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Am-dram, thank you, ma’am

Dan Carrier talks to writer Michael Coveney about his new book on amateur dramatics

12 March, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Michael Coveney, left, with actor Mark Harandon at Cornwall’s Minack Theatre

THERE are, theatre critic Michael Coveney estimates, around 250,000 people actively involved in the world of amateur theatre today: an astonishing figure, he says, if you consider how we believe we are “an eminently repressed country”.

In his latest book, Questors, Jesters and Renegades: The Story of Britain’s Amateur Theatre, the South End Green-based author provides a comprehensive history of the life and times of our nation’s prolific, unpaid theatre fanatics.

Michael stepped back from reviewing regularly in 2016, after a 45-year career sharing his views as to what was on stage. He writes that he wanted to become more selective in his theatre-going and not have the burden of filing late-night pieces.

“I felt like rediscovering what appealed to me about theatre in the first place and approaching the idea of popular theatre in the most obvious way: an investigation into the amateur theatre, its origins in the medieval guilds, its more refined manifestation in the private theatricals in the 18th and 19th centuries and following through to the modern pattern of the ‘Little Theatres’ at the start of the 20th century,” he writes.

The Queen Mother opening Questors Theatre in Ealing in 1964

The result is a wide-ranging, insightful and very funny book that charts our fascination with theatre – and how thousands of people give up their spare time for the sheer thrill of speaking a line in front of others.

Its roots lie way back. The first so-called amateur society, the Pic Nic Society, was formed at the beginning of the 1800s, where the old Scala Theatre was in Tottenham Court Road. Yet, as Michael reveals, there had been amateurs at the heart of all theatres since the Middle Ages with members of guilds putting on shows in Chester, York and Wakefield. There were performances during the reigns of Elizabeth, James and Charles I by upper-class amateurs. Victorian country house private theatricals became what Michael describes as a “national craze”.

“Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were enthusiastically attendant on the evolution of amateur theatre, Austen first as a child and Dickens, half a century later, with his own touring company and as a vividly engaged audience member at the relatively insalubrious private theatrical dives around town, as in his Sketches by Boz.”

The interwar years saw a boom in politically oriented companies, such as the Unity Theatre in St Pancras, and another in Newcastle. Every town and city had several theatres and needed productions to keep them going, and it was the amateurs who kept regional theatre going after the Second World War.

His research highlights how important the amateur theatre world is not just to those who take part, but feeding the professional world.

The Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington

“The story of amateur theatre, especially in the last century and continuing into this, is one that runs parallel with and complementary to the overall story of our national theatre,” he adds.

“Very few professional actors arrive on our stages without first participating in amateur theatre, or in student groups,” he says.

Ian McKellen asserts amateurs are the bedrock upon which is built the theatre of our time. He quotes McKellen as saying he first went to the Bolton Little Theatre to improve his sex life – but added, “it is where we all began.”

He cites those whose talents lead them from the amateur world into full-time work: Leonard Rossiter’s day job was in insurance and am-dram took up his evenings for many years. Anthony Hopkins accidentally walked into a drama class at a Welsh YMCA, and Ben Kingsley was a lab technician when he first took to the stage with the Salford Players. Pharmacy worker Glenda Jackson got involved in Hoylake in Cheshire, “usually playing maids and things like that”. Kenneth Branagh recalls being a 16-year-old at Reading’s Progress Theatre, which he describes as a “hive of feverish activity and organisation. Perhaps because so many people had ‘proper’ jobs the need for a coherent approach to scheduling rehearsals and production was planned to an almost military extent”.

The world of am-dram is widespread, writes Michael. “Professor Helen Nicholson, who has researched the world of the amateur, says she is confident no one in the UK lives more than three miles away from an amateur dramatic theatre.”

Of course, quality can be patchy: Michael recalls how he “once knew an amateur actor who moved and talked quite naturally until the minute he stepped on stage when, in whatever the role, he hunched his shoulders up to his ears, turned glassy-eyed and started talking in a weird voice pitched somewhere between Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh and Vincent Price in a horror movie”.

There is, he points out, a certain snobbery expressed towards those who act not for monetary gain but artistic expression, with our enjoyment of the game highlighted by such works as The Play That Goes Wrong.

He adds many find the idea of watching am-dram an unpleasant idea. The solidly middle-class demographic also puts people off, quoting Kenneth Tynan’s remark that it is “an exhibitionist’s alternative to bridge”.

But to be fair, he adds sometimes professional actors do not realise how bad they are either – and can have horrendous egos to boot.

As West Hampstead-based actor and writer Michael Simkins says: “The only absolute difference between them and us is that professionals are prepared to put up with the terrible uncertainty of it all. I have known some wonderful amateurs and terrible professionals. Amateurs simply won’t risk it full time.”

Above all, Michael concludes there is “something entirely honourable about people putting on plays after a hard day’s work for their fellow citizens to come and see,” and in doing so he recognises the amateur theatre’s importance in carving out a collective idea of self: “I’ve long thought that amateur theatre in our country is not only an expression of our national identity, but also a key element in the evolution of that national identity.”

Questors, Jesters and Renegades: The Story of Britain’s Amateur Theatre. By Michael Coveney, Methuen, £25

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