THEATRE BOOK PRIZE for 2012
Announcement of the winner 2 May 2013
The London Palladium was the venue for this year’s presentation of the year’s crop of theatre books and the awarding of the prize for the best book on British Theatre published in 2012, the Society’s annual award.
Gathered in the Val Parnell Room theatre folk, publishers, academics and members of the Society were an enthusiastic audience for the judges’ presentation as well as enjoying the social mixing of such a diverse grouping – though all united in their enthusiasm for theatre.
The short list of titles, already announced some weeks earlier was a follows:
by Ian Kelly (Picador)
In Two Minds: A Biography of Jonathan Miller
by Kate Bassett (Oberon Books)
My Old Man: A Personal History of Music Hall
by John Major (Harper Press)
The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Drama
edited by Thomas Betteridge & Greg Walker (Oxford University Press)
Lena Ashwell: Actress, patriot, pioneer
by Margaret Leask (Hertford University Press/ STR)
In this elegant and newly-created space with a handsome glass dome and an elegant staircase leading down to stalls level, the atmosphere was humming when the formal proceedings began with Howard Loxton welcoming the Society’s guests.
This text of the formal proceedings may vary slightly from actual delivery but is based on draft texts and may not include some remarks not clear not clear on the recording from which it is transcribed.
HOWARD LOXTON (Chair of the Judges for STR)
On behalf of the Society for Theatre Research I would like to welcome you all to this year’s Theatre Book Prize Award and to thank you for coming. Even more thanks to the authors and the publishers – particularly those which specialist in theatre, who created the books that this award celebrates and of course to the Really Useful Group theatres for providing the venue and to Dewynters for printing our invitations.
Drury Lane being in the midst of refurbishment this move to another of Really Useful’s theatres was necessary but not inappropriate for we had a good clutch of books on music hall and variety theatre this year as you will see from the books on display to my right here and will hear from the judges when they speak about many of the books shortly.
First though it is time to congratulate those authors whom the judges selected as their short list from all the titles which publishers submitted from their books published in 2012 and to make a presentation to them I call on our President Timothy West.
TIMOTHY WEST then made the presentation to each of the short-listed authors who responded.
KATE BASSETT (Author of In Two Minds)
It is a great honour to be short-listed for this and a delight. Obviously I would like to thank Jonathan Miller for being a fascinating subject. He is a hugely wide ranging character and he is the funniest as well, which is a great delight. He was inordinately generous with his time and brave, he didn’t censor at all. I’d like to thank Oberon for being hugely encouraging. That part of writing was a delight, however, it was a mountain of work so being short-listed was a real treat, and I am very glad the Theatre Book Prize exists for encouraging future research.
THOMAS BETTERIDGE AND GREG WALKER (Editors of The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Drama), were not present to accept their award, nor was a representative from their publisher Oxford University Press.
IAN KELLY (Author of Mr Foote’s Other Leg)
This is a great day, who’d have thought it, for Samuel Foote who is in the race despite having only one leg. I should thank a few people who begat this mad project about a one-legged, forgotten eighteenth century comedian and the wonderful folk at Picador who had insane faith in Samuel Foote and in me. Lee Hall, the playwright and my dear friend, who suggested I look again at this project when we were working together at the National Theatre and also T.P. McKenna and Ray McNally, wonderful old gents of the Anglo-Irish theatre who first told me tall tales of this wonderful man. Thank you.
JOHN MAJOR (Author of My Old Man) being currently in New York his editor Martin Redfern accepted on his behalf .
I just want to say that sir John was utterly thrilled to be short-listed by such a distinguished group of judges. This is a book that is extremely close to his heart so thank you all very much.
MARGARET LEASK (Author of Lena Ashwell)
I want to thank Lena Ashwell for coming into my life many many years ago. She was such an extraordinary woman and I have sort of lived with her for twenty odd years, it’s an awfully long time but she was worth it and she has a terrific story. And I am delighted to have found her, and I am also delighted to have found the University of Hertfordshire Press and the Society for Theatre Research who published the book despite the fact that by then I was back in Australia, having done all the research and work in England. It is wonderful to be back in London and wonderful to be noticed by the Society in this way. Thank you, and I would thank my friends who have supported me, all my English friends who are here and have been fantastic throughout this process. I think they are sick of Lena but we have had a very good journey on the way. Thank you.
