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Yay Us! - Reasons to be Cheerful: Further Adventures in the (Online) Screen-Trade

A couple of weeks ago, I watched an online broadcast of Reasons to be Cheerful, a street-smart musical based around the songs of the late Ian Dury. I’d been asked to review it for a radio programme, and is one of the few online theatre streams I’ve watched, preferring to remain stubbornly puritanical about the sanctity of the live experience over a diluted onscreen one. I’d seen the original stage production of Paul Sirett’s play presented by Graeae Theatre Company back in 2012 when it toured to Dundee, and this revival had been filmed in front of a live audience at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.

This was a fitting venue for the show, having been put on the map in the 1950s and 1960s by Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop company. The once dilapidated emporium the company called home became a launchpad for working class actors, many of whom becoming household names in popular film and TV.

Probably the best known of TW alumni is former Carry On and EastEnders star, Barbara Windsor, who starred in the Littlewood-directed stage musical, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be and the play, Sparrers Can’t Sing. The latter was made into a film, and Windsor was nominated for a BAFTA for Best British Actress.

It was at Stratford East as well that Littlewood produced the original 1958 production of Shelagh Delaney’s play, A Taste of Honey. Five years later Littlewood oversaw anti-war musical, Oh, What A Lovely War! The production transferred to Broadway, where Windsor was nominated for a Tony award. In everything they did, Littlewood and Theatre Workshop were all about getting work out there to people who might not ordinarily be exposed to theatre.

The same might be said of Graeae, who, since 1980, has been one of the UK’s leading integrated theatre companies for disabled and D/deaf theatre-makers. Rather than offer up a static rendering of Reasons to be Cheerful using a solitary camera at the back of the auditorium as used to happen, Graeae’s stream was a professionally realised rendering that used multiple camera angles, close-ups and other techniques we see every day on TV.

As with the aesthetic of the film, the show itself took from Littlewood and Bertolt Brecht, whose play, Mother Courage and Her Children, made its London premiere at Stratford East in 1955, with Littlewood in the title role. In Reasons to be Cheerful, neither the actors or the camera tried to pretend the audience weren’t there. As the actors addressed them directly with words and song, you could hear the laughter that came back in response.

Despite the broadcast quality of the filmed production, Reasons to be Cheerful wasn’t being broadcast either on terrestrial TV or one of the many stations where you might think it would find a home. Rather, Graeae themselves were streaming it directly from the company’s website. This is what cheapish technology enables theatre companies to do now in terms of archiving and promoting their work, and is a form of that old aspirational chestnut, seizing the means of production. Sort of, anyway.

More often, it’s the larger institutions that have the resources that enable such autonomy. The National Theatre in London have demonstrated this during lockdown with the company’s weekly series of broadcasts of National Theatre Live streams, originally shown around cinemas in the UK. These have included James Corden vehicle, One Man, Two Guvnors. Both iterations of Frankenstein, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller taking it in turns to play the monster, have also featured. The Young Vic’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, with Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois, has also been screened. As with Graeae, the streams have come, not from the BBC or Channel 4, and not even from Netflix or Amazon Prime, but from the companies themselves, who show them free, with an invitation for donations, on YouTube or Vimeo.

While such pieces of event theatre have been some of the most high-profile contributions to the welter of online activity since lockdown, they barely scratch its surface. The first couple of weeks, with no live gigs or theatre on, my evenings were spent watching Honeyblood chanteuse Stina Tweeddale broadcasting mini solo sets, first from her studio, then from her living room. With its programme cancelled, London experimental music venue Café Oto broadcast nightly live shows from an empty venue in a professional looking affair that used two cameras. Cryptic productions did something similar when they presented their Cryptic Nights showcase from an otherwise deserted Glad Café in Glasgow.

Within days, a deluge of bedroom and living-room gigs saw artists performing to phone cameras and streaming via YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Pitlochry Festival Theatre began its daily PFT LightHopeJoy bite-size broadcasts. The Stand comedy club ran weekly shows. As did the Gilded Balloon with its Sofa Set Lists streams.  DIY music promoters such as the Edinburgh-based Fuzzbat began regular shows. Festivals put together bills made up of artists from all over the world.

Suddenly it was easy to cruise from venue to venue from the comfort of your own living room, taking in a play, a gig, and some comedy before going online clubbing. The Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh presented Five From Inside, a series of commissioned monologues played straight to camera. The National Theatre of Scotland took the idea further with their ongoing Scenes for Survival series of playlets.

