East Belfast playwright Stewart Love has written with verve about mouthy mothers-in-law, the shipyards and living life at fever pitch. He tells Joanne Savage about his inspirations and kitchen sink conflicts
'I was sitting in the barber’s having a haircut, aged 17, when I decided I wanted to be a playwright,' says Stewart Love. 'I read an article in a magazine about Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall. It was a play about a hotel bell boy who murdered a woman and kept her head in a hatbox under his bed. He gave himself away by whistling a tune, 'Mighty Like a Rose'. It was captivating. So when I left with my hair cut short I was going to be a playwright and that was that. I never wrote any plays involving decapitation but I wrote plenty of other plays.'
The young east Belfast man set about reading plays and learning about his craft all the way through his French degree at Queen’s University. Aged 25, a maths teacher at Kelvin Secondary, Sandy Row, he first put pen to paper, dashing off ten or 11 short plays for the classroom. (It was around this time that another dramatically-inclined maths teacher, Brian Friel, was feverishly writing his first scripts in Derry.)
Realising it would be difficult to immediately ask Sir Lawrence Olivier to read one of his scripts, Love bought a second-hand Imperial typewriter (still stored away in the attic of his home) and wrote a play for the Ulster Group Theatre, then in its early 1960s heyday.
The Ulster theatre scene had just been embroiled in scandal, with Sam Thompson’s play about sectarianism in the shipyards, Over the Bridge, having been thrown off the bill, presumably for probing too close to the nuts and bolts of uncomfortable fact.
Walking along the Connswater River as it snakes underneath the Newtownards Road, just glancing the Holywood Arches in the distance, the name Dandy Jordan came to Love as if from the ether, and he repeated it on the way home: Dandy Jordan, Dandy Jordan, Dandy Jordan... 'That was my lead character - it hit me like a bolt from the blue. I sat down and wrote The Randy Dandy and finished it in five nights at white heat.'
After the Ulster Group performed it, the play was televised by the BBC with veteran Belfast actor Jimmy Ellis in the lead role. It’s a racy kitchen sink drama, involving the poisonous triangle of Dandy, his disenchanted wife Peggy and his acid-tongued mother-in-law.
Dandy Jordan works in the shipyards and likes poetry - he’s a “poetical plater” - a man with an independent mind and roguish spirit who rejects the stereotype of the boozed, macho labourer. There’s a strike in the shipyard and Dandy refuses to fall in line, sensing that the top brass are manipulating the workers for their own ends. He dares to be different, an individual among the crowd: 'I don’t fit in with the popular conception of what a man should be in these parts. I don’t beat my wife, I don’t drink, and I don’t stand in the bookies.'
In The Randy Dandy, Jordon doesn’t want to just keep his head down toiling at the shipyards without asking questions; he isn’t the textbook working-class hero of the kitchen sink soap opera. In the end he clouts his mother-in-law (under wild provocation) and has his wicked way with another woman, before ditching his wife and son to be true to himself and his desires. He wants to live at ‘fever pitch’, what he calls 'living with every bit of yourself'.
By today’s standards The Randy Dandy is a buttoned-up examination of the lawlessness of imagination and desire. It is a bit naughty in places with glimpses of a negligee, a bit of how's your father in the kitchen and the threat of a punch up, but far from likely to shock even the most valiumed audience.
Yet before it was aired on the BBC in 1961 the broadcaster warned it was 'unsuitable for people with a nervous disposition'. They were conservative times. The play was a tame examination of the social and sexual mores of 1960s Belfast, challenging traditional conceptions of masculinity with humour and salty wit.
'In those days all the plays put on here in Northern Ireland had to have happy endings or they caused a fuss,' says Love. 'The Randy Dandy didn’t do that and so it was a bit daring by those standards. People around town started asking me about this dirty play I’d written and I couldn’t believe it. I never thought of it that way at all. Jimmy Ellis was absolutely spectacular as Dandy in the TV version and even to this day he often mentions the role as one that helped kick start his career.'
Ellis came home to Belfast for the launch of Love’s Selected Plays last week (May, 2010), and remains grateful for the risque role of the rather crassly named Randy Dandy.
The collection brings together the latter script (those with a nervous disposition should be able to manage it) as well as The Big Long Bender, The Big Donkey and Me Oul Segocia. Its publication aims to cement Stewart Love’s place in the annals of Ulster theatre, and certainly, as a brave hearted dramatist of social issues and moderate raunch, this is a playwright with bite.
The Big Long Bender explores the liberalising influences of the 69s, the way the accepted prim norms of society began to break down under the tenets of free love and the hippy-happy counter culture.
It follows three young women living in a flat in Belfast drinking more than they should, 'entertaining' young men and heading off to a beauty contest in Portrush, the ‘Sin City’ of the North (and a long, long way from the debauchery of Las Vegas).
The Big Donkey returns to the docklands, tackling male frustration, unemployment, shady dealing and the difficult bind of the father-son relationship.
Me Oul Segocia was written in 1968 and deals with the outbreak of the Troubles - following two boys, one Catholic, one Protestant, as sectarianism pollutes their friendship. In crossfire, one of them shoots the other. It wasn’t staged until 1981, with the theatre companies here reluctant to tackle sectarian strife until its furies had cooled somewhat.
'Writing about Northern Ireland was easy for me because it’s an interesting place,' says Love, now a bright-eyed, sprightly man of 76, who still writes everyday. 'Who’d want to write about Switzerland when nothing ever happens there? All the goings on at Harland and Wolff with strikes and payoffs, then the Troubles - conflict makes excellent material for drama and we’ve always had plenty of that.'
Selected Plays by Stewart Love is published by Lagan Press and is available from all good book shops. You can also order a copy online at www.lagan-press.org.uk.