Raising The Banner
Combining satire and song, Banner Theatre have crossed the divide between entertainment and politics for over 25 years.Their latest show about the Criminal Justice Act explores the new political energy of DIY dynamism. Sam Beale caught up with them at a recent performance.
Squall 14, Autumn 1996, pp. 48-50.
Birmingham-based Banner Theatre's show, Criminal Justice, is the story of Leon Albright, an ordinary geezer who finds himself standing over the body of a policeman who has an asthma attack whilst beating him up. The copper, one Inspector CJ Adams, dies and, there being no-one else about, Leon hits on the idea of putting on his uniform and assuming his identity.
Once in the force, Leon (Banner's Dave Dale) is thrown in at the deep end when Inspector Adams is asked to conduct a nationwide lecture tour on the implementation possibilities of the CJA. He becomes "Mr Public Order himself" and is outrageously successful at rabble-rousing groups of police officers to "earn as you nick"; encouraging them to be more efficient, get promoted, and showing them how to use the CJA with gradually more and more ludicrous arrests.
Each stop on the tour is also a site of protest or action: starting in Luton with Exodus, Banner work their way around the country's hotspots stopping off at Claremont Road, Newbury, Coventry, Brightlingsea, and joining a convoy chasing the ill-fated Mother festival. At every opportunity Leon speaks confidentially to the audience, translating his cop-speak explantions of the contents of the Act into activist-friendly common sense: "A word of advice: don't try and turn your convictions into actions 'cos the CJA will turn your actions into convictions... bloody long ones as well."
Finally his plan reaches its zenith as we witness the CJA backfire beyond all our wildest dreams. Every copper in the land has become hysterical with Competitive Cop Psychosis. The entire British Army and the whole Stock Exchange have been nicked, and the police are even using it to nick themselves. Football stadiums are being used as prisons, the rank and file of the unions have called a general strike, the royal family have been nicked for squatting ("...well, they don't pay any rent" as one Inspector explains to a superior), the pound has plummeted and anarchy is breaking out nationwide as Major considers Clintons' offer of sending in American troops.
The show is a mixture of music, theatre and comedy, audio recordings of the voices of activists, Travellers and Gypsies, and slide projections which combine to tell the stories of the various campaigns against the CJA. Documentary-stylee explanations of the section of the Act relevant to each group are given a comic spin at each stop on Inspector CJ's tour.
The heart of the show is in its music, witty, inspiring, sometimes gutting original lyrics and an impressive mix of musical styles. The cast (Dave Rogers, Dave Dale and Paula Boulton) are first and foremost musicians with a talent for relaxed, direct communication with their audiences. There is no preciousness about their performances, their aim is to communicate ideas and let their characters tell their own stories. The result is theatre totally lacking in pretension. They sing about the unsung heroes and heroines of current protests and of those who, as Dave Rogers puts it, "are prepared to stand up and say 'no, you're not going to kick us around'." This is instant folk; the creation of modern myths.
Banner Theatre developed from the folk-song revival of the late '60s and early '70s. Founder member Dave Rogers described the beginnings: "The first thing we did was open a folk club in the late '60s. It was different to others because there was political content every evening."
Within a few years the company was touring major productions and throughout the '70s Banner pioneered theatre for and about audiences in working class communities.
Working for nothing, they toured mining communities, supported strikes, performed at demonstrations and sang on trade union platforms.
Unlike current lottery-dependent theatre funding, small theatre groups were quite well funded from the late '70s to the mid-'80s. During this period Banner toured with professional productions as well as animating amateur groups and involves workers in performances.
This "golden period," as Dave Rogers describes it, peaked with the '84-'85 miners' strike: "We did busking on street corners, performed in miners' welfares and went to miners' support groups. We would be in a situation where someone got beat up on a picket line in the morning, we'd write a song in the afternoon and perform it at a strike social in the evening, so it was a really organic relationship with the strike."
