A COMPOSER'S BLOG

Tony Haynes, composer/director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.

69: RIP Gillian Hanna

Gillian Hanna

Gillian Hanna, one of the finest actors of her generation, died in August 2019, shortly after her 75th birthday.

I first met Gillian in 1971, when I went to Liverpool as musical director of a play commissioned by Alan Dossor, the recently appointed Director of the Everyman Theatre (see Post 55). The Braddocks’ Time, by Stephen Fagan, commemorated the achievements of legendary battling Bessie Braddock, Labour MP for Liverpool Exchange for 25 years, who had died the previous year. Gillian (who selflessly put on weight for the part!) was a blazing fire-ball of outraged energy, and the play not surprisingly was a huge hit.

The next time I worked with her (bar a Chistmas show where she uncannily pre-figured Boris Johnson in her portrayal of Toad of Toad Hall!) could not have been more different: Grusha in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle (1972). I doubt you will ever see a better characterisation: the steely determination was still there, but suffused with great tenderness. This too – paradoxically a deeply poetic production for which I provided my most original theatre music to date – also captured the heart of working-class Liverpool.

Alan had cannily set the play on a building site (rather than Brecht’s Soviet collective farm), and the climax was the burning in a cement-mixer of Thatcher’s Industrial Relations Act, denying workers most of their natural rights (which is the essence of the play). The Everyman at that time had a remarkable company of actors just starting out: Jonathan Pryce (the Singer/Narrator character), Roger Sloman (the maverick judge Azdak) and Alison Steadman among others. Later, Jonathan said that this was the experience that ‘politicised’ him, and that was true of the majority of the company, including myself.

We then went our separate ways for a couple of years, Gillian playing a variety of roles in, and I composing music for, different regional theatres which were then flourishing across the UK – though often we worked with the same directors or writers, notably Michael Bogdanov or John McGrath. We then came together again in 1975 in a brand new political theatre company, Belt & Braces – a curious amalgam which had emerged from 7:84 (in which both of us had been involved) and the Ken Campbell Roadshow.

In tune with the political idealism of the age, Belt and Braces was a collective. There were 12 members – two street performers, two actors (Gillian, of course; Jim Carter was the other!), two musicians, two singers, two writers (including David Bradford) and two directors – all of whom had to double up and learn each other’s skills. (I memorably learnt to walk on stilts and blow fire!).

All this was both a strength and weakness, but we  produced several highly acclaimed shows, which toured to an astonishing range of unusual venues across the whole UK. Productions included free versions of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, and a powerful new work The Front Line, which was commissioned by, and devised in collaboration with, trade union organisers in Newcastle from Vickers Armstrong and Swan Hunter shipyard. Then inevitably the cracks began to show…

The Company was in effect the brainchild of Gavin Richards (an alumnus of the Everyman, 7:84 and Ken Campbell) – a charismatic actor, accomplished writer and  musician. Gavin was an admirer of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, at that time in full swing; he was very much taken by David Hare’s play about this, Fanshen. Gavin thought the collective should have its own Fanshen; so for three gruelling weeks that summer we indulged in our own frenzy of self-criticism.

The three senior members (myself, Gillian and David) were accused of the ‘tyranny of experience’ (we were scarcely 30 years old!), thus inhibiting the creative development of the younger members. It was therefore agreed that the younger artists (who included Jeni Barnett and John Fiske) should take over the Company; Gillian and David would head up a theatre-only tour of its most recent show Weight; and I would form a band, RedBrass, and go on the road with it (which I did for nearly four years)..

The eventual outcome was that Gillian became a leading force in establishing the influential and long-lived feminist theatre company Monstrous Regiment, and I formed the Grand Union Orchestra; the rest, as they say, is history.

However, we did work together once more: I wrote the music for, and performed in, Monstrous Regiment’s touring show Mourning Pictures in 1981 (the same year that Jelly Roll Soul, which became the first GUO show, was premiered at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith). Through Mourning Pictures, Gillian met her lifelong partner Diane Gelon, whom she later married. I guess my lasting friendship with Gillian was cemented by our shared experience – whether exhilarating or traumatic! – and its profound influence on both our lives and our art. I also valued her support as a member of Grand Union’s Board of Trustees.

Gillian had no formal drama training – she was a graduate in foreign languages from Trinity College Dublin. Fluent in French and Italian, she put her skills to good use translating plays from those languages, notably Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Some may fault her technically, but this was more than compensated by the sheer humanity and empathy she brought to all her roles (even to Mrs Lovett in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd…), which few better known actors can match. Of her unfulfilled ambitions, I know we have missed her Hedda Gabler, and (as she recently confessed with characteristic mischievous irony) the consumptive heroines of French and Italian drama…

She held no grudges, just occasionally breathing an exasperated sigh ‘Oh what fools these mortals be!’ at behaviour that failed to live up to her own high standards. The qualities she brought to the stage – humanity, empathy and above all integrity – she also exhibited in her personal life. Gillian’s professional legacy is assured, and she will always be held in love and respect by those who knew her.

My musical tribute here is The Song of Invisible Labour. I wrote it originally for Belt and Braces’ The Recruiting Officer, with lyrics by David Bradford; it then became a staple of the RedBrass repertoire. Transferred from vinyl, sung here by Heather Jones, with Chris Biscoe on soprano sax, it’s my earliest recorded song. It has an elegiac quality, and the dilemma of the singer I think also reflects the spirit and ethos of Monstrous Regiment’s work…

In every life of boy or girl there are so many changes,
And this for me is such a time
I’m used to being in the picture
My working life meant little else than being looked at, envied or admired.

But now alone in house or flat, with nappies, brooms and dishes,
I work in an undercover sort of way,
While others beckon from the picture
My working life will leave me little time to look, to envy or admire.

Maybe it won’t seem sensible,
But do you think it’s possible,
For a girl to become invisible?
…help…help…help

 

 

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