Author Archives: Edward Taylor

Edward Taylor

About Edward Taylor

Edward Taylor is one half of the Whalley Range All Stars – a street theatre company he formed with Sue Auty in 1982.

Jon Beedell RIP: Making Mincemeat of Flimsy Reality

On 12 December 2022 came an announcement: ‘All in the Desperate Men family are incredibly shocked and saddened to announce that Jon Beedell, founder member and co-artistic director, has died. He passed away in his sleep on Saturday night/Sunday morning. We have been overwhelmed by the outpouring  of love for him. Irascible, irreverent and irreplaceable, he made mincemeat of flimsy reality…’ 

Four of Jon Beedell’s friends and colleagues from the Outdoor Arts community – Edward Taylor, Bill Palmer, Lorna Rees, and Jeremy Shine – show their appreciation for this maverick and much-loved godfather of UK street theatre 

Jon Beedell, Desperate Men

Edward Taylor writes:

You had to be extremely bloody-minded to do street theatre in the UK in the early- to mid-1980s. Audiences could be indifferent, even openly hostile, and often the promoters neither provided any facilities nor showed up to see what you were doing. Of course it wasn’t all like that – we’re not masochists so there was obviously enough positive feedback to keep going, and sometimes the sheer ridiculousness of a situation that has got hopelessly out of hand can, if the performer is adept enough, create situations impossible to replicate anywhere else.

Jon was one of the most bloody-minded of us all. He’d worked in Europe so had experience of a street theatre circuit that was so much more than groups bunged out on Saturday afternoons to sink or swim. I think that experience was part of what drove him and meant that a cynical attitude which was quite easy to fall into was tempered with an idealism about creating  a better and more effective context for the work he wanted to do and see. He very often said that street theatre could change the world.

Certainly the festivals and events he and Desperate Men co-director/performer Richard Headon  (with the help of many others of course) created in later years realised that idealism. Over-arching narratives unfolded over several days which allowed for community involvement and the participation of other companies to enrich the experience of the public.

I first saw Desperate Men performing Eggs & Enemies in Manchester in 1983. A great show but throughout it I kept wondering where I’d seen Jon and Richie (Desperate Men co-founder Richie Smith) before. In turned out that Jon was wondering where he’d seen me and Whalley Range All Stars partner Sue Auty before – and it turned out that we’d all seen each other in the Melkweg in Amsterdam in 1981. Sue and I had been helping build and perform a big site-specific show with Dogtroep, and Jon and Richie had been running or attending a workshop in the daytime.

I last saw Desperate Men perform Generations in Manchester in 2022. Jon wasn’t in that episode of the show but was up to give notes. It was typical of the work they did –  not at all what you expected, not pandering to the audience whilst not being too remote either, and giving you something political to think about whilst at the same time not piously wagging fingers. A difficult trick to pull off, but they managed it. 

The talk at the time was that Generations would be the last Desperate Men show, but when I asked Jon about this he replied ‘never say never’. We will not see his like again.

He’s left us with a fine legacy of work. 

Desperate Men: The Formicators

My favourites?  The Formicators at Roskilde Festival in 1995 where a team of five ants with a laboratory on wheels picked up and bagged the detritus left by festival goers. Absolutely ridiculous and at the same time quite revealing.    

Slapstick & Slaughter at MintFest in Kendal in 2014 where Jon and Richard used the absurd rebellion of Dada to illustrate the meaningless horror of war, and proof (if you need it ) that if you’ve got an audience onside, the seemingly endless repetition of one word from the song ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ can take them to places other theatre companies can’t manage.

Edward Taylor is formerly of  Whalley Range All Stars and is now specialising in kamishibai and comic book stories.

Desperate Men: Genrations, 2022 – the company’s last show. Image features Richard Headon (foreground) and to the rear, Jon Beedell with three of the show’s younger performers

Jon Bee & Me by Bill Palmer:

I knew Jon for around thirty years and along with the others of The Desperate Men company, we’d shared the same touring circuit for all that time. Over those years we had met in more festival dressing rooms and late-night bars than I care to remember or admit to in print. 

These encounters have often been years apart, such is the life of the traveling performer. 

Scene: Glasgow pub interior, noisy, crowded. 

Jon: So, are we getting this band together or what?

Scene: Manchester café interior crowded, steamy, two years later.

Bill: Yes, soon man, it will be soon…

Picking up the threads – effortless.

That’s how it had been until recently when Jon and I spent the best part of a week together. Ever since we discovered our shared love of Jazz and Blues, we had been talking about a musical collaboration of some kind. This was the first step, testing the water – a chance to wear our dreamer hats. Over a few days we played some tunes, Abbey Lincoln’s version of ‘If I Only Had a Brain’, re-titled by Jon ‘If I Only Had a Brian’ – and Thelonious Monk’s ‘Blue Monk’ re-titled by me ‘Blur Monk’. The rest of the time was spent shooting the breeze, riffing about creativity, old age, family, politics and travel. 

On a trip to our local wine merchant, Jon fell into easy conversation with the owner about the relative merits of the Viogniers they had in stock. We emerged with three. Jon was effortless with strangers, immediately achieving a rapport. It was the same in the bakery. I suppose it was the result of a life spent performing on the street, engaging the public – he was a great talker, a great listener. 

There is a shared folder on my Google Drive with the music we were working on. It’s titled ‘Jon B & Me’. I don’t think I will delete it. There is also a last bottle of Viognier in our fridge, left as a parting gift. We will lift a glass to him.

Bill Palmer is a founder and continuing member of Avanti Display.

