“the most important creative centre in the English theatre” .¹
Burnley was an odd place in the late 1970’s, a strange combination of industrial decay, spectacular moorland scenery with an undercurrent of left-leaning politics and alternative culture. On the way to nowhere it seemed to be in terminal decline as one after another of its staple industries had faded from past glories. First to go was cotton followed by mining and heavy engineering. The population of the valley had been falling since the 1960s as a whole working generation left to look for employment elsewhere, leaving behind the old, the young and the unemployable.
The place did have its up side(s) – during the second world war the country’s national theatre companies had been evacuated to the town. Both the Old Vic Theatre company and Sadlers Wells Ballet relocated to Burnley’s Victoria Theatre on St James Street in 1940. And for the next few years put on a program of theatre, ballet and opera the like of which had not been seen in the town before. They also used Burnley as a base to tour productions across the north of England.
When they left East Lancs and returned to London in 1943 they left behind a thirst for culture that resulted in the setting up in 1949 of the Burnley and District Association for the Arts, which in 1966 morphed into an Association for the Arts of the Mid-Pennine region, covering other districts in East Lancashire. – Now better known as Mid-Pennine Arts.
We went to more theatre/music/art in Burnley than I ever did when I lived in London – partly because you couldn’t quite believe what was being put on in this post industrial backwater – the pick of 1970s fringe theatre came through at some point; Monstrous Regiment, 7:84, Gay sweatshop……. it also nurtured an indigenous North East Lancs fringe of its own – in a stroke of inspired arts development Mid-Pennine Arts invited the mobile fringe art circus that was Welfare State International (WSI) to overwinter its trucks and caravans on a section of the local rubbish tip and to put on a series of shows that some in the town still talks about to this day.
Welfare State is not an experimental theatrical company as usually understood but rather a journey unto the unknown and undiscovered ways of living and creative communication. Still unsurely evolving in various and diverse directions (farmers and nomads). Growing in a natural soil which can even nurture glorious flowers of imagination on a Burnley rubbish tip.’Dave Cunliffe.Peace News, June 1973
Their shows were a mixture of urban-myth-magic and surreal circus with a touch of northern humour. I remember; Parliament in Flames, the everyman epic Icarus Barrabas Handyman Quail, a Ghost Train with live ghosts, the Bloodstained Colonial Marching Band and a controversial nativity crib with – All Power to the People – inscribed in latin above it. And later a whole series of amazing Barn Dances.
I used to be convinced that I had spied a very early WSI show from the window of our family campervan whilst on holiday in Cornwall – the infamous Trials of Lancelot Quail,a month long show starting in Glastonbury and ending in a submarine off Lands End – but having spent some time trying to match dates up I can’t have. Though what I did in fact spy that day that fascinated my 12 year old self back in I969 I still can’t work out.
My first genuine memory of WSI was sometime in 1976/7 watching what I think was a Man Alive documentary in the cafe/bar at the Oval House Theatre in London with a bunch of other fringe theatre performers. The program followed a summer playscheme that WSI had run in some northern town building a junk city with the kids and as a finale they told the kids that they had to defend thier homes against an impending attack and the progam ends with the kids trashing a giant inflatable dinosaur that was trampling over their handmade homes. Almost to a person the other people watching in the Oval House bar were shocked at the destruction of what they thought must have been an expensive giant inflatable “That’s more than our entire Arts Council grant destroyed in less than half an hour!” – Whereas I was quietly going “WOW that is just stunning – will I ever be able to do anything like that?”
When I moved to Burnley I hadn’t realised at first that this was where the company that had WOWed me on the Man Alive program was based and at that time chances to get involved with them were more as part of the Burnley community than as a performer/maker. Members of People In Common sometimes worked as extra crew on shows, or would answer the call to pack the audience if the culture inspectors from the Arts Council were due to attend. And for years we were avid attenders at any gig the company did anywhere in reasonable distance from Burnley. The company’s philosophy resonated so clearly with what we were trying to do as a community and they would inspire us to our own attempts at being Communal Magicians and Construction Workers of the Imagination.
“We are seeking a culture where more people will actively participate and gain the power to celebrate moments that are wonderful and significant in their lives. Be this building their own houses, naming their children, burying their dead, announcing partnerships, making aniversaries, creating new spaces and whatever drama, stories, songs, ceremonie, pageants and jokes that are relevant to new values.”John Fox / Sue Gill 1994
WSI eventually tired of Burnley (or was it the other way round?), and they left the area – leaving behind Horse & Bamboo and IOU theatre companies founded by ex-WSI members and a legacy that would eventually see the corner of the council tip they vacated turned into a thriving youth theatre. We got a caravan with a dodgy axel and a picture of an angel painted on the side from them when they left, which became the accommodation for us to start renovating the Mill.
Notes: 1. Progamme note Victoria Theatre Burnley January 1941
There is a recording of former PIC member Barbara Sanders & partner Peter Kenyon talking about seeing Welfare State in Burnley back in the 1970’s
Mid Pennine Arts have an Archive of images of WSI in Burnley on their website
Welfare State wound up as a company in 2006. Information on their later work can be found here: www.welfare-state.org/ and if you want to catch up with what John Fox & Sue Gill are doing these days check out: www.deadgoodguides.co.uk/