The following article was written in 1992 by Dave Rogers and published in Theatre Ireland. [1]

Banner Theatre

Banner Theatre is a Socialist theatre company based in Birmingham. The Company was formed in 1973, from a rather strange collection of folk singers, drama teachers, office workers, technicians and car workers. Some of its founder members came from ‘Centre 42’, a project initiated by Charles Parker and Arnold Wesker in the early 1960s which aimed to interest unionists in radical culture. Others were recruited from the Birmingham Folk Centre and the Grey Cock Folk Club. Charles Parker, an influential founder member of the Company, was a left-wing media worker, renowned for producing, with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, a powerful and innovative series of radio programmes known as The Radio Ballads.

My route into Banner was fairly typical. I joined an evening class run by Charles Parker in 1968, ostensibly about folk-song, but in reality an inspiring mix of politics, singing, ballad analysis and folk theatre which, in 1968 jargon, ‘blew my mind’. Week 2 of the course Parker had me singing, week 10 of the course Iwas performing in a political mumming play, written by Ewan MacColl, in Smallheath Park to a belligerent crowd of barracking teenagers. Two years later, I had ditched my steady job as a computer programmer, and started to follow a precarious existence as a political cultural worker. Parker changed my life, as indeed he changed many other people’s lives. After that baptism of fire, it was a fairly natural step to become one of the full time unpaid founder members of the Company.

As a group, we were flush with the political energy of the late 1960s and the cultural idealism of the folk song revival, which was still buoyant in 1973. We believed in many different things; but shared in common a belief in developing a genuinely democratic culture that focussed on ordinary people’s experiences. We believed in the power of everyday experience, and in particular, in the power and richness of working class language or ‘actuality’ as we learned to call it from Charles Parker. We wanted to develop a radical propagandist theatre, which not only voiced working class issues, but was pre pared to support working class struggles.

We started off as a group of amateurs, most with ‘real jobs’ elsewhere, but there was a core of people who, though unpaid, worked more or less full-time for Banner. Some like me, were unemployed and subsidised by the Department of Health and Social Security. This structure continued for the first five years of Banner’s existence until 1978, when we received our first bona fide state subsidy with a Regional Arts grant to employ one full-time worker. By 1980 we had a complement of five full-time paid members, myself, Chris Rogers, Charles Parker, Pete Yates and Bernard O’Donnell. We were referred to as the ‘core group’. We wrote and performed ion professional productions, animated amateur groups and administered the Company. We also had a flourishing ‘main group’ of 25 to 30 people, who had jobs elsewhere and performed for Banner during their free time.

Banner’s first show, Collier Laddie, produced in 1973, was dramatisation of Parker, MacColl and Seeger’s radio ballad, The Big Hewer. The show, which sought to dramatise the experiences of peo ple in themining community, used these people’s spoken words mixed with songs by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. Collier Laddie was performed against a backcloth of projected slides, to give an added visual layer to the show. With a cast of 14 actors and musicians we toured extensively through the coalfields of South Wales, Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Kent, building up strong links with the people in these communities. We travelled in several dilapidated motor cars and carried out technical equipment on open trailers. Our ancient lighting rig was inherited from Centre 42. The projection screen was an enormous piece of sailcloth which had to be lashed to a makeshift frame for each performance. I remember that it took hours to erect and dismantle the screen.

Collier Laddie had many elements that would later become standard Banner format. It used actuality which, in the early shows, was treated as an almost sacred resource that had to be used neat in scripts with no modifications countenanced. We gradually moved away from using actuality so reverently, treating it more as a clay to be modelled to suit the needs of particular productions. There was also a strong musical thread running through our shows which began with Collier Laddie; most Company members could either sing or play an instrument. Slides provided a third media element. They could work as scene setters, for example with images of pit winding gear, mining villages etc; or work in contradiction to or in dialogue with the action on the stage, for example by setting graphic images of miners working against government propaganda about how easy life was now that nationalisation had removed the rapacious mine owners. Either way, the slides allowed us to expand upon the themes being developed in the production.

