Joan Littlewood: Making a Scene

Independent Magazine  26 March 1994

Her rows were awesome, her hatreds passionate, her tongue foul, her contempt for convention legendary – but Joan Littlewood and her radical Theatre Workshop revolutionised British drama. After 20 years of self-imposed exile, she talks – as abrasively as ever – to MICHAEL ARDITTI  

‘I’m only seeing you because I’m a cripple,’ Joan Littlewood’ said by way of introduction as she hobbled into the room. ‘I fell on the steps last month and broke my bloody foot. So now I can’t get away fast enough. You don’t really want to talk to me, do you? I’ve nothing to say. Why don’t you just make it up? I used to write interviews when I was younger; I used to make them all up.’

Could any writer invent this extraordinary woman, in Sir Peter Hall’s words ‘one of the two undoubted geniuses of the post-war British theatre, the other being Peter Brook’? Now eighty but with an ageless appearance and the vigour of a forty year old, at once foul-mouthed and silver-tongued, leathery and seductive, she is a strange combination of Mother Courage and Mata Hari. Notoriously shy of interviews – this being the first she has allowed in years – she employed every trick to evade my questions; but at least she was confined in plaster. I was saved by a stick.

The occasion for our meeting was the imminent publication of her autobiography. Given her resistance to anything approaching a personality cult, I asked why she had written it. ‘I wish to God I never had. You expose yourself like a beggar showing her sores. But I owed it to everyone who came on that quest. I certainly don’t expect to make money from it. No one will read it, because everyone’s writing their autobiography… every damned mediocrity I know.’

Littlewood’s genius lies both in the new material she introduced to the English stage and the new methods by which she achieved it. She was the first English director to create an ensemble on the lines of Bertolt Brecht’s or Jean Vilar’s. She not only encouraged a new breed of working class actor, but, through her pioneering improvisatory techniques, drew on their own experiences liberally tearing up texts in order to arrive at a deeper truth. The result was a series of productions that has passed into theatrical myth.

Her book is a vibrant account of the struggles of a dedicated band of eccentrics – none more dedicated or eccentric than its author – to establish a new form of popular theatre in England. Its vigorous prose and narrative drive mark it out as a cross between JB Priestley’s The Good Companions and the sagas of RF Delderfield, while its recurrent theme is of an endless battle to survive in the face of a hostile and philistine Establishment.

Although the British Establishment generally contrives to assimilate its more talented rebels, Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop remained excluded. She recalls how ‘we couldn’t even get £50 out of the Arts Council when the gas was being cut off. We applied for grants and they called us East End savages and reds and asked us if we knew anything about the Laurence Olivier seasons at the Old Vic.’ She certainly knew about Olivier, whom she describes as unintelligent and tricksy and ‘like a commercial traveller selling his wares’.

Despite being constantly honoured abroad – and offered her own theatre in France, Germany and America – she was never considered an acceptable cultural ambassador. ‘The French invited us to play at the great festival in Paris. We didn’t have the fares and had to beg money. We certainly couldn’t afford a van and so we had to carry the costumes and set in our hands. Talk about Hercules; there was my old man (Gerry Raffles her lifelong partner, manager and lover) carrying two great pillars… Now they get money for that rackety old building (the Theatre Royal, Stratford East) because they’re not dangerous. I hate the bloody English theatre!’

‘Why didn’t England do a Brecht on her? Why didn’t they give her money to do her work?’ asks Murray Melvin, one of her most loyal associates, and creator of roles in The Hostage, A Taste of Honey and Oh What A Lovely War. ‘When they gave her that lifetime’s award at the SWET ceremony, she said “I know why you’ve given me this award – it’s because I’ve stayed away”; and everybody laughed. But they laughed because it’s true. She’d given them an easy life.’

Barbara Windsor, another of her favourite actors, provides a poignant postscript to that ceremony. ‘After the SWET awards, there was a function at the Waldorf and the doorman wouldn’t let her in. Who was this scruff who looked like everyone’s cleaner? She had to take her award out of the polythene bag to get in’… an incident typical of a country that tried first to marginalise her and then to make her invisible.

