My Annus Mirabilis

Incidentally, in that same year I had another book published, Fifty Years On: Sunderland Drama Club 1925 to 1975, commissioned by the Drama Club where I was still doing a bit of acting as well as photographing their shows. I was a member of the Club so the writing was an unpaid labour of love but hey, I enjoyed doing it.

Three books in one year was pretty damned good but 1975 was also the year in which, for the first time, one of my plays had a professional production. It was The Passion, a version of the Medieval Mystery Plays which had been commissioned by the Sunderland-based Wearabout Theatre Company.

The focus was to be on the death and resurrection of Christ, but we did start with the Creation and then the Fall of Man, along with bits of the Old Testament (some of which was dropped during rehearsal because it was running over time) before coming to the Nativity, Christ's Ministry and the Passion.

I read every extant version of the Mysteries (York, Wakefield, Townley, Chester, N-Town and bits and bobs of others which had just survived in bits and bobs), selected what I felt were the best bits and, keeping as close as I possibly could to the original (retaining alliterative verse in places, for example) I "modernised" the text so it would be immediately understandable to a modern audience.

But one of the plays cried out to be changed into modern dialect: I rewrote the Shepherds' Play as if they were Mackems (inhabitants of Sunderland, my home) and, like us Mackems, they didn't half go on! A right bunch of argumentative misery guts!

It begins:

By mind, bur it's cauld and aa am ill-wrapped;
Me hands the frost hauds sae lang hev aa napped,
For us poor shepherds that waalk ower the moor
Hev been by the rich hoyed reet out the door.
An’ it’s nae wonder at aal that we are sae poor
For they rob ye aal ower them men wae are rich,
Waalk off with yer hyem, leave ye in a ditch.
And the tax! Ah why, what good’s it tae moan
Why taalk tae mesel’ waalking roond on me own?

It did a six-week tour of North East churches around Easter and has been revived on a number of occasions since, often by church groups across the country, the last time being when I directed it as a Customs House community production at Arbeia Roman Fort in South Shields in 2012. The weather was dreadful and, on the last day, the playing area was underwater so we had to move the production (cast of 22 and a choir of 11) and the audience into the Commander's House. Talk about squashed together! There's an old Sunderland saying: "all together like the folks of Shields" and boy, were we all together that night!

I was 32 and 1975 was my annus mirabilis, my wonderful year—a major exhibition and book, two other books, the first professional production of one of my plays. There’s never been another like it and almost certainly there never will be, given how ancient I now am (and feel!), but to have one such year in your life is enough for most of us, I think!