Tuesday, 12 January 2016 18:53

Tyneside Story

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Tyneside Shipyards, 1943
Tyneside Shipyards, 1943
by Cecil Beaton

They were gathered together in the rehearsal room - actors, directors, backstage workers for an out of the ordinary meeting.

Alf Simpson was there, in his 40s now, not leading man material, but he had been with the People's Theatre for ten years or more. He had a moustache - not so fashionable at that time, but it suited him, and he had a strong handsome face. He had played many roles and contributed in many ways to the company. Because of this he was someone whose opinion mattered. Like many others, Alf had married because it seemed what was expected after a courtship, and only later found th at his wife and he had little in common. There was a son, and people made the best of things, but the camaraderie and shared efforts in the theatre were highlights in his life.

There was also Mary, also part of the theatre company, she was now such an important part of his life. Mary was an educated woman, a teacher and with her he could share ideas and discuss things. Jean, his wife, hadn't had the benefit of higher education . Mary was unmarried, more or less the same age, and they made the most of what they had, knowing that Jean would never agree to divorce, at that time just as shameful for the "wronged" party.

The People's Theatre amateur company was already by 1940 an established part of the Newcastle arts scene, and having moved away from the overtly political focus of its early years, provided a home to a variety of Tyneside folk, many of whom continued to embrace a socialist philosophy. Several were involved in other enterprises, such as the Bensham Settlement in Gateshead, over the river, where talents for drawing, painting and sculpture were developed. Though some were middle class professionals, many were working people who had had to leave formal education in their teens.

It was now the second year of the war, but many men were in reserved occupations, and of course some were too old for active service. Morale at home was important, so the company did not see as frivolous the continuation of their performances.

Some months earlier their Director had broken the news which lay behind the suppressed excitement which they all felt. The Ministry of Information had commissioned them to produce a short film aiming to convince ex-shipyard workers of the need to return to their trade, as vessels of all types were needed for the war. Tyneside had long been shorthand for shipbuilding, but a downturn five years earlier meant layoffs and men had either picked up new work or remained on the dole.

Filmmaking was a new venture, but they had discussed how they could plot a simple story with some of them taking acting roles, and combine this with documentary footage of shipyards at work.

The story was to begin with two lads weeding some waste ground with scythes . Their work is interrupted by a smartly dressed man - they have just turned over a rectangular board about a yard long with the numbers 1066 on it. He explains that this has nothing to do with William the Conqueror. He is the shipyard manager, and tells them the board is the number of the last ship to be built in the yard. When it re-opens, they'll start again with number 1. The next scene he is in his office bemoaning the difficulty of getting workers back into the shipyards. One of his clerks who is listening, immediately volunteers. Next, other brief scenes show a window cleaner, a mechanic, a driver, all former ship builders working in their new trades, and then film sections showing the yard back at work with the men seen earlier back at their old trades.

Not any outstanding parts, but this would be a new challenge. Luckily, one of the directors was friendly with Jack Common, a writer who had published a series of essays about the lives of everyday workers - not to outstanding success, but his CV would impress the Ministry of Information, and more to the point, he was an ordinary Geordie from a similar background to many of the company members. Most were also familiar with the name of George Orwell, a friend of Jack's. And he was interested in going into film script writing - he needed to, as his other writing wasn't making any money.

Jack was a slight figure - his right forefingers already yellowed with constant cigarettes, one lit seemingly before the previous one's expiry. Alf had heard him talking to the director before the meeting started.

"He just looks like an y one of us " whispered Alf to Mary. " And talks the same way, not posh by a long shot"

"Well, Jack", the director asked, " Can you tell us how the script's coming along?"

"I've got a draft here - ah've got to say it deviates a bit from what you suggested, not the basic outline mind, that's there, but ah've taken the liberty of putting a bit of a message in."

"What d'you mean, Jack - the Ministry want a propaganda film, that's what we have to deliver".

"Ah just think it'd be a shame to waste the opportunity to spell out what a working life on Tyneside can be like- not exactly a bed of roses."

There was some muttering as the company tried to fathom what he was on about.

"Let me explain", said Jack," and I can read through the script so you can hear what it's like and mebbe see yourselves in a part."

He pulled the draft out of a faded briefcase and started reading the typed lines.

The first pages stuck to the brief they all were familiar with:- the boys weeding, the shipyard manager, the window cleaner, driver and mechanic answering the patriotic call. But then:

"Now we have something different", said Jack," the scenes up to now show the former workers from the yards wanting to return and do their bit, but the next scene is a man beside a cement mixer, obviously now a builder, and he's being told by his employer that he'll have to go along with the call to return to shipbuilding:- these are his lines:-

"To hell with the shipyards. They've no right to play fast and loose with men like us. Not so long ago they threw us out of the yards to starve or scrounge. Skilled men, mind you, brought up to a trade, and nobody cared. Now they want us back - there's a war on - next thing you know, the war'll be over and out again you go, you mugs. Ah well, not for me, ah've got a good job here and the missus has got a nice little home together. What - go back to the shipyards? Ah'll see them in hell first!"

" Why, those are sentiments we all agree with" Alf called out to chuckles and nods of agreement.

"Right, good, well like your outline, next there's film of back to work, men riveting, cranes lifting heavy ship sections and so on, all just what the Government wants, back in full production."

"The End?!" a voice suggested,

"Why no, ah've got another good bit. The same chap from earlier speaking direct to camera:

"Tyneside's busy enough today,auld and young uns making good ships. But just remember what the yards were like 5 years ago; idle , empty, some derelict,and the skilled men who worked in them forgotten..........Will it be the same for them 5 years from now? that's what we on Tyneside want to know."

" Now that's the end." Jack said.

The men in the group could all see themselves in this plum role.The director knew he would have only one satisfied actor - the one declaiming this plea to camera for the ord nary working man .

" D'y think that last speech 'll be allowed in? The film's supposed to be persuading men to do their bit for the war effort, not a recruitment ad for the Communist Party" asked Alf.

"Well, the main message is clear enough," replied the director, " and y'know, the Ministry might not be that bothered, after all the film's just being shown up here, in News theatres."

Some weeks later the cast list went up - Alf was to be the shipyard manager! Not exactly contributing to his working class credentials, still, he looked the part in his smart overcoat and trilby.

The film was made, it is called Tyneside Story. Jack Common wrote two book about Tyneside, semi autobiographical, but never achieved much success. However, sculptor Lawrence Bradshaw used Common's brow as a model for his bust of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery, saying that he found there a similar patience and understanding. Mary went to teach at a college in Durham where women were doing teacher training. When Jean died, Alf and Mary married. The People's Theatre, lauded in its heyday by George Bernard Shaw continues to entertain. To view the 13 minute film, search for Tyneside Story in the North East Film Archive:- Film number 19637
Read 739 times Last modified on Thursday, 14 January 2016 15:26
Pat McGee

Patricia McGee is a retired FE lecturer, and very concise.