Looking back by Freddie Machin

It is late November, and three weeks after I hung up my wig and frock coat for the final time I’m back on the road again. The weather is still mild but Christmas is firmly within our sights and I’m on my way to give a presentation about how the tour went. I almost never thought this moment would come. So much time and focus went into preparing for the eight weeks of touring with Winston that I hadn’t even contemplated what would come after.

The evaluation process with Fol Espoir and the preparation for the presentation I am giving today has given me the opportunity to reflect on it however. In conversation with friends and colleagues I tend to play it down. I frame my experience within the narrative that I think people expect to hear from someone who has just returned from a two-month tour. I say “it was exhausting” but I never really felt exhausted at the time, I say “it was a hard slog” but I don’t think it really was, I sometimes even say “never again” which is not quite the same as actually feeling that it was a once in a lifetime experience.

What was particularly difficult – and be honest” John keeps pushing the stage manager Matt and I to dish the dirt. But in all honesty there is none, apart from a cracked windscreen and the power being blown mid-performance – both on the same night incidentally – Winston passed off without a hitch.

One of the frequent questions I was asked during the tour was “don’t you get tired of saying the same lines every night?” Although it is true that I have found long tours of other people’s work hard in the past this one was entirely different. Saying the words that I researched, drafted and re-drafted every night was a pleasure. I believed in the story of this incredible character and I was very proud of the rigorous work John and I had done to craft it into a piece of theatre. Consequently performing it every night was a privilege, sharing our take on an already rollicking yarn with a new group of people was a joy.

And the audiences were invariably supportive and enthusiastic. Sharing their own tales of, and connections to Winston over the years. One woman told us that her great-grandfather had been a prisoner of war with Winston in South Africa. Churchill had apparently made an agreement with the guards that if they let him walk around the grounds of the camp he promised he wouldn’t escape. A foolish mistake on the Boers’ part from what we know now but in retaliation the remaining troops were duly punished. Her relative never liked Churchill from that day on she told us.

In Margate we heard the story of a woman’s grandfather who was head chef in the most expensive restaurant in town and had served Winston when he paid a visit on official business after the First World War. We even performed to a village hall where a genuine Victoria Cross was hanging on the wall. The much coveted prize that Winston so desired for his efforts was literally within reach! Upon closer inspection it was in fact given to a soldier for bravery during the Boer War and the text beneath suggested that the soldier was on the Dunottar Castle – the very ship which took Churchill and Colonel Buller to the Cape in 1899.

I discovered the history of the medal itself at the Lancashire Fusiliers museum in Bury after being encouraged to go by a father and son who had just seen the show for dad’s birthday. Created in 1856 the VC remains the highest order for valour a British soldier can be awarded. The medals themselves are made from a finite source – the bronze knobs from a set of Chinese cannon taken from the Russians at Sebastopol during the Napoleonic wars.

Matt and I were becoming oral historians, threading this ever accumulating story up and down the country, compiling what we learnt on the road and sharing it with a new audience every night.

And not only Churchill made it into our Winston on the Run almanac, we shortlisted our favourite Travelodge experiences and completed our highly publicised top ten list. Three cheers for Crewe and the Dean Clough Mill Halifax in the top two spots. In fact some of my fondest memories of the tour were spent waiting in the countless take-aways Matt and I frequented around the UK. Watching Father Ted on the little TV on the counter awaiting prawn crackers and chow mein to sate our hunger after the show. The satisfaction of another venue successfully under our belts.

Like John’s excellent tour road map on our website we threaded a journey – a six and a half thousand mile journey, connecting people and places, sharing stories and laughter and a thousand Churchillian quotations: “If you’re going through hell, keep going” “History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it

And we did what he said – we kept going, through it all and we made history. 6,500 miles, 43 nights, 30-odd venues, a dozen Travelodges and eleven cigars worth of brandy-swilling, death-defying, restless, relentless, persistent Churchillian history.

We might even do it again sometime.

Booking the tour

House Theatre asked John to write about how the Winston tour came together. Answers below!

GUEST BLOG: BOOKING THE TOUR BY FOL ESPOIR

In December 2011 the actor/writer Freddie Machin and I decided to create a show about the early adventures of Winston Churchill. At the time, we had no star actor, no experience of touring and we were virtually unknown. Nearly two years later, the show has just finished a two-month national tour. I’ve often been asked how we did it, and the answer is quite straightforward: we bugged our friends and contacts for advice, made the show as brilliant as we could, put in a huge number of hours chasing venue programmers, and invested in the best marketing images we could afford. We were also careful in our choice of subject – a thin Churchill with a full head of hair was a good way to get people’s attention.