HOWARD LOXTON (to Timothy West)
That is the very first time one of the Society’s books has got on the short list.
Is it really! Well, I hope it isn’t the last.
Thank you Tim
Those are all great books, but how the hell do you chose between them. You’ll find out later.
I assure this year’s judges Penelope Keith, Gavin Henderson and Henry Hitchings did not find it easy, but once again the Society has been lucky to have such diligent judges who deserve all our thanks. The Prize, like the Society, has a remit that covers the whole of theatrical performance from magicians to Grand Opera, theatre history and theatre practice and like our membership the books have ranged from the very academic to those aimed at the mass market.
The diversity of our contemporary theatre is demonstrate in titles such as Anna Birch and Joanne Tompkins Performing Site Specific Theatre from Palgrave and University of Exeter Press’s two titles on British East Asian Theatre by Graham Ley and Sarah Gadwell, one a documented history with performance extracts on DVD, the other a collection of critical essays while another aspects of theatre culture is explored in Elaine Ashton and Geraldine Harris’s A Good Night Out for the Girls and Stephen Green’s Contemporary British Queer Performance both from Palgrave.
With two important lives in the short-list you will be hearing more about biographies later but this year they ranged from Marilynn Richard’s life of Irish dramatist Stewart Parker from OUP to Simon Callow on Dickens from Harper Press. Others include Tim Adler’s The House of Redgrave (or perhaps more aptly Richardson) from Aurum while Anthony Dunn considers The Worlds of Wolf Mankowitz in his book from Valentine Mitchell. Both imprints that I think have not previously published on theatre.
Studies centred on playwrights have included five volumes from Methuen Drama that seek to give the plays a context decade by decade with David Pattie handling the 1950s, Steve Nicholson the 60s, Chris Meson the 70s, Jane Milling the 80s and Alex Sires the 90s – while Katherine Weiss wrote specifically on Samuel Becket and Patrick Loner an (a former Theatre Book Prize winner) on Martin Macdonough – again from Methuen Drama, Vicky Angelika’s The Plays of Martin Crisp and Anthony Roche’s Brien Friel: Theatre and Politics both from Palgrave.
This year’s crop from Shakespeare academics has included Shakespeare and the Shrew by Anna Kamaralilli and Erika Lin’s Shakespeare and the Materiality of Performance both from Palgrave and Kevin Quarmby’s The Disguised Ruler in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries from Ashgate. The Quest for Cardenio is a collection of essays from OUP while Greg Doran writes about everything that led up to his staging of that apocryphal piece in Shakespeare’s Lost Play from Nick Hern.
Elizabethan and Jacobean drama also feature in Wiggins’ Drama and the Transfer of Power in Renaissance England from OUP, Mark Bayer’s Theatre, Community and Civic Engagement in Jacobean London from the University of Iowa Press and the intriguing Middleton and Rowley: Forms of Collaboration in the Jacobean Playhouse from the University of Toronto Press.
Moving on historically David Francis Taylor’s Theatres of Opposition looks at the dual role of Sheridan in politics and theatre and their overlap, that’s another OUP book, then we jump into the 20th Century with Ian Walsh on Experimental Irish Theatre After W.B. Yeats in his book, Clare Warden traces the development of British Avant Garde Theatre and Jeanne Colleran looks at Theatre and War, considering theatrical responses to war since 1991 for Palgrave. Then, embracing the whole of theatre history there is Benedict Nightingale’s Great Moments in Theatre, sometimes recreating them but often recording his own experience in his book for Oberon.
Oberon have also added more volumes to their series of miniatures with titles including Janet Suzman’s Not Hamlet – a strong plea for better roles for women, Peter Bowles; Behind the Curtain, on the job of acting, and they have also added some “How to” titles to their list.
