Towards the end of the 1960s, Mike Bradwell had just finished working with Mike Leigh on the director’s first feature film.
Made with what has become Leigh’s now trademark method of improvisation, gathering actors to work together on a loose idea, Bradwell finished Leigh’s film and thought, “I want some of that.”
Hull Truck Theatre Company was born.
Mike Leigh’s film, Bleak Moments, was released in 1971 and the following year an advertisement appeared in Time Out in which Bradwell announced he was looking for people to help start a theatre company. It read: “Half formed theatre company seeks other half.”
Trained at London’s E15 Acting School, as well as taking a starring role in the Leigh film, Bradwell was an actor musician with The Ken Campbell Road Show and had, bizarrely, also appeared on stage as an underwater escapologist. So why a theatre company, and why Hull?
“Nobody could keep an eye on us up there,” says Bradwell, who went on to be artistic director of the famous Bush Theatre in London when he left East Yorkshire. “The DHSS in the 1970s was the biggest funder of the arts – we were on the dole, making our work and we knew that there were no jobs in Hull, so if we moved there, they wouldn’t be able to find us any work.”
It was an interesting idea, and one that quickly became redundant – within months of setting up Hull Truck Theatre, the company was making enough money through touring shows around the country that it could afford to pay its members.
Borrowing the idea of improvising work together around themes Bradwell, as artistic director, had hit on something.
“We wanted to make plays about people like us. We wanted to make plays that were seen by Rolling Stone readers – we were Rolling Stone readers. I remember we used to say we wanted to make plays with the humanity of Chekhov and the rock sensibilities of Bo Diddley,” he says.
The powers of censorship over theatre held by the Lord Chamberlain were abolished in 1968 and when Bradwell’s Hull Truck sprang up it was a heady time for artists.
“It was the time of the Paris protests, the Vietnam War and television programmes were still representing students as people who walked around in duffle coats and scarves,” says Bradwell. “For us it was a question of what the turn on, tune in, drop out attitude meant if you were living with your mum in Goole.”
Not that the original “Hull Truckers” were living with their mums. They had moved to Hull, to stay under the radar and the company lived together in a house on Coltman Street.
Music was at the heart of many of their shows, but more than anything else there was a sense of anarchy at the centre of everything they did. It was about creating what Bradwell calls “scruffy, imaginative, brilliant theatre”.
Hull Truck began touring out of its Coltman Street base, the company telephone the one in a box on the corner.
“Sometimes we’d turn up in a town, do two school shows, then an evening show in a working men’s club and then a late night cabaret,” says Bradwell. “We were provocative and challenging, but above all, entertaining. That was the ethos, it had to be fun and it had to be entertaining - that’s still the main reason I say yes to anything I do.”
The original Truckers, John Lee, Steve Halliwell, Dave Greaves, Alan Williams, Cas Patton, Rachel Bell, Mary East, Pete Nicholson, David Ambrose, Steve Marshall and David Hatton, will return to Hull, with Bradwell, to perform as the original Hull Truck company for the first time since the 1980s, this weekend.
“It feels very weird that it was 40 years ago,” says Bradwell. “I’m just sitting here and writing the links between the songs and bits that we’re going to do, going through the old photographs and programmes. It is going to be wonderful to see everyone back together.”
Excerpts from early shows will be performed – and this time not in a working mens’ club, or the former church on Spring Street where the company moved to in the early 80s, but the recently built £15m new theatre on Ferensway.
“It is amazing to think what it became, but all I can think about at the minute is the fact that it was 40 years ago – and transcribing notes from shows that haven’t been seen for four decades.”
40th Celebration, Hull Truck, March 17 & 18. 01482 323638, www.hulltruck.co.uk