From the beginning, our target was to take the show on tour. Programmers have an unenviable amount of choice, and I quickly realised that solid salesmanship skills would be required to get their interest. The first thing was to set up shop and get our work seen, and the obvious choice was the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s an exhausting, expensive and exhilarating experience which certainly isn’t right for everyone. For us, though, it would give us access to a huge number of industry buyers. If we could get them to sample our show, we were in with a chance.

Our minds focused by the huge financial risk of an Edinburgh run, a major priority was to make sure our show was ready. We previewed in Brighton, Buxton, Liverpool and Jersey, constantly working and re-working the text. At the same time, we built a database of contacts we could send invitations to. We had two targets: small-to-mid-scale touring venues, and rural touring networks. For the rural venues, we bought a list of contacts from the National Rural Touring Forum. For the conventional venues we begged friends to share their own lists, combed through the tour schedules of similar shows, and looked through our own lists of industry contacts for leads. Eventually we had a database of totalling hundreds of venues. About a third we felt were most likely to take our show. These became the main focus of our attention.

As programmers make their Edinburgh schedules far in advance, we sent invitations months before the festival began. We didn’t have much, but we knew that Winston Churchill was a great hook, and we prioritised the publicity image, making it as eye-catching as possible. Our previews also gave us a steady trickle of favourable reviews and even an award – Best Actor for Freddie at the Buxton Fringe. Combined with recommendations from a few of our industry contacts who saw the show early on, our product was becoming more enticing. At the festival, we were rewarded with a steady stream of programmers.

Post-fringe, it was time to book the tour. Initially we focused on venues that had actually seen the show, and this bagged us great dates. We then began on the programmers who hadn’t seen the show. Images, reviews and marketing blurbs were posted and emailed, phone calls were made, and interest was definitely ignited. Persistence was key; the list of people to email and call seemed never-ending. Highlighting the bookings we had was incredibly helpful; not only did these serve as the best possible recommendations for the show, but it also meant programmers could talk to people they knew and trusted about our work. Patience was also paramount. Some venues book a year in advance, some only a few months; some gave you an immediate answer, others took months. Rural schemes were perhaps the most tricky. They’re a huge market, but their booking process is admirably, if sometimes frustratingly, de-centralised. Given that you’re often asked to block off a slew of potential tour dates, the process can take a frighteningly long time.

Price-wise, we had to balance our desire to tour extensively with our need to balance the books. Each show would cost about £750 to put on, and that was where we set our fee. However, we also gave venues the option of a cheaper guarantee against a box office split – a sort of introductory special offer. This shifted a lot of risk onto ourselves, but still gave us a guaranteed income.

Over the course of a year, the tour grew from a few dates to nearly forty. A generous Arts Council grant covered our financial shortfall, and in September, Winston went on the road. As it comes to an end, I’m immensely proud of what we achieved, both artistically and in developing our company’s reputation and relationships. Most of the venues we toured to have already asked us what we’re working on next. For the moment, my only answer is ‘a long holiday’!

– See more at: http://housetheatre.org.uk/blog/guest-blog-booking-the-tour-by-fol-espoir/#sthash.fbywDKvw.dpuf

Ten things you probably didn’t know about Winston Churchill

Image         Winston Churchill Aged 4

1. Winston celebrated his 21st birthday being shot at by anti-Spanish guerrillas in Cuba. 

2. His father Randolph was a superstar of Victorian politics who believed Winston would amount to nothing and become ‘a social wastrel’. He promptly died before he could be proved wrong.

3. Winston served under his nemesis Kitchener in the Sudan. While there he was part of one of the last ever cavalry charges in British military history.

4. In 1899 Winston was captured by the Boers and incarcerated in a prisoner-of-war camp. He escaped and made his way across hundreds of miles of Savanna to rejoin the British lines.

5. Winston’s mother Jennie Jerome was a famous American socialite and reported invented of the Manhattan cocktail. 

6. In 1953 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He earned more in his life from writing than anything else.

7. Winston was a sickly child and convinced he would die young (and therefore needed to make his name quickly). In fact he lived to ninety! 

