Bob Eaton was Artistic Director of the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry from 1996 to 2003. During that time, he wrote and produced Three Minute Heroes, a “jukebox musical” about a young Ska band in Coventry, set against a background of the same events that inspired Ghost Town.
Here he talks to me about why it was so important to him to
put on a play about the Two Tone era, how he approached writing it and what
Coventry is like today.
First can you tell us a bit about your background. Are you Coventry born and bred?
No. In fact, I was Manchester and Liverpool during the Two-Tone era. So, really, my experience of Two Tone was much the same as the rest of the country - seeing the Specials and The Selecter on Top Of The Pops.
So how did you come to write Three Minute Heroes ?
I started work under Peter Cheeseman at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke on Trent. He pioneered the idea of developing work for the stage that was based on real local events, which made me think a lot about how theatre relates to the community - the ‘soil in which it grows,’ as it were.
There was also a bit of me that was a bit of a wannabe rock ’n roller who had been persuaded to do my exams and go to university instead... I guess that was why, in the late sixties and early seventies, I started developing the idea of what these days you’d call ‘jukebox musicals,’ using actors who were also musicians, which was a new idea back then. When I went to the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool in 1981, I put on a show called Lennon, which is still being produced now. That was a local story, and timely, as he’d been killed the year before.
So when I came to the Belgrade Theatre, I knew from the start that I wanted to do something about Two Tone, even if it took me a few years to get round to it. It was a local story, it was exciting, and it had a political dimension to it. I spent a long time talking to people like Pauline Black, Neol Davies and James Mackie from the Selecter, and Horace Panter and Roddy Byers from The Specials, finding out how Two Tone had come about for them.
It was a strange period musically. Punks and latter-day mods were coming together with musicians with a soul/funk/Caribbean background. And then you had people like Pauline, who was mixed race but had grown up in a white (adoptive) family, and (as she herself says) the nearest she had come to Caribbean music was Joan Armatrading.
At the same time, this wave of fascism and racism was building, and musicians were reacting to that.
Three Minute Heroes wasn’t a documentary. We decided to tell it as the story of a group of young musicians coming up in the wake of bands like The Specials. We had five young actors, some of whom could play a bit. And then we had a live band, directed by Akintayo Akinbode.
As well as the joys of the Two Tone era, Three Minute Heroes also addresses the rising tensions between skinhead and Asian youths, and the protests that followed the murder of the young student, Satnam Singh Gill. How did you go about portraying those events on stage?
We dealt with it indirectly, I guess. One of the members of the band – a Rasta – is set upon in the Precinct late at night and badly beaten up. Their roadie – the unmusical one who feels a bit left out - becomes a skinhead. But then, appalled by the violence he sees around him, joins CovWAR* and goes on vigilante patrols.
[*Coventry Workers Against Racism – which in my novel became CovARA – the Coventry Anti-Racist Alliance]
And though the band breaks up, they come together again one last time to play at The Specials’ Concert for Racial Harmony.
Your play had two seasons at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, in 2000 and 2001. How was it received by a Coventry audience?
The audience was always very mixed – but on the nights that were the most packed, there were a lot of men of a certain age and waist size – ex rude-boys, jumping on stage and dancing at the first opportunity.
On one amazing night, after the end of the show, the band on stage was joined by Neol Davies, then Pauline Black, then Horace Panter ...
I’d love to put it on again. I’ve been talking to the current Artistic Director at the Belgrade.
There was a screening a couple of years ago, at Coventry’s Two Tone Central, wasn’t there?
Screening is a bit grand. It was a video I’d shot on a hand held camera, with the stage half-blocked out by someone’s bald head. I think about seven people came.
Earlier this year, you were involved with Shaun Prendergast’s Re-Creation Quartet, shown as part of Coventry’s Mysteries Festival. Can you tell us a bit about that?
The Re-Creation Quartet was a cycle of four short plays focused on different periods in Coventry’s history, each one to be staged in a different square in Coventry. The last of the four plays was a Two Tone story. Shaun didn’t really know the history, so I more or less re-wrote that one.
We worked with kids from Ego Performance, and we had a band, including Harrington Bembridge, the drummer from The Selecter. They performed it in Broadgate, which is now all pedestrianised. We had kids of all races dressed up in 2-Tone gear. Skinheads with shaven heads. Maggie Thatcher and Arthur Scargill on stilts. Dancing riot police. The audience were all skanking.
Those kids were all far too young to remember the events from first time round. But they were all so into the whole 2-Tone thing, it makes me think maybe its time has come again.
[Click here and scroll down to see some fabulous pictures of the performance from John Coles ]
You still live in Coventry now. How would you describe the city today?I think it’s much more chilled. A nicer place to live. It had a bad reputation at one time for late night violence, but that’s all abated. For my kids, growing up in Coventry, racism isn’t even a question. There are poorer areas of the city of course – Foleshill Road and Stoney Stanton Road. But unlike some cities, it isn’t ghettoised. People from different backgrounds mix.