Here, then, was a global village of art and culture available on demand to anyone with a laptop and internet access. While issues of digital inclusion regarding those who may not have either has become hugely significant during lockdown, for a few quid, or more often than not gratis, those who do had an access all areas pass to where the action was a click away. And if you’d had enough of one thing, you could click over to the next without worrying about having to shell out again.

Some of the streams were haphazardly DIY, the moving image equivalent of a fanzine, with streams such as the Edinburgh-based Hidden Door festival’s fortnightly showcases recalling Warhol’s TV, Andy Warhol’s 1980s appropriation of public access television. Others looked professional enough to have made it onto late-night terrestrial TV on BBC 2 or the early days of Channel 4, back when they too seemed to have something resembling an open access policy. Either way, this really was seizing the means of production.

Initially, at least, all this was to be embraced. Before long, however, the sheer volume of activity became overwhelming, and I wasn’t sure where to turn anymore. Apart from anything else, it wasn’t live. Neither was Netflix and Amazon Prime, both of which beckoned, with the HBO-size production values tailor-made for the small-screen probably getting more traffic than all the ad hoc streams combined.

BFIplayer does something similar with both current and archive films, while both the BBC and Channel 4 have put a ton of extra stuff online to keep culture hungry channel-hoppers entertained round the clock if so desired.

In theory, at least, once lockdown eases, I’ll never have to leave the house again. Of course, that will never happen, because, however much  I might sometimes want to do a Garbo and be alone, the allure of being in a room sharing a live experience with others will inevitably get the better of me, however the new normal turns out. But at least I have a choice.

What if you’re not physically able to go out once lockdown eases and live events eventually start up again in some form? And what if all that online activity in all its forms, and which has kept you going, suddenly stops?

This was brought home to me by my friend Mererid in her Facebook response to my ‘Stranded at the Drive-In? – Circuses and Bread: A Crash-Course for the Ravers’ article, first published in Bella Caledonia earlier this month. The piece argued the value of the live experience over an online one in the face of inbetweenie ideas such as the drive-in film shows set to be put on in July by Glasgow Film Festival and the Electric Frog music festival. Mererid argued for open-air, site-specific events like those she’d seen at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh some years back.

When/If lock-down eases further,” she said, pointing out how strict things still are in Wales, where she lives, “socially-distanced open-air theatre/dance/performance arts/circus/comedy/gigs and so on could be on the agenda for at least half of the year. We just need to be less scared of the changing weather conditions than we are of losing the arts altogether, and put accessibility at the top of the agenda. These beats have wheelchair access!”

I didn’t understand her last line, and thought it might be a typo. Mererid went on to point out how “Some countries are made for open-air performances, we don't always need to be under a roof to get good acoustics - I saw a performance at the Macerata Opera Festival in Italy a few years ago - it sounded as good as any indoor opera I've seen. Yes, it was still warm at night and espresso was on tap, but c'mon, loads of people venture outdoors here in winter to the winter-wonderland or Hogmanay celebrations without letting the nip in the wind stop them.

Nor is Mererid necessarily against drive-in events.

“We don't know how frustrating drive-in live performances would be until we give them a go,” she says.

“I’ve been thinking about how streaming the arts into our homes could work on a global level too,” she messages me later. “Imagine watching a play live from Brazil, for example. And having people in Japan watching our local theatre productions, increasing the size of the audience in a flash.”

Mererid tells me later how much she used to love watching the New York Metropolitan Opera.

“I don’t go anymore,” she says, “but I used to go to my local arts centre cinema to watch a live performance from the NY Met, and there was something thrilling about it. They were streaming to cinemas around the globe – and that knowledge that people around the world were watching this live production alongside you was so exciting.”

I met Mererid one year in the early noughties when she interned in the press office of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. She was studying drama, theatre arts and arts journalism at Queen Margaret University, and wrote reviews for The List magazine. I never knew her well beyond that, but would see her around, and found out later she played keyboards and sang with a band called Yay Us. I saw them once somewhere on the Cowgate, and they were a joy.

Yay Us recorded an album, All The Heroes Are Dead, Here We Are, produced by John Disco from Bis. Only a handful were pressed up and sold at parties, and it never got a proper release beyond that before Mererid and the rest of the band went their separate ways. They put it online a few years ago, and these days you can hear, stream and buy it on Bandcamp. As is the way with such online streaming services, it’s worth far more than what they’re charging for it.

I listened to Yay Us the other day for the first time in years, and the record’s wonky DIY post-punk-pop still sounds as fresh, as fizzy and as sparkily fearless as it did eighteen years ago. As the name of the band and album title suggest, the record is a great big us-against-the-world sugar-rush of a manifesto, full of gang-mentality bravura driven by a sense of myth-making self-determination. It’s a record that does things on its own terms, and isn’t afraid to kill a few idols along the way.