8. Winston had a lisp and originally was a terrible public speaker.

9. In 1908 Winston introduced the Trade Boards Bill setting up the first minimum wages in Britain.

10. In 1909, Winston set up Labour Exchanges to help unemployed people find work. He helped draft the first unemployment pension legislation, the National Insurance Act of 1911. Churchill also assisted in passing the ‘People’s Budget’, which included the introduction of new taxes on the wealthy to allow for the creation of new social welfare programmes.  

Fol Espoir featured in The Guardian

Artistic Director John Walton was invited to contribute a post to the Guardian Professionals Blog. The theme was the research process and post-show discussion for the show Winston On the Run. Full text below, or check it out at:

http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/oct/11/post-show-theatre-discussions

Post-show theatre discussions: presenting your ‘DVD extras’ menu

Performance post shows are usually dull and dominated by the same old questions – so how can you create one that’s fun?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            If I told you that Winston Churchill had once been a svelte, dashing young cavalry officer with a ruff of red hair, a penchant for dangerous adventures and a lisp, would you believe me? For my generation at least, it’s difficult to imagine him as anyone other than a demigod of history textbooks, chomping on a cigar and making zero contribution to the nation’s hairbrush industry.

When I teamed up with the writer and actor Freddie Machin, we knew that Churchill’s little-known early adventures were ripe for theatrical adaptation. But how do you start researching someone about whom enough material already exists to fill several libraries? And how do you condense that material into an evening of lively entertainment?

The first thing we realised is that no human being could ever read everything written by or about Churchill – we were going to have to set limits. The second thing we needed to decide was what story we wanted to tell. Again, setting limits became key. Unimpressed by the meandering treatment of Churchill’s boyhood and military career in the 1972 filmYoung Winston, we decided to focus on the episode of his life that ultimately led to his first parliamentary victory – his daring escape from the South African Boers.

At this point, our aim was to write a Flashman-style parody of colonial aspirations and hot-headed youth. The research was pointing us in an entirely different direction, though. We were becoming entranced by the sheer complexity of Churchill’s personality: from an early age he was inspiring, courageous, persistent and witty; yet also arrogant, impulsive, erratic and riddled with insecurity. We realised that these qualities were also the reasons for his future successes and failures. Here was an episode through which his entire life could be distilled, and it was too fascinating an opportunity to pass up.

The format that we eventually came up with was a 65-minute show followed by an integral post-show presentation. The “post show” gets really bad press, and we’ve been at plenty of bad ones ourselves. Too often they are dull, poorly executed and dominated by the same old questions, like “how do you learn your lines?”

Often the performers don’t even want to be there, and I’ll never forget an RSC actor telling us all off for not laughing enough in a lamentably unfunny first half. Freddie and I were sure that with a bit of imagination we could come up with something that was fun, structured, visually rich and that would allow the audience to lead the conversation.

What we ended up creating was our own DVD “extras” menu that we project onto the stage. Audience members can choose from topics like “The Greasy Spoon” – about the working relationship Freddie and I developed, rooted in our local cafe; to topics like “Behind the Legend”, which explores original archive material; or “True or False”, a quiz based on Churchill’s early life. Each topic comes with photos, discussion from Freddie, and an opportunity for the audience to share thoughts or ask questions.

What we’ve discovered is that a post-show talk can add immensely to both the audience and performer’s experience of a production. Audience members love getting a look behind normally closed rehearsal room doors. In return, they have shared some amazing memories. One audience member’s father had worked as Churchill’s private secretary and had spent summers playing in the grounds of Chartwell; another could still recall Churchill’s visit to their local village.

We’ve even been invited to visit places like Ditchley Park, where Churchill had close connections, and the conversations have often continued into the theatre’s bar long afterwards. For us, it’s been a exciting way to make connections with our audience, which is, in the end, what storytelling is all about.

Hidden in Plain Sight by Freddie Machin

Dean Clough Mill

 

Arriving at Halifax in the car, one foggy day in September, we were faced with an imposing set of Victorian built Mills, set cheek by jowl beside a spaghetti junction of 60s roadways and flyovers and the ancient Yorkshire countryside – a fascinating and beautiful picture of what was once the industrial north.

The Mills were in fact our destination – Dean Clough, a converted wool Mill in the centre of Halifax, where we would be staying for the night before our show at the Square Chapel Arts Centre.

Now entirely re-developed, the site houses a complex of shops, restaurants, art galleries, our Travelodge for the night, and a cookery school; whilst still managing to maintain the grandeur of the original buildings.

