When Trevor Griffiths wrote the original script for the Oscar-winning film Reds, released in 1981, there were many who believed that a world-wide socialist revolution was firmly within their grasp. As it turned out, the contradictions inherent in the system not only allowed what was intended to be a serious portrait of radical American journalist John Reed and his role in the Moscow uprising of 1917 to become a romantic Hollywood vehicle for its star, director and co-writer, Warren Beatty. They also ushered in an era of Thatcherism and Reagonomics which attempted to crush leftist dissent in any way possible. The liberal arts establishment in particular came under particular scrutiny, and serious writers of the post 1968 generation such as Griffiths, who had proved television drama was a place for political debate, were effectively sidelined.
A quarter of a century on, and, despite rumours in the 1980s of a classless society, and in the 1990s of the apparent death of ideology, and while freshly inaugurated Prime Minister Gordon Brown might show his true colours by bizarrely taking tea with ex PM Thatcher, bloodied but cheerfully unbowed, Griffiths is still keeping the faith. This should become apparent at The Stand comedy club tonight when he arrives in Edinburgh for a rare appearance at Revolutionary Laughter, a comedic commemoration of the Russian Revolution’s 90th anniversary, which also features Vladimir McTavish, Susan Morrison and others. While Griffith will be talking about how the Russian revolution influenced his own work, having been born and raised in Manchester, with working men’s clubs on every corner, the idea of such an event taking place in the speak-easy environment as a comedy club clearly tickles Griffiths fancy.
“It’s a brilliant idea,” he says of the event, organised by an alliance of online political forum, YouScotland.com, chaired by Stand founder Tommy Shepherd, the Edinburgh Peoples Festival, whose chair is ex MSP and current convenor of the Scottish Socialist Party, Colin Fox, and the Edinburgh Mayday Committee. “The Russian Revolution has meant various things to me at different times. When I first heard about it in my teens, it opened up this rich web of competing ideologies, and introduced me to Socialist thought, and discovering what Socialism meant, who Trotsky was, and all that stuff. If there hadn’t been a Russian Revolution, we’d have had to invent one.”
Of his experience on Reds, Griffiths can see with hindsight how such opposing worlds would never quite live in harmony.
“I wanted to say something big and important about the Russian Revolution and the people who fought and died for it,” he says. “Imagine how that’s going to work out if you join forces with Warren Beatty. He had a very different idea about the Russian revolution to me, and ultimately called the shots, so left the show, and behaved as honourably as I could do. That was the toughest contest I’d had up to that point.”
Such a withdrawal marked the shape of things to come for politically motivated writers such as Griffiths. No longer would they be afforded the luxury, as Griffiths was in 1972, to write Adam Smith, an eleven part series about the Fife born free marketer, featuring the late Andrew Keir in the title role. It was another eleven part series, though, which impinged on the public consciousness. Arriving on our screens in 1976 during mid-week prime time on ITV, Bill Brand charted the movement through Westminster of an idealistic young Labour politician. While even then the words ‘idealistic’ and ‘politician’ looked far fetched when placed side by side, that Bill Brand only ran for one series was down to Griffiths rather than any television bureaucrats.
“I just wanted to be serious about my writing,” he says of his decision not to pursue a follow-up. “You don’t want to write things because other people want you to. You want to do it because you need to. When people say how long is a piece of string, that’s bullshit. That’s what upsets me about Shameless, which was a perfectly good series, but is now no longer the same thing as it started out as, and is going to go on forever.
“Television,” according to Griffiths, “is or was the people’s theatre. People would wash up, sit down, and watch. Television used to be like a national cathedral with the religion taken out. People would watch something, and the next day there would be a natural discourse. It wasn’t important who wrote it, but whenever you went out after having had something on, you could hear people talking about it. There are still some great things on television, but we’ve lost that, now, but there’s still a need for it. That’s why it’s great this event is happening somewhere like The Stand, where people feel they can go to and talk freely about things they might not know much about. That’s how television used to be.”
The appearance of Griffiths in a comedy club may come as a surprise to anyone only familiar with his more explicitly political works. Then again, in 1975 Griffiths wrote Comedians, a stage play, in which veteran comic Eddie Waters teaches a night-class for would-be stand-ups. The title, similar to television’s appropriation of working-mans clubs, The Comedians, the programme that made the late Bernard Manning a star, was a double bluff. Rather than soft-soaping audiences, in the play’s central character, Gethin Price, played originally by Jonathan Pryce, Griffiths created a troubled firebrand whose uncompromising and discomforting routine predicted the wave of so-called ‘alternative’ comedy.
When Comedians was adapted for television and directed by Richard Eyre in 1979 in a truncated form, condensing the second act when each member of the class performs their routines before a real audience, it scored one of the highest viewing figures for a single play ever recorded. So much, then, for a public unable to deal with ‘difficult’ drama.
“It didn’t quite work on TV,” Griffiths reckons, “because that second act needs a living, breathing audience. But it was good enough, God knows. I’ve never seen Jonathan Pryce better before or since. The thing with Comedians was, it stood up and said the sort of comedy we were being offered wasn’t good enough. It said we needed a different kind of comedy, a political comedy. And for a while in the 80s we had it, but this is the problem. Everybody gets rich or famous, and they lose sight of what they were originally about.”