“How to” titles aimed at students and beginners don’t usually fit the criteria for this prize, they are rarely original but when they present an overview or an historical perspective and this year they included Graham Murray’s How to Direct a Play and Jo Hawes’ Children in the Theatre from Oberon and Ross Prior’s Teaching Acting, from Intellect, which draws on experience of actor training on both sides of the globe.
Putting on Panto to Pay for Pinter isn’t a how to book but the story of decades of panto creation and performance at Salisbury Rep, an engaging read from the Hobnob Press. Stage Effect Sensations isn’t a “how to” either but a look at nineteenth century theatre spectacle by Harry Stone. One could wish that his publisher, Author House, had made a better job of reproducing its pictures.
The same publisher was also responsible for the prInting of the heaviest book to land on our doormats, and one of the most expensive, Gavin will speak of it later but you might like to know you can order it directly from the author on disc or for download at a much more attractive price
You certainly can’t complain about the printing of the two lavish photographic volumes we received: The Royal Ballet Year Book from Oberon and Michael Grandage’s memoire A Decade at the Donmar from Constable and Robinson are beautifully reproduced.
PROF GAVIN HENDERSON
It has been a marvellously diverse experience which I started off with Alan Stockwell’s forensic quest in Finding Samson Penley – prompted by a set of playbills in Tenterden, from Vesper Hawk, which then brings us as close as I’ve ever been to the trials and tribulations of the Georgian touring circuits. Here is a family with fingers in many theatrical pies around the South and South East, and for me, a Brightonian born and bred, a happy insight to the early Brighton theatre. Samson Penley is the guiding light, but the many Penleys and intermarriage with the Jonas family represent a remarkable dynasty with tentacles into Drury Lane, a major presence at the Theatre Royal Windsor, and the Patronage of George III and Queen Charlotte at Weymouth. Then a fascinating forage abroad – in The Netherlands, in France and the Low Countries. There is much detail on financial arrangements, and on repertoire. It is right that the names of Penley and Jonas now have such a well researched niche in the annals of late Georgian and Regency theatre.
The earliest roots of established professional theatre are well covered in Shakespeare’s London Theatreland by Julian Bowsher, published by Museum of London Archaeology – this is a good handbook, not just of the well known Bankside Playhouses and Bear Pits, but of the theatres which preceded this flourishing Southbank network – giving insight into the various places of entertainment which emerged on the fringe of the City of London perimeter – for the benefit of the apprentices. There is good background to social, economic, political, and ecclesiastical influences and constraints plus illuminating description of the design and construction of these playhouses and indeed the eponymous Theatre and The Curtain – now the subject of excavation and public access. This Museum of London publication also provides some helpful plans for exploratory walks around the various sites.
If this gives a comprehensive view of the theatres of Shakespeare’s time, Michael Pennington’s Sweet William, from Nick Hern, gives us a beautifully engaging, and utterly personal perspective of the plays which first came to life in these wooden Os. He analyses the plays, the characters, and Shakespeare’s life from the experience of his own life of performing a huge range of roles, ‘his 20,000 hours’ with Shakespeare, including a period as artistic director of the much missed English Shakespeare Company. The book has emerged from his one man show, with which he has travelled throughout Europe and the United States. It is both scholarly, and eminently readable – two facets that don’t always rest easily together!
There can be no more exhaustive labour of love than Rob Firman’s remarkable digest of The Theatres and Performance Buildings of South Wales, published by Author House. Here is a compendium of the great and the small – from Adelina Patti’s private opera house to the Wales Millennium Centre, via the many working men’s halls and institutes with an epitaph for the fallen – the lost theatres and music halls, but a surprising number of new venues as well. This is very much an architectural story rather than a history of Welsh performing tradition – but that inevitably seeps through.