Mererid sang co-lead vocal on the record’s final track, Keep Listening. She sang the lines in Welsh while fellow vocalist Andy Hazel sang them in English. “Unfortunately, this was before I invested in singing lessons…” she says now.

“Yay Us wasn’t so much us against the world as a band,” Mererid remembers, “but us as in ‘the people’, or back then, ‘the youth’. One of my favourite moments live was at the old Bongo Club when I shouted out to the crowd ‘Yay Us, Yay You!’, because I was taken by surprise at the cheer we heard back from the crowd. There was a real sense of unity in the room. People were dancing and they didn’t even know the songs. I realised the importance of including your audience in your art. That was the Yay Us ethos for me.”

It turns out Yay Us are also at the root of Mererid’s line in her Facebook post I thought was a typo. (These Beats Have) Wheelchair Access is the name of a song on the album, and its call-to-arms chorus couldn’t be more of the moment.

“I’ve always liked the sentiment of that line,” Mererid wrote after I asked her about it. “Or at least what I interpret the line to be.” As she remembers it, “It was a song about apathy when it comes to supporting local live music….”

I’ve highlighted Mererid’s background just to illustrate how plugged in to what’s going on she is. So when someone like Mererid says what she says about lockdown, the rest of us should probably pay it some serious attention. As it was, I sent what was probably quite a patronising response, pointing out that my article had been in part more about the indoor institutions that were at risk of going under.

“Indeed,” she came back, “not disputing,” and went on to point out how she’d just read the National Theatre in London’s announcement of what look like being the company’s final set of streamed shows.

“This is a shame,” said Mererid. “I'm a bit apprehensive about other such institutions closing doors too - there are so many people who have no choice but to stay indoors due to health conditions, and I'm not talking about pandemic times exclusively here. 

“Being able to access virtual tours of art galleries and museums from home, as well as being able to watch the streaming of theatre, opera, gigs or whatever else tickles one's fancy, has been a revelation to many housebound and partially housebound people. The tech is there. There must be a way to keep such services available to those of us who are in need of access to the arts from home when 'things go back to normal'.” 

It turned out Mererid’s response came from a very personal place. 

“See,” she said, “I've been partially housebound for roughly two years due to a worsening of my MS. It's an off and on thing - but mostly on in recent times. There's nothing like it to make you realise the lens through which most people view the world, including our politicians and institutions. This lockdown has been the first time I've actually felt included in society in a good while. 

“Folk said at the beginning of the Pandemic our way of relating to each other, the way we live our lives, would change for the better in future. I doubted that sentiment but wanted to be proved wrong. 

“Knowing that it's possible to access the arts from home but now facing the notion that it will be taken away from us is a kick in the teeth. There must be a way to make such access profitable for both parties.

This threw me. I wasn’t aware Mererid had MS, or multiple sclerosis to give its full name. I certainly wasn’t aware of the full debilitating effects of the strength-sapping neurological disease for which there is currently no cure. Mererid explained to me later just how much her life had been changed by her illness. Several very large holes in what I’d written about the importance of keeping things live had just been exposed. One phrase of Mererid’s in particular stood out.

“This lockdown has been the first time I've actually felt included in society in a good while.” 

Early on in lockdown, a few Facebook friends took advantage of the NT streams, and were particularly effusive about One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s ‘60s seaside update of Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century comedy, A Servant of Two Masters. Where the original came out of the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition, One Man Two Guvnors took from similarly upfront end of the pier music hall.

With James Corden playing the lead, this made for much interplay with the audience, including a scene that is so ingeniously set up it looks like an accident. I’d seen the production both in London and Edinburgh, then again when Rufus Hound took over from Corden, so I knew what to expect, but it’s interesting that this was one of the scenes that stuck out for my mates. The fact that something so dependent on live interplay still works watching it online almost a decade on makes it doubly powerful.

It also reminded me that, back when I was too young or too skint to go out to watch things for real, broadcasts of plays and concerts had been one of my main in-roads into the arts in the first place. Moreover, rather than being a one-off, as with the current crisis-inspired deluge, this was how arts TV used to be all the time. The welter of activity may come through different platforms, but it’s nothing new.

Back in the three and four channel age, BBC Two and, later, Channel 4, would regularly broadcast films of live events. In the ‘70s, The Living Arts was BBC Two’s Saturday night arts strand, and would frequently have In Performance editions. This showed concerts and dance programmes in full from the likes of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Bolshoi Ballet. The focus was mainly classical-based, but there was always the Saturday night cabaret of The Wheeltapper’s and Shunters Social Club on the other side.