Without mentioning names, Griffiths is clearly pointing to the surge of ‘alternative’ comics led by a motor-mouthed Ben Elton. Having graduated from back-street comedy clubs to television by playing the radical card, Elton and others ended up becoming just another light entertainment elite, equally as reactionary as their forbears, only dressing it up in ironic apparel. Elton is now the ultimate showbiz establishment figure, even co-writing west end musicals with arch Tory Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“There aren’t enough places to put the vomit,” Griffiths says of how the alternative scene turned out.
Despite his prevailing commitment to the Socialist ethos, party politics isn’t something Griffiths has ever fully embraced.
“I joined the Labour Party for about six months,” he admits, while scorning both Messrs Blair and Brown. “But a writer can’t be in the grip of a party, and has to have the license to find their own way. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to some people in politics, but I don’t ever kow-tow to them. I take the blame and I take the credit, which sounds like an incredibly reactionary position to take, I know.”
In terms of comedy, Griffiths has retained his interest via an ongoing stage play about northern English comic, Frank Randle. His ideas on laughter, though, echoed in Eddie Waters’ notions that ‘Comedy is medicine. Not coloured sweeties to rot their teeth with,’ are at odds with fellow playwright Howard Barker, who’s written at length about how laughter is a cheap theatrical shot.
“Howard Barker is a bloody good playwright,” Griffiths points out, “and he has a sacred notion of theatre. I think theatre is profane. What we do in theatre can affect us so deeply it can last forever. But if it’s divorced from wit, irony and laughter, it’s finished.”
Last time a Trevor Griffiths play appeared on a main stage in this country was the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh’s production of Comedians in the early 1990s. Since then, an entire generation have moved into the theatre with little idea of the significance of Griffiths and others of his generation who steadfastly refused to bite the New Labour bullet.
“I’m not undamaged,” Griffiths says of his side-lining, having not had a play on television for a decade. “I’ve had two heart attacks, but a lot of anger stays with you, and it curdles. When you’ve got stuff on television, the anger’s still there, but it’s not curdling. You’re venting it. I write all the time, and I’m still picking things up along the way in the same way as I was proud to be part of the anti-racist movement, and the way the women’s movement made me have to take a look at my practice.”
Given that Griffiths’ “best mate” in theatre was the late John McGrath, founder of the original 7:84 company in the 1970s, and that 15 years ago Griffiths worked on his play The Gulf Between Us in a production at West Yorkshire Playhouse with a young assistant director called Vicky Featherstone – now in charge of the National Theatre Of Scotland – it might be time to put Griffiths on one of this country’s big stages where his work so naturally belongs. Even better, one could be created.
One possibility, especially given the NTS’ resources and use of unconventional spaces in Blackwatch and other works, might be Griffiths’ epic play about another revolutionary, Tom Paine. A long-standing labour of love, These Are The Times dates back to 1988, when Griffiths was approached by Richard Attenburgh (who Griffiths, in an uncharacteristic luvvie flourish, refers to as “Dickie”) to write a screenplay based on the travails of the man who became a key influence on both the American and French revolutions of the 18th century.
Having put his four and a half hour long script through various drafts during elongated stages of development hell that epitomises today’s budget-bound film world, Griffiths remains optimistc These Are The Times will one day be made, though he concedes that an ageing Attenburgh is unlikely to be the person to make it. In the meantime, the script, which runs at an unfashionable 195 pages, was published by the Socialist minded Spokesman Books two years ago, while Griffiths is currently adapting it for the stage.
“Someone coined this phrase, ‘chamber epic’,” Griffiths relates, “which means an epic that isn’t abstracted. To do These Are The Times, we need a theatre space that can encompass two revolutions with the scale and scope of the biggest human event you can hope for. But you also want a very human look at the people involved in that, and for them you need these intimate, close-up spaces. At the moment I’m looking at conventional theatres, but it’s like trying to put a 747 into a garage.”
Given the recent re-mergence of politically based theatre after a decade when it was missing presumed dead, Griffiths’ advice to young writers wanting to tackle something meatier than light-hearted fluff is simple.
“Learn your craft,” says Griffiths. “There are plenty of places that do courses in screenplay writing, but they’re not teaching craft. People who go to these things just want to know how to get an agent. But the word is play(+ital)wright(-ital) for a reason. A wright was the maker, and you’ve got to learn how to build plays thoroughly. That’s a necessary condition, but it’s not enough. Because playwriting involves knowing how to reach for the impossible. There are lots of people writing plays now who want to change the world, but they don’t know how to go about it.
There’s no such thing as a perfect play, but you can learn how to get closer to that impossibility.”
Trevor Griffiths appears as part of Revolutionary Laughter, The Stand, Edinburgh, tonight. Tickets from 0131 558 7272, or www.thestand.co.uk. More information on Trevor Griffiths can be found at www.trevorgriffiths.co.uk
The Herald, October 9th 2007