Monday, 26 April 2021

Britain says "Farewell" to its old 'Playwright of the People and Champion of Community Theatre', Peter Terson


Peter, who has died at the age of 89, was born in the wet February of 1932 in Walker, a suburb of Newcastle upon Tyne, the son of Jane and Peter Patterson, a joiner. He grew up on the 1930s Daisy Hill housing estate and said he remembered his mother was "worn out with work and worry" and the fact that 'fathers not getting on with sons' was a recurrent theme in his later work as a playwright suggests that, as a teenager and beyond, he didn't get on with his dad. He said his father's "only concession to culture was a Daily Herald edition of George Bernard Shaw and a set of Shakespeare which was never opened". He provided an early example of his commitment to local community when he became a founder member of the 'Daisy Hill Boys' Club and played in its football team. 

Secondary school was 'Heaton Grammar School for Boys' in Newcastle and he had only been there a year when his mother died and her death affected him deeply. He clearly excelled in technical drawing and when he left school at the age of 15, just after the end of the Second World War, he got his first job working in a drawing office with a view to becoming a draughtsman and was still drawing in his 50s as he demonstrated in his BBC Series, 'The Journey' in 1985. At the same time he continued his studies in evening classes at the Newcastle upon Tyne Technical College. Walker didn't have a theatre, but the 'Gloria Cinema' opened there when he was six years old and doubtless he was taken to it as a boy and visited it as a teenager. Peter briefly attended  in 1950, at the age of 18, he was drafted into the R.A.F for his two years National Service where he trained as a 'ground wireless mechanic'.

After he was demobbed, at the age of 20, he left behind his roots in Tyne and Wear in the North West and travelled to the South West where he spent the next two years training to be a teacher at Redland College in Bristol, where he met his future wife, Sheila Bailey.

Peter settled down to a career in education as 'Mr Patterson', teaching History and Physical Education at Blackminster County Secondary School for Boys near Littleton in Worcestershire. He was three years into the job when the birth of his first child, Bruce, revived an interest in writing that had been dormant for years. Finding that he was often up in the middle of the night caring for Bruce, he began work on a novel but abandoned the project in favour of writing plays, a decision he made based on his interest in writing dialogue. His first two plays were optioned by the BBC for radio, but weren't produced because they were judged to need too much work to adapt them for broadcast. However, encouraged by the sales after publication, he continued to write in his spare time out of the 1950s and into the 1960s and later admitted that he had “enough rejection slips to paper the walls”. By this time he had changed his professional surname, to 'Terson' because he thought 'Peter Patterson' was a “bit of a mouthful”. 

Peter sent samples of his work to Peter Cheeseman, Director of the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, an 'in-the-round theatre' in a converted cinema where he was committed to regionalism in his productions. His widow, Romy, said : "When Peter took over the running of the theatre in 1962, from the very beginning it was his mission to make contact with local people".

 
Cheeseman was impressed with Peter's work and 'A Night to Make the Angels Weep' was performed at the Victoria in 1964. Subsequently, Peter gave in his notice at his school and took up the position of 'Resident  Playwright' at the Victoria in 1965. He immediately took to working in the theatre-in-the round because, as he said, there were "no fake door handles", minimalist scenery and set designs which allowed the action to move along apace. With a year's salary sponsored by the Arts Council he moved with his family into the district. It hadn't taken much persuasion for him to leave teaching and he himself  admitted that, as a teacher : “I wasn’t very good and the boys saw through me, but were very supportive”. Apparently, he never mastered the rules of basketball and said : "It was eight years of agony. I spent my time writing plays in the changing rooms" and Cheeseman said : "On sports days he used to lose the stopwatch and he had to make up the time, so he didn’t like it".

Peter the Playwright now began to draw on his experience of the nine years he had spent as a teacher living in the Vale of Evesham, a rural, fruit-growing area in central England and made it the setting for his early plays, which shared theme of rural tradition opposing the forces of change. In his 1964, 'Mighty Reservoy', a new reservoir was built threateningly close to a village, whose keeper believed that an act of sacrifice was necessary to avert a tragedy. In 'Mooney and His Caravans' he concentrated the story on a married couple, Charley and Mave, who were so determined to escape city life that they are willing to submit themselves to repeated degradation in a rural trailer-park community run like a prison camp by the evil, cunning Mooney. Humiliated and stripped of all pretense, with Mave carrying Mooney's baby, the couple rediscover their love for each other and returned to the city. 

