Ten years after he made his producing debut with Boys of the Empire, Glenn Chandler returns to London’s King’s Head Theatre with a new LGBT comedy The Boy Under the Christmas Tree, running 11 December 2018 to 5 January 2019. The former Taggart writer recounts his decade of stage adventures with the production company he named after his inaugural success…
Ten years ago this Christmas I was at the King’s Head Theatre with a show I had written called Boys of the Empire. I had originally produced it that summer at the Edinburgh Fringe, along with a revival of Patrick Wilde’s What’s Wrong with Angry, a gay growing-up story that had been made into a very successful film called Get Real.
That summer of 2008 I shall never forget. It was the first time I had ever produced anything, and there I was, back in my hometown of Edinburgh, with no experience and a cast of ten and two shows running the entire length of the festival. It really was like being in at the deep end.
It all started, as things do, somewhere completely different. I was on holiday in Wales and went into a bric-a-brac shop, and found a cardboard box full of old comics from the 1930s and earlier. One was actually late Victorian, dated 1888, called Boys of the Empire, ‘a journal of fun, instruction and romance’, and it featured a story called ‘The Master of the Sword, or, The Brother Apprentices’. It was aimed at boys growing up in the days of the British Empire, historical adventure stories featuring young men – often schoolboys – defending the empire against all manner of villains.
The later comics were The Magnet, a periodical that ran from the Great War up to 1940, each edition containing a long story about the boys of Greyfriars School, a fictional Eton-like establishment whose most famous character was Billy Bunter. These really were comics, and stories, from a different era. I took them back to my hotel room and spent a wonderful evening thumbing through them. I decided I wanted to write a satirical school play, set in the same era, and I called it Boys of the Empire.
It was a flash of inspiration. Britain occupied Iraq after the Great War and made huge mistakes. In 2007, the US and Britain were occupying Iraq and making even greater mistakes. I set my school story at a time when a number of the boys had fathers serving in post-war Iraq. Enter a Turkish terrorist, disguised as a gamekeeper, with a dastardly plot to blow up the school. It was sheer fun, but it had something vital to say about how we never learn from the past.
The writer and director Patrick Wilde was at that time with the same agency as myself, and one night in the bar at the Pleasance Theatre in London, I asked him if he would like to direct it. I daringly said I would produce. It turned out he wanted to revive his play What’s Wrong with Angry, and we agreed that I would produce the two, and he would direct both on the Edinburgh Fringe the following year. “You realise,” he said, “that the producer has to come up with the money?” I grabbed a large glass of red wine. “I didn’t think of that,” I said. But, of course, I had.
I was introduced to Pete Shaw (who now runs the review site Broadway Baby) and Louis Hartshorn of Hartshorn-Hook Productions, friends of Patrick’s who had experience of production, and they became mentors, and also good friends. We put on the two plays the following summer under the somewhat embarrassing banner of Glenn Chandler Presents, as they reckoned my Taggart credentials would be a good selling point. The casting was an exciting process I thoroughly enjoyed – most of our cast had to perform in both plays.
The logistics of rehearsing in London, transporting the sets and the cast of ten to Edinburgh and accommodating them, was a new experience. I realised how much theatre costs, particularly in taking a show to Edinburgh. It involves an almost constant dripfeed from your bank account. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Fortunately, I had made a bit of money out of Taggart. It was fun to put it back into something that I was producing. Remember that moment in The Producers when they dance in the fountains? There were moments I wanted to do just that.
I learned that actors need looking after, particularly away from home. Most of our cast were young, just out of drama school, a few had never been to Edinburgh before. Seven of them were living in one large house, out in Morningside. I stocked up the kitchen with food for them, but when that ran out they survived largely on junk food. One became terribly constipated and came to me and told me he hadn’t been for two weeks. He had just visited the doctor who had given him an extremely powerful laxative that could take effect at any moment. And he had two shows to do that day! I obtained packets of nappies (you think producing is romantic?), but even they would not save the day if the unmentionable happened. Fortunately, his bowels opened between shows. But it could have been a disaster.
We had sellout houses, and I’ll never forget the thrill I experienced at watching queues go all the way round the block from C Venues in Chambers Street, where both plays ran. To say I got the bug was putting it mildly. On the final night, the cast dragged me on stage and gave me a bunch of flowers.
Since then, I have produced a number of shows under the Boys of the Empire Productions banner, though it was a few years before I went back to Edinburgh. Another comic book satire, Scouts in Bondage, followed at the King’s Head. (It wasn’t as kinky as it sounds!) I obtained the rights to the John Rae novel The Custard Boys, about teenage evacuees during the Second World War, which featured a very tender gay love story between an English boy and a young Austrian Jew, adapted it and decided to direct it myself.
Watching Patrick Wilde direct had taught me that you very early on have to get the trust of your actors. The first day in the rehearsal room was terrifying. I had assembled a cast of young actors, again many of them not long out of drama school, and there was me, never having directed a play in my life, trying to demonstrate that I knew what I was doing. They were a wonderful bunch of lads, however, and I learned so much from them as rehearsals progressed. The Custard Boys ran at the Tabard Theatre for four weeks, and we won the So So Gay magazine award for Best New Play of the Year against some stiff competition!
By that time, the bug had a pretty fearsome bite and I decided to do what you can’t do in television – take dramatic risks. In 2015, in the middle of a paedophilia panic, I went back to Edinburgh with Sandel, an adaptation of the cult Angus Stewart novel, written in the 1960s when all homosexuality was illegal, about a love affair between a student teacher and a fourteen-year-old choirboy that had – and wait for it – a happy ending. By remaining faithful to the novel and the period, while it shocked some, it moved many others.
When I transferred it to London’s Above The Stag Theatre, a young-looking sixteen-year-old, Ashley Cousins, who had been a child actor in Billy Elliot, played the manipulative choirboy. He has since gone on to great things. As though Sandel wasn’t controversial enough that summer, I produced it in Edinburgh in tandem with a play called Killers, directed by my great friend Liam Rudden, which dealt with the psychology of people who write ‘fan mail’ to notorious serial killers. Three actors portrayed Dennis Nilsen, Peter Sutcliffe and Ian Brady opening their mail! During the run, Dennis Nilsen – who killed and dismembered a number of young men – emailed me from prison to tell me more about his correspondent. I wrote back. It was quite a chilling moment. I felt I had become one of the characters in the show.
Boys of the Empire Productions celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. For someone who grew up gay and ridden with anxiety at a time when the age of consent was 21, it has been a great privilege to be in a position, in my adult years, to put largely LGBT drama on the stage.
Last year’s Lord Dismiss Us, adapted from the novel by Michael Campbell, was almost autobiographical as it dealt with a boy leaving school aware that he would be a criminal for the next four years of his life. I was that boy. And Kids Play, which this summer won the Bobby Award on the Edinburgh Fringe for Best Play, was a psychological study about fetishism and loneliness.
I believe in fate. But when it comes along, you really have to seize the day. I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I not chanced upon the box of comics mouldering away in that junk shop and left them sitting there for the next customer.
The Boy Under the Christmas Tree runs from 11 December 2018 to 5 January 2019 at the King’s Head Theatre, 115 Upper Street, London N1 1QN, with performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 9.15pm, Sundays at 5.15pm and special matinees on 29 December and 5 January at 5.15pm. Tickets are priced £11-16. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!