After the success of Collier Laddie we decided to continue to build on our emerging links with the miners and the trade union movement. In 1974 we wrote our own show, Saltley Gate, a multi-media production about the 1972 miner’s strike. A lot of elements of this show still stand out in my mind today. It was our first independent production which helped us build our strong connections with the Birmingham labour movement and with the labour movement nationally. Working on Saltley Gate was a unique training ground for me as a cultural worker. I worked alongside Charles Parker, the master of actuality, and learnt how to use actuality recordings both to build a script and as the basis for song-writing.

Collier Laddie had been a fairly light production politically. Written by Maccoll for the BBC, it focused somewhat nostalgically on comradeship and craft pride in the industry. Though the production touched on unemployment in the 1930s, the ravages of pneumoconiosis and pit disasters, it rarely exposed the causes of these afflictions and somewhat naively promoted nationalisation as a golden opportunity for the miners. The fact that we felt no need to radically rewrite the script reflected the politics of Banner at the time. We were left of centre, but were not particularly well grounded in grass roots politics. What we did have was lots of energy and a will to learn. The world outside was soon to change our rather naive political viewpoint.

In 1972 the British economy was on the downturn but the British working class was still on the up. In January of that year, the miners had gone on strike over a wage dispute, and by early February most of he country’s coal supplies were under the control of the miners and their allies. Few outlets for coal were still available. One of these, Saltley Gas Works in East Birmingham, had a huge stockpile of coking coal which was drawing lorries from al over the country to serve the needs of profit-hungry businessmen from John O’Groats to Land’s End. The miners sent pickets to Saltley to stop the flow of coal, but were massively outnumbered by police. They decided to ask for support from the Birmingham labour movement to form a mass picket to stop the haemorrhage of coal. On 10 February, Birmingham workers flooded into Saltley from every direction, forming a human barrier which no scab truck driver could breach. The government was forced to concede defeat, close the gates, and ultimately give way to the miners’ demands.

Banner decided to write a show which celebrated the unity and solidarity that Saltley represented. Charles Parker, Chris Rogers [2] and I were given the task of sifting through the many hours of tape recordings with miners and car workers who took part in the epic struggle. From this raw actuality we carved the script and fashioned the songs of Saltley Gate, the first show written and performed by Banner. Rhoma Bowdler was the director and dramatic adviser, and Parker did the slides.

This production celebrated working class organisation and affirmed the power of working class culture. The show toured coal fields, trade union branches and community venues, and established Banner as a significant cultural force in the labour movement. I have vivid memories of performances of this show, like the one in the packed AEU Hall in Birmingham, when the audience of car workers moved triumphantly onto the stage for the grand finale, a re-enactment of the mass picket at Saltley. After the performance we were asked if we worked in the industry, a question we were to hear after other shows, whether we played steel workers or cooks, building workers or care assistants. I suspect that this was less a reflection of the brilliance of our dramatic technique than of the power of actuality. People recognised themselves in the shows and appreciated the validation and respect that we had for their experiences. And when we did get it wrong, they were the first to let us know.

The other major strike in 1972 was the building workers’ dispute. These workers successfully organised against lump labour schemes and abysmally low wages. After the strike was won, the government, shaken by repeated assaults by the labour movement on all fronts, was about to take its revenge. The Tory government dug out the ancient conspiracy laws, previously used against early trade union organisers in the nineteenth century, to lock up the strike leaders. They focused on the few acts of violence that had taken place during the building workers’ dispute, and used these to imprison grass roots leaders. The conspiracy laws enabled the government to find worker guilty of perpetrating violence even if he was not involved in the violent act itself.

