Con was a wiry Irishman with eyes like coals, The lines:
‘You could tell at a glance
When he took up his stance
That he sailed in The Irish Rover’
could have been written for him.
In spite of being a true Swansea Jack who was not of the Welsh-speaking, chapel-going, rugby-following tradition of my side of the Loughour, he had to endure the enforced Welshness of prounouncing all his ‘S’s as ‘Ll’s’. This exotic speech defect turned Swansea into Llwanlli. Not that this cost him any respect or fear from the crew. In fact, I never remember any banter about this, either to his face or behind his back. And most of us were under 25. Con could and would do anything associated with putting on a show, and made the rest of the crew want to match him.
In spite of not being as Welsh as the Urdd Gobaith Cymru would have liked, it was Con who told me why the Welsh call each other ‘Butt’, and explained a lot more in the process:
‘..because down the mines, it’s easier to shovel coal into the dram if you work ‘butt – to – butt’ with someone. You use each other as support. So the man you worked butt to butt with was naturally your ‘Butty’. Then the Yanks got hold of it from Welsh miners in Pennsylvania, and because they can’t talk tidy, it became ‘Buddy’, and now they think they own it. Typical.’
John Chilvers. Manager and saviour of the theatre, leading the campaign in 1968.
Bill. (head electrician) How anyone could balance so much electrician on such a rickety ladder was a miracle. And always in the same knitted blue jumper.
Adas/Sebbs. (son of Con.)
Viv Ellacott. Front of House manager
Maurice. (stage doorman, flyman.) Would sit in the wrecked horsehair sofa in the flies, smoking his pipe and doing the Times crossword between cues. He read the Times from cover to cover every day, and thought that Pinter and Wesker were now very past-it. He seemed in his 60’s to me at the time, and had obviously been well educated. He was a classic Gent, if a little down on his financial luck, or merely eccentric – possibly working in the Grand to smell former glories? He invited speculation and enquiry, and as young men in the late Swinging 60’s, we ignored his story completely, and treated him with as little respect possible. He cleaned the toilets.
Else. (fly chargehand) With the roguish Mexican moustache. About 20. Knew the ins and outs of the flies by heart. Operating a snowbag, running a brail line, setting a dead on the line… everything. If he’s not running a stage now, he’s probably making a lot of money from selling something or other. Favourite song: ‘Coal Miners In The Sky’
‘And when they got to Ammanford they found they’d been forsook.
For poor old Donald Piers had fallen in his Babbling Brook.
You hear them call
“We want no small!”
Coal Miners in the sky…’
Favourite local figures of fun:
‘The miners from the valleys in the TopRank on saturdays in they wellies.’
John. (flies. oppo of Else)
There were two ways up to the fly floor. Directly up from the stage by the long wooden ladder with the square rungs worn and polished by thousands of feet, and through the trap; or through the door on the prompt corner, up a flight of stairs and up a short ladder and through a white plank door with a large iron handle. Either way, the first thing you saw and smelt was the giant rug of the ropes squiggling everywhere.
Get ins and get-outs.
Welsh N.O. which lasted all night and saw us carrying naked (plaster) women across the road to the bus garage, where everything was kept, and then going for breakfast in the Volunteers where the milkman’s horse would put his head through the door for his Guinness.
As a casual, I only worked the shows which needed at least 3 flymen. Either this meant there was a load on one bar which needed 3 to raise it, or there were two cues happening at once. Most of the time I remember there were four of us.
At the technical rehearsal for each show, the flats and borders and lighting bars were carefully flown into their positions for the performance, and each line of the three in each set levelled off. The set would then be first tied around the bottom cleat on the rail, then the top cleat, and coloured tape used to mark each line at the top of the oak rail. The In Dead.
Once this had been set, the bar would be flown out until it was out of sight, and the position marked in the same way. The Out Dead. For a big performance, most of The Grand’s twenty-odd bars would be needed.
At the same time in the rehearsal, the flying needed would be plotted and cues noted along with any special requirements, such as the speed of the haul or drop. This was Else’s job, as was dropping the ‘iron’ or fire-curtain.
On the big night, when our big moment came, Con would reach the first fly cue in the book and press the standby button. The red light alert would glow on the flyfloor, and we stood by our cleats. If we were dropping a bar, the ‘cleat man’ in the scrum-half position would untie the lines from the top cleat, and take the locking turn off the bottom cleat, leaving the set curling against itself around the bottom arm of the bottom cleat, the whole load kept in place by friction and hand pressure.
On the green light, it was simply a matter of relaxing the angle on the turn, and allowing the set to slide until the In Dead reached the rail, and the shimmering landscape of Old Baghdad was revealed to gasps of wonder…
When in place, the set was deftly snaked around the rest of the bottom cleat – and then the top one, with almost one movement, like a cowboy or sailor in action.
It would all depend on the weight. A very heavy bar might need two men to anchor the drop – that is, to form a little tug of war team against gravity – plus an extra turn around the bottom cleat to add enough friction on the line to stop several thousand pounds worth of lanterns plummeting through the stage. When I worked my first theatre with counter-weights, I thought it was very dull.
Flying a bar out was generally a two-man job, at least. At the green light, Else (generally) would undo the top cleat, then everyone would haul until the dead was reached while Else dropped to his knees to undo the bottom cleat, and take up the slack while we would take the strain in best sea-shanty fashion. When the dead reached the rail, Else would tie off the set in its double figure of eight knot. First at the bottom,. then the top. To this day, I get irritated when people tie their window blinds off sloppily, in a random, a-symmetrical fashion. Don’t they realise they’re doing it all wrong!?
When the load needed five or six, as it sometimes did, we drafted reinforcements from the stagecrew. One backdrop for the Welsh National Opera’s Magic Flute consisted of a curtain of aluminium poles the width of the stage. It took at least six of us to get it into position, hauling it up a foot or two at a time, with two of us using the tactic of the Human Counterweight, jumping from the flyrail, using our combined body weight to drag the Hall of the Mountain King or Prince Charming’s Ballroom away into the cobwebby dark of The Grand’s flytower. I can truthfully say that at that time I was worth my weight in lead.
The sight of a skilled stagehand throwing a line around the cleat on a 20 foot flat.
At this time, The Grand still had a set of authentic old acetylene lime-lights. The contraption, which was in the top control room, was a mass of stalactites and stalagmites. Run by the teenage Alan, and his mate, who was no older than 14.
Panto. The crowds of pinky-blu chorus dancers crammed into the old dressing rooms near the stage, mostly toughened circuit professionals who could drink any of us under the table, but never did, choosing instead to tease us rotten.
The monstrous Welsh National Opera productions crammed into the Grand, with enormous gilt scenery and crowds of undressed gilt chorus girls and dancers which caused cues to be missed in the fly floor on more than one occasion. One notable popera fan in the crew would creep down the ladder on the stairs to the gods, and watch from the front, with a rope tied around the voyeur’s leg to be pulled when reuired for duty at the rail. The paying customers were much amused.
Ian McKellan. Chips With Everything.
Ray Smith. The Lion In Winter.
Nat Gonella. When Con sat crying at the prompt corner, listening to ‘Georgia’.
Bernard Miles. Treasure Island.
Thelma Jackson. Mother Courage.
Derek Roy. Panto.
Ronnie and Ryan. Panto.