Jon Beedell

Lorna Rees writes:

I’ve only known Jon Beedell for about 11 or 12 years, which I know is a tiny amount of time in terms of his career. 

For the London Olympics, Desperate Men created the enormous three-day-long Battle for the Winds performance with Cirque Bijou. I can’t really describe the scale of the work involved in this huge project: seven counties, thousands of artists and performers involved. We formed a huge cadre of ridiculous wind collectors riding strange cycles throughout Weymouth and Portland collecting wind for the sailing events.

I directed and produced day two on Portland, an installation piece made with community dance and sound artists. I also had a hugely enjoyable time performing on the Dorset Wind Cart in a ensemble of eight other street artists/musicians: absolutely one of the most enjoyable, silly, improvisatory and incredible things of scale I’ve ever done. It was all a ridiculous, playful, messy, joyful experience – and for some of us (including me) rather life changing. It inspired new collaborations, confidence, partnerships, and above all a sort of permissive playfulness. Jon and Richard from Desperate Men (with Billy Alwen) created a meta-narrative which allowed for different artists to add in to. Jon provided an artistic overview, extending a deeply enthusiastic and facilitatory attitude to the whole project. 

I’ll never forget (probably illegally) jumping in the back of the van post-ceremony riding back to the Weymouth holiday park we were all camping in. The event was truly  extraordinary to be part of, and a random bunch of us including Jon himself, Phillipa Haynes, Doug Fransisco, Robert Lee, Jon Croose and a bunch of other street theatre artists, circus performers and technicians all piled into the transit in search of the after party with remnants of paraffin and squibber kit left over from the wader’s fire procession into the sea. We were all giddy with adrenalin and fumes on the highest high, a sense of having accomplished something utterly ridiculous and extraordinary – which we had. Which Jon had.

Lorna Rees is artistic director of Gobbledegook theatre and all-round artistic activist. 

Battle of the Winds, featuring Jon Beedell of Desperate Men, Lorna Rees of Gobbledegook Theatre et al

Jeremy Shine writes:

I first worked with Jon before he was Desperate – well, he might have been but we were all a bit more optimistic in 1978 B.T. (Before Thatcher) when he performed at the first ever comedy festival at The Drill Hall in London. This was in the days of ‘alternative comedy’ – i.e. before it got funny and before the rise of stand-up, comedy clubs, and stadium gigs – and always ahead of the zeitgeist was Jon, which is probably why he never got rich and ended up on the streets!

I’ve lost track of the number of times Jon performed for me – probably in every festival I organised in numerous locations from early indoor shows in Manchester at the precursor to Greenroom right through to Permission Pending in Manchester city centre in 2019 which, of course, ‘never happened’ because the email telling the authorities about it mysteriously got stuck in my draft box – although I thought I saw a familiar shape rolling round the city that day!

The thing about Jon is that he never lost his radicalism, both personally and artistically – unlike most companies (indoors and out), the Desperates never settled into a formula and no two shows were alike, so you never knew what was coming although you did know they’d be interesting and usually really good. 

Desperate Men: Slapstick & Slaughter

My favourite show was Slapstick & Slaughter which demonstrated that even after 40 years they still had it. I loved both the content and that it was inspired by Dadaism, probably the most important artistic movement of the 20th century. Without Walls made a call-out for shows relating to the First World War and was flooded with applications that seemed like pitches to Radio 4: ‘a dramatisation of my great aunt’s diaries about driving ambulances behind the trenches’! Slapstick & Slaughter was the opposite – a show that dealt with the lunacy of war in a style influenced by the horrors if it and one that required the audience to concentrate. One of my pet hates is ‘family shows’ – code for children’s shows that adults have to suffer through (a Beedell-style rant – sorry) because I think, with rare exceptions (relating to content), all street shows appeal (or repel) audiences of all ages. But I felt that children wouldn’t enjoy this one, so was surprised when a nine-year-old girl told me it was her favourite show at SIRF that year. I’d forgotten the cardinal rule: ’trust the artist’.

Street arts is, by its nature, ephemeral – we leave no buildings or monuments. But I hope that Jon’s life and work will leave a legacy of inspiration for artists: fluffy chickens (literal or metaphorical) – get off your stilts and innovate, challenge convention, and above all be brave.

Jeremy Shine is former artistic director of Stockton International Riverside Festival, Kendal Mintfest, Manchester Streets Ahead, and Feast – and is still creating outdoor events with MIA.

Desperate Men: Washed Up. Film released online during the Covid-19 pandemic

Featured image (top of page): Desperate Men, Slapstick & Slaughter performed by the company’s co-artistic directors, Jon Beedell and Richard Headon.

Desperate Men has been at the forefront of outdoor arts in the UK since it was founded in 1980 in Berlin by Richie Smith and Jon Beedell.

See the Desperate Men website, which includes an archive of the company’s work over the past 40 years.

Someone Had To Do It

No Future? Edward Taylor celebrates 40 years of the Whalley Range All Stars, street theatre makers and animators extraordinaire, whose co-founders are now coming full circle back to their roots 

We’re 40 years old this year (2022), but let’s face it, we’re a street theatre company – we’ve made the faintest of marks (if any) on the face of culture.  I’m not comfortable blowing my own trumpet but when you’ve managed to reach the age of 40 someone has to do it.

The Whalley Range All Stars are Sue Auty and me (Edward Taylor). We met in 1981 at Leicester Marina where Horse + Bamboo were creating a site-specific show. Sue had also been working with Dogtroep from Amsterdam who (on the basis of some photographs of a show ) invited me over to work on a huge show at the Melkweg. This was followed by a summer tour of France, Belgium and Holland in 1982.

