Arnold Wesker and Centre 42

by ukcivilservant

Centre 42 was a touring arts festival and the forerunner of The Roundhouse Arts Centre in Camden.  It was created by playwright and ‘angry young man’ Arnold Wesker

Wesker wanted culture, in all its forms, to be available beyond the elite, and he criticised the Labour movement for neglecting the arts.  In response, the Trades Unions Congress passed a resolution on agenda item 42 to conduct an enquiry into the arts. Wesker’s initiative took the name Centre 42.

Centre Forty-two will be a cultural hub, which, by its approach and work, will destroy the mystique and snobbery associated with the arts… where the artist is brought in closer contact with his audience, enabling the public to see that artistic activity is part of their daily lives.

(Centre 42 Annual Report 1961-62)

There appears to be no history of Centre 42 so I am glad to be able to post the following reminiscences of Peter Rogers, whose role in Centre 42 he will explain himself.

Martin Stanley
Richborne Publishing

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“This short essay summarises the history of Centre 42 as seen (literally) from the cab of a bus or other transport, as a spectator at all the festivals, and as a friend of most of the main protagonists.

Centre 42 was set up by a group of individuals led by Arnold Wesker. The name came from Resolution 42 at the 1960 TUC conference – which said, in effect, that as the workers get more leisure it was important that commercial interests did not exploit it, and that the best in arts and entertainment should be available to them.  Some saw this as noble and worthy objective, others saw it as ‘nanny knows best’ arrogance.  I suspect there was an element of truth in both points of view,

The festivals resulted from invitations from local Trades Councils who were supposed to supply labour to help load and unload gear at the events, and to provide accommodation for artistes and travelling crew. Accommodation was indeed generally made available, but the supply of voluntary labour was very variable.

I first came into contact with Centre 42 in the spring of 1962. I had no interest in their objectives and indeed had barely heard of them until I came into contact with a young woman called Anne McCrae. I had been living the life of a journeyman bum since completing my Air Force national service in 1957. I had failed to settle in any job, and was camping in various friends and acquaintances homes and repairing television sets for a living.

Anne McCrae and two other girls were looking for two other people to share a flat in Warwick road in Earls Court, and I another friend agreed to move in.  My motivation was largely Annie, we became as they say good friends, but Annie’s’ main interest was Michael Henshaw, the Secretary of Centre 42. She volunteered to work for them and clearly decided Michael was a better long-term bet than me.

Suffice to say Annie introduced me to Mike and mentioned that I had worked as a commercial vehicle salesman and consequently could drive large vehicles.

Henshaw said that he was acquiring two London transport buses to use as transports for upcoming festivals around the UK and needed drivers. I was not terribly keen but he was persuasive, telling me what fun I would have and what interesting people I would meet. He then went on to tell me that he could barely afford to pay me but, after going through my expenses, rent and so on, concluded that I could manage on £8 pounds per week and he would pay me that plus luncheon vouchers.

That was how a week or so later I came to be sitting on the fuse box, in the cab of a London transport TD single decker bus, whilst it was driven round the outer circle of Regents Park by a driver from Dalston bus garage who instructed me on the dark arts involved in driving such a beast.

The TD deserves a word of introduction; they were probably the last bus supplied to LT that had crash gearboxes. They entered service just after the war and over 150 were delivered. They were not popular with drivers because of the dreadful gearbox, and tended to be used on the more suburban routes. By 1962 most of them were taken out of service and a large number were exported to Ceylon.

The cabs were very similar to those found on London buses right up until the Routemaster. They had a rudimentary cab heater, no fuel gauge ,vacuum assisted servo brakes, and no powered steering. The driver’s seat was not designed for comfort. The engine was a 7.7 litre Leyland diesel and there were four forward gears,. The bodywork was standard London transport of the time with a front entrance. They seated 30 passengers and had a top speed on a good day of 48mph. The difficultly with them was gear changing which required a little skill and some practice.

The first festival was to be at Wellingborough. Henshaw had engaged the services of the actor Anthony (Tony) Valentine, when he was available, to drive the second bus for this festival. (He was Tony’s accountant at the time.)  So my first task was to sit him on the fuse box while I drove round the park showing him the gearbox ropes. Tony (pictured below) was a very charismatic sort of bloke and having him around was a bonus as his very glamorous girl friend of the time Gabriella Licudi, also pictured below, who tagged along on most of the trips.

The three main players at centre 42 were as follows:-

  • Arnold was the director and I suppose for most of people the guiding light.  He seemed to possess a quiet authority that I found almost mesmeric. Arnold was then at the height of his fame “Chips with everything” was still running on Broadway. 
  • Michael Henshaw was the Secretary. He ran all the admin and, although he tended to look like a tax inspector, which had been his previous occupation, he could be a very confrontational character and not beyond getting involved in the odd punch up. Mike was to become famous in his own right as an accountant to the arts and media communities, his fame culminating in the scandal surrounding John Birt’s financial arrangements when Birt was the BBC’s Director General.
  • The festival director was Clive Barker who was a graduate of Joan Littlewoods’s theatre workshop in Stratford. Clive looked fierce but  was  in all respects a lovely man and worked his socks off during the festivals. I can speak with a little more authority about Clive as I stayed in touch with him for many years and witnessed him turn from actor to an academic. Alas, like Mike Henshaw, Clive is no longer with us, but I will always fondly remember him.

There were a number of other regulars at the time that could be found at the festivals or at headquarters at 20 Fitzroy Square W1. Among that number were Michael Kustow, who became a major figure in the arts world, and Geoffrey Reeves who was to become a theatre director. It was never clear to me what either of them did. Geoffrey Reeves seemed to have a great deal of self-confidence and was, I suppose, a bona fide intellectual, although he would let himself down sometimes by communicating in a language that could be understood by his fellow men.