Her reputation was forged in the foundry of Theatre Workshop, which was formed in 1945 and toured around the country, before establishing a home in Stratford in 1952. In spite of her cockney background, she had no sense of returning to her roots. ‘I hate London; it’s the Calcutta of the north. I love Manchester and tried like hell to settle in Glasgow; but it was the only theatre we could get for £20 a week. I detested the dump; it stank. “Why don’t you get yourself a decent job” said the old girl who sold us fourpenny bacon down the lane. It was much harder to get people in there than in Lancashire.’

Nevertheless, she won them over, working with the youths off the streets and appearing in court on their behalf. Murray Melvin remembers how ‘the company were loved in the market on Angel Lane; they used to give us fruit and food because they knew that we didn’t have the money to buy it. ‘ This was the audience with whom Littlewood was concerned; she had no truck with the celebrities who increasingly flocked to the theatre. Philip Hedley, then her assistant and now her successor, recalls her meeting Kirk Douglas in the bar. ‘ “What do you do?” she asked, knowing full well. “I’m an actor.” “Not another bloody actor!”‘

It was in Stratford, which she insists on giving its due… ‘Ours is Chaucer’s Stratford, rather older than Will’s’, that she pursued her vision of a genuine popular theatre. ‘The Greek theatre embraced whores and foreigners; among that 30,000, everyone was welcome… they would boo if an actor scanned a line badly. And Shakespeare’s theatre had both lords and groundlings… that old bitch Elizabeth: whatever else she did, she didn’t close the theatres; because she had too much fun. It was the Puritans who laid such a heavy bloody stone on it. After that, you had chamber theatre.’

Her repertoire included both new work and classics, with ground-breaking productions of Jonson and Shakespeare. Victor Spinetti, another of her discoveries, recalls her saying ‘there’s so much shit on Will; we’ve got to scrape it off.’ She wanted her actors to be convincing as human beings; which was far more revolutionary in the 1950s than it sounds today. ‘It was Joan,’ Spinetti says, ‘who removed both the proscenium arch and the patina of acting that had been on the theatre for years.’ This was anathema to a man like Noel Coward, who described her ‘as a genius of the theatre but infuriatingly amateur at times'; and yet it is the orthodoxy now.

Peter Hall defines her originality as a lack of sentiment; ‘she swept away the genteel charm that was so prevalent on the West End stage. She showed that if you expressed peoples’ faults and all the warts of their characters, audiences loved them as much as if they were lacquered. Her theatre had such vigour and energy; it was never boring. She could be terribly bad – although most of the time she was brilliant – but she was never boring.’

The visual impact of her productions was extraordinary. Under the influence of the philosopher of movement, Rudolph Laban, she put a totally new brand of physicality on the stage. Melvin recounts how ‘everything was worked through Laban, even the voice.’ She introduced a new realism into design; the actor turned television DIY pundit, Harry Greene, recalls how in her production of Paradise Street, ‘the bare walls at the back of the theatre and textured flats were used for the first time on the English stage’.

Her work was intensely detailed; the celebrated improvisatory quality was the product of painstaking rehearsal. Spinetti blasts ‘that awful thing they said about her: “Joan Littlewood’s knees-ups”. If only they knew the effort that went into “doing nothing”. Everything was tremendously structured, but because of that you felt free; there was none of that terrible sense of if a prop is missing, you go to pieces.’ Hedley also counters any impression of her as ‘rough and ready’. ‘She improvises, but to create very assured effects. It’s like Picasso: all the lines that she rubs out.’

While the style of her classical productions has become general theatrical currency, it is for her new work that she is most widely remembered. In the fifties and sixties. Theatre Workshop, along with the Royal Court, was responsible for bringing a new sound to the British stage. But Hall believes that ‘the social detail and unsentimentality associated with the Royal Court actually sprang from Joan’, and Hedley adds that ‘she introduced the real working-class voice; the Royal Court’s was much more literary. But, since the Royal court had the sort of writers and directors who wrote about each other, it’s all terribly well-recorded; whereas Joan’s theatre was so immediate. It was always throw away today, move on to tomorrow. She once told me, in the most wonderful paradox, “I found my life on the rock of change”.’