When our participation in that tour ended we were at a loose end, with a few ideas of shows we could do. We put together a sandwich-board show where a variety of paintings on hardboard animated a story involving a flat-fish that could talk. We performed it at Yerbury Park off Holloway Rd. in London. It got a nice reception from a small audience. One person asked who we were – at the time, Sue was living in Whalley Range and we’d had to compete with a band on a stage called Holloway All Stars so she quickly said ‘We’re the Whalley Range All Stars’.  That name proved impossible to shake off.

I moved up to Manchester and we started to make shows where and when we could – 80% of the time we didn’t get paid so were lucky that signing on wasn’t as onerous as it is now and the cost of living wasn’t nearly as expensive. Otherwise… 

The nearby Chorlton Tennis Pavilion, run by Victor Hyman, hosted a lot of our early shows including Halloween and Xmas specials. CP Lee (of Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias fame) set up a venue for lunchtime theatre at the Britons Protection pub. Jeremy Shine was promoting alternative theatre all over Manchester. He gave us our first ever paid gig. He took over Manchester Festival, created the Castlefields Carnival and worked with Stella Hall to get the Green Room theatre and arts centre off the ground. Socialist councils put money into entertainment and art that existed outside of built venues, so there was a national circuit of gigs. There were a lot of opportunities and we were able to get paid for many of them. Both Stella and Jeremy have continued to support our work over the years.

Whalley Range All Stars: Headless (at Castlefields Carnival, Manchester 1992). Photo: Peter Walsh

Embarrassed by the levels of unemployment, Margaret Thatcher’s government set up the Enterprise Allowance scheme in the early 1980s. You set yourself up as a company and were given a year’s wages (£40 per week, as I remember) to establish yourself. We bought a transit van and rented a workshop which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Tarkovsky film.

God forbid that I should ever mention Michael Heseltine, but his Garden Festival scheme provided welcome blocks of work for companies such as ours. Nobody working at those festivals seemed remotely interested in what they were booking so it was possible to experiment wildly with the plentiful audiences without any consequences. A far cry from the Millennium Dome in 2000 where our Headless People animation was sent off-site by the organisers in case we bumped into the government minister who was visiting that day and caused an unwelcome photo opportunity for the press.

Our early shows involved a lot of talking and my role became that of a stand-up comedian. We felt that the visual aspects of our work were being over-shadowed by the non-stop patter, so looked at ways we could avoid that. 

The aforementioned Headless People (made in 1992) was the first one we created where there were no words: two headless figures carrying their heads in birdcages. Greville White (RIP) created the ingenious mechanisms that caused the eyes to move and blink. It was revelatory to see and hear what the audience made of it when we didn’t nudge them in a particular direction by talking to them and thus giving them ideas. It was even more revelatory to take that show to Arkhangelsk in Russia and experience how the image provoked a very different and powerful effect on an audience not (yet) over-saturated with entertainment. 

If the 80s were about creating 30-minute long narrative shows the 90s were all about experimentation.

We created a big clock on a freight box where we (me, Sue and Laurence Lane) were the automata performing on the hour. We put together a band of Ear Drummers playing improvised and rehearsed percussion pieces. We put our disembodied heads in glass cases in Manchester Museum’s vivarium, where our minimal movements complemented the frogs, toads and lizards who were full-time residents. We revealed the secret life of mannequins in shop windows. We made a musical box featuring a ballerina with a dancing face…

The Parade of the Senses in Manchester city centre converted each sense into carnival form; our Arctic explorers featured puppet husky-driven luggage; and Salford Art Gallery commissioned us to create an exhibition called These Foolish Things, based on cabinets of curiosity. That exhibition made with Steve Gumbley (a founder member of IOU and Welfare State) was a blueprint for many of the ideas we explored in the 2000s as well as a development of a street theatre show, The Cabinet of Unearthly Delights, which we made in 1987; and an exhibition, Curiouser & Curiouser, that we made for Oldham Art Galley in 1991.

Whalley Range All Stars: People in Glass Houses (at the Manchester Museum vivarium 1996). Photo: Sue Auty

We met Bill Gee (then promoting events at Canary Wharf) in 1998 at French street theatre festival Chalon dans la Rue. Over lunch he asked us what plans we had for the future. We mentioned a couple of ideas with no thought that we were pitching for a gig. Later that year he phoned us wanting to commission one of the ideas called Headcases. This was a series of big rectangular boxes on stilts with holes on the underside. You crouched underneath and put your head in one of the holes. Inside the box you’d see your head as part of a tableau reflected in a large mirror. 

There were thirteen of these in total and we played around with what your head was doing as part of the image. One tableau involved finding yourself on a railway track which stretched into a dark tunnel behind your head. When we first presented it in Canary Wharf a particularly confident stage designer told me how we should have done it using sound and the latest film technology. I felt that by restricting the use of technology, we allowed our audience to come to their own conclusions. The final Headcase featured a live performer seen through a bead curtain. Several people thought it was a hologram rather than the ingenious use of the most basic materials possible.

This idea developed into Head Quarters – a sideshow where the audience sat in a strange booth, five people opposite five more people. A suspended box above them with holes on the underside was lowered onto their heads. Inside the box they found their heads in tiny beds in a weird dormitory. There was one performer behind each row of five who emphasised the night-time atmosphere with plumped-up pillows and bed-time toys. Pat Selden was the third performer, and Andy Plant made the booth.

