Why are there so few right-wing rock stars?

An NME writer suggests that it's thanks to the influence of Britain's music press.

It's a curious fact that, in public at least, there are very few right-wing rock stars. Some, like Phil Collins, who made good on his promise to leave the country if Labour won the 2005 General Election, vote Tory for tax reasons. Some, like Spandau Ballet singer Tony Hadley, who was rumoured to be seeking a Conservative electoral seat, espouse pro-Thatcherite views because it reminds them of the time in the 1980s when they were still having hits, rather than slogging round the revival circuit playing august rock venues like Lowestoft's Marina Theatre.

Collins and Hadley are very much in the minority, however. Rock music's default political stance is a version of libertarianism - a lot of rock stars like to imagine themselves as outlaw figures at odds with the strictures of workaday society, and a small state means, like, less hassle from The Man, man.

In Britain at least, the long-term guardian of rock music's conscience - and occasional antagonist - was the music press, principally the weekly New Musical Express. Founded in 1952 as a tabloid for musicians advertising the latest harmonicas or guitar strings, by the time it reached its peak of influence in the mid-'70s, the NME was providing a steady wage and a willing audience to a whole generation of troublemakers and dissidents who'd learned their craft writing for the underground press.

NME was owned by the International Publishing Company, part of packaging company Reed International, publishers of Woman and Home, Horse and Hound and magazines about fishing, football and kid's comics. The staff of the NME gleefully exploited their position to take the values, ideals and interests of the hippy underground - amplified rock music, drugs, sex, astrology, radical politics - and sneak them into the mainstream through IPC's distribution network.

At its peak in the 1970s, the magazine was bought by a quarter of a million people weekly, but IPC estimated that it was read by four times as many - most NME readers being impoverished students or sixth formers who pass on the paper to friends when they'd finished with it. The values and causes that they discovered through the pages of the NME - along, of course, with the vibrant soundtrack - permeated way beyond the pages of a weekly rock newspaper into the wider culture.

Writing in 1980, the cultural commentator Peter York expressed amazement at what he found in the pages of a magazine sold alongside Shoot!, Bunty or the Sun in WH Smiths. "Peter York wrote a piece on NME for Harpers and Queen," remembers Tony Parsons, one of the many household names who got his break writing for the paper, "and he said 'you wouldn't believe the stuff that's in this paper: politics, drugs'. And this was true. There were people coming to work who'd had just fallen out of a drug den with Keith Richards."

At a time when the TUC conference ended with a round of (female) strippers, or when Mr Humphries from Are You Being Served? was the only gay character on television, the NME advocated feminism and gay rights. It ran passionate cover stories about nuclear disarmament or green politics way before they were mainstream political issues. It advocated relaxing British marijuana laws and covered music festivals long before either became acceptable middle-class pastimes.

After a drunken concert appearance by Eric Clapton in August 1976 where the guitarist repeatedly shouted the National Front's slogan "Keep Britain White" and called for action to be taken to "get the coons out", it was on the letters pages of the NME that the Rock Against Racism movement coalesced. In the 1980s, during Neil Kinnock's latter period as leader of the Labour party, no daily newspaper would give him even the smallest piece of positive coverage: NME put him on the cover twice, once, to their publisher's chagrin, the week before the 1987 general election.

NME writers attended early meetings of the Red Wedge movement, rubbing shoulders with future New Labour architects like Peter Mandelson and Phillip Gould, who noticed how powerful rock music could be when it came to trying to court the youth vote. The result was Britain's first rock'n'roll premier, the first British Prime Minister who'd grown up reading the NME every week. The ignominy of the Blair years aside Britain is a more accepting, more tolerant and more liberal place than it was forty years ago. The persistent influence of the New Musical Express, sixty years old next month, did much to make it that way.

Pat Long's book "The History of The NME" is published on 12 March by Portico. For more information click here

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BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown and the tricky question of staging the Henry VI plays

The War of the Roses plays are great crowd-pleasing popular hits. So why are adaptations so hard to get right?

