Regrettably: notes on ‘How To Win Against History’

How to Win Against History is a musical retelling of the life of Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquis of Anglesey (1875 – 1905). He was born to inherit the Empire, but instead he burned brightly, briefly and transvestitely through his family’s vast wealth; putting on fabulous plays starring him.
Written, composed and performed by Seiriol Davies, this fabulous show has been a huge hit at the Edinburgh fringe for the second year running, and is touring the UK throughout 2017.
In this blog, Seiriol talks about how he first learned that Henry Cyril even existed.

“I grew up on Ynys Mon, a.k.a. Anglesey, a.k.a. The Druidic Haven of the Celts, a.k.a. The Flat Bit Before You Get To The Irish Ferry. It’s a barreny, lovely, salty sort of place. Henry Cyril Paget also lived there, which is handy.

While we’ve been making HTWAH, I’ve said this particular story so many times that I’ve a bit lost track of exactly how true it is (oh my god look: thematic relevance), but my recollection is I used to make my parents take me to Plas Newydd, which is the Paget family’s estate on Anglesey, over and over again as a boy. Of course, it may have been like twice and I just sucked it all in through my hungry, mad child-eyes in such detail that it felt like loads.
And I should say it’s a National Trust place, we didn’t just turn up at somebody’s house with me in the back seat, goggle-eyed and absorbing key memories for later musical theatre projects.

In fact, my mum has in her retirement expressed an interest in working at Plas Newydd and becoming one of those powerful-looking National Trust ladies who dwell by the fireplaces in an angora cardie waiting to tell you what that weird Game of Thronesy thing is (it’s probably a long-range bedpan) or to point vehemently at the ‘stop prodding that’ sign, or to pose for the odd awkward group selfie with a family in velourette anoraks from Wisconsin.
And I for one think this would be very exciting.

But anyway, there were two key reasons why I wanted to go there so much:

(i) The mural by painter Rex Whistler (the non-Whistler’s Mother one) which is all Italianate froufferies and phantastickal towers and harbour-folk, and is well worth the twenty minute tour guide talk-through, as it does things with foreshortening that beggar belief. Like, if you as a viewer do a nifty crab-walk along the floor in front of it, it can make a sailboat seem to sail out of the harbour before your very eyes while not moving at all in real life because it is a painting and this is not Harry Potter. Or at least, that is what the tour guide claimed, and my response was to just glare at it until I could sufficiently motivate myself to believe I could see what she was talking about.

But in any case, it’s a bit Where’s Wally and a bit Magic Eye and I was so preoccupied with it that we’ve now got a framed copy of it up by the sink in the kitchen in my flat. And I’m fairly sure that, if it wasn’t positioned where the glassware cupboard door slammed into it with alarming enthusiasm every time I open it, I would have by now found the peace to enter its zone and divine its secrets while washing the wine glasses of a Tuesday morning. But, as it is, I just get mesmerised and accidentally smack it again with the cupboard door.

(b) The small collection of laminated, photocopied snaps of Henry Cyril which were grudgingly stuck on the wall next to the toilet by the back porch. Now, as context, the pictures of the other, preceding Marquises (NB Other people seem to say ‘Marquess’, but I tend to prefer ‘Marquis’. I’m not sure why; I think maybe cos Henry seemed to favour it that way, and I’m just some ratbag socialisty commoner with Radio 4 affectations, so I’ve allowed myself to pick which spelling I fancied. Do get in touch, DeBrett’s) are not exhibited in the same laminatey toilet zone; their pictures are painted in oil, hanging in big gold frames in rooms you actually hang out in, or they are immortalised as busts, or full-body statues on top of huge columns erected looming over Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (a nearby village) as a deliberate copying of Nelson’s Column in London.

Well, one of them has that. The first Marquis was a hero at the battle of Waterloo (by which we presumably mean he stood in a big hat at the back telling some poor people to run that way) and was so British that, when his leg got blown off by a cannon shell, The Duke of Wellington, who was next to him, looked down and said “By Jove, sir, I think your leg’s been blown off” and Paget looked down and said “By Jove, sir, I think you’re right”. For these services to hats, shouting and limb-removal-not-noticing, he got himself a Column, which is probably one of NW Wales’s top Columns, and I really mean that.

