Friday, 14 January 2022

Britain has lost, but Scotland made that Giant among 20th Century theatre directors, Bill Bryden

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Bill, who has died at the age of 79 was born, the son of Catherine and George in the spring of the third year of the Second World War, in 1942, at 8 Carwood Street in the town of Greenock near Glasgow. His mother and father were housed in an attic room in the eaves of a tenement building with his older step brother and younger brother and so, in his early years, he lived with and was brought up by his paternal grandparents and Willie Rough his grandfather was a big influence on him. They lived in the bottom two rooms of a two-up two-down terraced house and Willie worked as an engineer in the Clyde shipyard. 

When Bill was interviewed for the British Library in 2009 his interviewer Harriet Devine asked him : "How big was the house ?" and he answered : "It was two rooms and kitchen. There was a sitting room with the kitchen in it and the fireplace. Then there was the parlor and then there was the loo". Harriet then asked : "Bedrooms ?" to which he replied : "That was it. Two rooms and kitchen. Oh no. The bed was a set-in bed. In the wall there was a double bed and you'd closed the curtains and go to bed. The working class, yes ?" Bill said : "At least it had an inside loo. Most people I was at primary school with had an outside loo". He also said he found, at the age of seven, his grandfather's death "devastating" because : "in many ways he brought me up". His father as the mechanical inspector at the bus depot was : "At 5.30 in the morning getting the buses ready for the workers going to work and when he came home in the evening he was buggered. So he just lay there". It was his Grandfather who was : "Full of things to do - go to the football match, see steam trains on the turntable, wanted me to read - not go to the shipyard".(link)

Over twenty years later he paid homage to his grandfather when he wrote 'Willie Rough' which is often regarded as a landmark of Scottish drama. Originally a stage play produced by the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company in Edinburgh in 1972, a TV version was shown in 1976 as the BBC 'Play for Today', with James Grant as Willie. He set it in a Greenock shipyard around the outbreak of the First World War, and put forward a revolutionary socialist view of events of the time and peopled it with the appropriate dialogue : "Ah walked 15 miles tae Greenock tae get a job and ah'm no' going hame without wan. Ah've got tae stay. Ah've got tae show folk what it's like tae live by somethin' ye believe in". Bill said that Willie was : "A very left wing fellow in the shipyards, so it kind of rubbed off on me".

In the first three years of Bill's life, his father was absent from Greenock, serving as a rear gunner in the RAF during the War. Although he was an elder in the local Church of Scotland, he was always partial to betting and Bill recalled : "When he won on the horses or the dogs we all got new clothes". He recalled, with affection, that : "He was the first person to get me interested in the theatre, We had a variety theatre in Greenock - the 'Greenock Empire' and would go every Thursday and for big stars we would go to the 'Glasgow Empire' which was big deal, like the Palladium in London. So we saw Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Bob Hope. We didn't like the English comics, but we liked the Scottish comics and the Hollywood people". He remembered when they saw Judy, she was late to start and they missed the train home and stayed in a hotel in Glasgow. It was 1951 and he was nine years old. Bill concluded that : "There must have been some kind of relationship with the theatre early on". 

In the same year, his family were rehoused outside town in a new housing estate built by IBM in the Spango Valley which opened a factory in the valley in 1954 to manufacture typewriters and other office equipment. Bill was reunited with his mother and father and older step brother, his younger brother having died when he was four or five and Bill was seven. They now lived in two bedroomed accommodation with sitting room, kitchen and bathroom and small garden and he said : "I mean luxury compared to the east end. Luxury".

Bill remembered 'Treasure Island' in his childhood reading : "Scottish stuff. Not Dickens - Stevenson". He said he was bright at primary school and one of the teachers gave him extra reading and spelling and concluded : "So I was always in the arts side of things as opposed to science and mathematics. I finally got an 'A' Level in geometry by learning the book like a part. I learned the geometry book as if it was 'Hamlet' and, of course, I couldn't fail"

By this time he had left Hillend Primary School and was attending the local grammar school for boys, the Greenock Academy and it was here that he had his first taste as an actor and said : "I had a terrible stammer when I was a kid they thought it would be good for me to be acting". Apart from Mabel Irving the drama teacher he also fell under the spell of Mr Jimmy Stewart, who : "Thought O'Casey was 'It'. So the first I knew about a modern play was 'Juno and the Paycock' by Sean O'Casey which we read in class in Scottish accents, no doubt". Perhaps Bill read Johnny's part while another boy played Mrs Boyle : 

Johnny : "I was lyin’ down; I thought yous were gone. Oul’ Simon Mackay is thrampin’ about like a horse over me head, an’ I can’t sleep with him — they’re like thunder-claps in me brain! The curse o’ — God forgive me for goin’ to curse!"
 Mrs. Boyle : "There, now; go back an’ lie down again an’ I’ll bring you in a nice cup o’ tay".
 Johnny : "Tay, tay, tay! You’re always thinkin’ o’ tay. If a man was dyin’, you’d thry to make him swally a cup o’ tay!" 

