Brighton Fringe 2014
"The past is another country – they do things differently there."
I was reminded of that line from ‘The Go-Between’ all the time I was watching ‘Paddy On Parade’. L. P. Hartley published the book in 1953, looking back to events when he was a schoolboy in 1900. That’s a gap of fifty-three years – not that much longer than the forty-five years between 2014 and 1969, the year that Eddie Alford joined the Royal Air Force.
Eddie was a Catholic boy from Dublin, and after he dropped out of a University course his father drove him up to Belfast – part of the United Kingdom – and enrolled him in the RAF – "They’ll put some manners on you!". It should have been obvious that Eddie’s talents lay in the Humanities – at sixteen, two years earlier than usual, he’d been the youngest in the country to be accepted for an Art course. But his father insisted he study Veterinary Science – "It was a family decision" – with the inevitable result.
Eddie Alford has written this autobiographical piece as a drama, putting himself into the story as ‘Tom’, but when Tom joins the British military as an Irishman, he picks up the inevitable nickname of ‘Paddy’. So from here on – Paddy it is …
‘Paddy On Parade’ is done as a series of scenes from Paddy’s career as a Navigational Instrument Mechanic in the RAF. This work involved servicing the avionics of military aircraft, and took Paddy to RAF bases around the world. Each scene was located by an image projected onto the wall behind the actors – a rather washed-out black and white print, obviously taken by an amateur, with the location printed on it. The first one read – ‘Guardroom. RAF base, UK 1969’
Paddy was played by Jack Kristiansen, a confident, engaging actor with a rather narrow but very mobile face and dark hair slicked back over his ears. He had traces of an incipient moustache, and a very infectious smile. Paddy was often running up against authority, but Kristiansen played him with an unshakeable confidence in his own intellectual capabilities. In this scene, he’s being shown round his barracks block and notices a sign pinned to the wall – NOLI CARBORUNDUM ILLEGITIMANTUS – which he manages to translate as ‘Don’t let the Bastards grind you down’.
The Aircraftswoman showing him round (with Paddy it always seemed to be women …) is duly impressed – "Well Done! No-one else ever gets near it – not even the Officers". The show could easily have become just an amusing series of anecdotes about military life, like Spike Milligan’s ‘Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall’, but Eddie Alford has managed to recreate the social and cultural world of almost fifty years ago, and it’s remarkable how different it feels.
Britain still had an Empire. The country was a Great Power, with a chain of military bases stretching from Gibraltar to Darwin, Australia. The Cold War was deadly serious, and squadrons of Vulcan bombers stood ready to deliver atomic bombs in retaliation for any Soviet aggression. In a briefing session, Paddy complains about the inadequacy of the anti-radiation suits that they would wear in the event of an attack, and is immediately slapped down by the Officer as ‘Bolshy’. (He’s the one who has to explain to the group that it means ‘Bolshevik’, no-one else understands)
There’s an unquestioned obedience to authority that’s hard to conceive of today. Going back to the Republic of Ireland on leave, Paddy is confronted by Irish Customs at Dublin. The Customs man has the power to confiscate contraceptives (and a wonderful line of euphemism) – "Do you have any Conduits?"; and to seize banned books like ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Fanny Hill’. In 1969 the Irish Republic still had an Index of banned literature, just like the Inquisition hundreds of years before.
There were race riots in sixties America, of course; and when he gets to Darwin, Paddy experiences Australia’s own form of apartheid. There’s a corrugated iron shack at the side of the bar he’s in, with a sign saying – NO WHITES – ABBOS ONLY. Paddy tries to explain to his host about the Aboriginal’s culture and their use of the land for ‘Dreamtime’, but the man isn’t having any of it – "Them Abbos, they just get pissed all the time, and go on walkabout"
An unthinking racial superiority, too. In Singapore, posted to another RAF base, they are all given strict orders not to eat the local Chinese street food, as it’s almost certain to be contaminated. And the natives are bound to be dangerous. Paddy, of course, not only talks with the locals about their customs, comparing Irish and Chinese myths, he eats their cuisine, and shows his comrades how to use chopsticks – an unheard-of skill for a British squaddie.
It’s in Singapore that Paddy meets his first transsexuals. Being Paddy, he’s irresistibly drawn to Boogie Street, the red-light area of Chinatown – probably because it’s officially ‘off-limits’. We see him in a bar with two trannies; one beautifully feminine (the actor was actually a woman) and one … a ‘handsome’ woman, in torn fish-nets and a string of pearls. They make a living providing sex for the visiting American sailors, but any mention of contact with them was absolutely taboo for Paddy’s superior officers in the RAF. "It only takes one rotten apple to spoil the whole barrel" was the prevailing wisdom. It felt bizarre to be watching this scene, knowing that outside the Coffeehouse was the bustling nightlife of St. James’s Street, the heart of Brighton’s gay scene.
It took seven actors to bring Paddy’s world to life. Very engaging, all of them, and certainly hard working – between them they played sixteen characters with a series of changes of costume and accents. A clever presentation, but rather let down by being difficult to hear clearly. Not inaudible, more that the characters delivered their lines at normal speaking speed, rather than with pauses to separate out the phrases and let the audience catch up. The dialogue sounded very authentic, just like real speech, but they of course had rehearsed it often, and we were hearing it for the first time.
Directors and actors often seem to forget that an audience is listening and processing the words in ‘real-time’, and that they need short gaps – spaces in the flow of information – to allow them to make sense of what they’re hearing. It’s a more than occasional problem with fringe shows, as a number of us commented in the pub later.
"The past is another country" That’s the point of ‘Paddy On Parade’ – to let us see the enormous gulf in attitudes separating us from the world of half a century ago. The Sixties was the era of The Beatles, but also of ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’. In the Sixties you could watch ‘Benny Hill’ but you weren’t allowed to read ‘Fanny Hill’.
I sometimes wondered if Eddie Alford wasn’t looking back with rather rose-tinted spectacles – Paddy’s attitudes seemed so far ahead of the prevailing morality that he was a little too good to be true – but for all that, this remains a fascinating and uplifting production.