In 1965 he proved himself to be an accomplished adapter of the Potteries-born novelist, Arnold Bennett, whose short story 'Jock on the Go' gave him his first television credit which he shared with Peter Cheeseman in 1967. When the play was performed at the Victoria Theatre it was seen by  by Michael Croft, Founder-Director of the National Youth Theatre, who invited Peter to join him at the National. 

Peter was now forced to change his writing style because, while productions at the Victoria were small in scale and represented regional, rural interests, the London-based National Youth presented large, showy productions, staged by school children and young adults, and dealt with themes that appealed to urban youth. Here Peter would start with the basic outline of a play and, working with cast and director Croft, work out staging details and dialogue. in 1967 his approach created 'Zigger Zagger', a look at almost fanatical adoration of and identification with professional soccer teams as seen through the eyes of Harry Philton, a school dropout moving from job to job, falling into unhappy relationships and a dead-end career.

Harry's monologue describing the excitement of the day of the match provides a perfect example of Peter's flair for combining naturalism with unforced poetry : "Come Saturday the whole town comes alive. People are going one way from all the streets, they're going a one way. They're meeting and joining and going on, meeting more, till the trickle becomes a flood. And you come to the stadium and the hum comes from the bowl and the people inside seem to be saying : "Come on in. Come on in". And you jostle at the turnstile and the turnstile clicks and clicks and you push nearer and nearer, through the dark gap, then you're in. And the great stand at the City End, it's like an hall, a great hall. And you go on through the arch, till you see the pitch - green, new-shaven and watered. And the groundsman's made a white line, it's as straight as a ruler. And you find your place among the fans, the real fans, the singers and chanters and the rattle wavers. And a sheet of tobacco smoke hangs over the crowd and the crowd whistles salutes and the policeman circling the pitch look up and know they're in for a rough day of it". https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_XsifCSIEs

It was the first play be commissioned by the National Youth Theatre and it prompted the 'Observer' to declare Peter 'a poet of the theatre'. In his lifetime, Peter saw it filmed twice by the BBC, the second time in three parts in 1975 and although a professional West End production folded after only five performances in 1968, when he was 85 in 2017, its 50th anniversary in was marked by a revival by the NYT at Wilton’s Music Hall.

Peter followed 'Zigger Zagger' at the National in 1969 with 'The Apprentices', in which the hopes and dreams of a working-class youth are stripped away, one by one, until he finds himself trapped in a colorless, meaningless world with no future. It was televised with the same cast on BBC TV the same year and earned plaudits : 'A worthy successor to 'Zigger Zagger' combining immense theatrical vigour with a wholly credible picture of life among the working-class young' from The Times and : 'The genuine tang of Now. They come at you fresh, authentic, and surprising, like a head-on collision with the actual world. It should be the most popular show the National Youth Theatre has ever done', from the Daily Mail.

It was at this point in 1968 that Peter took an unforeseen step. He was still working with Peter Cheeseman who recalled : "He disappeared one day and nobody knew where he was. It turned out he’d gone to live in Whitby. He’s a strange chap is Peter, but he got so unhappy and he wanted to move. I think he was feeling claustrophobic. He lived in Whitby for several years and we did a number of plays set in Whitby or inspired by Whitby, 'The 1861 Whitby Lifeboat Disaster' was one". 

The Whitby lifeboat crew launched five times to rescue stricken vessels, but on their sixth launch, tragedy struck. A freak wave hit the lifeboat, which capsized and all but one of the crew were lost. 

Cheeseman continued: "Peter was very much a man who writes about place, like a lot of writers do, but things that came out of the place. But he had to leave Whitby because of the stupidity of a young 'marketing director' we had, or 'publishing manager', who told the Daily Telegraph that the disaster in the play happened because the crew of the lifeboat were drunk and so Whitby erupted. Peter, who by then was a great mate of the lifeboat crew, was shunned and ostracised and it was a sort of national scandal - a 15 or 20 minute programme on the television news in May 1970".
 