Another influence on him was the cinema and he recalled : "There was a cinema called the 'Central Picture House' in Greenock and it only showed westerns, so it was called 'The Ranch' and there was 'The Pavilion' which showed Hollywood serials". Grandmother Rough was a big film fan and he looked back and said : "Granny, she was movie mad". Maybe, the fact that, over thirty years later, he co-wrote the Western, 'The Long Riders' with the Americans, James and Stacey Keach, was his homage to the memory of Granny Rough. (link)

"So I'd Go to the movies three times a week. I think I saw in my formative years maybe seven, eight movies a week. As a kid I loved the westerns and I realised that what was in common with the John Wayne movies was that John Ford had directed them, So I realised, wait a minute, there's somebody else in here, apart from the actors, somebody who has a signature".

When he was 16 he joined the local amateur theatre group and recalled that Greenock : "Was a very good place for the amateur theatre because the swimming pool had been bombed in the War and they rebuilt it as the 'Art's Guild'. Therefore, while other amateur theatres were working in church halls and village halls, we had a very well-equipped theatre. So when I entered the professional theatre I was impressed by the scale and standard at Stratford and the Court and Coventry, but I wasn't scared of it because I'd been in a theatre and learned not only acting but about stage management and I started directing with a young group called 'Drama Workshop'. I invented a little company and some of them went into drama school and became actors and writers". Bill recalled that the middle class professionals in Greenock lived in the west end of town and he, with the shipyard workers, lived in the east end of town and said : "When I crossed over, when I went to the amateur drama, it was in the west end of town. So I was a kind of 'counter jumper' in a sense".

In 1960, at the age of eighteen he left school he became a public health inspector with the local council which involved, as he said : "Going to people's houses and finding rats and mice. Luckily the chief in the job realised I was desperate to be in the theatre and let me still be with the Amateur Actors". When he met Peter Hall at the Edinburgh Festival, he impressed the theatre director enough, as a pupil in the master class that he was running, to be invited to Stratford as an “observer” on 'The Wars of the Roses' for 10 weeks. 

Here he saw John Barton's theatrical adaptation of Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy dealing with Henry VI and Richard III and the conflict between the House of Lancaster and the House of York over the throne of England. Directed by John and Peter Hall at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was a star studied production with he David Warner as Henry VI, Peggy Ashcroft as Margaret of Anjou, Donald Sinden as the Duke of York, Paul Hardwick as the Duke of Gloucester, Janet Suzman as Joan la Pucelle, Roy Dotrice as Edward IV and Ian Holm as Richard III.(link)

While there, he wrote a proposal for Scottish Television and moved to Glasgow in 1963 to work as a writer and researcher, assisting documentary film-maker John Grierson at STV. Two years later an 'ABC TV directors’ scholarship' sent him to the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, for six months as an assistant director. In the interregnum after the removal of artistic director Tony Richardson and the arrival of Warren Jenkins, he directed his first professional productions – Shaw’s 'Misalliance' and Shakespeare’s 'Julius Caesar', before helping Warren form a company. However, it was his mentor Bill Gaskill, who was director of the resident English Stage Company who had the biggest influence on him and he looked back on his two years as an assistant director at the Royal Court as his “university” before he embarked on his own brilliant career.

When he was Bill's assistant at the age of 21, he remembered a conversation between the 35 year old Tony Richardson had with the 33 year old Bill and said it was the best thing he'd ever heard about the theatre : "Bill was doing all these plays with Edward Bond - not making any money and Tony used to say : "The trouble with you Bill is you've no idea about the politics of showbusiness or the mechanics of success" and that's true". Reflecting on this 46 years later he said : "I knew a wee bit about it and Tony knew all about it. "The politics of showbusiness and the mechanics of success". I thought : 'That's fucking magic' and I was there in Bill's office when he said it".

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And making it all worthwhile : my Tweet :

and your Replies :

Tim Appelbee : Thank you. A fine article. I was lucky enough to glean some learning from Bill Gaskill and Jane Howell….

roomtobreathe VA : Oh that is lovely,  thanks for sharing!

Paul Chahidi : That's wonderful - thank you, John.

Julien Allen : Thanks John, that’s very interesting.

ruthmedia : Thanks so much. That is marvellous

Jo Abbot : How truly lovely. Evocative too for those of us brought up working class in those times.

Ian Burdon : Thank you. I enjoyed reading that.

Allan Wilson : Thanks for this - very interesting!

Neil Cooper : Fantastic stuff, John. Thank you.

Julie Sanders : Thanks for sharing. That’s great.

Lorna Simes : Brilliant. Thanks so much for sharing.

Brigid Larmour : Wonderful evocation of the life and times of the late, great Bill Bryden

Ian Brown : Very interesting - thank you. Took touring shows to Greenock Arts Guild when I was at TAG

Keith Knight : Thanks John, that’s very interesting. 

Morris Bright MBE : Thanks John. That's lovely.

Badger : That is an excellent piece John. Where did you get your inspiration from?
"The politics of showbusiness and the mechanics of success".

anne liebeck : Very good piece! Golden Days indeed.What a one-off BB was.

Professor Ian Welsh : Good read. Have sent it on.

OfficialTracieBennett : Oh this is wonderful. Thank you so much John.

Elizabeth Karr : Thank you I did enjoy this and I’m going to share it with some friends who knew and loved him too.

Siobhan Synnot : Excellent account of young Bill Bryden by John Cooper


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