Two books on Music Hall complement each other well – Chaplin’s Music Hall by Barry Anthony, from I.B. Tauris, traces Charlie’s childhood in south London, just as John Major gives a heart warming view of his father’s life on the halls – My Old Man – and he too lived in the tight knit community of musical hall and variety artists residing in the Lambeth, Brixton and Southwark area. It is cheering to think that the sons of such tradition, often in dire poverty, could grow up to be a pioneering super star of the silver screen on the one hand and Prime Minister on the other. A similar rags to riches story is captured in The Astaires by Kathleen Riley – concentrating as it does on the stage life of brother and sister Fred and Adele … with an endearing view of Adele literally cartwheeling into the disapproving Devonshire family’s life at Chatsworth, and a poignant picture of life before Ginger and the big movies, but underlining what a basically decent chap was the fastidious craftsman Fred.
Craft is what comes through in May the Farce Be With You by Roger Foss, from Oberon, a thorough appraisal of what is truly an artform in itself, showing that we too easily dismiss the many classic comedies as commercial pot boiling. Comedy, indeed perhaps the birth of ‘standup’ comes shining through in Mr Foote’s Other Leg by Ian Kelly, published by Picador. This finely judged narrative takes us from the melodrama of Samuel Foote’s murderous uncle, through destitution and the debtors’ jail, via Charles Macklin’s first professional drama school above a Covent Garden coffee house, where Foote was counted as equal a budding star as his fellow student David Garrick. He sees the funny side of everything – including the amputation of his leg, turning to advantage Royal accomplice in the riding accident which brought this about to secure Royal patent for the theatre in the Haymarket – thus breaking the duopoly of Covent Garden and Drury Lane. This is a thoroughly entertaining read, whilst also being a meticulously researched insight into the drama and society of its time.
Whilst I had a vague idea as to how many books were published annually in the United Kingdom, approaching a quarter of a million I believe. I had absolutely no concept of the number of books published about or remotely connected with the theatre. I was soon to be enlightened! As the pile grew higher by the day, the arrival of the 52nd book almost lost me the will to live.
I was delighted that there were so many books about the history and stars of music hall and Sir John Major’s book My Old Man, published by Harper Press, was especially rewarding, tracing the history of Music Hall back to the 18th century. Although it is called “My Old Man”, there is only one chapter devoted to his father. A fascinating insight into the hardship, low wages, unscrupulous theatre managers and sheer resilience of the entertainers. A glimpse through the General Index will rekindle our memories of those who are no longer with us and continue to bring a smile to our face. Fortunately for us, we still have Ken Dodd, a chip off the old Music Hall block if ever there was one. There likes will never be seen again.
Oliver Double’s Britain had Talent: A History of Variety Theatre. The Story of Variety’s Golden Age gives another perspective and takes us into the age of Variety from the Victorian era and how it evolved in the face of competition from cinema and radio through to its decline during the 1950s. However, some of artist transferred to television, names from my childhood, Vera Lynn, Ronnie Ronalde, the Beverly Sisters, Roy Hudd, strong women Joan Rhodes who would bend nails and tear telephone directories, and still performing today, Barry Cryer. The legacy being, the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent”!
Tales from the Palace Theatre, created and published by Southend’s Palace Theatre Guild and Mark Jones’s Heyday of the Hippodrome from Bright Pen, concentrate on the two specific theatres.
Heyday of the Hippodrome is fascinating story of how the Royal Hippodrome, Eastbourne adjusted and adapted to the phenomenon of the radio in the turbulent mid 1920’s and in later years the repertory theatre, whilst always keeping its toe in the world of variety. Pressure groups were formed in the early 20’s in an attempt to ban the BBC from live broadcasting from the variety halls. Radio was predicted to be the death of the variety theatre. Ironically, the entertainers turned it to their advantage, adopting the message, “You have heard him on the wireless” to lure the audience into the theatre. A fascinating insight into the “Royal”.
Tales from the Palace Theatre, is the story of a constant battle to survive seen through the eyes of various performers’, directors and managers.