The most celebrated of her house playwrights was Brendan Behan, whom she recalls with exasperated affection, ‘Brendan… that bastard; I kicked the coffin. He didn’t need a theatre; he was a walking theatre. He came from a famous republican family. The Abbey wouldn’t touch him; the middle-class of Dublin called him a gutter-snipe. But I’ve always been a republican – not in the American sense. He sent me a playscript covered in beer-stains that seemed to come from the first type- writer ever invented. I read it and said “come over and let’s do something about it”. He couldn’t do anything himself; the word “edit” was not in his vocabulary.’

‘We finally got him over on the third attempt. My old man sent him the fare; he drank it with some Toronto Irish. He used to say “I’m not an alcoholic; I’m practising to be one”. He was very shy; he stuttered when he was sober. Because of his record, we had to get special permission to have him in England. On the first night of the play (The Quare Fellow), there were about three hundred years of prison sentences in the “public”. The party went on all night, police and all. Brendan went over to a group of Gaelic-speakers. “Great gas, Brendan; great evening;” they said. He was very pleased, until they said “it’s been great to see all the old gang together again”. They were the Provisional IRA.’

It was a far cry from the ebullience of Behan to the diffidence of Shelagh Delaney, the nineteen year old author of A Taste of Honey. ‘No one wanted me to touch it. But I knew Lancashire and thought there were some very funny expressions. So, with some brilliant people, we made it into a play.’ Murray Melvin, who created the part of Geoffrey, sees that production as exemplifying ‘Joan’s genius as both a director and a person. Not once in the rehearsals was it mentioned that the boy I was playing was gay; mind you, we didn’ t have the word “gay” in those days. That’s why the part was so wonderful. I had to find the person. All his softness came out of movement, not by association.’

Littlewood herself denies that she was ever a ‘director’. ‘I never told anyone “move over there”; we didn’t do that. We’d all work on a script and analyse it. . . I love that term, the composite mind.’ Melvin confirms this collaborative spirit; ‘We worked all day long on a show; we never had an hour free. We were always making sets and props. We did our second performance on a Saturday night and then helped John Bury take down and put up the sets. You couldn’t do that today because the unions wouldn’t allow it.’

Such cooperation was possible because of the close-knit nature of the company. Littlewood claims that ‘we had no alternative to using the same people, because we had no money.’ Melvin remembers the wages as ‘£4 a week for A Taste of Honey; £10 a week for The Hostage; by the time of Oh What A Lovely War, I think it’d gone up to £20 a week. But my memory of those times is all of laughter. We had no heating in the theatre and no food; but there was always laughter.’

Littlewood’s actors were very different from the standard West End and ‘rep’ types of the day. ‘Most of my company came from homes where they could never have afforded RADA; but they could all sing and dance and change clothes in two minutes. I found Victor Spinetti in a club in Leicester Square entertaining wanky German businessmen, all looking through big glasses at tired strippers’ tits.’

She found the conventional audition process ‘disgusting’. ‘ I ‘ve thrown out three different geniuses sitting in the dark. Could you write if I was watching you? Could a painter paint?’ Barbara Windsor recalls the idiosyncratic casting methods employed at her own audition. ‘I was asked to go up for Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be. I was appalled because it had taken me years to get out of the East End and I didn’t want to go back. I turned up early and there was this lady scrubbing the steps? she reminded me of my gran. I said to her “I don’t want to go to Stratford East; I’m West End, me”. She said “you’ re a pretty little thing, aren’t you?” I said “I must go” and hurried onto the stage.’