In fact, Peter and the family were forced to pack their bags and leave the town and moved into residence on a canal boat in the Midlands.  

For his 'The Affair at Bennett’s Hill', Peter drew on his knowledge of farm workers in the Vale of Evesham where he'd lived in his years as a teacher. One proposed scene, with two men ferreting for rabbits which involved the rabbits' faces being bitten by the ferrets, was deleted by the Censor. Peter Cheeseman recalled : "I asked to go down and see him with Peter to discuss this and it was one of the most amusing events I’ve ever taken part in". They travelled to London and met 'The Comptroller of the Chamberlain’s Office', Lieutenant Colonel Sir John Johnston"this very upper middle class army officer who was also the Keeper of the Queen’s Swans I think. But he said
"Oh, it’s not even good sportsmanship", he actually said that. And he also said "It’s people like you Mr Terson who are undermining the very foundations of British public life". So we discussed this and we rescued the scene".
They also persuaded him to allow the character Dezzel, to play on his percussion 'knackers' in the village pub. "I remember the door of his office as he graciously showed us off, after a fairly amiable encounter in the end. It wasn’t unpleasant, it was just culturally odd, and he said "I think we can admit knackers providing you make it clear it’s a north country term for a variety of castanets", which we tried to do".   

It was to be Peter's last collaboration with Cheeseman for many years who recalled : "He did an adaptation of Rumpelstiltskin and I couldn’t direct it because I was working on a new theatre and it didn’t work out and Peter got very upset and we parted company. It took a long time for us to get together again. They’re tempestuous characters, these writers".

In 1971 Peter was commissioned by BBC Radio, to write 'The Fishing Party', in which a trio of coal miners, Art, Ern and Abve decide to leave their native Leeds, where they graft in the mines all week, and head to Whitby, where they intended to do a spot of cod fishing. To avoid staying in the docks where everyone reeked of fish, they sought digs at a hotel run by Audrey and her subservient husband Brian. Televised by the BBC as a 'Play for Today', Brian Glover played the party leader 'Art' and Jane Freeman played 'Audrey'. The play earned Peter a Writers' Guild Award.

It was was followed by the trio's second outing in 1973, 'Shakespeare or Bust', centred around a canal trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Antony and Cleopatra that ended up with 'Antony' played by Richard Johnson and 'Cleopatra' by Janet Suzman, meeting them, by accident, outside the theatre after the trio were unable to get tickets for the performance and joining them on the boat. The third play, 'Three for the Fancy', was set at a country livestock fair where they planned to exhibit, respectively, a rabbit, a mouse and a guinea pig at the Bradford Championship Show. 

In all three plays, Peter used his favourite device of taking characters outside their natural comfort zone and exploited the comic potential that this released. At the a seaside hotel they were 'a cut above' what they are used to and exposed to petty class prejudice enshrined in the rituals of the hotel and its formidable proprietor. On the canal trip to Stratford-upon- Avon, which Peter undertook himself and completed the script on the journey, the comedy was released when Art took his pals on his quest to see the Bard’s work at the Royal Shakespeare Company. When they entered the obsessive world of champion livestock breeding, the trio never fully understood the reality around them and Peter was at his wryly observational best. Thirty years later, when Peter was 70, he saw his trilogy placed at the heart of a celebratory retrospective of his work at the British Film Institute in 2012. 

In 1973 Peter wrote 'The Ballard of Ben Bagot' for BBC TV based on 17 year-old Ben, played by Peter Firth, who had  thrown caution to the winds and left school behind, believing it to be inferior to his natural wit and intelligence and not before his English Lit teacher, played by Jack Shepherd despaired of his charge. 'Bags' sets fire to his school uniform and yearns for a freedom where he can be a pop star or a great business brain. Prone to fantasy, he cannot see the true reality of his situation, trapped as he is by marriage and his wife’s pregnancy. Director Ronald Smedley recalled his unease at receiving Peter's script which was simply poetry which he had to shape into a narrative and work on the music and locations. 