The fact that it was this sort of lineage Henry Cyril was coming from makes it no real surprise that he got relegated to the Gallery De Toilette, because…
I mean look at him. Google Image Search ‘Henry Cyril Paget’ and look at them outfits.

Aren’t they stu-hunn-ing? Doesn’t he look like Freddie Mercury drove through Elizabeth Duke’s wearing a sellotape suit?

Henry Cyril Paget and Seiriol Davies

I drank them in, those pictures, though not really identifying very much with the whole fabulousness thing. I’ve never been an extravagant dresser per se, apart from a brief phase when I took to tying bright scarves to the belt loops of my skater jeans in an attempt to look like a sort of sexy satyr, but ended up looking (as a friend helpfully pointed out) “as though my butt was wearing a cape”. And, at the time of seeing the images,
I was probably wearing a Homer Simpson T-shirt, urban camo trousers and Hi-Tecs.

But there’s just something about him in those pictures. Okay, sure, there’s the millions of poundsworth of costume budget; but there’s also the sort of ‘don’t give a fig’ attitude he has which I loved: that he’s gazing out, dressed for some reason as a prog rock chandelier, telling the world to fig off, the bunch of motherfiggers.

And reading the little inscription underneath, which said (spoiler alert) that he’d ruined himself, died young and been expunged from the family history as comprehensively as possible – with all the letters, photos and diaries his family could find, burnt – set off my little internal bell of moral outrage. And so, because I believe in swift, decisive action, I decided to make a play about it twenty years later.

But over all that time, the simplicity of that feeling hasn’t really changed, despite growing-upness making it clear the whole thing’s more complicated, what with issues of privilege and stuff like that.

Because that’s Henry. Even though on paper he’s not the most obviously sympathetic character (“Hey come see my show about this dead white millionaire and how hard his life was. Come back please!”) people have just seemed to warm to him. Due to some combination of his defiance, his outsideryness writ on such a massive, Imperial scale and the fact that we know hardly anything about his internal life (due to the aforementioned bonfire), people seem to be able to pour themselves into him. Because I reckon most of us, at least some of the time, think we’re an outsider in a world that everyone else gets. And whatever our actual ambitions, very few of us are quite so extravagantly emo as to want no trace of us to exist after death.

Also yes, his outfits are life-giving.

I wanted to make something that redressed the balance a tiny bit; that told at least a version of his story as pieced together from a lot of extraordinary events with no internal monologue. With songs and me in a dress and a gag about Keira Knightley.

However, the truth is: there is a bit more stuff that survived the fire. I was lucky enough to have the help of Lily and Christopher Sykes, who are descendants of the actual real life Lilian from her second marriage, as well as Prof Viv Gardner, fabulous performance historian at the University of Manchester. With their help – as well as some lovely people who’ve written to me either when they heard we were making, or having seen, the show – I’ve got a few more tidbits.

Based on the conversations I’ve had with people after the show (sample:
“So, did he really exist?” “Yes. Did I forget to say that several times in the show?” “No, but I thought that was you making it more clear that he didn’t exist.” “Surely that would be quite a weird way of saying that.” “Yeah, but you are quite weird.” “Good point. A Strongbow Dark Fruits please.” “Strongbow Dark Fruits. Really?” “Don’t judge me.”) I thought it’d be good to talk a bit around the story, to weave some of these bits of tid into the script; to show how the show matches up with the true-life story as much as I know it.

I might be wrong, you might think this a very tiresome thing to do, but anyway I’ve done it now. And you can buy it here.”

 – Seiriol Davies, Woolwich, Friday 6th Jan 2017

Oberon have published both the annotated script edition, and the musical score in the songbook edition. The annotated script contains many footnotes (feenote) from Seiriol’s research, while the song book contains the fully-transcribed piano and vocal arrangements for all fourteen songs from the show, so you can have a sherry and sing any of the glamorous roles.

