"He had a beret on his head and he said 'Fuck' and we'd never, absolutely never heard that word in Birmingham": Pamela Howard on Birmingham Rep in the 1950s

The Birmingham Rep, where Jacqueline Hill apparently worked backstage as part of her Cadbury's scholarship, was the starting point for lots of illustrious careers. There's an archive, but for one reason or another (budget cuts?) it isn't accessible at the moment. Here's the Birmingham City Council page about it, which will apparently be updated when the material becomes available again. [Edit: see (insert link in the future) this post for links relating to the planned launch in 2012 of a digital Rep archive.]

More positively, the Theatre Archive Project has a very funny interview with the renowned scenographer and director Pamela Howard that sheds light on the experience of working for the Rep during the 1950s. She was there a few years later than I suppose Jackie must have been and she wasn’t an actor, which makes this only tangentially relevant, but it’s still fantastic. Excerpts follow, and the whole thing is here.

"I managed to go down to the old Birmingham Rep in Station Street and speak to Finlay James and he said 'Oh yes you can come and do theatre design' but what he really meant was I could work as an unpaid assistant at The Birmingham Rep for four years and that's indeed what happened. And I have to say it was about three years before I realised that the Birmingham Rep was not the Art College because I thought it was, I hadn't any idea and I didn't even realise that people who worked there got paid. I mean I did used to see people with brown envelopes on a Thursday and faintly wonder what they were, but it never occurred to me in a million years that you could get paid. So that's really how I began.


"I used to clean buckets for Daphne [Dare] and Daphne was the main scene painter, and then in between everything else, we had to make yards and yards and yards of dead leaves which were usually ivy leaves, sometimes they were other leaves, and they were always dead. They had to look dead and they were cut out of canvas and they made your hands sort of bleed and you put wires down each of the sort of veins of the leaf and they were wired on to a rope and whenever anyone had nothing to do they had to make dead leaves and the reason for that was, that the kind of plays they were doing at the Rep at the time were always plays like The Potting Shed and The Chalk Garden which had lots of leaves in and there were always flats of scenery but they never ever met together properly so you always had to drape leaves over them to disguise the fact that they didn’t meet. So there was an endless call for - and Jimmy used to say, 'Oh you'd better make some more leaves dear' and that’s what we'd do, so we were always making leaves and I thought in my naïve and I now see childish way, I thought that in order to be a designer, I thought that you probably started with dead leaves and then you graduated to live leaves and then probably you went to flowers and in fact they did do a play called Lizard on the Rock and I made all the bougainvillaea and I thought that was fantastic because it was pink and made of scenic gauze so I thought I was really getting somewhere. [...] Sir Barry Jackson was still alive, he was very elderly but his idea of good scene painting, he liked anything that was cheap, and his idea of good scene painting was if you could get canvas and make it look like velvet, he thought that was terrific. And if you could paint a bookcase in perspective with the light coming across the spines of the book and so that you could see the lettering on the spines, kind of picked out in highlights, he thought that was very good. Sir Barry Jackson had a house in Malvern and he always liked to do plays that had windows in because he used to take the curtains that we’d painted on the set and put them up in his house and I never went to dinner at his house because I was much too young but people told me that if you got to go to dinner at Sir Barry Jackson's house one of the things he most enjoyed was saying, 'Do you like my new curtains' and they would say, 'Gosh they must be very expensive? Velvet from Paris?', and he’d say, ‘No, from the theatre’. So I think the choice of those plays in those latter years was fairly dictated by whether they had a window in them or not."


"There was a young man in the company, in those days they had people called, they were called spear carriers, now we call it players cast and these were young people who were just brought in and they did anything, ASM or anything else. And there was this one young man who came, and he was completely different from anybody else, the first thing was he wore a thing which we’d never seen in Birmingham called jeans and I'm talking 1958 here, well we’d never seen jeans in Birmingham and he wore a thing called a T-Shirt instead of a proper shirt, which we were completely amazed about and he had a beret on his head and he said, 'Fuck' and we'd never, absolutely never heard that word in Birmingham, I mean we simply hadn't, and that was the young Albert Finney and he was there just doing anything. Anyway he told us, he got to know us, he was the first actor I think we had ever known. He got to know us and he said that not far away in fact only forty-five miles away but it could have been Timbuktu, was Coventry, and that there was a new theatre that the people of Belgrade feeling so sorry for the people of Coventry after the war, donated money and wood and they'd a theatre called the Belgrade Theatre and he said that if the motorway would be finished by the time this event happened, he was going to personally drive and we could go with him, to see these plays written by this man called John Osborne and this other man called Arnold Wesker, and they were plays about our lives, he said and we thought plays were only about other people's lives. We’d never thought for a minute they could, or you know about Cleopatra or somebody, or rather grand people who had drawing rooms. We certainly didn't think there would be plays about our lives and I remember saying to Albert Finney 'don't be so silly of course it's not' and he said, 'Oh yes they are' and there was a play called Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs, which was also about an Art School and I thought well. The thing was that the motorway was finished and despite the gloomy predictions that we’d all die of what was then called motorway madness because they predicted that these ghosts would jump out from behind the bridges and we'd all be killed, we did go to The Belgrade Coventry and we saw Wesker's Chicken Soup with Barley and Roots and Chips with Everything and all of that."

Theatre Archive Project archive