The towns at which the festivals were to take place were Wellingborough, Leicester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Bristol, and Hayes/Southall in Middlesex. They were held at fortnightly intervals. I don’t remember the exact dates except Birmingham, which was the week of the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The programme was the same at each venue.

A play by Bernard Kops called Enter Solly Gold. This was directed by the Canadian Ted Koetchev and the cast included Leonard Sachs, Harry Landis, Max Bacon a former dance Band Drummer from pre war times, and Stella Tanner who was one of the singing group the Tanner sisters.

There would be a folk song concert to open the festivals and the performers would include Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger, Bert Lloyd, Francis Mc Peake,

Louis Killen and Bob Davenport. At that time the folk scene was very left wing so the programme was heavily influenced by song in praise of the gallant workers. Some of the folk singers would also appear each evening in various pubs around the town. Amongst those were the Ian Campbell group, and Anne Briggs.

The folk singing activities, were organised by a Scotsman called Bruce Dunnett

Bruce was at that time alleged to be a card -carrying member of the communist party. I believe in later life he became something of impresario in the folk world. So I don’t know how that worked. Bruce and Mike Henshaw did not get along and I remember, at the last festival at Southall, the two of them came to blows and had to be separated by us bemused onlookers.

There was a concert of poetry and jazz at each festival. The jazz was supplied by the wonderful Joe Harriot, Shake Keene, and the Michael Garrick trio.

The poets included Jeremy Robson who I believe was the organiser, Adrian Mitchell, and Christopher Logue. Poets would also give readings in works canteen at lunchtime. I not sure they were always appreciated.

There was a musical theatre production, which included a performance of Stravinsky’s Soldiers Tale with Julian Glover narrating and a work by Arnold called The Nottingham Captain, with two different scores – a classical version by Wilfred Joseph, and a jazz score by Dave Lee. The musicians who performed these works were magnificent and, if I remember rightly, expensive.

Once each week there would be a performance of a Folk Ballad called The Maker and the Tool, which was the work the BBC producer Charles Parker.

This was a highly regarded work in circles that were interested in such things, and included a vast amateur cast including lots of school children. Moving these people about was a logistic nightmare and involved driving hours that would land you in jail today.

There was also a weekly production of Hamlet by the National Youth Theatre. The main role was played by Simon Ward, later to find serious fame as an actor. Its founder Michael Croft ran the youth theatre in those days. The week would conclude with a dance with the music supplied by the Centre 42 big band.  This was a wonderful outfit put together by Tommy Watt, who was given funding to write a library for a big sixteen-piece band. The orchestrations were in the Basie, Ellington style and the personnel of the band were glittering array of top London session men.

The opener at Welingborough was the first time the musicians had seen the arrangements but the performance was staggering.   Tommy Watt led and played piano, Bob Burns led the saxophones and the great Stan Roderick the brass. Although the personnel tended to change from gig to gig the quality seldom varied. As you may gather I became a fan.

One of the things I discovered at Centre 42 were that musicians were generally easier to deal with and required less nursing than actors.

A bonus as far as I was concerned, of the band performances, would be the appearance of Benny Green who acted as compere at some of the venues, and also played between band sets using local musicians in his group. Benny, really was an amazingly erudite and amusing man who seemed to have great knowledge of many subjects.

All of the festivals had their own particular feel I particularly enjoyed the Birmingham and Bristol venues although it’s difficult to remember quite why.

As one might imagine a venture of this type brought with it all sorts of difficulties both foreseen and unforeseen. As I mentioned previously, we were dependent on local volunteer labour, organized by the trades council, when various loads of stage equipment turned up and had to be unloaded into venues on Sunday evenings. Frequently this labor was very sparse, particularly if the weather was not good. There was however always a hard core in every town that turned up. The generally held opinion was that these old reliables were card carry members of the communist party, and under instruction to attend.

Apart from their sponsorship of the operation, and the political content of some of the events, I was not aware of any great union or political activity on a day-to-day basis. The only exception was at the last festival in Hayes when there was a minor altercation between some of the volunteers and centre 42 staff who were setting up the lighting and sound for the big band event. In the midst of this commotion one of the volunteers said we ought to have a show of cards – cue embarrassed looks among the Centre 42 staff, including yours truly, as we did not possess a union card between us. However the moment passed and peace was restored.

It was during that final event that I was summoned with others to quell a dispute between Bruce Dunnett and Mike Henshaw. When I got there the two of them were grappling on the floor. I never did find out what it was about.

When the festivals were completed a series of inter festival activities were planned. I would from time to time be summoned to drive Clive Barker to various towns.  Clive had not taken up driving at that time, hence the need for my occasional services.

The last event I took part in was a performance by the band at the Colston Hall in Bristol probably in 1963.  The band turned up and, with various hangers on, wives, girlfriends, one or two local drug dealers, myself and two other Centre 42 retirees, I am afraid that collectively we outnumbered the paying audience.  This was a great shame as the band was in fine fettle. To make matters worse the caretaker spent the evening telling us about the appearance a week or so before of the Beatles, and how the place had been besieged be fans.  As we looked at rows and rows of empty seats in the vast hall, one had the feeling that the game was up.

After that the need to make a living meant I had no further official contact with Centre 42.”

Peter Rogers

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Postscript:- The Roundhouse

Although the festivals had been very successful, the organisers had been left with massive debts, and their offices in Fitzroy Square proved inadequate, so they needed a permanent centre. Prime Minister Harold Wilson offered to host a tea party at Downing Street to raise money for the initiative which led to Wesker and colleagues taking a lease of The Roundhouse in Camden. 

The Roundhouse closed in 1970 before reopening open as a permanent arts centre in 2006.