Best of British: 25 Years of Desperate Men

Feature in Issue 17-3 | Autumn 2005

Edward Taylor brings us the first of a new series of features profiling seminal British companies.

I recently unearthed a flyer for a series of performance art events that Jeremy Shine put on in Manchester in 1983. One of the events listed was a performance by Desperate Men entitled Eggs & Enemies, on upstairs at the Thompson's Arms on Wednesday 13 April. The publicity for the show started 'After cheating, lying and pretending to be clever on stages all over Europe, Desperate Men return...’ I didn't even know they'd been away, in fact, hadn't a clue who Desperate Men were, but it was this sentence that tempted me to go and see them.

On arriving at the Thompson's Arms I discovered that it was now a building site and that the show had been relocated to a lecture room at the University. Eventually I and fifteen others saw the show, which more than lived up to the promise of that sentence. In fact, the show went down so well with the sixteen of us that it set in train a relationship between Manchester and Desperate Men that continues today.

This year Desperate Men are 25. This is something well worth celebrating. If, as did I, you type Desperate Men into a search engine you will get over 120,000 results. Sadly most of them are testament to the lengths sad males will go to in order to get sex but in amongst this desperate list are a few sites which will give you information about the company. Their own website will give a good background to the company as well as telling you where you can see them next.

They were formed in 1980 by Richie Smith and Jon Beedell who had worked together in Germany and Holland with, amongst others, the Friends Roadshow. Their first act together was the Pipe People. This consisted of a costume (a balaclava hood with rubber gloves sticking out like antlers, dark glasses and a long robe), a piece of plastic drain pipe and the freedom to be whatever they wanted to be. Sometimes they struck up poses, sometimes it was loose improvisation, sometimes it was choreographed and sometimes they would just natter with the public. I dimly remember something to do with boiled eggs and the magic words ‘Huddly Duddly' as well.

During the 80s and 90’s Jon and Richie (and the many different Desperate Men line-ups) consistently created inventive and imaginative work in what was a none-too-encouraging climate. Shopping centres on a Saturday afternoon with no facilities provided by the bookers (who, often as not, weren't there to see the show either) are not conditions conducive to producing work of any kind, let alone good work.

Characteristic of the Desperate Men approach is a desire not to fall into a formula. There are recognisable elements in all their shows but each production looks quite different to the one before. I've seen them many, many times over the years and the variety of their work never fails to surprise me. Their shows can stretch from a cabaret double act to an indoor performance art show about the arms race or from street animations with broad humour to a street show where three non-dancers spend an hour dancing. This sort of experimentation is most commonly associated with groups from the live art sector. One of Desperate Men's achievements is to carry on developing within a more populist area of work where consolidation of skills is often the norm. I've seen their Tory Bastards expose the den of council sponsored filth that is the South Petherton Folk Festival; the filming of a pop promo with a Madonna-style rock chick dancing in the streets of Bath; the ten-piece Bridlington Porno-Palace Silver Band all crammed into a tiny tent in the middle of an empty festival field; and a tribe of ants roaming the streets with their mobile laboratory who categorise, label and bag the rubbish they find. Turning up at a gig by the late great Viv Stanshall, I discovered that Jon and Richie were half his backing band, playing piano and drum kit respectively.

As the above examples would suggest, much of their work is extremely ridiculous but they do like to slip in a political point or two and manage to do it without seeming preachy or overearnest.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (made in 1999) suggested that behind the general jollity of the Millennium celebrations all was not as rosy as it appeared. The ending of the show, where the four horsemen confront the audience, was a splendidly unnerving experience. A half-human half-horse drooling and speaking in tongues is a far cry from your usual friendly stilt-walker. Indeed the show unsettled many of the promoters who booked it. Their reactions suggested that they had completely missed the point of the show. The company's disinclination to water their work down in order to increase its commercial appeal is to be applauded. It has meant that the work hasn't been seen as much as it should be but it also means that there is some street theatre work around on the UK scene with a distinct edge to it.

Over the years, Desperate Men have worked with some excellent performers and musicians – Shirley Pegna, Richard Headon (both full-time members with Jon and Richie of the current team), Dik Downey, Luci Gorell Barnes, Vic Llewelyn and Jo Kessell amongst many others. Personally speaking, I'm delighted to see them still going strong in a climate which, although tons better than the 80s, still doesn't make life easy. I wouldn't wish a further 25 years on any company but I do hope they'll carry on 'making mincemeat out of flimsy reality'.

Desperate Men is an international touring street theatre company based in Bristol, UK. See for full details of current productions, which include The Miracle Show.

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Issue 17-3
p. 16 - 17