In 1976, with Paul Joyce, he provided a script 'The Jolly Swagman' for the Granada TV 'Crown Court' Series which involved Leavis and Lovelace working together as jobbing builders and a pub comedy act. They now shared the dock, accused of disguising themselves, tricking their way into the homes of two old aged pensioners and then robbing them. 

Peter himself said : "I think anyone writing about my plays should see the paintings I do while I'm working on them. I just slosh the paint on, as boldly and simply as you and the subjects are all very simple and obvious : A Man, A Street, and so on. I don't know why I do them, and when I've done them I just chuck most of them away. I think my plays are very much like that. I suppose I must be some sort of crazy primitive or something". In an early letter to Peter Cheeseman, he wrote : 'Although, actually, tonight, I've started a play. Much against my will. It seems to force its way out like dry sweat. I might see the doctor rather than finish it. Oh, it's agony. I was up there in the Rec, rolling the pitch, when all of a sudden I went quiet and tense, and my arse was grapped in a knot, and then I knew my whole world was gone'. 

In 1983, typically, Peter prepared for his writing for the BBC Radio documentary play, 'The Romany Trip' by buying an authentic caravan, learning to harness a horse and setting out on the road. In addition, when a genuine Romany challenged him to a fight, he accepted and lost two front teeth and as a mark of pride, didn't have them replaced. The proficiency he gained at handling the horse and caravan meant that he knew what he was doing two years later when he made the charming, ten episode series, 'The Journey' for BBC Television. In his wagon with the reporter Dennis Skillicorn, he travelled the medieval pilgrim route route from Winchester Cathedral to Canterbury Cathedral with a horse called Marcus and Toby the donkey. Peter clearly provided the know how and leadership for 'The Journey'. : (Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 5

In 'Atlantis', his BBC 'Play for Today' in 1983, he based his story around Goff and Lytton who have a dream - a canal boat of their own on which to cruise the inland waterways. The reality is the boatyard of Josh Adkins and a rusting hulk called 'Atlantis'. In his writing, Peter obviously drew on his own experience of living on a boat with his family after he left Whitby 13 years before.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUqVF9aNVfc&t=0m22s

In 1984, he focused in 'Strippers' on his home city of Newcastle and the unemployment created by the collapse of old industries and the housewives who bared all to make up for the pay packets their redundant men had lost. It centred around the lives of Wendy and Bernard, where she turned to stripping after he lost his job in the shipyards. Although he had quite happily watched 'exotic dancers' over a couple of pints at the club, when it came to his wife it was a different matter. On this occasion Peter prepared to write the script by acting as a taxi driver for three weeks, ferrying the women strippers he had met to the venues at working men's clubs, where they performed. First produced by then 'Tyne Wear Theatre Company', before transferring to London’s 'Phoenix Theatre', 'Strippers' was thought to have perfectly caught the desperation and resilience of communities ravaged by Thatcherite, Government policies. 

It was when he was in his sixties, in the 1990s, that saw Peter more fully committed to making his work more accessible to non-traditional theatre-going audiences and did this by writing large-scale community plays. Peter was attracted by people with stories with no way of telling them. He demonstrated his easy-going ability to get people to reveal their stories in his BBC TV Series, 'The Journey' in 1985. These were the years when every local person who wanted to be in the cast was found a part and the plays were often 'promenade theatre', performed in dockyard warehouses and derelict castles.

His interest in local history, which had been aroused when he'd worked over 20 years before at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, reasserted itself and found expression in his community-based plays in locations as varied as Poole, the Isle of Wight, Ottery St Mary in East Devon and the Hampshire village of Lockerley. His activity led the journalist and playwright Paul Allen to say of Peter : 'Possibly no writer has done more to democtatise drama in  Britain'.

These were the years in which he regularly worked with the artistic director Jon Oram at the then 'Colway Theatre Trust', now 'Claque Theatre' and included productions of  'Under the Fish and Over the Water' performed at  Bradford-on-Avon in 1990 and 'Sailor’s Horse', performed at Minehead in Somerset in 1999. In order to prepare for the script, Peter spent a weekend at Butlins in the town in which he followed a bluecoat for the day, played crazy golf, sang karaoke and joined a quiz team. In preparation for writing a play Jon said : 'There were no pretensions about Peter, finding the play he was diligent in his research and more significantly connecting with the community he was writing for; he steeped himself in their lives, lived among them, frequented their places of work, and leisure. He listened to people, picked up the rhythms and manner of their speech'.