This developed into Bedcases where five people were put into a large four-poster bed and wheeled into a tent. They found themselves in a slightly cramped bedroom. Five performers animated this space using a bookshelf with a life of its own, an oversized picture book, the sight of a flock of geese flying overhead and a lullaby. We commissioned Clive Bell to compose the soundtrack. Andy Plant designed and made the booth.

These two shows were vivid theatrical experiences for the participants but there’s only so many ten-minute-long shows for small amounts of people you can do per day. A lot more people saw the outside of these shows (which were intriguing rather than visually striking) than experienced what was going on inside. The next show solved the problem of balancing the outside and the inside…

Whalley Range All Stars: PIG (at Manchester Feast 2003). Photo: Paul Herrmann

PIG featured a 30-foot-long inflatable sow asleep on her side. You could hear her snoring and her nose twitched from time to time. A farmer invited ten people into the pen. They were given curly pigs’ tails to put on and directed towards the nipples. The nipples were removed and they put their heads into the holes.  They watched a ten-minute-long show featuring two farmers and their daily routine, inside the pig’s belly, whilst anyone walking past saw ten piglets suckling at their giant mother. Penny Saunders of Forkbeard Fantasy designed the inflatable body; Andy Plant created the pig’s animated head which was made with the participation of Max Orton (RIP) and Ali Wood. Steve Gumbley was the extra performer and helped create the show.

This was an incredibly successful show and toured throughout the world. 

If I may be so bold, one piece of advice we’d give to any emerging artists is to never sit on your laurels. Use the opportunity that a successful piece of work gives you and carry on making new shows to offer the promoters. The longer you put off making new work the more difficult and pressurised it becomes. 

After a few years we handed touring duties of PIG over to a separate team so we could concentrate on making new work. Among this team were Jack Lockhart, Scott Tomlinson, Tom Hogan, Katy-Anne Bellis, and Chris Davies – all of whom worked with us on other shows. 

Whilst PIG was still touring we went back to creating longer narrative-based shows. Compost Mentis was designed as a mess-making reaction to those short shows where everything needed to be re-set quickly. We worked with composer/sound artist Matt Wand who decomposed Clive Bell’s soundtrack, which featured Harry Beckett (RIP) on trumpet. (Harry was Charlie Mingus’ go-to trumpeter when he toured in Europe and is our only link to anything that’s cool.) 

Brain Wave featured a large head in a garden shed, Ye Gods featured a model town with three fallible gods towering over it. These three shows were made with sculptor Bryan Tweddle and performer Peter Finegan. Their contributions have been invaluable in the development of our (errrm) mature phase!  

I could go on, so I will. 

Whalley Range All Stars: Imaginary Friends (at Serralves em Festa, Porto, Portugal 2013). Photo: Sue Auty

We made Future – a three-day installation in a disused shop. A giant plant had burst through the first-floor window and you could see the roots through the ground floor window. From time to time the plant burst into flower. A team of five miners entered the shop and foraged for food. You could see the food they found being processed and packaged. The packaged food was then taken outside and raffled off to the audience. A vision of a future where nature has taken over the declining high street and we eat what we can find.

We made Imaginary Friends – ten performers and ten life-sized doppelgänger puppets playing in and with the streets. It was part improvised choreography and part a series of set pieces. Chris Davies composed the songs we sang. We worked with Babok, an Amsterdam-based performance company who share our adventurous approach and who have the same theatrical roots (Netherlands company Dogtroep).

We made Cake, an indoor table-top object theatre show for children, with Beka Haigh. We made The Best of All Possible Worlds, a very loose adaptation of Voltaire’s Candide which featured two Deaf performers. The decision to work with Deaf performers was a leap into the unknown but we make primarily visual work so there was no reason why we shouldn’t. Our decision was vindicated by the participation of Adam Bassett, Nat Mason and (in the second year of touring)  Rebecca Dixon who all brought a completely new level of performing to our work.

We even got someone full-time in the office: Jez Arrow, who took care of finances and marketing.

There’s more – an afternoon of extreme pedantry revealed that we have created precisely 100 shows/installations and events. We toured to 25 countries over 5 continents.

(Why so pedantic?  When we first started Warner Van Wely of Dogtroep advised us to tell people what we were doing otherwise no-one would ever know. So I wrote down every gig we did and at the end of every year I sent a report of our activity to North West Arts Board, back in the days when there were regional as well as a national branch of the Arts Council, who often as not hadn’t even funded us. Old habits die hard I guess.)

However this summer (2022) will be our last. A combination of Covid, Brexit and being an over-familiar 40-year-old has done for us. When we got Arts Council England (ACE) regular funding in 2003 after 20 years of scraps off the funding table they said to us: ‘How can we help you make your best work?’ When we re-applied in 2011 they said to us ‘How can you help us reach our aims?’ Ultimately we couldn’t help them and so were dropped from regular funding in 2015. In fairness ACE has kept on funding our projects, but the street theatre circuit is changing, the funding forms are asking too much of us – and we’ve also decided to look at other avenues for creating work rather than watch our tours get smaller and smaller. 

Whalley Range All Stars: Godzillatown (at Basingstoke 2022). Photo: Chris Squire

So, on to new ventures:

Sue has just created Floooooooot – an indoor show for babies, working with classical flautist Kathryn Williams. I’ve drawn two comic-strip books about Godzilla which were published by the Lakes International Comic Arts Festival in Cumbria (copies are still available!). 

