Monthly Archives: August 2013

Scots speaking and Scots singing

 

It is common in theatre plays these days to hear Scottish actors speak English with a Scottish accent.  This may hint at the dearth of theatre opportunities for the current generation of young actors, whose principal work now seems to come from TV or film, and from contemporary rather than established texts.  It may also suggest that fewer these days have been trained to speak either Received Pronunciation or regional accents with confidence.  However, English with a Scottish accent seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable mode of performance address, as this is the language which all during my life I have heard in homes, workplaces and public spaces.

It wasn’t always thus in Scottish theatres. In the 1970s and 1980s the use of Scots language seemed to be in the ascendancy. There appeared to be an actual policy in the Scottish Theatre Company of the 1980s that their productions should be made more authentically Scottish by using the Scots language, following the practice of older playwrights like Robert Kemp and Robert McLellan.  I remember feeling that it worked well enough with the comedy of Kemp’s adaptation of Molière, Let Wives Tak Tent, but less so with the more serious narrative of Ibsen’s Ghosts.  That production benefitted from a Scots Presbyterian setting but regular references to “ghaists” and other Scots language words seemed merely to dilute its power.

Scots was also a very effective medium for a new play set in the past such as Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. However, actors in the political and populist  theatre productions of 7:84 and Wildcat opted for recognisable contemporary urban Scots accents, a dialected English.

It’s intriguing to compare drama performance with that of popular music. At that time, pop and rock songs were usually sung in an English or American accent depending on whether your vocal style was more influenced by David Bowie or Joe Strummer or Ian Curtis on one side or Elvis Presley or James Brown or Bob Dylan on the other.

The first rock singer I can recall singing in a recognisably Scottish accent was Fay Fife of the Rezillos on their 1977/1978 songs “I Can’t Stand My Baby” and “Top of the Pops”. I remember John Peel once saying how struck he was by the way Fife sang the word “down” in “I can’t stand up, lemme sit down” in her distinctive mixed American/Scottish delivery.

The Proclaimers are possibly the most well known pop or rock musicians who sing in Scots accents.  To my taste, their work has often veered a bit too much towards the sentimental and the broadly rabble-rousing. However, when they first began, their singing in a broad Scots accent was genuinely radical and it certainly helped to give “Letter from America”  the timeless power which it has.

Their pioneering stance has been followed by more recent  Scottish bands like Arab Strap, the Delgados, Sons and Daughters, Frightened Rabbit and Admiral Fallow.  Perhaps singing in their natural Scots accents links to the folk influences many of these artists draw on. It certainly looks like a new default setting for Scottish popular music.

Education Scotland, the Scottish government’s education agency, makes great claims for the importance of the Scots language. To ignore this in schools, it says, is to insult the many young Scots who speak it regularly.  However, schools’ sympathy towards Scots has certainly not led to an increased popularity for Hugh MacDiarmid or Robert Garioch or Tom Leonard or any other artist in the language.  Why is the Scots writing of Robert Burns, a farmer from the pre-industrial 18th century, more frequently read than that of MacDiarmid, who was still alive at the time of the Sex Pistols?  If it is merely the modernist challenge of the latter’s work, why are the equally demanding modernist texts from the same period, Ulysses and The Waste Land, more often read and discussed in Scotland? My view is that Scottish young people may find a few Scots words useful to speak but do not generally consider Scots a natural language of everyday communication. They see it much like my generation did forty years ago, an important part of the Scottish past but less important as an present-day influence than that coming from England or America or continental Europe.

However, I did enjoy Education Scotland’s repetition of the quip that a language is merely a dialect with an army and a navy, pointing out that the way of speaking in any country which is most acceptable is a matter of historical fashion, the practice of the group or tribe which has at that time the greatest political power.  In the 1980s plays like Brian Friel’s Translations and Harold Pinter’s Mountain Language dealt with the idea of language as a tool of political oppression. Perhaps political changes in the next few years will lead to a growth in the regular speaking and writing in Scots as envisaged by the Scots Language Society and the Scots Language Centre.

 

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Football off the pitch

 

The new football season is beginning in the UK – although it might be said that, these days, we don’t have much of a pause from the previous one.

My childhood interest in football centred on the teams and their history as much as on 22 men kicking a ball around a park (prompted by reading such books as The Gillette Book of Cricket and Football )  and this interest has continued even as I have become less and less concerned about particular matches and whether goals have been scored or missed.  The sport of football is such an important part of British culture and it seems especially emblematic of the country’s story during the last 40 years : the decline of the old manufacturing towns and of the old working-class, the freer movement of labour around the European Union and the world, the increased commercialisation of all sport,  the expansion of global communications.