‘I met Lionel (Bart), whom I knew from Stanford Hill and this woman walked into the stalls. I said “I suppose you want to know what I’ve done before?” She said “I’m not interested in what you’ve done before; it’s what you do now.” She said “the part is an Irish prostitute”. I said “I can’t do Irish”… even though it’s my best accent except for Cockney. She said “Where do you come from?” “Shoreditch”. She said “Do a Shoreditch prostitute then”. So I based it on the tarts I used to see when I was singing in Soho. “Short time, mister… five shillings; ten bob for a plate (oral sex); a pound for the four card trick.” Then, after I sang On The Sunny Side of The Street – without music – Joan came up with Lionel. I said “But you’re the cleaning lady”. She said “Yes, and you did the audition at the door”.’

Windsor soon found that Littlewood’s rehearsal methods were equally unconventional; ‘I arrived on my first day, carrying my tap shoes, and the first thing Joan did was tear up the script. “This is a load of fucking rubbish” she said… with the writer there! Then we started improvising. I said “I hate this way of working”. She said “Why don’t you just fuck off then?”. So I said “I will”. I went up west and bought a dog. She loved that. ”

Spinetti confirms that ‘most people remember her rows; and yet, after a row, even when she said she’d have to commit a murder, she’d go out and laugh” . Hedley adds that ‘knowing Joan is like knowing King Lear. It’s fascinating because, even as she curses you, you’re listening to what she says and trying to remember it.’ Her fiercest barbs were – and are – directed at those whom she considers wasteful of their talent… like Barbara Windsor, who recalls that ‘even on my This Is Your Life, she bollocked me. “Hello, Bird’s Egg,” she said on the phone. “I’m sure you’re twinkling tonight; but if you’re not doing the work you should be doing, it’s your own bloody fault.”‘

She loved actors. Spinetti describes how ‘she called us seducers. She said actors and actresses were highly decorative and fragile; that’s why she called us bird’s eggs. She used to rehearse in a pink light which created a warmth and a glow. Rehearsals were so full of life and funny. She used to say “why don’t people come and watch our throw-aways?” She’d far rather rehearse than perform. Six years of working with her spoilt me for anyone else. She created the kind of concentration in actors that you had as a child making something out of plasticine.’

Littlewood’s collaborative process and creative powers both reached their peak with Oh What A Lovely War. Spinetti recalls that the first time that they heard the World War One songs, he told her he hated them. ‘Something about them depressed me even as a child; my stomach was in a knot every Armistice Day. Most directors would say “piss off then”. She said “oh good, darling; you won’t have to sing them. You can be the MC.” I was ill with flu in rehearsals, so I was hardly in the second half. When I tackled her about it, she said “how can you expect to be in it, when you weren’t there?”‘

Spinetti’s greatest challenge came on the first night when she confronted him in the wings. ‘”We don’t have an opening to this show;” she said. “What about Row, Row, Row?” I said. “That’s not an opening; it’s a number. You must just go out there and talk to the audience.” “What about?” “Don’t fucking ask me, but go naked on the stage; don’t tell jokes”. I see now that what she’d asked me to do was to demolish the proscenium arch, so that when the horrors came, people couldn’t escape. Peter Brook would take me to the desert for six months or give me a lecture on why the proscenium arch was there in the first place. That was his way of working; it wasn’t Joan’s.’

Joan’s way involved constant effort to keep the production fresh. ‘It’s all very well putting a bubble up,’ she says; ‘but you have to keep it afloat’. Hedley remarks that ‘if something worked bri11iantly, she’d change it, just to stop actors recreating it'; and Spinetti recalls how she plastered the walls of the green room and corridors of the theatre with notes, such as ‘Darling, you’ve got greasepaint on your heels, get off’, ‘Your performance is wonderful but your feet are waiting for a bus’, or ‘The purpose of getting on a stage is to get off, preferably in time for the pub. ‘ She even rehearsed the cast between the final matinee and evening performances of Oh What A Lovely War.

