Bill Paterson as McChuckemup, the entrepreneur in the 'The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil'
Nearly a year ago I shared my thoughts with SR readers about my long-serving MP and erstwhile neighbour Jeremy Corbyn as he sought reselection to lead the Labour party. I hoped he would use his dignity and diligence to energise and rejuvenate that party.
Well, his rockstar reception at Glastonbury has proved that he did just that
and is bringing some long-lost optimism back into our dire political discourse. However, readers with a good memory will remember how casually he seemed to accept the Leave result of the EU referendum. Of course, this should have been no surprise because Jeremy behaved in exactly the way that a 1970s leftist should respond. Back then the European Economic Community (EEC) was considered a rich man's commercial cartel that would always work against working-class interests.
Most left-wing parties, especially those with any sympathy for the Soviet
Union's outlook, were encouraged to view it with real suspicion. Deep down Jeremy probably still feels that way, and it's generally accepted that if he had brought the same commitment and tenacity to the EU Remain campaign as he did to the general election, especially the rallying of young
people, Brexit would not be the catastrophe we face today.
But whether the failed Brexiteers would have gone quietly is another
kettle of rather stinking fish. Life might possibly be even uglier than it is, so
let's leave that horrid thought and move on to a rather surprising show
Given the mood on the 70s Left, not many people know that the 7:84 theatre company took 'The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil' to Brussels to officially celebrate the UK's full membership of the then EEC. That's correct – officially celebrate – at the invitation of the EEC and the British Council.
How the heck did that happen? Quite frankly I've often wondered.
In the autumn of 1973 we were in the midst of our second Highland tour of
the show. Weeks of sellout performances in Glasgow and Edinburgh lay
ahead but we were now back in the wee Highland halls that were the lifeblood of the show.
One night, during one of our nightly ceilidhs, John McGrath told us that he
was trying to find a gap in the tour to take up this astonishing invitation. Any
left-wing misgivings we had were met with the pretty sound argument that it
was a chance to put forward a more truthful picture of the history of the
Scottish Highlands than the British Council might be expecting.
We could be just as agitprop in Brussels, he said, as in Brora. We had had much more divisive discussions earlier in the year about an invitation to perform at the SNP conference in Oban. The members of that party were still considered 'Tartan Tories' with no noticeable enthusiasm for European union and the idea of frolicking at their annual stramash was much more contentious to us than taking the bad news of the Highland clearances to the heart of Europe.
Besides, the jaunt to Brussels would be exciting and, after weeks of nylon
bedsheets in Highland bed and breakfasts it could also be luxuriously
welcome. So plans were laid and dates were fixed. We would be in Brussels over a long weekend between shows in Poolewe in Wester Ross and Bettyhill in Sutherland. Just look at the map and marvel at this lunatic schedule and remember that this was long before the days of budget flights, online check-ins and Eurostar.
Most of the company travelled via London and a flight to Brussels. The late
great Alan Ross, fiddler extraordinaire and number one driver, along with the
equally fine Dave MacLennan of Òran Mór fame, coaxed the company's
battered transit van on its 870-mile journey and ferry crossing and met us at
the Palais des Beaux Arts on the night before the performance.
Now known as BozArt (sic), this was an elegant 1920s Art Deco auditorium,
big enough to make the Usher Hall look intimate. John Byrne's wonderful
pop-up book set, which had worked so perfectly everywhere, looked as if we had dumped some old bits of cardboard on a vast shiny parquet stage.
We understood pretty quickly that we would be a very small part of a month-long welcome to Britain called Europalia 73, which made us sound like a urinary infection and probably about as welcome.
Many great British artists and performers would showcase their credentials in the new Europe and we shared our technical rehearsals with the poets Roger McGough and Adrian Mitchell. Checks over, on our way back to the hotel, Alex Norton, John Bett and I were involved in a shocking incident in a peaceful restaurant which threatened us physically and made us witnesses to an attempted murder. Something that I'd never experienced in 28 years growing up in Glasgow happened within six hours of touching down in Brussels. Not surprisingly, we were shell-shocked for the rest of our visit.
On the night, the show was received with courteous bafflement rather than
hostility, though the official reception afterwards left us in no doubt that the
British Council, under the Heath government of the time, might have preferred if we had stayed in Wester Ross.
However, as so often in show business, fortunes can change very quickly.
We had been invited on the Saturday afternoon to perform at an international theatre gathering in Ghent. In a cosy performance space we had the surreal experience of encouraging two gurus of European theatre Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski to wave their hands and shout 'Wallah Wallah Wooski' in one of our 'hilarious' audience participation moments. I think they smiled.
That evening, a friend in a Flemish company arranged for us to see their
production of the Dario Fo play, 'Mistero Buffo'. We were knocked out by the verve of the play and performers, and in a cafe afterwards John McGrath met the company and Dario Fo went on to be one of the most performed European playwrights in Britain. Thanks to our trip we had stumbled upon the beginning of something big.
We had had a tiny touch of what a connection to Europe could mean and we never regretted our breaking ranks with the orthodoxy of suspicion of a
Europe united. Two days later we were back on the north coast of Sutherland in a wee hall in Bettyhill with the Pentland Firth beckoning.
Alan and Dave were waiting for us with the trusty transit and a mixture of
macho pride tinged with resentment at the cushy travel arrangements the
rest of us had enjoyed. The audience of fisherfolk, farmers, Dounreay workers and their families weren't in the least interested in our jaunt to Brussels and the rest of Scotland hardly noticed we'd been away.
No selfies, no Facebook, no Instagram pictures of our trip. In fact, hardly any news at all. Until now.