Obsessed with composition and intent on entering the burgeoning scene of street photography I have recently bought a new camera. Street photography attempts to capture those fleeting, illuminating flashes of interaction between people that happen all around us, all the time, in the blink of an eye. I would argue that the right snap at the right moment could tell as much story, as much biography as any painstaking recreation.

With some time to spare as we pulled up and always in pursuit of another elusive vignette, I asked Matt (Llewellyn-Smith – stage manager extraordinaire) to help distract a group of men whilst I took their picture.

On the journey from Grantham that morning we had heard a radio programme about a woman with one prosthetic arm, which she had managed to keep hidden from almost everyone she met for many years. On one occasion, it wasn’t until the run of a show she was dancing in had ended that her fellow chorus members discovered that she only had one arm.

We decided to adopt some of her distraction techniques. Matt and I chatted as we drew level with the group, paused in the correct place and both pointed rather awkwardly at something off in the distance as I surreptitiously snapped.

Then one of them called over to us – “what are you looking for?” “oh, erm…” Assuming we’d been caught in the act we stumbled over our words and managed to mutter “somewhere to eat?”

Matt led the conversation as I took a few more shots from waist height. As it turned out, my three middle-aged subjects were jovial and welcoming and the five of us quickly fell into conversation.

We spoke about the Mill itself, about what we were up to and about how they decided who got to sit on the only deck chair they had between them. We mentioned that we had played Stamford the night before when one of the crew disappeared, momentarily returning with a dusty copy of ‘Villages of Rutland’. “It’s the smallest county in Britain for half the year – except when the tide is in on the Isle of Wight” they laughed. I asked them for a photo, and to my surprise, they agreed.

The group directed us in the opposite direction, towards ‘E’ Mill (the different Mills are distinguished by a different letter), the main building off to the left of us, where David Hockney had once painted a wall and sold it for £25,000. But despite the Hockneys and the original blueprints and photographs of this incredible building, the work we were told specifically to look out for was one made of Lego.

Matt and I left the workers to their tea, paid the parking and laughed as we pored over my photographs. In my opinion the best shots are definitely those taken covertly. Unposed photographs capture the live energy of intention and action, by comparison those that are posed look rigid and staid and surely serve only posterity.

An hour or so later I was working my way around the photography gallery inside ‘E’ Mill when two of the three workmen from earlier appeared from an internal staircase, hulking a step ladder. “Have you seen it?” they asked. But I didn’t know what I was looking for, I wasn’t even sure that they weren’t having us on earlier.

But sure enough, around the corner, standing at least a metre and a half in height and around five in depth stood a massive Lego reconstruction of the entire Mill.

Not quite the whole thing”, they corrected me. The ‘A’ Mill Loading Bay, where we had met earlier and the oldest building on the site (built in 1841) had not yet been constructed. My friends’ hands hovered in the air at the end of the structure, indicating where it will be when they’ve finished it. And they will – Jeff pointed to a window half way along the Lego building “that’s where they are now – in that pokey little office, working on it.”

Jeff proceeded to walk me round the Lego exhibit pointing out which lights were in the wrong place and which gutters were missing. They had to admit though, that apart from a few misplaced wheelie bins it was very accurate.

Having chatted over all matters of the Dean Clough Mill as we stood, it was clear that having worked here for a combined period of over 50 years, they were extremely proud of the site and their time-honoured place within it.

On the way back to the café, Jeff pointed out a postcard in the gift shop depicting the ‘A’ Mill Loading Bay – their spot – and then very persistently challenged one of the passing curating staff about the whereabouts of what turned out to be a portrait of Jeff.

Evidently Jeff was no stranger to portraiture. A previous artist exhibiting in the gallery had taken Jeff as his subject and it was a source of great disappointment to us both that it now resides with the artist and not here at the Mill for all to see.

Jeff said that he gets a lot of photographers taking pictures of him, “because you don’t see many people in overalls anymore” he said. He is no longer one of a whole gang of workers maintaining this building but one of three. Just like the Mill itself, Jeff has become an artefact, a memory of a time gone by.

But he is incredibly proud to still be a working cog in this redeveloped wheel; this new era for Dean Clough, and the requests of artists to capture and record him flatter and excite him.

