The Sack Of Bath

After nearly 45 years with the Natural Theatre Company here in Bath, I’ve just laid down my Pink Suitcase and retired. Obviously I have hundreds, nay thousands of tales to tell about my adventures world-wide with this remarkable company…but I’m saving those for that book that everyone tells me I should write but probably won’t ever get round to writing.

Meanwhile, here are some memories of the Bath that I first encountered on that day in November 1969 when the golden city hove into view. I was stunned, for having never even seen a picture of the place apart from the classic postcard view of Royal Crescent, the unity of the architecture and the golden winter light emanating there from was a veritable ethereal vision!

I shared my train compartment (yes, it was that long ago) with a regal old lady who declared that in Bath Spa she always stayed at Pratt’s Hotel ‘as they give one two towels in one’s room’. (I didn’t reveal that I was set to be sleeping on the floor of a dreary bedsit with an old army coat for a mattress.) A passing moment that made me think ‘I’m going to love this town’, and one that probably gave birth to my alter ego Lady Margaret.  I seriously believe that imperiously delivered sentence had more influence over my future life than any magnificent Georgian terrace.

Closer inspection revealed many of the World Heritage buildings to be crumbling, blackened with soot and divided into depressing units by cheapskate and largely absentee landlords. Indeed, much of the city apart from the historic set pieces was slated for demolition.

I shouldn’t have been surprised at the latter; for it was Lord Snowden’s damning photographs in the recently published Sack of Bath that had drawn me to make the trip west. That and the news that a new and alternative theatre company was starting up and, I was told, although they were brimming with ideas they had zilch in the way of budgets. ‘You’re good at making things out of nothing’ declared my college buddy who was already firmly entrenched in the Bath Arts Workshop, of which the theatre company was an important part.

Thus my all-weather, multi-purpose, re-useable cardboard costume accessory range came into being.  ‘Alternative’ when used in conjunction with the phrase ‘theatre company’ in those days tended to mean agit-prop, a bit protesty and generally knocking the establishment. The word earnest comes to mind. However, in the hands of me and my new found colleagues, the Naturals were more mocking than shocking. And in Lady Margaret’s favourite city there was much to mock.

It wasn’t just the fact that the authorities were stupid enough to let acres of handsome buildings be pulled down and be replaced with custard-coloured reconstituted stone pastiche. There was the fact that the Corporation (as the City Council were called at the time) was still referred to as the City Fathers. Indeed, the Mayor was always to be addressed as Mr Mayor, even when the post was filled by a lady. Pomposity and reactionary attitudes were the norm. Trumpton lived and breathed!

With a wardrobe cupboard stacked with bowler hats gleaned from the local charity shops (you wouldn’t believe the quality and range of goods going for a song back then) we set about poking fun at just about anything:

Councillors called us scruffy layabouts, so we invented the Smart Party of Great Britain and persuaded people to go to work in a suit for a week. Even the guys at the MOT Centre joined in, aided of course by those fabulous charity shops.

The classical music festival was seen as elitist by many. Their symbol one year was a beautiful butterfly, so we crept down in the night and plastered their HQ with grey photocopies of a moth.

Another councillor declared that down and outs were bad for tourism and should be rounded up and deported to Bristol where there were far more empty buildings in which they could doss. So we invented the Christmas Day Dinner for the Old and Lonely, an annual event that did indeed include rounding up the homeless cider drinkers and transporting them to a stunningly decorated building where a slap up meal, good quality drinks in controlled portions and even free fags were distributed. In the end even ‘Mr’ Mayor came along and lit the puddings before making a swift exit.

In amongst all this mischief we were busy inventing a street theatre style that transcended cultural and language barriers. At its best it could transform the public’s perception of familiar places and make an artistic statement simply by taking theatre out of its conventional spaces. Or, on a very basic level, it persuaded people stop shopping for a few moments…a political act in itself!

Our style soon began to be exported to Mr and Mrs Ordinary all over the world, and that’s where the adventures really began. But you need to employ me as an after dinner speaker to hear about that. I have 78 funny stories, one for each of the countries visited by the Naturals in the intervening years.

Don’t worry, I don’t tell all 78 stories (snore!), just selected highlights. You’ll have to buy the book to enjoy the whole lot!

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5 Responses to The Sack Of Bath

  1. David Briggs says:

    Hi Ralph

    Enjoying reading your blog – very entertaining! You won’t remember me (!), but I have very strong memories (and the photographs……..) of the Great British Bike Ride in 1981. The Naturals were of course there, with Nanny and Nursey offering people saddle massages at the top of steep hills etc. I recall the ‘Stop the Bike Menace’ protest in Shrewsbury I think, which was a hoot…….and many other similar bizarre events. Alas I don’t cycle any more, but that trip with John Potter, Napoleon and the Naturals was a real eye-opener for me!
    Glad to read that you’ve had such a varied performing career in the 30-odd years since.

    All the best
    David Briggs from Edinburgh

    • Ralph Oswick says:

      I’ve retired (Dec 2013) but still organising events in conjunction with the Bath Comedy Festival, and indeed occasionally with John…who still has a bike shop and is Mayor of Bradford on Avon!

  2. M Godwin says:

    Recently published? Although the ‘Stop the Buchanan Tunnel’ campaign was in full swing in 1969, the book you mention was not published until 1973!
    The early years of the Bath Arts Workshop were astounding!

  3. Ralph Oswick says:

    You are correct. It was Peter Coarde’s Vanishing Bath, several volumes of beautiful drawings of threatened buildings and architectural details thereof, that first made me aware of Bath’s fragile situation

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