The builders’ union UCATT organised a national campaign to defend the three building workers, Des Warren, Ricky Tomlinson and John McKinsie Jones, who were to be tried under this legislation. Banner contacted the regional secretary of UCATT, Ken Barlow, and offered our services in the campaign. We modified a script written by the Combine Theatre Company, The Shrewsbury Three. Barlow was quick to recognise the power of politi cal theatre and got us gigs at rallies and support meetings across the country. Ken Barlow became one of Banner’s staunchest supporters and was instrumental in getting Banner its first financial support from the trade unions several years later. He frequently referred to Banner as ‘my kind of theatre, working class theatre’, and he meant it. The Shrewsbury Three was agitprop, with minimal actuality content. This was our first agitational show, used to support a struggle at demonstrations. I vividly remember being asked to perform on the day of a national strike in London, in support of the Shrewsbury pickets. UCATT had booked a train to carry demonstrators down to London. Charles Parker, John Wrench, Chris Rogers and I had the unenviable task of singing our way down the train to raise morale and keep the issues on the boil. Charles still had a somewhat naive belief in the power of folk-song, and seemed to expect that workers would instantly recognise their lost cul ture if they only got a chance to hear it. He dragged us down the train, launching into unaccompanied epic songs like The Rocks of Bawn, to an audience of bemused building workers trying to eat their sandwiches and sup their cans of lager.

In the mid 1970s Banner staged performances that reflected on the international situation. We put on themed song evenings to protest about America’s invasion of Vietnam. In 1975 we wrote Viva Chile!, a play about the fascist coup in Chile. To celebrate International Women’s Year we toured Womankind, an anti-sexist production written by Chris Rogers, Rhoma Bowdler and me. This production was our first attempt to come to terms with issues raised by the women’s movement. Though the play correctly raised issues of sexism in the world at large, the men in Banner did not acknowledge their own sexism, both in terms of issues covered in Company productions, and in terms of our behaviour inside the Company. It was some years before we developed a genuine anti-sexist policy that shaped both the productions we took to the world outside [and] the internal structures and procedures in the Company.

We went through a similar process with our race politics. In 1976 we were approached by Jagmund Joshi [3], the general secretary of the Indian Workers’ Association, to write a show about racism. The show, called The Great Divide, was written under the watchful eye of Joshi. With his guidance we explored the atrocities of Britain’s colonial past, and discovered the link between our own racism and that imperialist history. We recorded Asian workers in the foundry industry in the Midlands and learnt of their experiences of racism from their employers, white fellow workers and trade unions. This production was our first serious attempt to come to terms with black issues. It was not until the early eighties that we began to seriously look at our own racism and ally ourselves with the anti-racist movement in Britain.

By the late 1970s we were well established as a labour movement theatre company and were beginning to get our first union sponsorship. Dr Healey’s Casebook was about Labour’s public spending cuts and was sponsored by NUPE. The Housing Game in 1978 dealt with corruption and exploitation in the building industry and was sponsored by UCATT. Put People First in 1983 focused on public spending cuts by the Conservative Government and was sponsored by NALGO. We were also getting much bigger grants from funding bodies like West Midland Arts and fromWest Midland County Council.

In 1980 we were approached by ROSAC, the committee for Retention of Steelmaking in Corby. This small Northampton steel town was fighting a British Steel Corporation plan to close down the works. ROSAC requested that we perform street theatre to publicise their case. We seconded two Company workers to Corby to document the campaign, tape record extensively, provide songs and street theatre where needed and produce a professional touring production. Steel!, written by Fran Rifkin and Pete Yates, exposed the ways in which nationalisation had been used by the steel bosses as a process of rationalisation. They closed inefficient plants at the taxpayers’ expense and then returned a slimmed down industry once more to private hands. The play demonstrated the ways in which steel union leaders had, over many years, collaborated not only with management but with the government, to provide a flexible and cooperative work force, ready to serve their masters, at almost any cost.