It has always fascinated me that the whole of the professional game in Scotland and England grew up during such a short period of time. The first clubs were founded in the 1860s and, yet, by the turn of the century less than forty years later, almost all of the constituent parts of the game we now recognise in Britain had been assembled  : the governing bodies, the leagues, the cups and a large number of the teams which are still playing.

The game largely originated as a working man’s pastime during the later Industrial Revolution, and, during the years when I was growing up, this had scarcely changed. Matches were still played mostly on Saturday afternoon, the tradition which had started because that was one time men had off from their five-and-a-half-day working week. I remember former player and broadcaster Bob Wilson once arguing that an important social cohesion was produced by the fact that so many local communities heard their names listed together as part of the Saturday tea-time football results.  The only regular football on TV was on lunch-time previews and evening highlights.  As depicted in Tom Hooper’s film of David Peace’s  The Damned United, the lives of most players were only slightly more rich and glamorous than those of their fans.

Change was most pronounced in the top English division after its breakaway from the rest of the Football League.  Enriched by huge amounts of money from the new satellite TV companies, the clubs in the league once called the Premiership and nowadays called the Premier League were able to employ, and pay handsomely, players who often had no connection with the English town or district the team represented.  

 Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote recently, “The Premier League is not a metaphor of a dysfunctional society, it is its fullest expression – a grotesquely overpaid, underperforming elite utterly disconnected from the communities from which its clubs take their names”.  Similar comments have often been made that a pastime which was once the province of the working man has, due to the continual increase in admission prices to see the top clubs and the top matches, become much more exclusive.

However, it has to be countered that many fans seem happy with these changes. They still flock to see matches which are on live TV and for which tickets might cost £30 or £40. Following the Premier League example, the English second division has successfully rebranded itself as the Championship and constructed its own virtuous circle of TV sponsorship, foreign players and managers and increasing attendances. So many teams feature regularly on TV that it now seems accepted that people should feel they are “supporters” of a club even though they live nowhere near its home stadium. Especially bizarre when so many followers of English clubs live in Indonesia or China.

There is clearly still some nostalgia for the old roots of the game. When Sir Alex Ferguson retired, there were constant references to his childhood in the shipyard district of Govan and the fact that the young Ferguson actually spent some time working in a factory. These experiences were generally felt to have instilled in him qualities which younger players might lack. The reason why Ferguson was knighted was largely because of the honour similarly bestowed on the earlier working-class Scot who had managed Manchester United, Matt Busby. David Peace’s new book on the Liverpool manager Bill Shankly has led to similar eulogies about Shankly, whose home mining village of Glenbuck on the boundary of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire has now, almost appropriately,  practically disappeared as a geographical destination.

Despite the recent reorganisation of the Scottish football league (inexplicably borrowing the inelegant division names already used in England) many flaws in the Scottish professional game remain unaddressed. The country has changed, rightly or wrongly, from the male-dominated working environment which produced so many football teams and there are now far too many professional teams for a country of 5 million people (six times as many proportionately as in England and Wales). Most of them are seriously short of money and support and clubs in the lower divisions struggle by with a tiny group of diehard fans and volunteers. The Scottish game has been dominated for too long by the two large Glasgow clubs whose support has been heavily influenced by religious tribalism outside the city as well as inside, and this has damaged the neighbouring clubs within Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Renfrewshire. A couple of particularly startling geographical inconsistencies : three senior clubs survive within 10 miles of each other in the Falkirk area, of which, during my lifetime, at least two have always struggled for success and support; East Kilbride, a town of 70,000 people, has never had a senior team,  yet about 20 smaller towns still do.

 

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Fringes then and now

 

So the Edinburgh Festival Fringe begins again, disconnected in recent years from the official Edinburgh International Festival over differing views  about whether it is more valuable to keep the whole event within the month of August or to have the two closely associated events running simultaneously!  I have been attending Fringe events for over 30 years, and my first visits were very important in developing my theatrical tastes. It was the easiest way to see a number of productions in a short period of time. It was also memorable for introducing me to pop-up cafés and bars and to the concept of cultural venues staying open into the late evening.

 

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The Royal Mile with St Giles’ Cathedral on the right : always a focal point of activity during the Fringe.