"This was my baptism," says Dave Dale, who joined Banner in 1984 after 12 years of political activism and performance. He played guitar in rock bands until the day of the Saltley Gate mass picket in Saltburn during the '72 miners' strike: "That was the day that got me involved in politics. I was trying to get into town on a bus but couldn't because of this picket so I got off the bus and joined it. That picket helped win the strike."
Banner's role in the '84 miners' strike was "just being able to be there and support it without trying to lecture or point fingers, just listening to people and taking it back to them. It was the most important year of my life without a doubt", says Dave Rogers. "To be able to see how culture could work in a moment of struggle and resistance and really help and empower." Dave is clear about the role of culture and entertainment in political movements: "I think the socials in the miners' strike were fundamentally important. The atmosphere was just explosive. There was a big infusion of people and exchange of ideas."
Despite limited arts board and union funding, the company spend months researching each show, travelling to the communities they are writing for, interviewing people and gathering images and information.
Their trademark is the use of recorded voices: "The tape recorder is the centre of the work. You have to listen to what people say, that's the crucial thing," says Dave Rogers. "I believe the way ordinary working class or any oppressed group express themselves is powerful. There's a load of shit about the deprived speech of the working class but middle class speech is deprived. The real powerful speech comes from the streets, from the bottom."
This is evident in one of the most chilling sections of the show, the extraordinary story of Annette McNulty who was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and interrogated for four days (on no evidence) in connection with an oil refinery bombing. As Dave Rogers sang about her (his voice in this performance could break your heart) and Paula and Dave Dale re-enacted the nightmare that followed her arrest, Annette's voice tells her own story: "By the second day this guy had me convinced I was in the IRA... I was thinking... did I do it? Did I really do it?"
This section of the show, and another about the repeal of the 1968 Caravan Sites' Act, and the continuing decimation of Gypsy communities, have received a mixed response in performance. Banner welcomes this as they believe it challenges audiences. "The show might not change opinions overnight but it makes people think," says Dave Rogers.
At a British Legion gig, one particularly vociferous audience member tried to sabotage the performance by turning on the house lights and the PA. Banner carried on regardless to cheers from the audience as the saboteur "went bananas, ran through to the bar full of ex-paras, and shouted 'they're all fucking IRA in there'," recalls Dave Dale.
Banner's interest in single-issue politics emerged as the real 'Mr Public Order himself' pushed his Criminal Justice Bill through its final parliamentary stages in 1994. Prior to that, says Dave Rogers, "the demos of the late '80s had been the same old SWP banners: bedraggled and rather sad affairs. Deadly boring lefty, lefty, lefty crap. And I'm a lefty myself! Suddenly something new was happening." He went to the the October '94 CJB demo in London: "I thought it was bloody amazing. There were all these people on the top of bus shelters pogoing up and down. They just took over the street. It was so exciting to see all these young people involved and a new energy around. I thought this has got to be significant, we've got to do a show about this."
Paula, who trained and worked as a Baroque violinist, joined the company in 1994. She describes herself as a "Pagan Communist", a perspective she puts down to her family's Communist history and her own involvement in the peace movement of the '80s. She took part in a peace march to Moscow '82-'83 and worked in political theatre in Holland before joining Banner. For her, Banner is the cross-over of two worlds: "It's about finding a common language. I'll play either role. When we're up in Eccles or in the Working Men's Club in Salford then that part of me is to the fore and I can talk that language. But I love this play because there's so much of the other part of me in it."
Evident in Banner's work is the expansion of their own political visions and their own education in the success of activism quite outside their experience or that of their traditional trade-union audiences.
Dave Rogers, a Saltburn lad of 52 and first in his school to go to university, admits his initial scepticism about some of the groups he interviewed for Criminal Justice: "I was very ambiguous, quite dismissive about those kind of politics. I think I've moved on a bit since then." Paula notes that she told Dave to go and interview the animal rights protestors and "he told me to do the footballers".
As he sings in the show, "having hid me leather jacket in the boot so it wouldn't offend," Dave did interview animal rights protestors: "I found those people in a lot of ways the most politically sophisticated, in terms of understanding how the state works. They've got a much better analysis than a lot of people on the left in the trade union movement."
