When Jack Shepherd was growing up in the back streets of 1950s Leeds, trips to the cinema terrified him. Yet, from his first visit to the Leeds Empire, where variety reigned supreme, he was spellbound by the live spectacle of the occasion.
“I was brought up by two women,” says the 69 year old former star of 1990s TV detective show, Wycliffe, “and I was very soft. So I was very scared when I went to the cinema, because I believed what I saw on the screen. But then I was bought this ticket for a matinee at Leeds Empire, and this little boy that I was became enthralled by the acts onstage. No-one was going to pull a gun on you like at the cinema. It was safe.”
Half a century on, the actor, writer and director may have come up through such august institutions as the Royal Court and the Royal National Theatre, but he’s kept hold of his common touch. Shepherd has also retained his love of old-time stand-up, as well as his anger at how the post-war working classes never quite had it as good as they were promised by Prime Minister Harold MacMillan.
Both passions fuel Only When I Laugh, Shepherd’s bittersweet homage to the era of unreconstructed northern English comedians, which arrives in St Andrews next week before a stint at the Citizens as part of the Glasgow Comedy Festival. Set in Leeds Empire on a night when things are falling apart, Shepherd himself plays Stanley, a harassed theatre manager forced to deal with the back-stage fury of bill-topping people’s favourite Reg, as well as a singer up from London who also expects the star dressing room. Throw into the mix a band stuck in traffic and another comedian’s dalliance with one of the tap dancing twins, and some very serious fun ensues.
Shepherd has based his out-of-control bill-topper “about ninety per cent “on Wigan-born comedian Frank Randle. Randle was considered something of a rebel in his day, and was often censored by outraged seaside town authorities.
“He was like Keith Moon,” according to Shepherd. “He invented the idea of tearing dressing rooms apart if he didn’t get his own way. His act died whenever he played Glasgow, funnily enough, but to depressed working class people in the north of England, he was a hero. Now, there’s a big problem being a working class hero, because we’ve forgotten how oppressed and deprived we were. It wasn’t till I was getting on a bit that I realised how angry I was about the deprivation of the class of people I come from. Now we may have problems of obesity and racism, but then there was no money. There’s that old thing that was said about the working class, that the only ways out of it were either through sport, crime or showbusiness, but it was easy for someone like Frank Randle to be seduced by the celebrity world of his time.”
Randle, like so many other entertainers, lost the plot. This was something Shepherd saw at close quarters while working with the late Max Wall at the Royal Court.
“He was severely damaged by celebrity,” Shepherd says of the comic actor, “and when he ran off with a beauty queen the press crucified him, and he had to completely reinvent himself.”
Only When I Laugh began thirteen years ago as Comic Cuts, which, as Shepherd observes, “did very well in the provinces, but did badly in London.”
Even since re-writing it, while dates in Greenwich have been half full, Oldham sold out. This reflects the regional nature of variety which Shepherd’s play depicts. Which may be why, despite his love affair with it, he entered a more legitimate form of performance following a period as an art student, “trying to get my vision of the world down on paper, but I didn’t have that sort of ego. I think I’d have lasted three weeks and then had a nervous breakdown.”
Shepherd went to Central School of drama, and was one of a number of student founders of the breakaway Drama Centre.
“I was lucky,” he says, “because our year was considered to be quite a revolutionary year, and we got a lot of attention.”
Shepherd arrived at the Royal Court in 1965. His first role was in the premiere of John Arden’s Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance, and he appeared in Edward Bond’s seminal early works, Saved and Early Morning, as well as taking the lead in David Storey’s The Restoration of Arnold Middleton. It was while at the Royal Court that Shepherd met Scots director Bill Bryden, who would go on to run the dynamic Cottesloe company at the National Theatre, which Shepherd was a member of between 1977 and 1985. During that period, Shepherd took the lead in the world premiere of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, and appeared in Bryden’s epic staging of poet Tony Harrison’s very northern retelling of the Mysteries. Shepherd’s book, Impossible Plays, documents what sounds occasionally like a very macho era.
Shepherd also spent several years running workshops with Richard Wilson after he became interested in developing plays through improvisation. Shepherd’s own works included The Sleep of Reason, Clapperclaw and Half Moon, and, with Sir Ian McKellan and Edward Petherbridge, co-founded the Actors Company in 1972.
Shepherd’s best known 1970s work, however, remains Bill Brand. An eleven part prime time TV drama about an idealistic young Labour MP played by Shepherd, the series was written by Trevor Griffiths.
“Bill Brand prophesised that the party would be taken over by what became the Liberal Democrats,” Shepherd muses. “It also predicted the death of socialism, which no-one at the time could have predicted. Lots of MPs then used to think they were the model for Bill Brand, but the only one who kept his principles was Dennis Skinner. None of the others have.”
Outside of Bill Brand, Griffiths himself looked at the power of comedy through his play, Comedians, and even tried stand-up himself in Edinburgh last year. Comedians was set in a comedy night class, and followed John Osborne’s much earlier vaudeville-set work, The Entertainer. As with Griffiths, though, Shepherd’s point is more political.
“I think people have to stand up for themselves and not let governments get away with things,” Shepherd says sounding every inch the young fire-brand. “I’m astonished that foe a hundred and fifty years people were subjected to what amounted to slavery, and with Only When I Laugh I want them to feel as outraged as I am. The working class used to be at the bottom, and there was a strength in knowing that. Now the working class have become like the ancient Romans, with this slave class of immigrant workers below them.”
More outrage from Shepherd is promised in his next play, which looks at the wave of attention-seeking conceptualism that grew out of the Brit Art wave.
“I had a scenario,” Shepherd confesses, “but since the economic collapse everything’s had to change, because the art world is a phenomenon balanced on a precipice. There are a lot of confidence tricksters and fraudsters about, and I can go to Tate Modern and just come out baffled It’s that I don’t like it or that some of it isn’t good, but I trained as an artist, so if a trained artist is baffled, what hope has anybody else got?”
Only When I Laugh, Byre Theatre, St Andrews, February 11-14; Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, March 10-14 as part of Glasgow Comedy Festival
February 10th 2009