 

In many ways, the Fringe experience has changed little as the era of Margaret Thatcher shifted to that of David Cameron. There are still many thousands of performances taking place in church halls and school classrooms and other places which are used at other times of the year for other purposes. The venues are still often multi-occupancy conveyor-belts hosting ten or twenty shows rather than one or two. Most of the shows still attract many visitors. People still block your movement through the centre of Edinburgh by pushing leaflets advertising their show into your hand.

One really thrilling experience of my first Fringes was seeing plays in spaces which were not proscenium theatres, and therefore which placed you much closer to the action than you were used to. I have vivid memories of the electricity of a production of As You Like It by a group called Company Worktheatre where the action throughout took place only a few feet away from me. Today’s younger theatre-goers probably miss this rite of passage, seeing performances more often in multi-purpose arts centre or leisure centre spaces.

 

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The dramatic vista of Victoria Street as it curves up from the Grassmarket.

 

However, young people nowadays who have read classic plays and look forward to seeing them in live performance may well find that more difficult than I did. Certainly, the number of theatre plays at the Fringe is proportionately smaller and the range narrower. Some Shakespeare is still performed but few works nowadays from the Restoration or Jacobean period. In my early Fringe visits, I was able to get the chance to see, in some great productions both professional and amateur,  The Revenger’s Tragedy,  A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, The Changeling, The White Devil, VolponeThe Provok’d Wife and The Country Wife.  In addition, I was able to see what plays by Brecht, Strindberg, Chekhov, Buchner and Beckett looked like.

Where classic texts are still performed, a major difference nowadays is that they will invariably be shortened. Few drama productions on the Fringe nowadays last longer than two hours. It seems now to be accepted that audiences have shorter attention spans than before.  

This is probably connected to the sustained growth, fuelled by TV,  in stand-up comedy and cabaret. I remember well the first appearance of what was then called “alternative” comedy, which coincided with the growth of the professional producers. William Burdett-Coutt’s Assembly organisation was first, revitalising that brilliant old 18th century building in George Street,  soon followed by Pleasance and Gilded Balloon and others, often in more than one location.

 

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The Grassmarket.

 

Most of the theatre companies I saw in the 1980s in Edinburgh are no longer in operation but there are happy exceptions. The aforementioned The Country Wife appears to have been the very first show  by Cheek by Jowl, who have gone from strength to strength all around the world since.  There was Druid’s production of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World which was eventually televised on Channel 4.  The Actors Theatre Company who performed that version of The Provok’d Wife are still working.  The Ayrshire-based Borderline company were in their pomp at that time,  touring twice a year around Scotland, but in Edinburgh I was able to see their great big (in every sense) versions of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui  which were not seen as economical to take to smaller local theatres.

The aforementioned Volpone by Birmingham University especially stays in my mind because the servant Mosca was played by a woman rather than a man, and dressed rather like Pauline Black from the Selector. 

Although drama was my first preference, I did see other performances. In 1986 the then famous Hole in the Ground  in Castle Terrace, expected to become the site of an opera house but which was later filled by the commercial building Saltire Court, was the location of several marquees. In one I saw Billy Bragg give a concert of, to pinch the apt phrase from the NME review,  “incandescent electric minstrelsy”. That was probably the same year I saw the Glasgow nonpareil Ivor Cutler, whom I had also come to love from radio and records.  In another August, Victoria Wood, in her early days of TV celebrity, made a double act with her then husband Geoff Durham,  the conjurer the Great Soprendo : they were both great. The single time I saw a Cambridge Footlights show was the wrong year for Fry, Laurie, Thompson, Punt, Dennis or Baddiel  but the cast did include one person who became an occasional TV comedy face, Tony Slattery.

 

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Edinburgh Castle dominates most of the city centre.

 

Plays by established contemporary playwrights are still sometimes available as before. I once saw a great production of Trevor Griffiths’ Comedians by Aberdeen University whose cast may have included future actor and playwright Simon Donald and future broadcaster Nicky Campbell.  This year you can see productions of David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Yazmina Reza and Sarah Kane.

One type of drama which has become more available on the Fringe is from non-English speaking countries. In the 1980s that was mostly available only at the official Festival and there was always plenty of English language stuff to keep me occupied. On one of my visits in recent years I really liked the Comedy Theatre of Bucharest’s production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector.  Gallery owner and arts promoter Richard Demarco was one person who did promote foreign language theatre in those earlier days so it is no surprise to find that he is associated with the adventurous  Summerhall venue, recently converted from a former veterinary medicine college.

 

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Resting between courses of culture in Princes Street Gardens.

 

 

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