Two biographies of modern actors were of special interest. The Front Legs of the Co” by Susannah Corbett, the daughter of Harry H. Corbett, published by The History Press, is an intimate and illuminating history of her father’s life, born in Burma and at the age of 18 months sent to England and raised in Manchester by his Aunt Annie. His wartime service with the Royal Marines returned him to the Far East and hand to hand combat in New Guinea, witnessing the horror of Hiroshima. After the war he sought a career in acting, becoming a leading light in the early days of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, through to his most famous portrayal as Steptoe’s son. A moving and yet entertaining opening of a window on his life. He was taken from us at far too early at the age of 57 in 1982.
The book that was for me a real page turner was the University of Hertfordshire Press biography of Lena Ashwell by Margaret Leask and I learned for the first time that Miss Ashwell was crucial both for the advancement of women in the English theatre and for the formation of the National Theatre. A lady largely neglected in theatre history, to use common parlance, “airbrushed out”.
All in all, an enjoyable but time consuming arduous task
One of the pleasures of judging a prize of this kind is that you are introduced to subjects you didn’t even know existed.
A case in point: Graeme Kent’s The Strongest Men on Earth, published by Robson Books, is, according to its subtitle, about ‘when the muscle men ruled show business’, but on closer inspection it turns out that some of those muscle-bound rulers were actually women. I can’t help feeling that Mr Kent missed a trick by not writing
. For instance, I’d like to have heard more about Josephine Blatt, otherwise known as Minerva, who every evening ate a steak with three eggs and two salads, and once lifted 3,564 pounds using a harness – that’s seventeen of me, in case you’re wondering.
Another book that stood out for me, for different reasons, was Angela Escott’s The Celebrated Hannah Cowley. Published by Pickering and Chatto, this is the first substantial study of an eighteenth-century writer who was a big name in her day and is now coming back into fashion. I have to admit I didn’t know much about Hannah Cowley until I saw an excellent revival of her play The Belle’s Stratagem at Southwark Playhouse a couple of years ago. But I’ve since become interested in this playwright, of whom the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says: ‘In an age when many people were unable to read and appreciate the arguments put forth in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, her popular challenging of traditional roles was of overriding importance in the wider dissemination of feminist views.’ Angela Escott’s book picks up where the DNB leaves off. It is a timely work of recuperation.
There were a couple of other ‘scholarly’ books that stood out for me. One was Mark Bayer’s Theatre, Community and Civic Engagement in Jacobean London (from the University of Iowa Press). Not a title to set the pulse racing, but Bayer’s book strikes me as an important contribution to theatre history. It explores early seventeenth-century playgoing by looking closely at the history of two amphitheatres, the Red Bull and the Fortune. Bayer mentions at one point that in 1616 the company known as Queen Anne’s Men moved their operations from Clerkenwell’s Red Bull to the Cockpit in Drury Lane. Incensed by the idea of having to walk an extra mile to see their favourite company, theatregoers rioted in disgust and stormed the new venue, cutting up the actors’ costumes and burning their texts. It’s quite an image, though Bayer makes the point that walking a mile was a bit harder then than now, as the paving was ‘ankle-twistingly bad’.
Even more impressive is the Oxford Handbook of Tudor Drama. As the title suggests, this comes from Oxford University Press; it’s edited by Thomas Betteridge and Greg Walker, and is the sort of single-volume map of current scholarship that you can imagine actually defining future research in its field. It contains 38 essays on some distinctly recondite subjects. An essay on ‘Lusty Juventus’ turns out not to be about the Italian football team of that name, but about a morality play in which a young man treats life as if it’s a dream. (And he’s not even a theatre critic.) Joking apart, this is an impeccably produced volume, very good on the forms of drama that don’t tend to be examined in histories of theatre but are nevertheless essential to an understanding of Tudor artistry. For instance, there is a chapter on the coronation of Anne Boleyn, in which a procession of boats on the Thames was staged with great pageantry and aplomb – complete with the descent of a mechanical falcon. It is perhaps a shame that the book wasn’t available in time to be consulted by more recent organizers of such events.
