posted.
Our good friend Ingrid is at The Hague this weekend at the amazing WILPF 2015 Conference, where hundreds of women peacemakers from all over the world will come together to establish a new peace agenda for the 21st century.
'100 years after over 1300 of WILPF’s founding women first came together in The Hague in protest of World War I, we still live in a world where women’s voices and experiences are excluded, bringing continued violence and war. We know now what we knew then, that only when we analyse conflict from a gender perspective, integrating disarmament, human rights, the environment, social justice, and the women, peace and security agenda holistically will we be able to eradicate the root causes of conflict.'
Many of the amazing women we research for England, Arise! would have been very aware of the first conference, where women from across the globe took personal risks to travel to the Hague during an war in the name of peace.
I hope Ingrid has an amazing time, that she meets some inspiring and fantastic women of our world, and that we can all benefit from this present day Call to (dis)Arms from our sisters.
Follow Dr I.E.Sharp on twitter @IngridESharp