Oh What A Lovely War was described as Brechtian, but, in fact, she was anti-Brechtian. ‘1 hate the cunt. He had the idea of photographing every moment. He’d send his gauleiters to inspect every production. Weigel (Brecht’s wife) would come off- stage and say she’d lost twelve pounds during the performance; she’d weigh herself before and after; it was all recorded.’ Nor does she show much sympathy for Stanislavski and the Method. ‘I went to America; I saw poor little Marilyn Monroe. She knew more than Lee Strasberg and the whole pack of them, certainly more than that silly arse she married. I can’t bear all those Yiddisher momma’s boys… Arthur Miller, Portnoy’s Complaint.’

The influences on her work were, essentially, Rudolph Laban and the experience of growing up in a South London working-class family. ‘They were just lumpen. They had no idea how I spent my life. Going back to that part of London, it’s so lumpen; I can’t bear it.’ She was illegitimate. ‘I never knew who my father was and I was bloody glad not to. I never wanted more family; the ones I had were quite bad enough.’ She was raised by her grandparents who were both illiterate; and it was from reading to them as a child that she developed her lifelong love of books.

Her love of theatre developed as a schoolgirl in trips to Lilian Bayliss’ Old Vic. ‘There was no nonsense from that old bird. She used to cook sausages in the wings, rather like we did.’ It was there that she watched the early performances of John Gielgud, whom Spinetti remembers ‘was the one actor she always told us to see’ . And yet, despite her scholarships and intense intelligence, she eschewed further education. ‘I never dreamed of going to university because I saw the students, wearing Oxford bags, scabbing on the working class in the General Strike.’

Instead, she joined the Communists. ‘We were all reds then; the Belgian Queen Mother was actually a communist. But I was drummed out of the party. They said I was a prima donna; I said they talked balls. They wanted me to sing in pubs; well I’ve never drunk a glass of beer in my life.’

Her response pinpoints the inaccuracy of her popular image. Spinetti describes how ‘people think of her as a heavy-footed, snarling, swearing, truculent, beer-swilling dyke. But the reality is quite the opposite. She’s very feminine and loves the good things in life. I remember when I was working with Richard Burton on the film of The Taming Of The Shrew; I asked him where the champagne was. “What do you mean?” he said; “bloody Theatre Workshop actor, champagne?” I said “that’s what we had in the breaks at Stratford, whenever Joan had money.” So he ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon double-quick.’

Littlewood was active in the political struggles of the East End. ‘But I was never Vanessa Redgrave. I’d burn that woman in boiling oil; it would improve her.’ At the time, Newham was run by a very corrupt, masonic, right-wing Labour council, whose ethos is summed up in one prominent member’s saying to Hedley, ‘You can’t tell me that woman hasn’t made a fortune out of this borough, or what’s she still doing here?’. Hedley recalls how she joined in every protest. ‘On the day that the grant for the theatre was being decided by the Education Committee – which I’d been working on for two years – she was at the front of a march of angry mothers which prevented the Committee getting to their offices; they had to go round to the back door. Needless to say, the grant wasn’t increased.’

Then, in 1974, she left the Theatre Royal and has never stepped inside it since. Nor has she directed a play… the closest she came being redesigning the lighting for Victor Spinetti’s one-man show. The actor recalls how ‘I got to the theatre and they all rushed up and said “Joan Littlewood is sitting in the stalls redoing your lighting”. She’d come to see it the night before and felt that I deserved better.’ Her departure has created a loss – and a myth – in the theatre world the equal of Forster’s in fiction and Garbo’s in the cinema.

Her former associates all have their own explanations for her disaffection. Barbara Windsor believes that she was worn down by the constant struggle. ‘She did at one point sit outside with a shot-gun to keep the Council away. ‘ Then the area itself changed, with the closure of the market and the bulldozing of houses to make highways and high-rises.

Her company also changed, as actors were lured away by better financial prospects elsewhere. Hedley feels that ‘she took the break-up very badly. She didn’ t want to train young people and be a guru handing down a message of how to do things.’ Her need to work with like-minded people was never more clearly demonstrated than during Twang, the Lionel Bart Robin Hood musical that was the biggest theatrical disaster of its day. Barbara Windsor, one of its stars, recalls ‘there was Paddy Stone, Oliver Messel, Bernie Delfont, thirty show-girls and a thirty piece orchestra; you can’t put Joan down amongst that lot. She actually told a showgirl to “do your own thing”. Have you ever seen a showgirl do her own thing? They’re lovely girls but dense.’