And so he should be, by putting a subject in a frame and hanging it on the wall, the artist shows the subject admiration, acknowledgement and respect. They are focussing the looker’s attention on this image alone and saying ‘look here, you might not have seen it in this way before, you might have overlooked this.’ Jeff got such a kick from the Lego and his portrait and the photograph of ‘A’ Mill that maybe posed and re-constructed artworks do have their place. Maybe I’ll ask next time, before I shoot.

Winston, the Victorian Missionary

By Freddie Machin

We opened the autumn tour of Winston on the Run at the Chipping Norton Theatre, a stone’s throw from Winston’s birthplace and the seat of the dukedom he never inherited, Blenheim Palace. Merely by dint of dates and programming the show opened to an Oxfordshire audience, many of whom, we discovered during the post-show presentation knew a great deal already about Winston. I am delighted to say that we have in fact been invited for tea at Ditchley, Churchill’s hideout half a century after he hid out down our mineshaft, during the Second World War.

The theatre at Chipping Norton was built in 1878 as a Salvation Army citadel. ‘These stones were laid by one hundred of those who through great persecution boldly and conscientiously served their God’ reads the foundation stone inside the auditorium. It is a beautiful space with a very intimate feel despite the depth of the raised stage. The theatre is much the envy of the theatrical community and has become one of the highlights of the touring circuit. Catherine and William Booth, founders of the Salvation Army are buried not far from where I live in London, their mission when they began in 1865 was to bring salvation to the poor, destitute and hungry by meeting both their physical and spiritual needs.

These stones were laid by one hundred of those who through great persecution boldly and conscientiously served their God

These stones were laid by one hundred of those who through great persecution boldly and conscientiously served their God

This was not an uncommon assignment during the Victorian era, 1878 is the same year as my football team, Everton, was established. Begun as a Catholic team to give the local boys somewhere to focus their energies, St. Domingo FC began playing on what is now Anfield – the home of Everton’s closest rivals (just a few hundred yards today). Shelter, the housing charity still operating today, was also founded in the 19th century, contributing to a whole culture of philanthropy, alms giving and helping those in need.

This evangelism spread along with British imperial ambitions, colonialism aiming to elevate and ennoble what were presumed to be sinful and barbaric societies. Colonial administrators and Christian missionaries around the world were preaching about an ordered and sophisticated society, to nations lacking the development seen in Britain under Christianity.

In Winston on the Run, we suggest that the war in South Africa might indeed be the catalyst that makes Churchill question how right and good British implementation of that mission actually was. Winston’s attitude was that winning the war would ultimately be for the good of the defeated as well as the victors. But what the Empire found itself up against in South Africa was a capable and fierce adversary determined to protect its own identity and independence, whatever the cost.

British forces found the Boer communities so resilient that they resorted to rounding up the women and children and detaining them in camps in an attempt to break their spirits and the back of the war. These were not the first camps of their kind, but helped to set a precedent that would have an even graver outcome half a century later.

It turned out not to be the just and righteous walkover that Great Britain was accustomed to (and was expecting). In fact, it would be an embarrassment; our first war fought in Khaki instead of the red coats of the Zulu wars just a few years before and a blot on the apparently flawless history of Britain.

Warfare was changing and the British Empire’s unquestioned primacy had received a knock to its confidence and credibility. Queen Victoria had reigned over an incredible fifth of the earth’s surface and almost a quarter of the world’s population owed her allegiance during the 1800s but the turn of the century would usher in a new epoch. Born in 1874, Winston was resolutely a Victorian but following Victoria’s death in 1901 would come a new Edwardian period, characterised less by peace and goodwill but by war.

 

Dashing discoveries.

By John Walton

A bookstore hidden down a curving Edinburgh backstreet, its rough wooden shelves crammed with history, classical passion and beautiful early editions; an antiquarian owner practically covered with his own thin layer of dust. I was holding a worn book with yellowing pages, a navy hardback cover, and a look of having been once loved.

Back on tour with Potted Potter, the photo of a young man I had glimpsed in the Cabinet War Rooms was constantly on my mind. Who was he? What was he doing in a cavalry officer’s uniform? And why wasn’t he fat, middle-aged and balding? I needed to find out more. I was not only curious, I sniffed a story.