Prior to going to Newbury he thought that "it sounded a bit weird, getting in trees. I thought what's that going to do? But seeing them up trees marking the whole route: it's a fantastic demonstration."
Paula knows the power of the politics of direct action from her days as peace campaigner: "The main difference is quite clearly energy. Those single-issue, direct-action groups are based around empowerment. The great killer is apathy, so do your bit, do what you can do. That's what I learned at Greenham."
Banner believe that there are links to be made between the traditional left and the politics of direct action. Dave: "A lot of people in those movements think that trade unions are a waste of time, they can't see the relevance. And the other way round it's perceived as weirdos who wear rings in their noses and funny clothes climbing trees. It feels like there's a basis for the cross-over but it's not there yet."
The company knows this only too well. Criminal Justice was hard to sell to trade union venues who could not see its relevance to their audiences; one reason why the show was grossly underfunded.
Paula believes: "There are key unions who are sussed, the Fire Brigades' Union sponsored placards for one of the CJB demos". She also stresses the strengths in trade union politics that are not evident in the loose anarchy of direct action groups: "Where is that other feeling, that mass solidarity? That's a different energy again." This solidarity is based in the shared experience of work and community. Paula believes: "It doesn't occur to postal workers on strike in my home town, Corby, that they would not go out on strike or that they would ever cross a picket line. That's how they protest. It's internal, in the psyche. It's the rules."
She believes that most young people don't understand workers' mentality and that respect is hard to foster: "How do you get it if you have a youth culture who don't understand jobs, who've not had jobs because of mass unemployment. If you're never going to get a job you'll never understand the community and solidarity of working with the same bunch of people year in, year out."
However the limitations of job-bound lifestyles in terms of seeing connections with other political movements are clear: "There's fabulous things happening in factory culture. They're really close-knit communities," says Paula, "but try to talk to them about these other issues and you might think that you were talking to people who don't understand activism. It's a lifestyle that's orientated around having a job."
She has witnessed changes in consciousness and recalls the miners' strike: "One miner said that from being on strike he'd realised what it was to be in the sun...afterwards he didn't want to go back down the pit." Paula believes: "Once you move away from that trapped lifestyle you start pulling the wool from your eyes and see a lot of the other ways in which we are trapped. Take away the structures that have kept people trapped and they find out what real freedom is." Dave Rogers recalls the transformation in the lives of the McNulty family: "Suddenly the bubble bursts and they get a view of reality. A clarification happens about the sort of society we live in. I'm sure that's happening to the people down at Newbury and to animal rights protestors. These are going to be significant people for the future because they want to change society and make it genuinely representative of people's aspirations."
Banner's ongoing struggle with the ironies of the common ground that lies uncultivated, and the even more common ignorance and lack of respect for other lifestyles, are evident in their work and their conversation.
Their approach is hugely refreshing in its attempt to bridge the gap between traditional left wing politics and DIY activism. Crucially for an 'alternative' audience it highlights the ways in which climbing trees, veganism and 'funny haircuts' are far removed from the experience of many working people; for trade union audiences it presents those with funny haircuts as participants in a valid political battle, fundamentally the same battle. Banner's work provides a forum where this chasm of misunderstanding and lack of shared experience can at least be seen for what it is. Inspired by performances of Criminal Justice, heated after-show debates between those fighting to protect their jobs and the ardent jobless, have allowed trade unionists and the likes of road protestors to debate the issues which separate them, to hear about each other's strengths and victories and have the potential to dispel a little of the fear and ignorance which are the enemies of politcal change.
"There's got to be some sort of synthesis," says Dave Rogers: "We haven't got the sort of class consciousness that can organise 10,000 people immediately anymore. The left has to find new ways of doing things and we've got to listen to these groups."
* Banner have recently received lottery funding and are now researching their next show, Redemption Song, which will explore racism. They welcome applicants to audition. For audio recordings, bookings or more information contact: Banner Theatre, The Friends' Institute, 220 Moseley Road, Highgate, Birmingham B12 0DG. Tel: 0121 440 0460.