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Ewan MacColl: The Red Megaphones

Clarion Players

In 1929 Jimmie Miller's mimicry talents were noticed by a lodger who suggested he join a local amateur dramatic group, the Clarion Players which, like the Clarion Cycling Clubs and Club Houses, was a vestige of a previous working class and socialist cultural movement initiated by Robert Blatchford's newspaper The Clarion in the 1890's.

"They met in a house in Waterloo Road that belonged to a young couple who seemed very rich to me because they had a parlour. In actual fact they were ordinary working people. Their name was Helman. Both their parents had been Bundists in Russia, and were apparently caught up in that big cultural movement which was built around people like Ibsen and Shaw.' They were rehearsing a play called Singing Jailbirds by Upton Sinclair. And I was given a part. They said, 'Can you sing a tune?' I said, 'Yes', so they said, 'All right, sing this song.' So I sang." (TL:223)

" the beginning of 1931, the division in the Clarion Players widened into a split. There was no dramatic confrontation and no blazing manifestos were issued. All that happened was that at the end of a rehearsal the Ibsenites announced that they were abandoning the group. And that was that. We who were left, the politicals as we were sometimes called, set about altering our repertoire and in the course of the next seven or eight months we gave several open-air performances of new sketches and songs." (J:169)

Workers Theatre Movement

"The move to establish a more politically involved theatre wasn't confined to Manchester. In London too there was a healthy Workers' Theatre Movement with several flourishing groups and from them we began to receive a fairly regular supply of sketches written in the agit-prop style. The first of these was a short piece called R.I.P. (Rent, Interest and Profit,) a satirical sketch dealing with the mechanics of capitalist exploitation. It was clever, witty with the kind of political humour than had delighted Elizabethan audiences, the kind of thing, in short, than college-educated comics would be performing on television forty years later.

In the space of seven or eight minutes an audience was presented with a schematized picture of a political problem, the specific function of the class forces involved and finally, the solution of the problem. Seven or eight minutes of knockabout comedy, some simplified Marxist analyses, two songs and a mass declamation! Crude? Perhaps, but not without its own rough style. For those of us who had been struggling through the wordy undergrowth of formal drama, these sketches were tremendously exciting.

In October 1931 the first of the mass-unemployed demonstrations which were to sweep the country during the next few months took place in Salford. The following day another enormous demonstration was held on the Liverpool Street gasworks' croft and there, from the back of a horse-drawn coal lorry, three of us enacted a sketch dealing with the means test. It was our first open-air performance and one of our most successful. The occasion was marked with baton-charges by mounted police. I wrote a song about it, a parody of Billy Boy, and it was performed as a duet at a number of unemployed rallies.

As the economic crisis, with its attendant political upheavals, developed and became world-wide we, the radical wing of the group, were possessed by a terrible sense of urgency, a need to create a political theatre which would help to change the world where we found ourselves constantly in danger of drowning. In the months which followed than first open-air performance we took to the streets, or rather to the public parks, city squares and factory gates, performing at anti-war rallies, unemployed demonstrations, political meetings and, occasionally, at the entrance to the Manchester City football ground." (A-P:xxi-ii)

The Red Megaphones

"Though our repertoire had changed radically, our approach to rehearsals and production generally was unaltered...The result was another split; seven unemployed members decided to form an agit-prop group which would concentrate on problems of political immediacy such as unemployment and the gathering storm in the cotton-textile industry.

The new group adopted the name Red Megaphones and I, who knew little or nothing about production, became its producer and scriptwriter. The oldest member of the new group was seventeen, the youngest, fifteen. There were four men and three women. Our rehearsal room was a disused cellar in the Salford Workers' Arts Club; it was cold, dark, dirty and it smelled bad. We rehearsed by candlelight." (A-P:xxii)

[ Their first performance was] "a programme of several parodies of popular songs and an anti-war sketch written by a London agitprop group. This clumsily cobbled show was performed from a coal cart to several hundred people on May Day 1931, in Platt Fields, Manchester." (J:169-70)

[Next came]" a sketch called Meerut written by the North-West London Hammer and Sickle Group. It was a simple but extremely effective piece of theatre. Its form was mass declamation, its theme the savage prison sentences given to the leaders of the Indian rail-strike at Meerut. It could be performed by four, five or six actors of either sex. Its 'set' consisted of wooden poles carried by the actors, three of whom would stand with poles held vertically in front of them while the other performers knelt down with their poles held at the horizontal. In this fashion the front of a cage or prison-cell was created. There followed a group declamation lasting five or six minutes at the end of which each of the players would extend a hand through the bars and call for a show of international solidarity with the Meerut prisoners. The small cast, the marvellously portable 'set' and the brevity of the sketch made it a perfect item for a street-drama group. At the time, it was quite the most exciting bit of theatre I had ever seen and, looking back over the fifty years that have slipped by since then, I find it still has the power to move and excite me.