We’ve also created two kamishibai shows – a Japanese form of story-telling using A3 sized colour drawings and narration. Sound familiar? Think of that sandwich-board show in Yerbury Park 40 years ago. Only these kamishibai shows reveal the experience we have gained from the following 40 years of work. Screen Argyll (run by Jen Skinner and Jack Lockhart) filmed one of the stories, Godzilla v. the Fatberg, and toured it around the Western Isles with the original 1954 Godzilla film. The audience were given masks from our Godzillatown installation to wear.

Sue and I came up with the ideas, kept the show on the road, and made large parts of each creation. But we are enormously in debt to all the performers, makers and musicians who helped make those ideas even better and richer. Our first extra performer was Terry Naylor back in 1983 and the team for Godzillatown (2021) are Pete Finegan, Katy-Anne Bellis, Tony Cairns and Chris Squire. There are too many people to mention here, but we thank them all.

It’s all very well making shows, but you need opportunities to show what you’ve made. We are forever grateful to the network of promoters and festivals, both in the UK and throughout the world, who nurtured us and booked us time and time again. 

Conversations with other companies gave us tips on how to keep going. Andy Coombes of Bob + Bob Jobbins, Tim and Chris Britton of Forkbeard Fantasy, and Mary Turner (RIP) of Action Space Mobile were especially generous in that respect. 

But the work? Well, someone had to do it.

Whalley Range All Stars: Compost Mentis (at Street Diversions Festival, Chelmsford 2007). Photo courtesy of WRAS

Featured image (top): Whalley Range All Stars: Future (at SIRF 2014). Photo: Jez Arrow

For more about Whalley Range All Stars and the latest projects from Edward Taylor and Sue Auty, See  

For future non-WRAS work please check the Facebook pages of Sue Auty and Edward Taylor Pictures.

To buy Edward’s comic books go to

Sound and Vision – a Tribute to David Humpage

David Humpage (1946–2020) was a composer and musician, and a founder member of the legendary IOU theatre and outdoor arts company. David was one of a small group of artists who co-devised and toured together for over twenty years, from 1977 to 1999. His music was an integral part of each show – the visual and musical elements together establishing IOU’s distinctive style. Here, three of his colleagues pay tribute: David Wheeler, one of the company’s founder members and current artistic director; Lou Glandfield, musician/composer and a founder member of IOU; and Edward Taylor, longtime admirer and sometime company performer. 

David Wheeler, founder member and current artistic director of IOU, writes:

The balance of temperaments, skills and talents in the early years of IOU was fortuitous. We were all very different – extremely different – and the way we all came together, found each other, seemed very natural. For the first ten years, the artists operated with a collective ethos, enabled by remarkable administrators, but from its inception, IOU was formed as a limited company with charitable status and all the artists and staff were board members. Not something that would be possible today. 

I think all of us from those early days would say that we formed our own personal styles through our contact with each other, and through those influences formed a recognisable IOU aesthetic. None of us would be doing what we are doing now if it hadn’t been for that period; neither would IOU.  

David Humpage in that mix was very influential.  He created overarching musical structures and though we might have jibed him about them at the time, we were all very happy and grateful to make full use of them.  

The music, performance and visual ideas would evolve together, often on location in the few days before a production. Ideas were bounced back and forth between the musicians and artists; sometimes the artists saying that a section of music was too short or too long for a performance idea and sometimes the musicians would be saying the music structure needed to keep its shape. Adjustments were made on both sides and I remember this being a remarkably amicable process, although I am sure there were exceptions. However, by the time we were about to go on stage for the first time, the performers knew that the music would work and hold it all together.  This trust was important as often we would only have time to talk through ideas before performing them live to an audience – full rehearsals were sometimes a dispensable luxury.  The music, and visible musicians, were in the real and conceptual foreground for good reason.

One aspect of IOU’s work is that words are just another important element in the work, they aren’t necessarily the starting point or the story. The music and the musical structure often took this role. This allowed those of us who made the visual content able to weave together contrasting scenes, their connections elusive, dreamlike and enigmatic. It is an important ingredient that audience members bring their own imagination and interpretation to the work. 

Ten years into IOU’s now forty-five years of life, the collective ethos had begun to evolve and the founder members no longer wanted to be in every show. A greater number of freelance artists and musicians were working on productions and the whole alternative scene was changing. David had an enormous amount of music to create in his life and stayed with IOU for a further ten years, but eventually the company was no longer the place where he felt he could make it.

David is a key character in the development of IOU and the influence this had on the sector. For me he was also a dear friend for twenty years, and I will continue to miss him.

IOU: Forbidden Riddles (1980). Photo Brodnox Moore

Lou Glandfield, musician and founder member of IOU, writes:

David played with IOU for the first time in Rotterdam in 1977. Although we were in several respects polar opposites, my connection with David was immediate. When we met he was fresh from the Darmstadt/Stockhausen end of things and I was coming from folk and blues clubs. His initial reaction to the music which I was already writing and playing with the cellist Colin Wood was one of sheer disbelief. ‘I thought it was just Toytown music,’  he later told me.

IOU’s music in the mid-seventies was unapologetically unfashionable and, looked at in the context of the time, radically conservative. As such it was roundly deplored by some of our avant garde peers. We enjoyed playing to their opprobrium, flaunting our college scarves and music cases. Yet, almost immediately, David got it. Bringing a lively complexity to the mix, he jumped in with Tales of Fire – a setting of one of his own poems as a sprightly homage to De Machaut for Wet Maps, Dry Seas at Oval House. 

