The day I met Arnold Wesker

On Sunday, the Royal Court Theatre hosts an appreciation of the playwright, who died in June. The renowned stage designer Pamela Howard remembers her friend.


Birmingham Repertory Theatre, March 1959. I am in the paint shop cleaning buckets. I am 19 and imagining this is how one begins a career as a theatre designer. The air is heavy with the smell of size glue and rabbit glue, and poisonous pigments.

In between cleaning the buckets, I am cutting out canvas ivy leaves, dipping them into size, and, when dry, wiring them on to lengths of rope that will be draped over the gaps in the scenery, where the flats depicting drawing rooms and grand houses never quite meet.

Into this mouse-ridden temple of the arts, suddenly comes a young man - an actor - and he actually speaks to us. This is extraordinary as actors never come up those black iron, spiral stairs. He has momentous news. He tells us that just "down the road" in Coventry, in the new Belgrade Theatre, some writers are putting on plays about "people like us," and furthermore, if the M1 Motorway is to be finished in time, he is going to hire a car and drive 45 miles to Coventry to see these plays, and stay overnight, or possibly even two nights.

He urges us to join him saying it is the most important event ever. We're shocked, and filled with disbelief. Don't be silly we say to the young Albert Finney (for it was he). No one is going to write plays about people like us! Rather primly we say we will have to ask our parents first. That night , I relate this to them, and my parents firmly warn that if I go, I will die of "motorway madness". Since this is the first motorway to be built, I believe them.

However, we three bucket-cleaners and ivy leaf-makers decide to defy fate, and I am deputed to leave a polite note in the young man's pigeon hole at the stage door saying we will go to Coventry with him.

The motorway opens, and tragically just before these plays are staged, the director of the Belgrade Theatre, Bryan Bailey, is indeed killed in a crash on the motorway. The other two girls drop out, but I am determined to defy fate and go, and so we drive those 45 miles to the theatre and see the last part of the Wesker trilogy.

I can't believe it. Not only are the plays totally different from anything I have ever seen, but they are beautiful and poetic to look at. There are no dead ivy leaves. Just a line of washing, a well-chosen chair, a perfect table - and the words! Who has written this, I wonder, and who has made this beautiful staging?

There's a small café, and we go to have a cup of tea. And then a tall, elegant lady comes up to us, and says she knows we come from the Birmingham Rep. She thanks us, and introduces herself as Jocelyn Herbert, the designer. She says she has been in Germany and met Bertolt Brecht and that's where she had learned to "place things beautifully in the space." Thus starts a lifetime's friendship.

I ask her timidly who has written these plays, and suddenly a little jovial man behind us says, "Well, actually, I have - I am Arnold Wesker," and sits down with us and asks us if we liked what we have seen.

"Oh yes," we say and explain that we are staying in Coventry to see them all and something called Look Back in Anger. "Well, that's not mine," he says dismissively.

Then he looks at me quizzically and says those familiar words: "Are you..?" And I say: "Yes" and I know we will go on knowing each other.

But, it was several years later, when my career was well on its way that we met again. I was working in France during the '70s and, in Paris, saw Ariane Mnouchkine's marvellous, spare production of Wesker's The Kitchen. This was the theatre I wanted to make.

Then, in Lyon at the Théâtre Nationale Populaire, I re-united with my old Jewish Study Group friend, the late and much missed Michael Kustow, who was also working there. We talked about the impact of the Wesker plays, and Michael told me he knew the Weskers well, and would introduce me. And so it was that Arnold and his wife Dusty (CEO of the Arnold Wesker Industry) invited me to Bishops Road dinners - famous for food and talk and arguments.

On the walls were paintings of artists they admired, Philip Sutton, Lisa Dalton and John Allit's wonderful, detailed paintings of Whitechapel life. Apart from words, Arnold loved and appreciated art, and was himself a good artist. He greatly admired the linear drawings of Feliks Topolski - as I did - and this consolidated our connection. There were many readings and even rehearsals in Bishops Road, and later Ashley Road, where Arnold could hear his words live, and we could gently make some suggestions.

In 1982, Arnold was writing his one-woman plays, and invited me to design Annie Wobbler, maybe his most autobiographical play, where an old charwoman in the East End transforms into a younger, ambitious writer and academic.

Arnold took me and the actress Nichola McAuliffe on research trips to the East End, passing places where my father's family, and Arnold's own family had lived. As we walked the streets, he began telling us his memories. This was the only time I remember Arnold talking freely about his roots.

The old flat in Fashion Street had barely changed; it still had the sinks and lavatories on the landings and a rickety wooden staircase. I made numerous on-site drawings, and later four acrylic paintings , and used the details to recreate the on-stage world of Annie Wobbler. It started at the New End theatre in Hampstead and went on to the Fortune theatre via the beginning of this story… the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

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