Peter's plays, of which more than 80 were performed in his lifetime, were, in the opinion of Jon, always "works in progress" right up to the opening night and Peter recognised that in amateur productions the players always took decisions differently from professionals. Jon said that if they said 'the sense of a line' in their words rather than his, then Peter would shout out "that’s better" and "keep the words in”. Jon said : “He’d see something in someone and develop it in the script” and "He recognised it sat more comfortably with the actors vernacular and was therefore more truthful". Peter excelled in that creative environment of rehearsals where he rethought and rewrote phrases and typed away on his portable typewriter somewhere not far offstage, or talked it up afterwards with the actors at the local pub. This meant that the play which emerged at the end of a rehearsal period often bore little resemblance to the raw script with which the company started. 

The theatre critic John Elsom said Peter had often been referred to as a writer as a 'primitive talent' a term was "intended to mean that his technique is artless, his observation fresh and original, and his naturally prolific talent untainted by too much sophistication. This somewhat backhanded tribute belittles his ability." He said that in Peter's heyday, the theatre establishment had a difficulty fully accepting his work because it did not include either "popular West End comedies" or "middle-class families in the grip of emotional dilemmas". Instead, Peter wrote about "problems which seem to him more important. He is a highly skilled writer with a particular insight into Northern working-class societies and whose plays have, at best, a richness of imagination and an infectious humour". His plays : "have a much greater variety and range than is often supposed. His influence in British regional theatre has been considerable, and more than any other contemporary dramatist he carries forward the ideas of social drama".

When the BFI staged a tribute to his work in 'Peter Terson: The Artisan Playwright TV season at BFI Southbank in May 2012' the curator said : "Peter Terson wrote some of the most deeply human and talked-about dramas of the 1960s and 1970s, displaying an unparalleled ear for natural dialogue and a trademark humour. This season explores the range and depth of this enigmatic playwright". Peter himself had not seen most of his work which was being shown, for nearly 40 years. He told the Ross Gazette, with perfect understatement, that when the BFI contacted him : "I was amazed really. I would never have rated myself that highly" and "I just write about things that I noticed. Writing just kind of flowed out of me."  He claimed never to have really wanted to be a writer. "It was a way of escaping from teaching".

Seven years later in 2019, when he was 87 and Parkinson Disease had robbed him of his ability to write, he received the news that theatregoers in New York were applauding an operatic adaption of his play 'Aesop's Fables'. Unbeknownst to Peter, it had been adapted by its original director, Mark Dornford-May for his company, 'Isango Ensemble' to perform at the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street. Peter said : "I hadn't spoken to Mark for a long time, then I got a phone call saying : "We're on in New York", which was quite a surprise".

Peter once said : 

"Since working on community plays, I have found that many people have stories to tell but are unable to do so. Up to now I have written plays with Jon Hurley, a wine specialist; Doug and Carol Braddy, social workers; Didi Lodge, a farmer's wife; and Dick Parker, a retired doctor. All of these add a new dimension and a new depth to my work". 

2 comments:

  1. I am so delighted to read this. It has rekindled my enthusiasm to research more into Terson Slade and those seminal theatre makers. I am past working with people @72 but my reviewing work enables me to promote talent and be supportive.

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  2. Peter Terson captured aspects of Whitby and the North beautifully in The Fishing Party. Bruce, his son was a good friend so I became aware of theatre and watched PT's progress with interest. A playwright, who had heard of such a thing? I am still haunted by the untimely passing of Bruce - he had left school and we had lost contact. I'd forgotten about the Lifeboat furore, which prompted the move away, so thanks for the very interesting article.
    A friend had pointed me to the Tom Vernon film about Whitby on youtube. It reminded me of those simpler times and led me to this article.
    TV correctly identified Whitby's future in tourism but warned: "How hard can you sell a dream and not destroy it?" Pretty hard it seems: most of the fishing boats and the deserted beaches have gone but Whitby still retains its charm.

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