1980 was a traumatic year for Banner. Charles Parker, our mentor and guiding light for many years, died at the age of 59, while in rehearsal for Steel. Charlie’s death was a particularly great personal loss to me. I had worked with him since 1968. Working long hours through the night, selecting actuality, debating the style of this song, arguing about which slide should go against which piece of script, we developed a strong friendship with each other. He had a passionate commitment to working people and a love affair with their vernacular speech which infected all who worked with him.

Above all, he had the capacity to listen to people and take on new perspectives. From his privileged position working with the BBC, he was able to see the world from the perspectives of others in far less powerful positions.

The loss of Charlie to the Company was like a body blow. While coping with our grief, we had to rewrite Steel to replace Charlie, who had a principal role in the play, run a demanding animatory project with Birmingham car workers, and at the same time support the 1980 steel strike where Banner’s services were in great demand.

By the early 1980s we were able to tour fully professional shows, with a core group of five full-time employees (4 original founder members and Fran Rifkin who was recruited in 1979 as a director to strengthen the company’s theatrical skills). At the same time, we had a powerful main group which toured their own productions. We had a Women’s Group which toured their own productions, and we ran a community project in Handsworth with mainly African-Caribbean and Asian youth. The Handsworth Project, bringing in peripatetic workers to complement Banner’s documentary skills, offered workshops in photography, song-writing, Asian drumming, drama and Bhangra dance. From these workshops came small multi-media touring productions based on participants’ experiences. We were planning that by 1984 we would help this section of the Company’s work become independently organised and controlled by black cultural workers. The funding crisis in the mid-1980s prevented this plan from being implemented.

In 1984 I took the decision to have a year off from Banner and explore training opportunities. Before I had a chance to get very far on this course of action, the miners’ strike began. Given Banner’s long history and connections with the miners, it was impossible not to get involved. I knew it would be fertile ground for putting our brand of cultural politics into action. The core group at the time had a busy work programme of their own and were not in a position to drop everything and sup port the strike. Dave Dale, Kevin Hayes and I, unemployed at the time, decided to work full time on the strike. There was no chance of financial subsidy; the miners were ‘the enemy within’, and Thatcherism was putting blocks on any work which had a whiff of politics about it. We were at least free to support the miners without having to worry about disapproving responses from the funding bodies. We got involved in the Birmingham Miners’ Support Group, and developed a programme of activities. We set up mass busking groups in the centre of Birmingham, put together a Miners’ Support song programme, and offered our services for socials, strike meetings, pickets and rallies.

We performed at almost every pit in England and Wales. Our training in Banner had taught us about the power of culture in the struggle. Our songs and plays were based on people’s direct experiences; we used their language and ideas to reflect their experience back to them. We knew our performances cold boost morale, help to clarify complex situations, focus anger on real enemies. As cultural workers we had learnt to condense that experience, and to draw parallels with the other similar experiences either in the past or in other countries. Of course, we didn’t always get it right.

We performed on a daily basis to the people who we were writing about. If we got it wrong, they would let us know. In Grimethorpe Miners’ Welfare, I remember being harangued for singing a song about Britain’s role in Ireland by a father whose son had been shot by the IRA. In Armthorpe Welfare a few days later, I was heckled on stage because I had not sung one of my own songs about Britain’s invasion of the Falklands. Unlike the establishment media machine, which assumed the right to swan into mining communities, interview a few ‘working miners’ and then present their view-point as unbiased reporting, we had to face the people we were singing about on a day-to-day basis.