IOU’s music quickly took on a distinct identity – an austere and often mournful quality oddly reminiscent of Scandinavian village bands – in which the default line-up was Colin on cello, me on harmonium and vocal, and David on viola or violin. Additionally Colin played bass trumpet, I played French horn and guitar, David played recorders, and we all played percussion. This set the scene for the next 20 years which saw a prolonged exhumation and re-examination of historic styles. 

Our settings of Snoo Wilson’s poems (which he claimed were written in the Vendée dialect but which I maintain to this day were simply crap French) were even taken by some to be genuine Troubadour songs. On one occasion an audience member approached us after the show to compliment us on the music. ‘Who wrote it?’ he asked. ‘We did,’ we said. ‘OK,’ he said, ‘But where did you get it from?’ We repeated that we had written it. His face abruptly fell. ‘You mean,’ he said indignantly, ‘that I’ve been sitting here listening to stuff that you made up?’

Stylistically, we slowly crept up the centuries until, by 1999, we’d reached somewhere around 1899. In the meantime there were sideways forays into improvised music and jazz. Colin Wood had been an early member of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, David had considerable experience playing free stuff, and I’d spent enough time as a dogged sideman to Lol Coxhill and Phil Minton to at least give it a go. The soundtrack for two short films was entirely improvised and in 1983 we proudly played the Leeds City Varieties with Trevor Watts and Chris Weaver on saxes. 

Outside of IOU we collaborated on various projects, including Whistling in the Dark, a work David composed for Lincoln Cathedral with ex Van der Graaf Generator cellist Chas Dickie, and Pig’s Ear for the 1994 Nottingham Guitar Festival. In 1984, as Acropolis Now!, we played the Bracknell Jazz Festival with Trevor Watts and Lol Coxhill. Later that year Chris Weaver and the trombonist Harry Dawes joined IOU for The Sea Saw Red in London and Yorkshire in which the music veered markedly towards jazz. At other times we were joined by ace reedman and quondam Jeff Beck sideman Clive Bell. Frequent recourse to different musical styles meant that selling cassettes of our music after shows sometimes led to misunderstandings. Once an indignant punter came back the next day complaining that the cassette he’d bought the night before comprised 18th century consort ripoffs and 19th century parlour songs. ‘Yes, that’s us,’ we said. ‘But I bought it last night,’ he protested. We must have looked blank. He looked as if he might cry.’You were playing free jazz funk.’ We gave him his money back.

Putting music alongside images is always a question of tactics. A man telling jokes with a mournful expression is always much funnier than the man who mugs and gurns; similarly, if the music tells the same story as the image, the two tend to cancel one another out. Architectural analogies were frequently invoked, chiefly that of the arch; a construction in which opposing forces define and support one another. The music might appear to contradict, subvert or just quietly ignore the visual component but the relationship was always dynamic.  Consequently we bristled when people dismissed it as ‘background music’. David always took this a bit further. Colin and I would be itching to just get on with it and David would be stroking his beard and counselling caution while he conceived a ‘scheme’. This could cause tension. ‘You can’t just lay bits of music end-to-end and expect it to work,’ he would say. ‘Why not?’ I would counter. Of course, no-one likes to think that someone else has a superior handle on the creative process, especially in a collective. But I guess, looking back, he was right an awful lot of the time.

In the end, such was our influence on one another that, after twenty years we often had to think twice to remember who’d written what. We both wrote as well as composing and would delight in setting one another’s words – David was a gifted poet – to wildly different music in between settings of Louise Oliver’s poetry.

Perhaps most important of all was laughter. David was a world class laugher and an acerbic commentator on folly. Put simply, I loved the bloke.

David Humpage

Edward Taylor is someone who has watched a lot of IOU shows over the last 40 years – and performed in some of them. He writes:

Back in the 1980s an IOU show offered a different experience to the work that toured to the many art centres that were in existence then. It often took place in non-theatre spaces: for example the courtyard of the Birmingham Arts Lab, a disused church in Manchester, Nutclough Mill in Hebden Bridge, Brighton beach or Saltaire in Bradford. 

These were shows you had to pay to see so although many of them took place outdoors they weren’t what we call street theatre which doesn’t require you to buy a ticket. I should say that IOU also did that kind of work as well.

These shows often involved you having to seek them out which in the pre-sat-nav era took a bit of detective work if you weren’t local to the area. I occasionally used to get hand-written letters from members of the company alerting me to upcoming events.

Beyond the driving around to find them, beyond the striking visual imagery, beyond the inventive, poetic use of the spaces they worked in, was the music. IOU always had live music to accompany their work. Unlike opera, dance or musicals you could see the musicians at work – be they at the side of the stage or incorporated into the set. 

To begin with the musicians were David Humpage, Lou Glandfield and Colin Wood. The instrumentation was weighted towards cello and viola and had the sound and quality of chamber music. The music was self-composed and because IOU created a lot of different shows every year there was often little time to come up with the goods. Colin Wood left the company and so guest musicians were added as and when. Many of them came from the improvised music network that had developed at the same time as the alternative theatre scene of which IOU were a part.

The imagery could be eye-opening: for example, a full-sized horse puppet lying comatose in a vegetable plot; three giraffe-necked men in raincoats; or a large metal tower on wheels. But the performance style was always low-key and never over-played. Stories were told and songs were sung but there was never any dialogue to move the show along. This meant that the chamber music sound fitted the theatre style like a glove and because it was played live, scenes didn’t have to have a fixed length. And this meant that as an audience member you felt as though this world was unfolding for the first time before your eyes.

