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John McGrath Obituary

That John McGrath was a powerhouse of theatre in Scotland, England, and abroad is indisputable. But he was also a cultural signifier and iconoclast, who looked beyond the received, hand-me-down Oxbridge canon towards more popular forms of creative entertainment that were rooted in the heart of the community that Mrs Thatcher tried so hard to kill. That McGrath himself was a product of Oxford, who later visited Cambridge in the late 1970s to deliver a series of lectures gathered in his seminal book, A Good Night Out, meant he could see through the patronising and titillatory hoo-ha of the so-called ''angry young men'' then occupying the Royal Court. This he saw first-hand, and move towards a genuinely oppositional theatre, which, though it eventually lost sight of the times, nevertheless remained a theatre of passion, belief, and, above all, hope, an old-fashioned commodity today, for sure.

McGrath was born on Merseyside, ''over the water'' on The Wirral, only a ferry-ride away from Liverpool, but culturally a world apart. He began playwriting at Oxford, with A Man Has Two Fathers, a modest start, which nevertheless opened McGrath up to a realm of theatrical possibilities. By the late 1950s he was working as a script-reader at London's Royal Court Theatre, then the vanguard of a so-called revolution precipitated by the English Stage Company, who'd first produced John Osborne's Look Back in Anger and the wave of spit'n'sawdust social-realist plays that followed in its wake. This wave became the new orthodoxy, and many writers, actors, and directors built careers and fortunes on their work's pseudo working-classness.

McGrath became exposed to Brecht, and to Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, in which popular song was utilised into narratives that saw characters stepping out of the action and speaking to the audience directly as a music-hall turn would. These were ideas he developed further at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre with director Alan Dossor, combining polemic with songs and sketches based on a rock- gig format that had begun to fascinate McGrath. It's telling, perhaps, that The Everyman later begat both Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell, author of Blood Brothers, perhaps the greatest, most simple of working-class musicals.

By that time, McGrath had worked as a director both in film and television, most notably with the then mould-breaking Z-Cars, a high-speed cops and robbers drama that dispelled Dixon of Dock Green's honest copper image forever. Then, crucially, came 7:84, which went on to encapsulate and define McGrath's artistic manifesto. Taken from a figure in a 1966 edition of the Economist that pointed out that a mere 7% of the population owned 84% of its wealth (the figure today would be something akin to 1:98), 7:84 took up the scraps of working-class culture, knitted them into roughshod narratives, and toured them around town halls and working men's clubs. It was agit-prop of the basest, most joyously accessible kind.

McGrath's diversion from the mainstream ran parallel with that of Italian actor/director Dario Fo, who'd also bitten the hand that fed him to engage in a real-life struggle of collectivist principles and artistic endeavour to change the world. But it wasn't until 7:84's Scottish wing piled themselves into a Transit van in 1973, and took The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black Black Oil to the Highlands, that 7:84 really made its mark. Here was 200 years of Scottish history performed in a compendium of parody, satire, and song, followed every night by a full-on ceilidh.

While such unabashed populism had been preceeded by The Great Northern Welly Boot Show, The Cheviot made waves right across the country, trickling right down into its televised Play For Today version. This was Scottish theatre, quite literally, on the move, and nothing would ever be the same again.

That small-scale touring is now an essential component of many theatre companies' remit speaks volumes of The Cheviot's influence. 7:84 Scotland thrived for a few years, developing a core fanbase at a time when radical social, political, and economic change seemed a reality in a decade of charged debate that brought about typically-leftist schisms in the company. Then came 1979, the referendum debacle, and Mrs Thatcher. 7:84 looked increasingly laboured, preaching the same message to those already versed in it. Fish in the Sea, Joe's Drum, and Blood Red Roses were still powerful, but the emphasis elsewhere lacked any real bite. Ironically, McGrath's film company, Freeway Films, was producing beautiful works like The Dressmaker and a televised version of Blood Red Roses at much the same time.

Eventually, in the late 1980s, McGrath was forced to stand down from the company he founded, an unhappy period documented in his book, The Bone Won't Break. 7:84 was reinvented for less dialectically-certain times, while McGrath collaborated with Wildcat and Tramway on a couple of sprawling site-specific works. McGrath and 7:84's influence was felt profoundly among a generation of theatre workers who might never have otherwise gravitated towards an artform they were told didn't belong to them, and who might have stayed in front of the telly instead.

On a personal note, if it hadn't been for John McGrath, 7:84 Scotland, a set of workshops that took place in an Edinburgh community centre in 1986, I wouldn't have gone on watching theatre, let alone end up writing about it. 7:84, and, more particularly, A Good Night Out, were an inspiration. In the face of theatre's encroaching conveyor- belt banality, even, and at times especially, among the self- consciously worthy who cynically exploit any passing cause for their own career-plans, it remains a volume always looked to as a litmus test.

McGrath had already suffered the cancer that eventually beat him for several years, though his public profile had been minimal. Then, at last year's Edinburgh Fringe, looking frail but resilient, McGrath was back, with a performed reading of a new play, HyperLynx. Significantly billed alongside Wild Raspberries, a new work by his life-long partner and comrade, Elizabeth McLennan, who read both plays. HyperLynx showed that McGrath had lost none of his anger.

Even more telling was his contribution to a debate at the Traverse, at which, in a stimulating but abstract consensus of politesse, he alone gave a moving and unflinching voice to concerns of how class still defined how theatre was perceived, making the younger generation of writers in attendance look inarticulate by comparison.

John McGrath's was still a voice to be reckoned with and should be required listening, not just for today's theatre practitioners, some of whom probably aren't even aware of his heritage, but for anyone who still cares enough to get angry at an authoritarian establishment which will protect its own selfish priorities whatever the cost, and is too terrified of having its own culture exposed as sterile by that which speaks in its own voice.

The mettle of John McGrath contributed much to that ongoing battle, and will be sorely missed by anyone who witnessed it, be it squashed-up in the back row of a village hall for some top light entertainment with a punch, or else hanging on to his every impassioned pronouncement at last year's debate. Either way, a good night out was, and still will be, had by all.
John is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, two sons - Finn and Danny - and a daughter, Kate.

John McGrath, writer and director; born June 1, 1935, died January 22, 2002.

The Herald, January 24th 2002


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