You remember the Millennium (or the “Minnellium” as Victoria Wood used to call it)? The start of a new era? A moment of great celebration? Full of hope for the future? The time when, at 00:01 hours on 1 January, computers would stop working, aircraft would fall out of the sky, hospital life-support machines would crash? And it probably meant the end of the world, or the Last Days at the very least.
But the dire predictions didn’t happen, did they? Because obviously they prepared for it. And obviously the world wasn't due to end. But a lot of people got very drunk, but then, that’s New Year, isn’t it? Lots of fireworks were set off all over the world, but then, that’s New Year! Nothing changed in terms of people’s lives, but then, that’s New Year Resolutions!
In the North East, we got a Millennium Bridge, connecting Gateshead and Newcastle. And we also got Millennium Place in Durham City, built on derelict land (used to be a handy, free car park at one time!) where the Library and the Gala Theatre and Cinema (and many a nice pub and restaurant) now stand.
And, of course, we got the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, begun by the Conservative government and completed by Labour under Tony Blair, now transformed into the O2 Arena.
Within the Dome, which was conceived as a kind of theme park and exhibition celebrating Britain (a kind of latter-day Festival of Britain), was a small theatre, The McDonald’s Our Town Story Theatre, funded by the burger company which invited every education authority in the country to produce a 20-minute piece of theatre and an exhibition celebrating “Our Town”.
South Tyneside, of course, wanted to be part of it, and Music Adviser Roger McKone invited representatives from every interested school to attend a meeting to discuss possibilities. At that meeting, it was decided that King George Comprehensive would provide the actors and singers, Mortimer the dancers, Springfield the musicians (led by their respective specialist teachers) and young children from Downhill Infants would be part of the cast. Harton would produce the visual arts exhibition. I was to write and direct the piece and Roger McKone was the producer.
South Tyneside’s history, of course, goes back to pre-Roman Celtic times and encompasses the Roman occupation, the life and work of Bede, Viking attacks, the industrial revolution, mining and mining disasters, shipbuilding and repair, deprivation, Ellen Wilkinson and the Jarrow Crusade, modern unemployment, and so much more. You could, in fact, take up the whole 20 minutes simply listing what had happened, so we had to be ruthless in cutting out everything but the most important (and we had a few disagreements there!). We also had to find a theme and a way of linking often disparate events together…
For the links, we wanted something (or some things) which people would immediately associate with the Borough, and the first that came to mind was Catherine Cookson, for every “Welcome to South Tyneside” road sign at the time described it as “Catherine Cookson County” and there was even a Catherine Cookson Trail, so we decided that one of the links would be two old ladies dragging the completely unwilling and bored out of her mind granddaughter of one of them around it—a beautifully sulky teenager!
The other was to be something which South Shields people were—indeed, still are—so familiar with that they never really notice: outside the Town Hall there are three statues, one of Queen Victoria and the other two of black marble naked nymphs carrying fiery torches. These three statues were to come to life, not as what they represented but as three women doing this as the only job they could get because their men were out of work and someone had to bring in the money.
We didn’t have the nymphs naked, of course, for the girls who played them were only 17 (former students from King George now at South Tyneside College), but we dressed them in black catsuits while Queen Victoria, of course, wore her signature black dress in eternal mourning for Albert. As they got down and flopped onto the plinths, they complained about how difficult and hopeless life was in South Tyneside, setting the scene for what was to come.
There were moments of humour, of course, as, for instance, when a Roman soldier sang “Arrivaderci, Jarra” as the Romans left Britain, but on the whole it was pretty miserable, which is why the cast rebelled and decided they wanted to focus on what’s good in the present and better in the future and not what’s bad in the past.
Actually, I can’t take credit for that idea. You see, we did have a bit of a rebellion early in the rehearsal period when they said just that. So I asked, “well, what’s good? Tell me.”
They did, and that—along with a very positive song called “When children rule the world”—provided the ending.
All sorts of great ideas came from everybody. The dangers of mining were encapsulated in a danced scene of a mining disaster and its effects on those left behind. The sight of those young infants carried in their stage mothers’ arms proved very emotional. I wrote new words to the traditional Scottish lament “The Flowers o’ the Forest” and the pure voice of one of the girls made them really tear at the heart.
Mind you, when South Tyneside hit London, we made sure we had our fun times. We went on the Eye, went to see Les Mis, visited Trocaderos and did all the touristy things because most of the kids hadn’t been to London before. For me, the only downside was having to eat McDonald’s during our day at the Dome, but as they’d paid for the whole thing—not just for us but for every other local authority that took part—I felt I could make that sacrifice.
But I really don’t like burgers.