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Aberfan – Dennis Potter in New Society, 27 October 1966

A man-made mountain of lumpy black treacle collapsed into itself last Friday and slid down upon the school at Aberfan ‘just after morning prayers.’ The phrase is not, as I had first assumed, a distasteful journalistic device for somehow mixing inappropriate irony with an even more cruel piety. The phrase was also used in my presence by some of the stricken people of Aberfan, and with just enough frequency to force one to look for the bleak significance that seems to lurk behind the words.

When people are faced with a disaster so complete and so terrible, they cluster in small, hapless groups and begin to manufacture their own sort of optimism as though to try and keep at bay the resignation and despair they know will have to come. At Aberfan, before and after daybreak on Saturday, ‘hope’ was created among some of the bruised bands of people standing ankle-deep in slime. It was an unbearable thing to witness, a collective self-deception that was as inevitable as it was tormenting.

‘Hey. Hey,’ cried an old man in a tight muffler to a young woman standing with splashed stockings in the queue outside a telephone box. ‘I’ve just heard that some little boy dug himself out and wandered off on his own without telling anybody!’

‘Do they know who?’ her voice lifted itself beyond the normal upward inflexion of the Welsh lilt.

The old man’s head seemed to shrink back into his shoulders. ‘No,’ he said, very quietly, probably realising at that very moment that what he had almost shouted was completely untrue and unforgivably cruel. He stood still awhile, then mumbled again and shuffled off towards the growling yellow machinery at the top of the rubble. The woman stared after him.

‘It’s what a boy might do,’ she said, either laughing or crying, ‘wander off like that. He might think he’d done something wrong, see.’ The others in the queue moved their heads or twitched their hands in a tiny conspiracy of guilt.

The wild rumours were about as helpful, and fell into exactly the same category, as the redundant prayers. As the chill morning dragged on into first light the incredible, almost cretinous tales and miracles ebbed away, leaving only a miniscule and hardly discernible residue of hope to temper reality. ‘That stuff’s like roof insulation,’ someone said. ‘It don’t leave any gaps.’ Pause. ‘You never know, though.’ The bereaved either waited on the steps of their grim Bethania or retreated back into the splattered rows of shrivelled, rust-coloured houses. White smoke from their chimneys climbed up in a dead straight line towards the surrounding hills where a few sheep grazed. A man said that this was a sure sign of rain. Everyone looked up at the invading slag once more.

aberfan

As the rain came again, thickening and darkening the sky above the surrounding mounds of black, brown and grey-green, anxious eyes turned once more to the gigantic conical slag still towering so malignantly above the village. All hope had done by now, but the tip might still slide further into the beleaguered houses, might yet scatter the busy yellow machines and shovelling men. It was then, especially, that one felt the enormity of the dead slag’s power, and the disgust that such gargantuan waste should have been piled at people’s backyards. Why should it be? Why is it thought necessary to be so loathsomely uncivilized?

The past is piled all around one here, and the bad, mean-minded, short-sighted methods of the past have not yet been discarded. Hence the fatalistic language and the half-formulated idea that some God has cheated. ‘If only…’ people kept saying at Aberfan. ‘If only’ it had collapsed earlier in the morning. ‘If only’ it had fallen after midday, when the children would have dispersed in noisily happy throngs for their half-term holiday. ‘If only’ it had stopped raining a day earlier. ‘If only’ someone had rung the Coal Board the night before. ‘If only’ the powers that be had taken the slightest notice of all the earlier fears and warnings about the tip. If only… If only… If only…the inevitable, tragic punctuation of any disaster.

But there are much more resounding, much more accusing, much more fundamental If Onlys.

If only the National Coal Board took seriously the conception of a publicly owned industry designed to serve the whole community, not least that section upon which it depends for all its wealth.

If only the so-called socialists who run this ugly country would yap less about their glorious heritage and do a damned sight more to remove the inglorious legacy which is still rammed down so many people’s throats every time they open their mouths to breathe.