Hedley also believes that, ‘after Oh What A Lovely War, her imagination left the theatre and went into the fun palace’. This was her visionary scheme to recreate the spirit of the eighteenth century Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens on wasteland by the Thames. The idea first came to her as a schoolgirl. ‘I used to think how awful it was to walk along Bankside and see that power-station and dereliction. I knew what had happened in Vauxhall Gardens: the hot-air balloons and Mrs Siddons, the dark alleys where you could flirt and wear a mask. When the drawings were first published, the whole world knew that it was tomorrow: the university of the streets.’ Her application was eventually turned down and, even now, she can hardly bear to talk of it. Melvin says ‘pulling the rug from under the fun palace was a major part of the destruction of Joan.’

The sharpest blow came, however, in 1975 with the death at fifty-one of Gerry Raffles. If her life was ‘founded on the rock of change’, it was also founded on the rock of Gerry. Spinetti describes it as ‘the great love story of all time’. Raffles took care of everything domestic: cooking, chauffeuring and buying her clothes. Like royalty, she never carried money… Hedley recalls her having to send a child from her office to Raffles’s for cash for a packet of cigarettes. Above all, he managed the theatre, leaving her the time and space to create. She puts it very simply; ‘he was a beautiful, talented man who could have been a superb actor. He gave himself to keep us afloat. He left me with a debt that can never be repaid.’

Her reaction to Raffles’ death surprised her friends. Windsor remembers how ‘we all went to her with our emotional problems… especially me. She’d say “it’s only a man, you can soon get another”. But, when Gerry died, she totally went to pieces; she wrapped herself in cotton wool.’ Spinetti describes her as having become ‘the widow of Windsor.’ Melvin insists that ‘if it were a play, she wouldn’t allow us to get away with her attitude, because it’s emotionalism, and Joan would never allow emotionalism on her stage.’

She now lives in France, a queen over the water, because it was there that Raffles died. It is, no doubt, a coincidence that the two most respected directors of the post-war British theatre, Littlewood and Peter Brook, are both now based in Paris. And yet, whereas Brook eulogises her, she finds it impossible to return the compliment. ‘I can’t stand him, silly cunt! He has too much good taste. I was kidnapped by a friend and taken to his theatre, the Bouffes du Nord. The seating was monkish. The actors were throwing potato peelings at the audience. If that’d been Stratford, I thought, it would have been thrown back. But everyone was too busy admiring the great left-wing director. Left-wing, my foot! And what about that boring man, Ted Hughes? It’s taken how many years – two thousand – to develop the English language and they develop their new language – Ik – in ten minutes.’

In France, she spends her time reading and writing. According to Spinetti, she corresponds with ‘scientists, architects and friends all around the world’. It was by criticising his translation of a poem by John Donne that she became intimate with the Baron Philippe de Rothschild, an apparently unlikely friendship which had the gossip columnists scenting romance. But Spinetti insists that they were never lovers, ‘they just had a tremendous rapport, a love of words, music, dance, wine and life. She redesigned his museum for him and rewrote his book. She was life-giving.’ She herself says that ‘ I used to torment him. He was 1ike the seventh Marx brother. He’ d have been in the company if he’ d been around at the time.’

Rothschild is not mentioned in her book, which ends just before Raffles’ death, as if her subsequent life has had no significance. She makes it clear that she does not want to discuss the intervening years and draws the interview to a close with the grudging ‘you’ve not been as bad as I thought’. I pose a final question,- if she had to choose her own epitaph, what would it be? She looks at me sharply. ‘Oh, I don’t believe in any of that. I want to be chucked in the water with Gerry. Dust to dust, or rather water to water.’ Nevertheless, I shall appropriate one from Murray Melvin: ‘She was our Galileo; she opened up new worlds for us all’.