The book in my hands was ‘My Early Life’, Churchill’s description of his youthful days from first memories to nascent parliamentary success. Limping home from my gruelling schedule (two incredibly high-energy shows a day, every day, for a month – don’t let anyone tell you acting is an easy life) I plunged into a hot bath and began reading; immediately I was hooked. As a child I had adored the adventure stories of Dan Dare, Biggles, The Hardy Boys and Willard Price. Here was someone living that life for real, ricocheting around the world in a blur of action, high society and hilarity. One moment he was fleeing from his governess, next he was rioting in a music-hall; finally, he escaped from the South African Boers and became an international celebrity. Audacious tales were strewn with huge personalities: Winston’s father Randolph, a maverick politician who ultimately destroyed his own career; his mother Jennie, a glamorous New York socialite and unparalleled beauty; Mrs Everest, Winston’s nanny and closest friend. Alongside these principals was a roster of fascinating and often hilarious supporting characters: Prime Ministers, Princes, workers, clergymen, Dickensian teachers and my favourite, Colonel Brabazon: an hilarious, lisping epitome of a gloriously brave but utterly ridiculous Victorian cavalry officer.

"Colonel Brabazon: an hilarious, lisping epitome of a gloriously brave but utterly ridiculous Victorian cavalry officer."

“Colonel Brabazon: an hilarious, lisping epitome of a gloriously brave but utterly ridiculous Victorian cavalry officer.”

Reading ‘My Early Life’ was like discovering a different world, one so often suppressed by our country’s collective embarrassment over the colonial era. In the young Winston you could see the tenacity, bravery and leadership that would echo and reverberate into the future; at this point though his destiny was anything but certain. There was tender honesty, the tragically unreciprocated adoration Winston had for his father, the young man’s constant money problems and the impetuousness that would often be his own undoing. Written by Churchill decades later, the entire book also had a fascinating tint: the dying rays of what Churchill himself called a ‘vanished age’. The aristocracy’s grip on power was diminishing, the labour movement growing, and by the book’s end mechanised guns were swiftly bringing an end to the gentlemanly pursuit of war. Yet this was still a time where British officers played party games on the way to battle and fretted about smuggling champagne to the front lines.

As I suspected, the book was ripe for adaptation. Moreover, it’s central character was an intoxicating storyteller pumped full of bravery, arrogance, wit and sheer bloody-mindedness. I knew immediately that there could be only one actor on-stage. At the time, I imagined that might be myself. I re-read the book, this time making notes at the top of every page, eventually constructing an intricate timeline of his early life. Then I sat down at my sitting room table and took a notepad, ready to begin writing. Nothing. Nothing came out at all. I sat for a bit longer. Still nothing. I had assumed that writing a play would be easy: string together the bits of the story you want to tell and fill the gaps in-between. How wrong I was. I had absolutely no idea where to begin, and quickly, the rest of the world took over. A translating project took over my creative juices, and for the next two years, the project would be relegated to a constant niggle in the back of my head. Until, that is, I stumbled across Freddie Machin…

An Actor Prepares

 by Freddie Machin
 
The rejection I could cope with, the perseverance I could muster but no-one tells you that when you get that elusive and long longed for acting job, it might not be as fulfilling as you first thought.
 
Drama school was an incredibly invigorating and challenging three years for me. Characterised by a huge variety of material, contrasting approaches to drama and inspiring tutors and directors from the professional world. But what followed was less interesting. The professional life of an actor is rarely defined by a sustained foray into new theatrical worlds, new perspectives and ideologies. In fact (at least at the early stages) it seemed to me that what plays most on an actors mind (when they are working) is getting the show on.
 
This was my experience at least. The opposition of the Actor’s Studio style intensive character creation and the oft-quoted Lawrence Olivier approach of “why not try acting, darling” was the subject of much discourse at school and was now no longer a matter for debate. The general message was: we have three weeks before we open and you need to know where to stand.
Very quickly, following graduation from Manchester Metropolitan University’s School of Theatre I could feel my highly valued discipline waning. The actors I worked with in the real world smoked and didn’t bother with warm ups. The Alexander technique was sniffed at and as for phonetics – completely obsolete.
 
My acting career flourished but my ideals about art were being gradually deflated and eroded and I wasn’t being pushed hard enough. I like to have tough challenges set me and to know when I must complete them by. My perspective on the acting process, which had comforted me so much whilst training – “take whatever works, and if it doesn’t work don’t worry about it” was now starting to feel like an excuse for inactivity. Surely having a process is not optional? Acting is not just something you do. I don’t believe in talent, I would argue, I believe in the 10,000 hours principle – that geniuses are made on the path to Carnegie Hall – by practice, baby, practice. Commitment, sweat and passion.
 
