Oh what a lovely archive: British Library gets Joan Littlewood treasure trove

Theatre Royal Stratford East’s colourful history is documented in more than 100 boxes of material collected by actor Murray Melvin

It is cheering to learn that the Murray Melvin Archive, documenting the story of the Theatre Royal Stratford East from 1884 to 2017, has been donated to the British Library. Students and theatre buffs will soon have access to a treasure trove that provides a portrait not just of a building but also of the work of one of the great, unsung pioneers of postwar theatre, Joan Littlewood.

No one is better qualified to tell the story than Murray – it is as impossible to call him Mr Melvin as it is to dub Joan “Ms Littlewood”. In his 20s he played Geoffrey, the gay art student, in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, and became an integral member of Joan’s Theatre Workshop company and enjoyed a long TV and film career working with such directors as Ken Russell and Stanley Kubrick. Today he is a spruce, dapper 88-year-old who tells me he has just been redecorating his house and is wondering whether to take on a new film role. But how did this highly accomplished actor turn into the voluntary archivist of the East End’s Theatre Royal?

Joan Littlewood, right, sets up a signpost balloon to help visitors find their way to her theatre in 1973.
Joan Littlewood, right, sets up a signpost balloon to help visitors find their way to her theatre in 1973. Photograph: Ken Saunders/the Guardian

“It all began,” he says, “after the death of Avis Bunnage – the original Helen in Taste of Honey – in 1990. Her relatives gave me a suitcase full of memorabilia, which Philip Hedley, who was running the Theatre Royal, asked me to put in order. Philip then put an ad in the local paper saying Murray’s back and asking people to come up with cuttings, photographs, programmes – anything about the theatre’s past. I pieced together an extraordinary story. I found that funny little Victorian theatre had done just about everything: plays, musicals, melodrama, Italian opera, variety and revue. But, although it survived two world wars and the advent of television, it was in a desperate state when Theatre Workshop took it over in 1953. Its last production had been a striptease show called Jane of the Daily Mirror. So you could say that it went from Jane to Joan.”

Inevitably the bulk of Murray’s archive, constituting 136 boxes, focuses on the Theatre Workshop, tracing its origins in Manchester’s leftwing activism of the 1930s to its global fame with Oh What a Lovely War! The archive also reminds us of the company’s self-reliance. “When they arrived at Stratford in 1953,” says Murray, “once a week they had Black Monday when the actors and crew would clean and scour the whole building which stank to high heaven. Joan was also never a favourite of the Arts Council, who said they wanted her to have a board of directors and a three-year plan. Her response was, ‘Three-year plan? I don’t know what I’m doing next week until the postman arrives.’” Both Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow and A Taste of Honey were scripts that turned up in the mail.

Given that Joan today is for many a distantly remembered name, how would Murray define her legacy? “She changed the face of British theatre – quite literally. She not only did away with box-sets but Max Factor makeup: John Bury, her designer, introduced side-lighting from Germany which meant that actors didn’t have to appear caked in greasepaint. She also said that she didn’t want to catch anybody ‘acting’: ‘if you’re going to do that acting,’ she’d say, ‘you’d better go up west.’ What she meant was that ‘acting’ was external whereas the performer had to create the situation through their own internal impulse.” But Joan was also an innovator, adds Murray. “When she directed The Good Soldier Schweik, initially in Manchester in 1937 and later at Stratford East, she became the first person in this country to use back-projection. It was once said that Theatre Workshop was the Trojan horse that brought modern theatre into Britain.”

Doll made by Una Collins and used by Fanny Carby in Oh What a Lovely War!
Doll made by Una Collins and used by Fanny Carby in Oh What a Lovely War! Photograph: (c) British Library Board

The great paradox of Joan is that she created seemingly improvisatory, free-flowing productions that were, in fact, strictly choreographed. Thanks to the archive, the trajectory of her work – and that of her successors at the Theatre Royal, including Hedley and Kerry Michael – will now be publicly available. Peter Rankin, Joan’s amanuensis, has also donated to the library a complementary archive tracing her personal life. Murray’s only sadness is that a handful of her private letters are now in the hands of the University of Texas at Austin.

“I was told,” says Murray, “I could have made a fortune if I’d sold my archive to Austin but I wanted everything to be here under one roof. I admit that I felt a pang on the day in February when the library came to collect everything from the Theatre Royal. A film crew recorded the event but I’m glad I had my back to the camera because I cried. But now I rejoice that the whole collection is in the British Library.”

Joan Littlewood’s detailed notes on a performance of Oh What a Lovely War!
Joan Littlewood’s detailed notes on a performance of Oh What a Lovely War! Photograph: © Joan Littlewood Estate

Highlights from the archive

  • Papers relating to Theatre of Action, the agitprop theatre company set up in 1934.

  • Joan Littlewood’s cast notes for performances of Oh What a Lovely War! from 1963 and 1964.

  • A doll made by designer Una Collins and used by the actor Fanny Carby in Oh What a Lovely War!

  • Programme, script and other material for Clint Dyer’s The Big Life (2005), the first British black musical to transfer to the West End.

  • Minutes and documents relating to Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palace project.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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