Thanks for the Memories
by Chris Wakefield
Presentation for the Catching Stories and Banner Reunion Day, 30 September 2017
Chris Wakefield co-founded Banner Theatre in 1973. During her time with Banner, she performed in shows as an actor, musician and singer. She also wrote songs and compile scripts for shows, as well as carrying out research, interviews, transcriptions and many of the numerous tasks required for putting on, booking and touring productions. She did all of this as a member of both the Main Group of community performers, and the Core Group – that is to say the smaller team of professional theatre workers that emerged from the Main Group. She was also one of the first coordinators for Banner’s Handsworth Community Project.
My name is Chris Wakefield, formerly Chris Rogers, and I was one of Banner’s founder members. I was also a member of the company for 11 years from 1973-1984. In common with many of the early members of Banner, I came to the group via the Grey Cock Folk Club, having been introduced to folk music and the club in 1968 by Roy Palmer, who was Head of the French Department at the school where I was on teaching practice.
Dave and I soon became residents at the Grey Cock and started to develop our song repertoire and work on instrumentation. We also took part in some of the club’s drama productions, for example, a mumming play called “Saint George and the Dragon”. However, in 1971, along with Pam and Alan (Bishop) we went overland to India, and Dave and I only returned to Birmingham and the folk club in August 1972.
In 1973 we were invited to take part in a “one-off” performance of “The Collier Laddie”, a dramatisation, with the added dimension of slides, of the Radio Ballad, “The Big Hewer”, which was directed by Rhoma Bowdler. The performance was a great success, and, through contacts that Charles Parker had developed in the mining communities whilst recording the actuality for the Radio Ballad, we ended up touring the show throughout the coalfields, from Kent to Durham, Yorkshire to South Wales, performing in Miners’ Welfares, Community Centres, and at Miners’ Galas. Banner Theatre was born!
Banner was an exciting development at that time, in that it was quite different from other political theatre groups. First of all, the shows used actuality, the actual words of the mining community, talking about their industry, history, culture, traditions and way of life. Secondly, they used a combination of traditional songs from that community and new songs written in the style of traditional folk music. Thirdly, the shows were played against a constantly changing backdrop of slides, back-projected onto a huge screen behind the performers, which complemented or commented on the action on stage. Fourthly, all the members of the cast were amateurs, most of whom had fulltime jobs in a variety of fields of work, and many of whom were from working class backgrounds. The Bob Etheridges and Joan Smiths of this world gave a great authenticity to Banner productions. Banner became a close, committed and united group, as its members had known each other and worked together at the Grey Cock for many years.
Life as a Banner member was frankly chaotic. In those early years, Dave and I were residents at the Grey Cock, ran a Music Workshop on a Monday evening, recorded and transcribed actuality for new shows, wrote scripts and songs, rehearsed and performed both with Banner and the Grey Cock and the Banner Song Group, not to mention trying to scrape a living as nobody in Banner received any payment at that stage. Many of us remember that fateful Friday evening performance of “Collier Laddie” in South Wales when we started the show with two carloads of the cast missing! Charlie  had arranged a performance for 7.30pm, assuring everyone the journey took under two hours; quite possibly, the way he drove, but not for anyone leaving work in the middle of the weekend Birmingham rush-hour! By 7.40pm, it was decided the show must go on, and I remember the feeling of total panic as I had to sing verses of songs I had only ever heard before and play accompaniments I had never before attempted. Oh, the relief, when 20 minutes later one carload appeared, and shadowy figures crept to take their places on stage, followed 15 minutes later by the rest of the cast!
I was performing “Collier Laddie” when I was eight months pregnant, taking my hospital bag with me to performances in case I went into labour, and, one month later, when Katherine was born, Charlie came to visit me in hospital bearing a beautiful baby dress, which must have cost him an arm and a leg, a tape recorder and a huge set of headphones, a wodge of A4 paper, pens, a large Spanish Dictionary and two Victor Jara tapes for me to translate into English in preparation for the next show, “Viva Chile”. Well, he clearly thought I had nothing better to do! The day I came out of hospital, I discovered there was to be a rehearsal for the new show; my script had been highlighted ready for me, and a list of accompaniments included that needed to be worked on. The only concession to having a new-born baby was that we were rehearsing in our living room instead of some cold and dismal rehearsal room!
So why did I do it, you may ask? A lot of us must have asked ourselves the same question! Primarily because I believed in what we were doing culturally and politically. Banner shows carried a powerful message and reached audiences who rarely, if ever, went to the theatre. Being involved in researching, writing and performing new shows was also exciting and stimulating but could be a mixed blessing! Charlie came from a background in Radio, Rhoma’s field of expertise was Drama, which created an “interesting” dynamic. Charlie would often come along to script–writing sessions with a superb but lengthy piece of actuality, and Rhoma would vehemently insist that, theatrically, you could not include such a solid wodge of material, however brilliant, in a dramatic presentation. This would invariable result in a full-scale row, with Charlie walking out shouting that he was finished with Banner, only to appear the next day with a significantly pared down piece of text!
It is impossible to sum up 11 years of working with Banner in 10 minutes. Over the years, I developed skills in recording and transcribing actuality, writing scripts, performing in shows, song-writing, singing and instrumentation, administration, tour organising and fundraising, for which I will be eternally grateful. I was Project Co-ordinator for the Handsworth Project  and ran their music workshop for several years. I was involved in two Women’s Shows in which our fantastic group of women wrote and performed the shows, arranged bookings, loaded and drove the van to gigs, put up the set, did all the technicals, and conducted the post-performance discussions, all this despite some of the Banner men saying we would never manage it without their involvement! We did, and did they have to eat their words! Over those 11 years, there were periods of time when we had three shows in repertoire, the majority of whose performers were in the Main Group and had full-time jobs, an amazing and talented group of friends, whose energy and commitment were astonishing.
In conclusion, I would like to express my thanks to them and also the following people. First of all, to all the Banner children, and especially ours. What a chaotic, frenetic but rich and stimulating life they were subjected to! Yet somehow they all grew up to be balanced, talented and committed adults. I was tempted to illustrate this by playing a home recording of Katherine aged seven, Keith aged three and a half and myself singing “Shosholoza” in three–part harmony, but they really would never have forgiven me if I had!
Secondly to Dave for his ongoing dedication to Banner. In 2018 he will have been involved in the company for 45 years, a life-sentence some might say. I have no doubt that if there were to be another reunion in twenty years’ time, heaven forbid, when we would all be here on our crutches and Zimmer frames, Dave would still be slaving away on the next Banner production!
And last, but not least, I wish to thank Jacqueline and Dean for undertaking this important project and organising today’s reunion and superb exhibition. They have given voice to many of Banner’s past members, myself included, who would otherwise have been voiceless. On behalf of those people, many of whom are here today, our grateful and sincere thanks.
30 September 2017
 Charles Parker was known as Charlie to his friends.
 Banner Theatre started the Handsworth Project in 1979 as community-based initiative to engage a broad cross-section of Handsworth residents in researching and celebrating the rich multicultural history of the borough. The Handsworth Project first involved pupils from local schools, then drew from groups of unemployed young adults. Together with musicians, song-writers, photographers, technicians and drama workers from Banner, they created a number of community plays reflecting their experiences, and based on the company’s “actuality” methodology. The Handsworth Project ran until 1990.