Culture / History

More than snooker

SIMON MATTHEWS on a history of the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

Colin George and Tedd George
Stirring up Sheffield
Wordville 2021

From the new imprint Wordville comes this fascinating book; part theatre history, part personal history, part local history, part cultural history and part architectural history.

A posthumous account by Colin George, the narrative starts in 1962 when he arrives in Sheffield to work in one of the UK’s many repertory theatres. Regional reps then typically did about 40 plays a year. Runs were usually one or two weeks at the most, featuring Shakespeare, some Dickens and pot-boilers like Charley’s Aunt, Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles and so on. There was original drama too, written by entire hierarchies of regional playwrights who provided the middle-brow, pre-TV, pre-soap equivalents of a night in the theatre for the people of their location, with occasional (very occasional) West End transfers for their output.

By 1965 George has become Artistic Director. It goes well: the Arts Council funds a children’s theatre project for south Yorkshire, Theatre Vanguard, which tours the area operating out of a van. There are popular adaptations of Look Back in Anger, A Kind of Loving, and an early triumph for him with The Stirrings in Sheffield, a study of nineteenth-century trade union organization. One day in 1966 he is ushered into the Town Hall, meets Grace Tebbutt, the formidable Leader of Sheffield City Council, and is asked ‘Where do you want your new theatre?’ Apparently, it was as simple as that.

With funding available, and a site provided, George and his colleagues headed in an unashamedly modernist direction, much influenced by Sir Tyrone Guthrie. Breaking with tradition, they opted for a new type of stage, a ‘thrust’, with the audience wrapped around it on three sides. The book provides much discussion on this, providing the lay reader in its middle section with a very useful description of how stage design evolved, from ancient Greece to Restoration/Victorian theatre.

What emerged was a building with a lot of concrete, glass, steel and modular units. There was a public grill bar and, in one of those design features so typical of the time, a really, really plush carpet in the foyer and public areas. Originally it was intended originally to clad the building in bronze … but even the council, with the borrowing powers and working balances it enjoyed in the 1960s, balked at that. To operate it all, there were huge lighting and sound rigs and a massive mixing desk. Imagine the Barbican Arts Centre transposed to the north. Designed by Renton, Howard, Wood but owing much to Ove Arup, it comes as no surprise to find a Goldfinger involved (Peter, son of Erno) with the end product definitely the Trellick Tower of modern theatre design.

Veterans of traditional rep disliked this. There were many of them, including Lawrence du Garde Peach, who also wrote prolifically for children, including the 1950’s Ladybird Adventure from History series. Collectively they produced a lot of noise in the local and national press. And suddenly there was political instability as well. Sheffield, like so many authorities, went Conservative in 1968 with the new administration denouncing the ‘wastage of public expenditure’ and intimating they would withdraw their share of the funding. They also reminded George and his colleagues that The Black and White Minstrel Show was immensely popular locally and simply wouldn’t look the same on one of these new-fangled stages. (The Black and White Minstrel Show was clearly the pinnacle of their ambition for a council-owned and -funded theatre).

Thankfully, the council lurched back to Labour in 1969, with Alderman Ironmonger (what a terrific name for a Sheffield politician) particularly staunch. There were other supporters too, notably Keith Waterhouse and Emlyn Williams. Named the Crucible, one of a number of steel-related names suggested, it opened in 1971 having cost a total of £884,000 (around £17.8m at 2022 prices). The company were paid less than West End rates, but had weekly earnings of between £18 and £60, roughly £350–£1200 a week now. The building was stunning, they had some hits, some misses and then a first real success with a 1972 revival of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey. Overall, it wasn’t too bad.

Alas, the economic depression of 1972–74 made things difficult. The times were changing, and political attitudes with them. Having brought the Crucible into the world, Colin George, a serviceable actor as well as director, quit in July 1974, and after appearing in ten episodes of Coronation Street, headed for calmer and more rewarding pastures abroad. What finally gave the theatre a sound financial footing wasn’t The Black and White Minstrel Show, but the World Snooker Championship, which arrived in 1977, with its quasi-religious rituals and reverential commentary, reaching a peak when a TV audience of 18.5 million saw Dennis Taylor win the 1985 final.

There is a lot to ponder here. The Crucible was designed for a world of experimental drama and political plays, fantastic costumes and set design so marvellous that it was almost a separate branch of the arts, skinhead Macbeths, frontal nudity, street theatre a la Joan Littlewood, and regular visits by the Artistic Director and his colleagues to Warsaw, Prague and Belgrade to check how the boundaries of the avant-garde were being pushed there. It featured work by a whole class of now-vanished writers who wrote challenging material of a very political nature. The likes of John Spurling and Christopher Wilkinson flit through this account. It was, as Guthrie believed, designed to show ‘a forthright commitment to the important role theatre has to play in society’. It wasn’t built for snooker tournaments. But, just as the National Theatre on the South Bank eventually staged its own version of Oklahoma, in the world that prevailed in the UK from the late 1970s onwards, the Crucible had to earn its keep with reduced public funding.

Our politicians today, when holding forth about levelling up, could do worse than study the costs quoted for the Crucible, just one theatre in one town, half a century ago. (Alongside that, they might also want to consider that if levelling up were German re-unification – a not unreasonable comparator – the UK would be spending several hundred times the money announced). This book makes clear what was possible, without ‘levelling up’, at a time when things were done differently.

Stirring up Sheffield is a really valuable account from a manuscript that was completed after Colin George’s death in 2016 by his son Tedd. Lucid and clear, despite covering a time when the authors stress levels were at breaking point it is written without rancour. It will probably be sold in the local museum and the foyer of the Crucible itself. But it also deserves to find a place in many academic libraries.

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