This post is being written in Blackpool, where I’m about to work with young people from the local FE college. From the hotel room I’ve a clear view of the Tower. Two days ago I was doing the same in Nottingham – from my room I could see the castle lit up, looking for all the world like the image on the old Players’ fag packet. The city of Raleigh bikes; of lace and the Huguenots; of DH Lawrence and coal miners. Tonight the pub quiz was about entertainment, with a few geography questions thrown in for good measure.
If you’d have asked the question in the fifties, those in the know would have said working class drama was about kitchen sink – Arnold Wesker; Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; The Knack. Scripts written by aspirational writers, maybe a product of grammar school class mobility, keen to establish an alternative reality; the form of the drama set by precedents going back to GB Shaw or Miss Horniman, and watched by similar. A skilled working class, proud of its craft tradition, resentful of its exploitation in factories and at least one of two world wars, that had taken part in creating nationalised medicine, transport and energy. Plays were asking where were we to go, in effect.
Then these achievements become normalised (or of taken for granted, but that mis-states it). Education allows these working class kids to join the middle classes, but with a folk memory of a different value set. And the world of work changes too – out go the smokestack jobs, whether it be mining, or boilermaking, or cement – many exported overseas. In come the new jobs like retail – 1/8 of the British economy is run by Tesco? Or finance – 1/3 of GDP is created in the Square Mile or thereabouts. Or Creative Industries.
So where is working class drama now? I’ve slightly set it up; because working class drama is probably where it’s always been, not where academia looks for it. It’s in the pantomime, that 90% of the public go to watch. In the variety shows, full of camp and feathers – Blackpool still going strong. In stand-up comedy in so many forms, including bingo callers and quiz league hosts (excepting of course the university school, though even there one can trace influence). In seaside carnival, and processions around the Illuminations. In Gospel choirs, rock concerts and in clubbing, in hiphop, trance and garage, and on occasions stadium rock, as camp as it comes.
This is a theatre of Everyday Life in the sense Alan Read describes. Its rituals are about call-response rather than rapt attention. Audiences participate, usually actively rather than the passive sense that is implied by Peter Brook, when he points out the use in French of the verb assister. It tends to Bakhtin’s sense of carnivalesque; of a world (pretended to be) turned upside down.
The textuality of the fifties (as elsewhere) isn’t as important, it’s a much more visual world now. And it isn’t about content – fun though Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels might be, it’s a rich kid’s pastiche of working class life. It’s more to do with structures, and often with visuals. Where it gets interesting is in the negotiations with young working class people about the culture. Exploring creative process, rather than playtext, so that it becomes about doing – about crafting rather than analysing (except on the sense of reflecting-in-action). So ….
Let’s see if Blackpool rocks!