Occasionally the music took centrestage. At the start of one show, Three Storeys and a Dark Cellar, we saw a piece of rough old canvas hung right across the stage. A light behind it came on which revealed the large shadows of David Humpage and Sylvia Hallett. As they walked away from the light towards the canvas their shadows shrunk to normal size and they played a lovely duet on viola and violin in silhouette. A simple visual idea at the service of evocative music.

I’m not sure how but I ended up touring with David in IOU’s show Gravity in 1989/90. At one point in the  production period it was decided that a monologue from one of the characters  was needed. David offered to write this monologue, went away and came back the next morning with something that was witty and which incorporated all the various themes of the show in a way that never seemed contrived or too obvious. 

Such were his talents. 

From David Humpage’s website: Orion on the back of a dolphin

Featured image top: IOU: The Trumpet Rat (1982), featuring David Humpage (left) and Lou Glandfield (right).

All images courtesy of IOU.

David Humpage was a composer and musician and a founder member of IOU. He died suddenly on 14 December 2020. For more about David’s life and work, see  

IOU is a producing arts organisation based at Dean Clough in Halifax. They have over 40 years’ experience making live shows and contemporary art installations. All aspects of the work are originated by the company and are devised for unusual indoor and outdoor locations as well as established touring venues and galleries.

David Wheeler is a founder member of IOU and the company’s artistic director since 1988. He works full-time with the company as deviser, designer, maker and performer.

Lou Glandfield is a musician, composer, writer and founder member of IOU. He has also been a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement and a busker.

Edward Taylor is one half of the Whalley Range All Stars – a street theatre company he formed with Sue Auty in 1982 

Little Angel Theatre/Silent Tide: The Adventures of Curious Ganz

The Adventures of Curious Ganz is a puppet performance ‘based on the impossibly fascinating life of a fictitious scientist of the first Elizabethan era, Joachim Ganz, and featuring the enquiring mind of the monarch herself!’

We enter the theatre to take our seats. The stage is strewn with small tables, circular frames of various sizes, and a lot of small objects lying here and there.

The house lights go down and the stage lights focus on the big circular frame in the centre of the stage. The lighting is such that we can’t see what’s at the back of the set. Curly copper wire shapes emerge out of the gloom, joined by small carved shapes. All of which suggest we are looking through a microscope at the beginnings of life.

This scientific presentation is slightly undermined when a small skeleton of a pterodactyl flies in and deposits a bundle. The hero of the story, Ganz, climbs out of the bundle and the story can begin. The imaginative intermingling of fact and fiction is a crucial element of the story. Ganz is represented by three carved puppets of various sizes, and he’s rarely seen without a magnifying glass in his hands.

His curiosity about what life entails is a threat to the prime minister who aims to keep the queen in check by restricting what she knows. The queen puppet is dressed in a sculptural and restricting skirt, very much a prisoner of How Things Are Meant To Be.

What follows involves the machinations of court; two comic retainers; imprisonment because of perceived heresy; a daring escape; a voyage to the New World; the discovery of tobacco, potatoes, a guinea pig and electricity; and the liberation of the queen through what these discoveries teach her.

It’s a splendidly picaresque tale performed by three experienced puppeteers who are always in the right spot at the right time and who can swap puppets over with each other without missing a beat.

If I’ve made it sound like an adult show don’t be fooled. Behind me, a 6-year-old boy was speechless with laughter at the antics of the retainers and the escape scene which broke the format of the show in a dramatic manner.

The show is presented by Little Angel Theatre and Silent Tide, the latter a puppet company set up by Sarah Wright whose parents (John and Lyndie Wright) founded Little Angel Theatre. Her impressive CV includes work for Kneehigh, Phelim McDermott/Improbable, and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Here, her role is as both director and puppeteer. One of the other puppeteers is Liz Walker of Invisible Thread. (The two have worked together previously on many occasions.) The way the show is staged – no attempt to be realistic, and combining small scenes on different levels to create a bigger stage picture – is reminiscent of Liz’s work with both Faulty Optic, her previous company, and the current company, Invisible Thread. The third puppeteer is Nix Wood. Puppets and set are by Sarah Wright, Lyndie Wright, and Alice King. Associate director/movement director is Avye Leventis, and the composer of the highly appropriate music is Adam Pleeth.

It was a really good night out!


Featured image (top): The Adventures of Curious Ganz. Photo by Steve Tanner 


SIRF City Takeover

Edward Taylor takes a psychedelic trip to the Stockton International Riverside Festival to encounter, amongst other delights, rainbow-coloured cars pegged out to dry, and sci-fi globules that sing sad tunes when taken the wrong way

Stockton-on-Tees is a most unlikely venue for a major international street theatre festival – but the event has been running since 1988 and has programmed most of the world’s leading outdoor theatre companies. The town has very evident social problems, shops are closing up and down the main street, the area voted to leave the EU – yet every year they welcome this festival with open arms.

This year, Jeremy Shine took over the reins of artistic director and booked Generik Vapeur (one of the big French companies) to open the festival in style with their parade show Droles d’oiseaux et art blaxon.

They weren’t quite the opening act though. To start with, the Rajasthani Brass Band played us down the high streets. A taut side-drum and a bass drum kept a constant babbling brook of a rhythm going which the sinuous brass melodies sat upon.


Stockton International Riverside Festival launch on Stockton High Street. Photo: Stuart Boulton


Once they had reached the bottom of the street Generik Vapeur’s PA system mounted on a tractor going in the opposite direction to the band took over. The music was synthesised, accompanied by musicians playing guitars, a trumpet and electronic percussion. A female singer added high-pitched wailings to this persistent groove.