When Channel 4 started, you could watch entire performances by Pina Bausch’s company, or a TV opera by avant-pop trio, Slapp Happy. Right up until the ‘90s, the BBC would show films of plays on at the Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Festival Fringe in their entirety rather than a 30-second clip as part of a quick-fix round-up package. Sure, much of it was minority viewing, but, like Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, and like Graeae, it was about getting stuff out there that people tuning in might not normally get to see.

To be fair, BBC Scotland already picked up the slack a while back with a series of screenings of plays from A Play, a Pie and a Pint, the lunchtime theatre phenomenon that put Glasgow’s Oran Mor venue on the map. And the BBC broadcast of the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch a few years back was pretty special.

BBC Four has been making similar efforts since lockdown. The BBC’s Culture in Quarantine strand has put on a whole range of work, from performances by Michael Clark’s dance company to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s productions of Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. Somewhat ironically, all this arrived at a time when BBC Four is under threat of being cut. And if that goes, then what? We might have Reasons to be Cheerful and other self-generated online events such as Screen.Dance – Scotland’s Festival of Dance onScreen, that happened last weekend, but how to seize the means of production for good?

Someone said on Twitter that the online broadcasts of big theatre shows should be kept up permanently. That would be lovely, but I suspect it’s harder to achieve than it appears. I don’t have a clue how these things work, but I imagine it requires a complex tangle of necessary negotiation to make it happen, involving licencing, royalties and all sorts of other hoops those involved have to jump through.  

Warnings have already been sent out as well about streaming services and online broadcasts  creating expectations of audiences getting everything for free, and how this would potentially damage them in the way both the music industry and print media have already been disenfranchised. 

One thing’s for sure. Once the dust settles after the pandemic and its long-term consequences have become clear, part of the legacy of this era will be a huge archive of largely self-generated content that will have changed how we watch things forever.

The professionalised Culture in Quarantine type streams will be part of that, and so they should be. But when the annals of these strange and unsettling times are eventually written down or turned into some ghastly anniversary clip-show for future generations to admire our pluck, I hope they involve more than assorted Rolling Stones playing their greatest hits in their living rooms or Elton John doing likewise in his garden.

Instead, I hope the archivists and historians acknowledge the DIY, the ad hoc and those who don’t have the resources of a national artistic institution, but who made things happen anyway. Cryptic, Café Oto and Honeyblood should all be included. As should everything keeping artists and audiences going just now on YouTube, Zoom, Patreon, Insta and a host of other platforms that get stuff out there for those who, like Mererid, might not otherwise get to see what’s going on.

I hope the BBC, Channel 4, and maybe Netflix and Amazon too, have a think about just how much live streams have mattered to those who couldn’t get out, but who, like Mererid, suddenly had access to a world they’d largely lost. And I hope they’ll realise filming plays and gigs and live shows of every kind, all year round, is a lifeline to those like her who might otherwise miss out.   

Of course, online streams of plays and bands will never replace the thrill of being up close and personal to the onstage action in the flesh. But this isn’t an either/or situation. If you’re lucky and physically able, presuming there are still theatres and music venues left after the pandemic – and at the moment it’s not looking good - you can have the best of all possible worlds. For Mererid, new rules on social distancing regarding any alternatives to night time live shows probably aren’t enough.

“I’d argue that daylight shows are safer,” she says. “I remember not being able to attend a performance put on by some students of mine that incorporated a walk through the RSPB sanctuary because it was at night, after dark. My MS has affected both my vision and my balance, the former resulting in night-blindness and the latter in needing light to be able to keep my balance and not fall.”

So when Mererid says how “lockdown has been the first time I've actually felt included in society in a good while,” there’s nothing abstract about her words. They are her everyday reality, and all those well-meaning government-sanctioned task-forces, working groups and committees that are currently being put together, and who could probably do with someone like Mererid on board, should probably listen. And when she says how “Knowing that it's possible to access the arts from home but now facing the notion that it will be taken away from us is a kick in the teeth. There must be a way to make such access profitable for both parties,” they should listen some more.

If not, more fool them. Because, one way or another, companies like Graeae and all the others who’ve made themselves visible on their own terms over the last few months are likely to keep on keeping on, seize the means of production and do it anyway. And when they do, at least we’ll have one reason to be cheerful. So, yay us.

Reasons to be Cheerful is available until August 3rd at
All The Heroes Are Dead, Here We Are by Yay Us can be heard at

Eternal thanks to Mererid Williams, without whom this article would never have been written.

Bella Caledonia, June 2020



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