By Brian Jarman
If you’re running a theatre and need government funding, putting on a play in which the Prime Minister does a striptease is perhaps not the most sensible strategy.
But then Philip Hedley never was one to take the easy way out. He became Artistic Director of the pioneering Theatre Royal, Stratford East in 1979, taking over from the notoriously feisty and forthright Joan Littlewood. Then the theatre was struggling.
‘I always used to bite the hand that fed me,’ he says, outside a cafe near his flat on Tottenham Court Road where he’s lived for thirty years. ‘Within six months I was asked to the Arts Council for a meeting – all men in suits and the top brass.
‘They started by asking if, given all the problems, it was worth continuing. I said I’d stay for three months until they appointed someone else. I invented everything I’d always wanted to do that we were going to do over the coming years.’
Only one of them came to pass. He’d heard that the director Lindsay Anderson wanted to do a production of Hamlet.
‘That embedded me,’ says Philip. The Theatre Royal went on to have its most successful year ever, and Philip stayed for twenty five years.
‘If you cut down on your risk tasking, you’ll certainly go down,’ he says. ‘It’s guaranteed. That’s a battle you must fight.’
The stripping Prime Minister appeared in the 1980s in a play by Barrie Keeffe who was writer in residence at the theatre. He went on to write plays such as The Long Good Friday, which became a successful film.
‘We had a naked Mrs Thatcher. She came on in her full outfit and as she announced cuts she did a striptease until she only had her hat and shoes on. Questions were asked in the House – why we were attacking Mrs Thatcher with Government money and so on.’
Philip was born to a working class family in Manchester in 1938 but spent his teen years in Australia and started his love affair with the theatre at Sydney University where ‘on paper’ he studied English and Education but became more and more involved in drama.
‘You didn’t study theatre then. There were no courses for directors.’
And fittingly enough his lightbulb moment came when he arrived in London and went to the Theatre Royal to see a Ben Johnson play, Everyman in His Humour. He heard two tea ladies chatting in the cafe beforehand.
‘The real Cockney accent was new to me then,’ he says. ‘I delayed going into the theatre because I wanted to hear their stories. When I went in the play was just the same as the two ladies – the same rhythm, sparkiness and immediacy. It was stunning.’
He went backstage afterwards to look for Joan Littlewood.
‘I asked if there was anything I could do in the theatre. I was very inarticulate. Twenty years later I was running it.’
From there he went on to the E15 Acting School, but soon realised he was more of a director than an actor, and spent a few years freelancing around the country and the world – ‘from West End musicals to a school playground in Khartoum.’
Then destiny took him back to see Joan Littlewood and she gave him a five hour interview to be her assistant.
The time he spent with her, he says, was wonderful and hell.
‘She was demanding and challenging, she was wonderful and hell,’ he says. ‘She used to attack people and eventually she went for me. She accused me of everything conceivable, down to my progeny and my testicles.’
But when she retired two years later he took over from her and began to make his own mark on the theatre’s work.
‘Newham was changing,’ he says, ‘becoming one of the most multicultural boroughs in Britain. I grew to believe in community theatre in the sense of it reflecting the community. It became a case of attracting Black and Asian artists and benefitting from their talents. It kept it dangerous and exciting. They were hard times.’
It started with the country’s first black principal boy in Jack and the Beanstalk. Since then the hero or heroine in the theatre’s annual pantomime has always been black.
Then in 1990 came the international success of Five Guys Named Moe, based on the music of American bandleader Louis Jordan who was known as King of the Jukebox. It transferred to the West End and Broadway.
The Theatre Royal set up musical theatre workshops for local writers and composers.
‘It took ten years for the Arts Council to catch on,’ says Philip. ‘We ticked all the boxes before they even thought of boxes – new work, reflecting the community, involving audiences.’
And in 2004, just before he retired, the theatre put on the country’s first black British musical, The Big Life. Using Reggae and Hip hop, it looks at the generation of people who came to Britain from the Caribbean on the Windrush after the war. It went on to become a West End hit, and Philip was the first individual to be given the Arts Council’s Eclipse award for combating racism in the theatre. A year later he was awarded the CBE.
Over the years the Theatre Royal Stratford East has nurtured many of our favourite actors such as Michael Caine and appropriately some of the stars of EastEnders, like Barbara Windsor and Anita Dobson.
Anita was one of his favourites. ‘She was a real company member,’ he says. ‘She’d even wash up the cups and glasses in the Green Room.’
It’s the West End, however, where Philip has made his home.
‘I’ve developed a phobia of the long rows of houses in suburbia. I like to live on the Monopoly board and then I know I exist.’
And he can walk to visit his 90-year-old mother in Portman Square. As he does so, he passes the blue plaques that tell of the area’s heritage, such as the one to Francisco de Miranda, the forerunner of Latin American independence at the Venezuelan Embassy in Grafton Street. Here he met the revolutionary Simon Bolivar.
‘It’s a joy to walk past that house and think that once in the front room were the leaders of the revolution in South America,’ he says.
It’s Fitzrovia’s sense of rebelliousness that he values. And he should know.