From a production point of view Meerut presented few problems, even to a beginner such as I was. All that was necessary was to get the cast to speak together like a choir and move together like a platoon of soldiers. So, bawling and shouting like any sergeant-major and generally behaving in a way that no producer should ever behave, I drilled my small cast. It took six sessions of two or three hours each, spread over a fortnight, and then we were ready for the streets.

Our first performance of Meerut took place outside the dock gates on Trafford Road, Salford. Our audience numbered about twenty people, six Lascar seamen and the rest dockers. It was time for the morning shift and about half the audience soon left so as to get to the pens where they would stand m the hope of being awarded a day's work. Of those who stayed one or two shouted words of encouragement, one gave a loud raspberry and another dismissed us as 'a bunch of snotty-nosed kids'. One or two applauded at the end of the performance, the others departed without showing either approval or disapproval.

Chastened, we moved to the entrance to Howard's mill and hung around the gates waiting for the lunch-time exodus. Two girls in the group had been weavers and they were recognised by some of their erstwhile mates. As a result, our reception there was an improvement on the docks and we were able to finish our performance before the police arrived. From there we repaired to the comer of Regent Road and Oldfield Road where we were heckled by a postman on a bicycle. We ignored him but he sparked off hecklers in the small crowd and when it looked as if opposing factions were about to start a riot, we left in a hurry.

Looking back, it seems to me that we were, on the whole, received with a distinct lack of enthusiasm by most of the men and women of our own class. Often they would pass us by with heads averted so as not to be involved, occasionally one or two would stop to leer, others met us with blank apathy and this was harder to take than the abuse. Only a small minority seemed to agree with the things we were saying and with our way of saying them. We consoled ourselves by saying that audiences would improve when we ourselves improved with hard work and rehearsal. We lacked many qualities but humility was not among them. Week-ends were our best times, for then we could be assured of being seen by shoppers in the market-places and week-end bathers at the public baths. The stone steps that were an architectural feature of Manchester and Salford's public baths soon became our favourite venues for performances. For one thing, there were generally queues there on a Saturday morning and, for another, they provided us with a point of vantage where we could be seen and from which we could easily spot 'the law'." (A-P:xxii-iv)

"Towards the end of 1931 we set about writing plays dealing with the cotton industry where a situation of acute crisis was developing, particularly in regard to the employers' attempts to introduce the eight-loom system in weaving. Now eight looms doesn't sound very many, particularly today when weavers often handle 13,000 looms at a time, but it was a great deal in Lancashire where most of the machines were antediluvian." (TL:233)

The following is from "New Red Stage", the journal of the Workers Theatre Movement , June/July, 1932
Jimmie Miller is second on the left.

The Red Megaphones performing in Preston, Lancashire in 1932

Above is a photograph of the Manchester Troupe at Preston on May Day. Their show attracted the attention of the local Press, who gave a long editorial account. Comrades are invited to forward photographs of troupes in action and, if possíble, the cash for the block. Every group should report regularly to the "New Red Stage."

On May Day the troupe went up to Preston and assisted in two open-air demonstrations. The first, which was held in the afternoon, consisted of a march through the town, followed by a meeting in a square. W.T.M. items, notably the P.A.C. sketch and ' May Day," were very enthusiastically received. In the evening a meeting was held in the covered market. An enormous crowd gathered round the lorry, attracted chiefly by the W.T.M., in glaring contrast to a small I.L.P. meeting which was taking place opposite. Our rendering of " Jimmie Maxton and the I.L.P ," particularly appropriate, was well applauded. The P.A.C. sketch, the " Timber " sketch, " Meerut ," " It's Your Country ," and songs made up the rest of our repertoire. Tremendous interest was created, and steps are being taken to set up a troupe in Preston as a result. We are making arrangements for increasing and consolidating the sales of "Red Stage."

"It was a period of intense activity, though in terms of actual time it only covered about two and a half years. We did improve during that time, of course, though we never achieved the standard we were aiming for. Most of the sketches we performed were products of the Workers Theatre Movement scriptwriting section. They were clever, politically sound and occasionally witty, but by the time we had rehearsed and performed half a dozen of them, we began to feel that we were repeating ourselves. Two or three members of the group opted out. All of us were dissatisfied with our sketches which, increasingly, felt drab and hill of holes." (J:207)

"During the next two or three months, [Late 1933] the group continued to meet three evenings a week. We continued to talk, endlessly. We discussed possible productions, argued, tried to write scripts and, in between meetings, spent days in the library reading plays, poems and indeed anything that we thought might adapt for the stage." (J:208)

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Ewan MacColl: Introduction