I stumbled upon a fantastic opportunity as an actor-writer with Action Transport Theatre and began writing. They gave me the time, the focus and the license to write. But most importantly they set me a tough challenge and they gave me a deadline. I realised that is what I had been hankering after. Writing a play, I would suggest, is less subjective than performing in one. It is much easier to fake it or fluke it on stage than when you are being committed to ink. Stories follow certain structures which can be adhered to or not, but beware that the audience will have an innate expectation of the resolution of your story and you need to know how to sculpt that. You can’t simply say the words – you must create them.
 
Maybe I was too serious in the early days, about art, about acting, about society – maybe I’m too serious now. Maybe I was too easily deterred. Or maybe I was wrong. But it was writing for the stage that re-invigorated me. Using my keen dramatic sense, honed at drama school I embarked on a new craft: playwrighting. Banging words together on the page, crashing characters together in new locations re-inspired me and gave me back my mojo for acting too. I was eager for more and greater challenges. Enter John Walton, stage left.

Blocked beginnings

By John Walton

In 2009, on the face of things, everything was going brilliantly. I had graduated from drama school two years earlier and landed a succession of acting parts, culminating in the Australasian tour of “Potted Potter” – the West-End Harry Potter spoof which boldly crashed through “all seven books in seventy minutes”. We had taken the show to Adelaide, Melbourne and Auckland. In my time off I had been to Ayer’s Rock, Sydney and even the Pacific Kingdom of Tonga. Despite all this, something in me was desperately frustrated. I was unhappy, constantly catching colds or the flu. I was deeply passionate about theatre, and fitting into other people’s productions just wasn’t what I wanted my life to be about. I wanted to be creating my own work.

 

There were two problems. Firstly, I was terrified. The idea of putting on my own show was overwhelmingly daunting. Where would I find the money? Who could I convince to programme my work? The task felt monumental. Besides, I was earning decent money as an actor – wasn’t that achievement enough? Secondly, I had no clue what I wanted to direct. There were plays I adored, but that didn’t seem reason enough to put them on stage. For the time-being, I was stuck.

 

It was on a break from Potted Potter that the breakthrough began. My dad was visiting, and we both wanted to explore the Cabinet War Rooms – the bunkers below Whitehall where Churchill orchestrated Britain’s military defense. Unknown to us, the same building also housed the Churchill Museum – a large, low-ceilinged room crammed with photos, posters, touchscreens, monitors and other high-tech audio-visual paraphernalia. After the relative serenity of waxwork dummies and 1940s maps, the sensory onslaught was mind-boggling, and both my dad and I wanted nothing more than to run away. We had each paid £17 entrance though, and dutifully, we decided to get our money’s worth.

 

There were, admittedly, some great items amongst the archival anarchy. The first to grab my attention was a Second World War photo of Churchill dressed in a pin-striped suit and top-hat, waving a ferocious looking Tommy Gun and chomping on an enormous cigar. He looked like a crazy Chicago mob-boss, and the British squaddie to the right of him looked decidedly uncomfortable. There was also fascinating material on Churchill’s constant ping-ponging between political victory, absolute defeat and maverick decision making.

 

Away from all of the glory (and disaster) of his political career was a small area dedicated to his childhood and early life. It was there that I stumbled across an astonishing photo of a pale, thin, fragile young man dressed in the splendor of a cavalry officer’s uniform. What relation I wondered was Churchill to this beautiful, if slightly uncomfortable young soldier? I checked. Incredibly, it was the man himself. Unrecognisable from the heavy, bald, demi-god of British history, here was a nervous twenty-one year old, yet to make his mark on the world. How could this seemingly Napolenoic-era hero be a man who would see the dropping of the atomic bomb? The contrast between everything that I knew of Churchill and this image was monumental. To the right was more intrigue – relics from his time spent in South Africa during the Boer War. This was a conflict I knew almost nothing about; but, because of a memorial plaque on my school stairways, it was a war for which I had long held a romantic fascination.

 

So there it was – two intrigues. A photo of a young man who bore absolutely no resemblance to the Churchill that everybody knew; and a century-old war thousands of miles from Blighty. Back on tour with Potted Potter I stumbled into a second hand book shop in Edinburgh. I would soon have found a story strong enough to overcome my director’s block.

 

The picture of Churchill that inspired the show.  (Public Domain Image via Wikimedia Commons).

The picture of Churchill that inspired the show. (Public Domain Image via Wikimedia Commons).