The miners’ strike was a unique and immensely moving experience for all of us. We felt we were part of the struggle and the mining communities were telling us what to do. This might be a request to write a song to sing at a rally in Mansfield or a union meeting in Keresley, to play on a picket line in Grimethorpe, outside a supermarket in Stoke, or outside a super scab’s house in Frickley. After 11 years as a company, we now had the skills and confidence to write something in the morning for a strike social that evening, about an incident that had happened the day before. We made firm friendships and built a relationship with the mining communities that continues to this day. During the strike, Banner produced a documentary cassette, Here We Go, and a disc, Amnesty, to fund raise for mining communities. Here We Go, produced on a two track tape recorder in somebody’s back bedroom. sold 5, 000 copies in three months and is still requested in the mining communities today. Needless to say, our activities, though carried out without financial subsidy, did not endear us to the funding bodies. We heard on the grapevine that funding bodies disapproved of Banner singing cheap parodies on picket lines, and were wondering what this had to do with ‘Art’. We were asked why Banner didn’t get its funding from the trade union movement. As if we were the darlings of the official trade union movement! Our criticism of the British Labour Party meant that we were never popular with trade union hierarchies. We had many friends at grass roots trade union level and many enemies at leadership level. Many of our shows attacked trade union leaders who failed to support their members. Steel!, which toured all the main Steel Workers strike committees during the 1980 Steel strike, was banned by the steel union, ISTCW. We knew, of course, that suggesting that we should be funded by the unions was just another way of justifying cutting our grant.

Nationally, during the 1980s, the cut-backs and rationalisations that had decimated the heavy industries, which were the themes of many of our shows, moved in to decimate the arts world. In this climate, left theatre companies were an easy target. The criticisms of Banner became more strident. At the same time, successive defeats in the labour movement provided an atmosphere where funders could say aloud things that they had thought about Banner for years. We were told that ‘Banner is out of date’ and engages in ‘dinosaur politics’. The idea of an active, politically committed theatre, which rested on the belief that culture should be used to change the world rather than just reflecting on the world as it was, seemed a rather quaint idea to funders.

Our honeymoon period with the funders in the late 1970s had now moved into the divorce courts. The abolition of West Midlands County Council removed half of our funding at one stroke. This was followed by West Midland Arts moving us from revenue funding to project funding. As a consequence of these cuts, animatory projects became increasingly difficult to run and touring productions became smaller and more tightly resourced.

At the same time, as funding for groups like Banner was being cut back drastically, Birmingham City Council was seeking to upgrade its grimy industrial image. Prestigious high ‘art producers’ like The Royal Ballet were purchased off the shelf and plonked in Birmingham. Banner’s productions which focused on Thatcherism or Britain’s role in Ireland, didn’t quite fit in with Birmingham’s new image as the city of culture. Oh yes, the City fathers might countenance a bit of alternative theatre, something a little avant garde, high-brow experimental theatre perhaps, but radical committed theatre – no thank you! It was thought that what was needed was a product to catch the eye of businessmen stopping over at the Hyatt Hotel, after a hard day at the International Convention Centre.

Despite the near impossible funding situation, Banner continued to operate. In 1985 Anna Seymour started a three year project with theNorth Staffordshire miners’ wives. With Anna’s assistance, these women toured their own productions based on their own experiences during and after the miners’ strike. In 1986 we toured a political revue Songs of Struggle, which attempted to draw parallels between the miners’ experiences during the strike and the black communities experience of racism and state oppression over many years. This revue also looked at Ireland’s experience of British occupation. We later produced a documentary tape, Rebellion Rap, in collaboration with the jazz saxophonist Andy Hamilton. In 1988 we toured In the Reign of Pig’s Pudding, written by Chris Johnston and myself, a play about the individualist ideology of Thatcherism.

In 1991, the Company took the decision temporarily to cease operating as a full-time producing company. The remaining group members were exhausted. We needed a break and a chance to replenish our skills and take a fresh look at where we were and what direction we might go in next. We retained a two man song group which I am part of, which is able to survive on shoe string finances. One of the things this song group is currently doing is a tour of a condensed version of the original Saltley script. This production, which marks the twentieth anniversary of Saltley Gate, is being performed to mining and labour movement audiences. Another thing we are doing is looking at ways of using our skills to earn a living and subsidise the political work we were committed to. It is clear that regardless of who wins the next election, there will be little space for state funding of radical left cultural organisations. People like me are having to separate ‘bread and butter’ work from political work. Even the very tightly resourced political theatre that Banner was able to do 10 years ago is no longer possible. Cultural workers face difficult decisions about where best to apply our time and resources in a climate where there is a political vacuum. The old battalions of the working class are in disarray; many old industries which were the backbone of the working class movement have now all but disappeared. The main areas of struggle now no longer centre on the work place. There is clearly a need for unifying politics to bring together the very different and separate strands and sites of struggle that characterise the 1990s more than any recent decades. Finding links between the women’s struggles, campaigns against racism and deportation, struggles against the arms trade and The New World Order and action to protect the environment will not be easy. It seems to me, however, that the force that underlies all of these issues is imperialism and that if any response is to be successful, it must unify these disparate forces. This should be a central terrain for future battles, where progressive cultural forces can focus their energies.