And not even then, especially not then, will it be possible to say that Aberfan ‘was not in vain.’ Do not dare to say that. Aberfan was in vain. Those children were murdered. This was no senseless Act of God, but a crime committed by senseless man.

This is an edited extract from Dennis Potter’s article, originally published in New Society on 27 October 1966, now published in full in The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953–1994.

‘Never forget it’s someone’s life’ Robin Soans on telling someone else’s story

Crouch Touch Pause Engage, the new verbatim play by Robin Soans, tackles the subject of Welsh rugby legend Gareth Thomas coming out as gay, as well as exploring the infamous spate of youth suicides in the player’s native Bridgend. In this blog, Robin acknowledges the pressures and responsibilities of telling someone else’s story, and admits that this style of documentary drama can provoke suspicion and unease in some. 

Robin warms up with the cast of Crouch Touch Pause Engage

Robin warms up with the cast of ‘Crouch Touch Pause Engage’

It has been a recurring theme since I started writing verbatim theatre that certain guardians of the young and vulnerable in whichever location I end up, have suspected my intentions of being commercial and exploitative rather than humanitarian and sympathetic, and of using the stories I find to promote my own career rather than trying to widen our knowledge of a particular syndrome and hopefully persuade my audience that there is more to it than might immediately be apparent. During the workshop for A State Affair, I was in a bail hostel in Leeds, and the undermanager, having serious doubts about my intentions, said to me, ‘Never forget it’s someone’s life.’ Those words have resonated with me ever since, and are at the back, or even the front, of my mind whenever I conduct interviews or construct the text. I really don’t want to exploit the people who have given their time and stories for the enlightenment of others, but it still remains a suspicion among the gatekeepers that my motives are selfish and at worst could make the situation worse rather than better.

Mixed Up North

The cast of ‘Mixed Up North’

When I arrived at a theatre in Burnley during research for Mixed up North, there was a young cast… a mix of Asian, Caribbean and white… getting ready for the dress rehearsal of their play. One girl stood alone in the corner of the foyer holding her wrist. If anyone went near her, she would move away, and although she went through the motions during the dress rehearsal, she was clearly traumatised. Over the next few weeks I got to know her, and one day she said she would like to tell me her story. I went to her care worker and asked if this was ethical… I said I didn’t want to interfere or tread on anyone’s toes or exceed my brief. She said, ‘Oh no, that’s fine… if she wants to talk to you, that’s fine.’ I said, ‘Do you want to sit in with me on the interview… and tell me if I’m being unnecessarily intrusive?’

‘Oh no, no… I’m sure it’ll be fine… she’ll tell you what she wants to tell you.’ The girl and I went into the kitchen of the youth centre, I made her a cup of tea, gave her a biscuit, and asked her if she really wanted to tell me the story. I hardly asked another question… it came pouring out… how her relationship with her mother had soured, how her stepfather had abused her, and how on the way home from the theatre the day before I arrived, she had been raped by two boys in the corner of a dark street… and that had reopened all the trauma of what her stepfather had done to her.

Robin Soans

Robin at work

Her story, heavily disguised to protect her identity, appeared in the final script… and the very people from whom I had sought permission for the interview said Social Services were thinking of contacting the police and asking me to answer charges of exploitation. My initial reaction was one of frustration, especially when it was reiterated at post-show discussions, but actually on reflection it is perfectly understandable… in the bleak post-industrial landscape where I look at life, everyone is pigeon-holed by the coalition of press, politicians, and big business, everyone is robbed of identity and dignity and understanding, and you can understand their point of view as much as anyone else’s. There’s a line in Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage… Alfie says, ‘If you’re the first person to do something, you have to be prepared to take the shit for it.’ Verbatim writers are pioneers… they are the first to look deep into the heart of matters, and the truth is they must be prepared to take the shit for it.

Crouch Touch Pause Engage is now touring Wales and England, directed by Max Stafford-Clark and produced by Out of Joint. Tickets and tour details can be found on the Out of Joint website.

The playscript is available from Oberon Books, along with Robin Soans’ other writing, such as Mixed Up North and Talking to Terrorists.
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