I had only left Art School a month or two previously when I washed up at Chats Palace in 1976. I had studied graphic design while my real passion – theatre – remained something of a distant dream. Nowadays, when I refer to my education, I don’t mean the ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels I got at school, or my degree in graphics. My real education began when I stepped through the big double doors at Chats for the first time. The person who opened those doors for me was Mike Gray.
I owe Mike a huge debt. He always supported my writing and performing, never once judging or criticising my earliest efforts (as well he might have!) but instead left me to it. At the same time he was always on hand to help out, documenting each show we did with his camera. Mike’s enthusiasm enabled others to realise their dreams, as he had realised his own by helping to create this vibrant community centre that I was now so lucky to be a part of.
It’s been said many times that we only need one person to believe in us when we’re starting out in life. Mike was that person for me and I will always remember him with great affection.
CHATS THEATRE WORKSHOP
I was lucky enough to stumble upon Chats in its first year of existence. I had auditioned for a local amateur group called The New Revue Company, who at that time were using the main hall as a rehearsal space. In the early days there were only a few ancient lanterns hanging from scaffolding, pointing at nothing in particular. There were no raised stage units. These, along with the bar, would have to wait until funding was in place before being built. But the Music Hall was already up and running and there was a real buzz about the place. Everyone felt that the building had enormous potential.
For some reason the play I was due to perform in never came off, but meanwhile I had fallen under the spell of Chats Palace and with the encouragement of Mike Gray, Alan Rossiter and others I started running a modest theatre workshop once a week, the aim being to put on plays myself. Our first outing was ‘A Slight Ache’, by Harold Pinter, early in 1977, which we followed up with an ambitious double-bill of ‘White Liars’ and ‘Black Comedy’ by Peter Shaffer. The next year we staged an Orton play, ‘The Ruffian on the Stair’. These were very much shoestring productions, (i.e. no budget whatsoever). Costumes and sets, posters and props, everything was scraped together with whatever we could find.
Very quickly, Chats had become a thriving community centre, the hall functioning as a space for touring theatre companies as well as bands, comedians, poets, you name it. I had begun writing by now and had already put on my first play ‘The Cancerian’ in 1978. Looking back it was a somewhat self-indulgent piece, (I was young!), but I redeemed myself the following year with a full-scale musical, ‘Secret Identities’, a Superman-inspired farce featuring a dozen local kids performing a pastiche of the advertising jingle ‘The Ovaltinies’, which we re-imagined as ‘The IceCreamies’. As a prelude to this we had performed a kids’ show, ‘Cosmic Follies’ at the Hackney Marsh Fun Festival that summer.
The first home-grown cabaret nights had begun to emerge by now, and the community arts group Free Form had established the tradition of the annual pantomime, with cameos from local people. They kindly invited me to play the befuddled King Mustapha in ‘The Thief of Ragbag’, (Christmas 1979), after which I was privileged to write the next two pantos, ‘Robbin the Rich’ and ‘Bluebeard the Barbary Ghost’, performing in the first (as Robin Hood), and directing the second. By now the whole community was involved in all aspects of the show. Thanks to Free Form the visual splendour of the sets made these pantos a very rich experience for everyone involved.
The theatre workshop gradually evolved into a small-scale touring company The East End Theatre Group, (‘The Mask’ being our first production in 1980), but by now many different initiatives had sprung up, notably the incomparable Chats Arkestra. I continued to write and direct for various cabaret nights and community shows like Breakfast In America, and of course the Beatles Marathon, which we took to the Battersea Arts Centre, but my favourite show of that period was ‘Molefinger’, a spoof of Bond movies which took place over several nights in 1982, under the banner of H.A.D.A., (the Homerton Academy of Dramatic Arts). Great days.