Though professional work is becoming much more difficult to sustain, there is a lot of scope for amateur activities. I recently saw a group of unemployed workers put on a powerful, passionate and committed production, about health and safety at work. It was very reminiscent of early Banner productions. There are also plenty of political bands around now, with big followings among young people. Because the political atmosphere in Britain is very low after thirteen years of Thatcherism, there is a strong demand for radical culture to raise morale, clarify issues and cry out against injustices. For political cultural activists there are plenty of possibilities, but treading the tightrope of survival versus political integrity will be no easy matter now that the safety nets have disappeared.

1992, twenty years on from that historic dispute, it is hard to recall the strength and optimism that characterised the labour movement then. Ordinary people seemed to walk the streets of Birmingham with a swagger and self-confidence I rarely see today. The memory still has the power to being tears to the eyes of hardened miners and factory workers twenty years on.

Dave Rogers, 1992

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[1] Theatre Ireland, No. 28 (Summer, 1992), pp. 21-26. Published by Paul Hadfield & Linda Henderson

[2] Chris Wakefield, formerly Rogers.

[3] Jagmohan Joshi (1936-79)

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Biography

Dave Rogers is the Artistic Director of Banner Theatre and works as a singer, performer, scriptwriter, songwriter and researcher. Over the last 44 years he has created, or has helped to create, well over 50 Banner productions and 400 songs.

Dave was one of the founding members of the company, along with Charles Parker (1919-1980) whose work in the groundbreaking BBC series The Radio Ballads has been internationally acclaimed. Charles was one of the first to recognise the power of using tape recordings to capture the stories of workers in their own words, and Banner Theatre was created to keep these stories alive for subsequent generations.

Employing a similar methodology, Banner uses ‘actuality’, the audio (and more recently, video) recordings of real people talking about their life situations, as source material for all their productions. These initial interviews are just the beginning of a process that engages the company in a multi-faceted dialogue with people in their communities. Draft scripts are written, and at various stages of development feedback sought from the initial interviewees to help shape the final production. This process enables the company to gain a deeper analysis of the social conditions addressed in the shows.

‘Vernacular speech is powerful and dramatic, and people present at a deep level their beliefs and values in the jokes, stories and anecdotes they tell about themselves. Our use of ‘actuality’ literally gives people a voice in our productions.’ Dave Rogers

Dave is an experienced interviewer and has been the main researcher and interviewer for the company since its formation. Examples of some of the stories Dave has collected for the productions he scripted between 1973 and 2000 include those of:

  • building workers on the lump (The Shrewsbury Three, 1974);
  • people resisting imperialist colonial powers (Fields of Vietnam, 1975);
  • Black and South Asian communities against racism (The Great Divide, 1977);
  • foundry workers fighting plant closures (Steel!,1980);
  • motor trade workers (On the Brink, 1980);
  • women fighting sexism and discrimination (Women at Work,1981);
  • striking miners (Miners’ Strike Tour,1984);
  • public sector workers resisting cuts and privatisation (The Little Red Mole, 1988);
  • new-age travellers and animal protesters (Criminal Justice, 1996);
  • refugees and asylum seekers (Redemption Song, 1997).

© Dave Rogers

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