pwell and evans

Opposite sides of a friendship: Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell and George Costigan as Clem Jones. Pictures: Ellie Kurttz

What Shadows

Birmingham Rep Studio


20 April, 1968. Enoch Powell addressed the General Meeting of the West Midlands Area Conservative Political Centre at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham.

It was a Saturday afternoon and, in the long-gone days when proprietors felt it their duty to publish newspapers of record, such an affair would normally fill a small hole at the bottom of an inside page of the local paper, merely to mark its presence for posterity.

Except Powell had primed the Press with advance copies and instead of dull party deliberations he delivered a speech which still reverberates almost half a century on. Instead of the tiny ripple such meetings normally caused the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West had unleashed a tsunami, with Press and ATV cameras looking on.

To Powell it was his Birmingham Speech, to the rest of the world, his Rivers of Blood speech, whatever the name it divided the nation.

Conservative leader Edward Heath, already no great friend of Powell, sacked him as shadow defence secretary the following evening, the last conversation the pair would have.

The media, Labour government, liberal left and many in the Conservative party condemned the speech as racist, yet there were mass marches supporting him and London dockers went on strike protesting at his sacking.

The Wolverhampton Express & Star was deluged with letters, as was Powell, with more than 90 per cent in support.

Yet, despite the working class, and right wing support, Powell had effectively sacrificed his political career to his principles. He was an oupowelltcast in the Tory party and, Birmingham born and Cambridge educated, ended his political days as Ulster Unionist MP for South Down.

To those who remember he is still seen today as either a racist or as someone prepared to stand up for England and the English.

But he was much more complicated than that and in this REP world premiere writer Chris Hannan tries to unravel the complexities of a man whose name still stirs emotions today.

Ian McDiarmid is just superb as Powell, a man I once met as a young reporter in the early 1970s.

Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell and the speech that was to make him famous to some, infamous to others

Not only is there a physical likeness but he has captured the mannerisms and hesitant speech patterns of the man, while his slow aging from the formidable former cabinet minister to the old soldier, alert in mind and frail in body, suffering from Parkinson’s in his final years, is a quite magnificent piece of acting.

His speech has garnered the misconception that it was about immigration, it wasn’t, it was about Labour’s Race Relations Act then going through Parliament which Powell and his party opposed, but in the speech he talked about immigration and its effects in the Black Country and other areas, quoting from a letter telling about the only white woman in her Wolverhampton street, who talked of ‘grinning pickaninnies’ claiming they spat at her and abused her.

Rebecca Scroggs plays one of the pickaninnies, the fictional Rose Cruickshank, now grown up and an Oxford academic who helped drive out her predecessor, Sofia Nicol, played by Bríd Brennan, after outing her as a racist.

She is now trying to enlist her collaboration in writing a manual about identity which gives us two separate time lines, the fictional academics in the 90s and Powell in the late 60s, the two merging in the final scenes.

It also gives Hannan a chance to set up the racism argument, with Rose against it in all its forms, while Sofia argues that everyone is a little bit racist – echoes of Avenue Q perhaps.

Back in the 60s and we have another clash between Powell and Clem Jones, a fine performance from George Costigan, the editor of the Express & Star.

With their respective wives Pamela, Brennan in good form again, and Marjorie Evans, in a powerful performance from Paula Wilcox, the four were close friends – the only four non-fictional characters in the play.

It was a strange friendship though with Evans Rose and Sofiaand Marjorie both Quakers, he being a conscientious objector in the World War II and with liberal views on immigration and Marjorie even more against Powell’s warnings on unfettered arrivals. Powell, who had condemned appeasement of Hitler, had returned from a professorship in Australia to join up the moment war was declared, rising from private to Brigadier by the end of the war.

Yet amid his warnings of the dire consequences of immigration Powell also had many liberal views including supporting the legalisation of homosexuality and, despite being a Tory, was regarded by the working classes, as their champion on many issues.

And running parallel is ‘the only white woman in her street’, the fictional Grace Hughes, played again by Wilcox in a stellar performance. Her madness and rejection of her 'Paki' husband when we jump to the 90s is quite moving and distressing.

Grace’s neighbours include Joyce, Rose’s mum, played again by Scroggs, who sees herself as a cut above the rest because she has lighter skin, which made her someone in Barbados. Her daughter, Rose, the young girl played by Christina Wright-Young, she sees as black though, which still affects the older Rose who felt racially abused by her mum.

Then there is Sultan a lovely performance from Phaldut Sharma, who is from Pakistan but is in love with England and is trying desperately to be English. He is to eventually marry Grace who lost her husband in the war, perhaps the ultimate act of integration. He is against Sikhs, who are campaigning to wear turbans on Wolverhampton’s buses, which serves to illustrate racism is not a black and white subject.

He also looks down on his friend Saeed, played by Waleed Akhtar, less well educated, from rural Pakistan. Saeed, who turned down prawn cocktail as he did not drink alcohol, never fully integrates, never tries to be English. He is always a Pakistani living in England.

The first act ends with Powell’s speech near enough in full, a speech which is widely misrepresented ending with Powell, a Classicist, quoted Virgil, saying “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood'.”.  It quickly became the rivers of blood speech and is as powerful now as it was then.

The speech was to destroy the friendship with Evans, who had previously given him advice on using the media. Marjorie was not to speak to him again.

It also destroyed the career of the fictional academic Nicol for her support of Powell’s views.

The second act brings the two timelines together. Rose finds she was one of the ‘pickaninnies’ who spat at white woman Grace and called her names, while Powell, a now forlorn figure, is suffering the tremors and debilitation of Parkinson’s.

The two are to meet in a final interview, which turns into a debate. Rose hating the man and his views and Powell standing by them. Whether they reach an understanding is up to the audience to decide. The debate was interesting but, in truth, hardly gripping as theatre and was perhaps only carried by McDiarmid’s mesmerising performance.

The set from Ti Green is basic, with naked trees in a large expanse of water at the back – Powell’s Tiber perhaps – a stream at the front and video projection to express changing events and moods and to establish dates. Minimalist and effective.

Coventry born playwright Hannan has produced a rounded Powell, neither racist ogre nor people’s champion, but a man who had intelligence to spare and a character more complex than most. Rep artistic director Roxana Silbert has echoed that in her direction which presents the man without prejudice. The play is about identity, about what is Englishness, how we see ourselves as a nation; it is about questioning, half a century on, whether the speech was racist or whether Powell made, as Margaret Thatcher said, valid points in an unfortunate way. The EU referendum gave Powell’s views a new impetus which showed the driving forces which prompted Powell’s speech are still there. Like the Birmingham speech, Brexit had the unfortunate effect of legitimising hostility to minorities. Wonderfully acted by the cast of eight, even if it did lose pace in the intellectual sparring at the end, it is a play and a man that will make you think. To 12-11-16.

Roger Clarke



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