The tractor pulled seven white cars around which swarmed a team of performers also dressed in white with a few of the team wearing a coloured trilby. This parade was lead by a man in white who used a roller on a stick to paint a white line on the road as he marched.

The parade came to a stop half-way up the high street. Buckets of house-paint and paint rollers appeared and the team set to work painting each car. The musicians added more layers of music as the team painted away and by the end the cars had all been covered in vivid colours – one colour per car. The emulsion gave a different quality to the slick car-paint we are used to.

The parade continued until we all reached a huge washing line with giant clothes pegs arranged along it. The cars were then winched up until they all appeared to be hanging out to dry. Iconic images (Marx, the Buddha) were bill-postered onto the cars’ under-carriages as a barrage of small and noisy fireworks were set off from behind.

The last Generik Vapeur show I reviewed for Total Theatre was, in my view, awful – but this show was simple, effective, visually spectacular, and played to their strengths.


Generik Vapeur. Photo: Stuart Boulton


From that we went to Motionhouse’s latest piece, Wild. Motionhouse have a house-style which they rigidly stick to and whilst this allows them to create a lot of shows it also means that their development is hard to detect. This show had a team of talented dancer/acrobats hurling themselves around a set made of upright scaff-poles. A lot of the choreography took place on the poles but a lot was on the floor so if you were standing two rows back you couldn’t really see what they were doing. That I couldn’t see properly is testament to the company’s popularity (and the appetite that Stockton audiences have for this kind of work) but I would like to see Motionhouse abandon their formula and strike out in different directions, as Protein Dance managed to do at SIRF 2018.

The following day the highly experienced Avanti Display gave a text-book example of how you could present a street theatre classic (the circle show) in a fresh and funny way. Full Circle is played in the round and uses a variety of circular motifs, both visually and in the performance, to present a piece of street entertainment where the audience is actively involved, without the two performers (who look like members of a Swiss ambulance service) having to say a word.


Avanti Display: Full Circle


It starts off in a low-key manner with a large circular disc being rolled into a position. Red buckets are placed on this disc. The buckets contain an electronic gizmo which knocks against the metal like a metronome and which gives the initial action a slightly sinister almost subliminal beat. More buckets appear, a larger outer circle is drawn in sand falling from a hole in a bucket, the nearby van is opened, a ton of buckets fall out and children are roped into helping arrange the buckets around this outer circle.

What’s satisfying is that formal concerns shape the show, which is driven along by the performer’s experience. There’s no jazz-hands or monster-egos on display. Instead the circumference of the circle depends on the length of rope used to draw it out and that length of rope is worked out by the amount of buckets there are. It has an obsessive quality to it, but the audience are perfectly willing to buy into this obsession.

There’s a lovely section where a smaller bucket ‘hovers’ over the ground courtesy of four members of the audience holding ropes. To get the bucket to where it needs to be is not as easy as it appears, and there’s much fun in getting the four people to co-operate.

Eventually a tower of all the buckets is built around a member of the audience dressed as a sort of bucket king, the audience tug the ropes to give a noisy finale of tumbling buckets and then the children help the company put the buckets back in the van. I say help the company: the company barely lift a finger in the clean-up operation.



Mimbre at SIRF. Photo: Stuart Boulton


Mimbre are also experienced street theatre makers, and like Avanti bought this experience to bear in their latest show, Lifted. Three women performers, three chairs, a large green mat and a musical soundtrack.

It’s a series of acrobatic tableaux where the setting up of each tableau is as important as the final image. Each performer has a character but you never feel the characterisation is being acted out – it seems to emerge from what they are doing. The movement is fluid, it never looks like it’s a physical strain (though it must be) so it’s intensely relaxed. My quibble would be that at times it feels too relaxed, so the line between rehearsal and performance feels too faintly drawn.

I ended the day with Ray Lee’s Congregation. You gather at one of a number of designated sites (ours is an unremarkable spot over the river by the student accommodation buildings). A woman in grey stands next to a case of silver globules which are all throbbing away in a musical fashion. The globule has a happy sound (when you are moving in the right direction) and an unhappy sound (when you are moving in the…. you get the picture). You are each given a globule and your task is to find your way to the meeting point (which turns out to be the other side of the river in Stockton town centre, although we don’t know this at the start).

You are concerned with trying to keep this globule happy whilst people passing by wonder what the hell you are doing with a silver sphere emitting a rhythmic pulse. There are many conversations with curious passers-by en route. A group of globule-holders passed me by earlier in the day and they do look completely mysterious in a 1950s sci-fi film kind of way as they try and find their way ‘home’.

We got a bit delayed so missed the finale where all the globules played together. Instead of the effect being replayed for our benefit the globules were switched off and that was that – abrupt and a bit disappointing. So it felt that the company needs to work out how to ensure everybody gets the musical pay-off. (Editor’s note: they seemed to have resolved this issue by the last day of the festival, with all five or six groups plus stragglers given ample time to ‘congregate’.)

This year, the SIRF felt busier than ever – every show had a big crowd. My company (Whalley Range All Stars) has performed there ten times and it really is one of those festivals which appeal to the broadest demographic of age, class and race. When we first performed in Stockton in 1992 the experience was quite hair-raising. Now, everyone has a programme so they can pick and choose what to see. Long may it continue to be the case.


Featured image (top): Generik Vapeur and Droles d’oiseaux et art blaxon at the Stockton International Riverside Festival launch on Stockton High Street. Photo: Stuart Boulton for SIRF

Stockton International Riverside Festival 2019 took place Thursday 1 August to Sunday 4 August, at various locations in Stockton town centre. See