Less erudite yet perhaps of wider immediate appeal is Julius Green’s book How to Produce a West End Show, published by Oberon Books. Covering subjects such as how to budget a production, the practicalities of hiring a theatre, casting, marketing and cutting your losses, this is a useful, lucidly written book. How-to guides aren’t always readable; this one is, and absorbing its lessons would save some wannabe producers a lot of money. My only complaint is that there is no index.
Finally, I’m delighted to have the opportunity to praise Kate Bassett’s biography of Dr Jonathan Miller. Entitled In Two Minds, it’s another success for Oberon Books. I read it over Christmas – initially thinking I was being dutiful. It turned out to be superb. I should hasten to say that the subject of this book was pretty familiar to me. But I learned a huge amount about this complex man and his intellect; Bassett shrewdly makes the point that being a doctor and being a director are not so very different. It was Jonathan Miller who once described a noted theatre critic as coming down on his work ‘like an ounce of bricks’. Here there’s no need for feeble censure or faint praise. I’m not ‘in two minds': this is a fine and necessary book. In the crude yet expedient shorthand of the trade: five stars.
Thank you Henry, thank you Penelope, thank you Gavin.
Now, what you’ve come here for. You want to know what has won don’t you? Yes…. If this was on television there would be music and you would have to wait for ten minutes, but I am simply going to ask Timothy West to announce the winner.
Before I do that I would like, as President, to so warmly thank Penelope, and Henry and Gavin for the enormous work this has meant for them. They have been kind enough to say they enjoyed it but it is a vast amount of reading and it can’t be done half-heartedly – and they have put an enormous amount of energy into it. I’m very grateful, we are all very very grateful.
However, this is what you have come to hear and that is that the winner is Ian Kelly for Mr Foote’s Other Leg!
I am an actor and I am speechless. I’m useless without a script and I say in all honesty I didn’t prepare anything to say because I assumed this would not be happening. Thank you. Thank you for your warm embrace of this man and this subject. Oh gosh! I love theatre and theatre history in particular. I feel a little bit of a fraud in some regards in that I started off with Picador saying “trust me, I won’t be writing too much about theatre history because I thought that was going to be a tough task with a forgotten comedian and a largely neglected area of the theatrical canon. But there is something rather important I hope. Just the other day I was at a memorial service at the Actors Church in Covent Garden for the wonderful Roger Hammond, whom I know some of you knew and loved and worked with as I did. I sat just beneath the plaque for Charles Macklin, who appears in my book. He murdered a young colleague of his backstage at Drury Lane having had an argument over a wig. It also, please don’t be embarrassed by a hone going off yet again, I am reminded of the opening night of Pitman Painters on Broadway when the phone rang all the way through the first five minutes of a play set in the 1930s in Northumberland, as you may know, until it became apparent that it was in the pocket of one of the actors on stage. Never mess with Geordies.
There was also just by me a plaque for an actor of the 10th century and it said underneath by way of an epitaph – I sais “a talented player of small roles. Well, there is something wondrous, and a joy we share: theatre. It’s an evanescent art form. But that is so much the power and importance of it.
And I suppose of trying to write about it. I was asked to write about the connections between my books the other day – I write about food and history and stuff and I wrote a biography of Casanova. I was saying to my wife I was struggling with what the connection is and she said it is all to do with evanescence: food, comedy and sex – apparently. Sorry, my point was attempting not to be too frivolous. This was born of wonderful tales told by old actors backstage. One of the joys of working in the theatre is that that you learn not onstage, nor necessarily, forgive me, from the writers and directors but from, the cast as well. I had some pause to reflect upon the wonderful outpouring of warmth for Dickie Briers, who was tremendously good to me early in my career. But he came to see me backstage in a comedy in the West End and said, by way of a comment I suppose, he said “my daughter tells me you also write” – which was his critique of my performance.
I’m sorry, I really only have to say, on behalf of this lost figure, this book and this story meant the world to me and thank you for embracing it and him and what Picador and various people in this room who helped me on this project were trying to do. Thank you.