Peter Frost celebrates the centenary of the founding mother of working-class theatre in Britain.
Joan Littlewood, who was born 100 years ago this weekend, changed the face of British theatre forever.
Her great loves — agitprop, political and community theatre, speaking out in working-class language — have passed into mainstream culture both on stage and screen.
Littlewood, who died in 2002 aged 87, devoted her whole life to community theatre.
Late in life she said: “I really do believe in the community, I really do believe in the genius in every person.”
The Theatre Royal at Stratford, east London, remains a lasting tribute to her.
This year her production of Oh What a Lovely War! has been celebrated and has refocused interest on her, but there is much more to salute and pay tribute to in this, her centenary year.
Joan Maud Littlewood was born in Stockwell, south London, to an unmarried mother who disapproved of books. However her grandmother, who did most of the childcare, was known as a fine teller of — often bawdy — jokes and stories.
As soon as she could read Littlewood herself adopted the dangerous hobby of reading library books by candlelight under the bedclothes out of mother’s sight.
Young Littlewood’s first contact with the world of the stage was an approach by one of Stan Laurel’s scouts. She played a few small comedy parts in local shows.
Her first brush with politics was aged 12 in the general strike. She questioned her grandfather on why the strike had been defeated after just 10 days.
“What do you want, a communist red revolution?” grandpa asked the young Littlewood.
She didn’t hesitate. “Yes” she answered. It would be her political credo for life.
She won a scholarship to a convent school, fortuitously just a short walk from the Old Vic.
Theatre visits rather than formal schooling set her course for life and she applied for and won the only London scholarship to the then rather posh and middle-class Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Despite winning awards and acting with Bernard Shaw, the atmosphere at Rada and their views on what theatre should be about, didn’t suit Littlewood and after just a year she decided to head for the US. She started out by walking to Liverpool.
She got 130 miles on foot to Burton-on-Trent before collapsing. She begged or borrowed the fare to Manchester, to meet an ex-Rada teacher and communist Archie Harding, whose left-wing views had seen him exiled to Manchester by the BBC.
In Manchester she found, and loved, a culture of small, leftist agitprop groups dedicated to taking drama to working people.
In this new and exciting world she met fellow young communist Jimmie Miller. Later he would become folk singer Ewan MacColl. They married and together they founded the Theatre of Action in 1934.
Littlewood and MacColl subsidised their communist work by acting and reading for the BBC but all their energy went into what by 1936 had become Theatre Union.
Theatre Union productions were influenced by Brecht, Stanislavsky, Meyerhold and Expressionist movement pioneer Rudolf Laban.
The inspiration Littlewood herself returned to most often was the commedia dell’arte — travelling troupes of radical players in 16th-century Italy.
During the war Littlewood and MacColl’s work was often splendidly reviewed but always refused official funding.
The couple were blacklisted by the BBC and by forces entertainment group ENSA as subversives. MI5 kept detailed files on them both.
Despite this, at the end of the war, such was Littlewood’s artistic reputation the BBC asked for her help with features and drama.
Instead, in 1945, she and her company, now renamed Theatre Workshop, hired a lorry and took to the road.
Two teenage communists, Howard Goorney and Gerry Raffles, joined the tour.
Both would become lifelong parts of her company and life.
Goorney as a principal actor,
Raffles the indispensable backstage organiser.
Raffles soon replaced MacColl in Littlewood’s affections despite being her junior by nine years. Their relationship would last more than 30 years.
Raffles hitchhiked and slept rough as he searched working-class communities for venues where the group could perform. Although audiences loved the shows, money and bookings were hard to find.
In 1953, Littlewood and Raffles found a disused and scruffy theatre to rent in east London. MacColl left to concentrate on folk singing and recording.
The Theatre Royal, Angel Lane, Stratford, smelled strongly of cat’s pee but the rent was just £20 a week. They moved in, got rid of that smell, and again changed the face of British theatre forever.
Outstanding performances included Harry H Corbett — later TV’s Harold Steptoe and the only communist to be linked romantically to Princess Margaret — in an award-winning Richard II.
The 1955 production of the Czech play Good Soldier Schweik transferred to the West End. Many other productions too moved from Stratford to successful West End runs.
Among them were Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, Brendan Behan’s The Hostage, Lionel Bart’s Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, Wolf Mankowitz’s Make Me An Offer and Stephen Lewis’s Sparrers Can’t Sing
Many of these shows were uproarious working-class comedies but with a serious message. All were a reaction to the stultified, overwhelmingly middle-class West End theatre.
In 1956 Behan’s anti-capital punishment prison drama The Quare Fellow drew full houses.
Many what are now well known names started under Littlewood’s tutelage.
These included Yootha Joyce, Glynn Edwards, Richard Harris, Brian Murphy, Nigel Hawthorne and Barbara Windsor. Shown below with Joan Littlewood.
Not all impressed Littlewood. She told the young Michael Caine after only one production: “Piss off to Shaftesbury Avenue. You will only ever be a star.”
Some West End successes eventually gave her and Raffles enough money to purchase the theatre but for Littlewood the spark had dimmed.
Exhausted and deflated, she travelled alone to Nigeria to work on a film project that never happened.
Back in London she launched her plan for a Fun Palace — a Thames-side entertainment promenade, with music, lectures, plays and restaurants.
It was as if she had foreseen the O2 Dome, but it never happened for her.
She returned to Stratford in 1975 for her last, and perhaps best-known, success with Oh, What A Lovely War!, a work of genius in which a lifetime’s creativity and politics came together.
A revival of that show to celebrate the centenary of the start of World War I has put Littlewood back in the limelight. Centre-stage is exactly where she deserves to be a century after her birth.
Joan’s Fun Palaces
On October 4 and 5 one of Joan Littlewood’s most exciting visions will come to life when over 120 Fun Palaces will pop up across Britain and globally.
They will celebrate the theatre director, her centenary and her vision. This is a campaign for culture in which everyone can join.
It gives rebirth to Littlewood’s dream of bringing arts, welcoming and free, to the heart of working-class communities.
Find your local event at www.funpalaces.co.uk
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 4 October 2014