This week sees the arrival of the second series of BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown, subtitled “The Wars of the Roses”. It’s nearly four years since the first, commissioned and screened as part of the “Cultural Olympiad” that ran in parallel with the London Olympics. Both series were executive produced by Oscar winner and James Bond director Sam Mendes, but largely directed by people who chiefly work in theatre, rather than television or film. The 2012 run won four Baftas, including for Ben Whishaw and Simon Russell Beale’s performances.

The plays that comprised series one (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) are universally acknowledged to be a prequel tetralogy to four plays from earlier in Shakespeare’s career, Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III. It’s these four later-set, earlier-written plays that are being adapted into the three episodes of the second series.

Of these plays, Richard III, twice made into successful and important British films, is by far the most famous and frequently performed, attracting star names like Martin Freeman and Ralph Fiennes to London stage productions in the last three years alone. Indeed, its title character is so important in British culture it's hard to tell where the historical figure ends and Shakespeare’s character begins, as discussion surrounding that King’s reinternment in 2015 demonstrated.

The least well-known of the plays is Henry VI Part 1. The initial commissioning announcement for this series implied the first episode would consist of Part 1, with the second conflating Part 2 and Part 3. While believable in terms of the content of the plays, it’s not practical in terms of their respective lengths, and the first episode covers both Part 1 and Part 2.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Not only is Henry VI Part 1 performed least of these history plays, it’s even less often performed in full. The first recorded production after Shakespeare’s own lifetime was on 13th March 1788 in Covent Garden: a good 170 years after the author’s death. The next was when Sir Frank Benson staged it in 1906, another century-and-change later. After those gaps, the mere 47 years until the next production, at Birmingham Rep in 1953 (starring Judi Dench as Joan of Arc), is nothing. For the first time in nearly 400 years it was possible for someone to have seen two productions of the whole play in one lifetime. I wonder if anyone did?

Next was Terry Hands’ 1977 RSC production (with Helen Mirren as Queen Margaret and Alan Howard as the King – the actors saw their characters’ marriage’s foundation as “bondage in the chapel”) followed by another RSC production in 2000 (which has been revived more than once since) and one at The Globe in 2012/13.

The plays that make up The Hollow Crown series two work less effectively than those that formed series one when asked to standalone. Not only do they work better as a cycle, but they depend on the others within their own tetralogy to a greater extent than Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V do. Even the often-performed Richard III works better with the Henry VI plays behind it: The Hollow Crown’s Richard, Benedict Cumberbatch, has noted that you really need the Henry VI plays to understand the Richard who comes on stage and announces a winter of discontent, and both cinema versions incorporate pieces of Henry VI Part 3 to set the scene.

Accordingly then, a few scenes from Henry VI Part 1 are often excerpted and combined with Part 2 to create a composite play even in ‘Complete’ stage runs of Shakespeare’s Histories (e.g. the RSC in 1963 or Michael Bogdanov’s radical 1980s productions). One such scene is the moment when the various nobles pick either white or red roses from a bush to indicate their respective loyalties (while not the origin of the phrase “The Wars of the Roses”, this scene is what prompted Sir Walter Scott to coin it). The Red Rose of Lancaster, unlike the White Rose of York, is not contemporary to this stage of the conflict, being invented by Henry VII after his victory in 1485.

Other scenes, such as the funeral of Henry V or Plantagenet having his rights to the Crown explained to him, almost always make it through. Mostly, though, the play is dumped, much if not all of the material featuring Joan of Arc removed due to concerns about her portrayal as a witch. These traditionally came from a religious, rather than a feministic perspective, particularly in the years around Joan canonisation in 1920. Although Shakespeare must get points for having the play’s Dauphin predict that La Pucelle would one day be a Saint.

The Hollow Crown’s director/adapter Dominic Cooke has kept much of the Joan of Arc subplot, but interestingly cut the sub-plot featuring the peasant rebel and pretender Jack Cade, which forms a fair chunk of Henry VI Part 2. This is usually included, as it’s considered an important counterpoint to the aristocratic rebellion happening elsewhere in the play.

Almost always lost are the scenes featuring the English soldier Talbot (played in The Hollow Crown by Philip Glenister), usually because someone involved in the production considers the rhyme scheme in which they are written to be lacking. In context, this is rather odd, as not only was Henry VI Part 1 a massive hit when originally performed, but Talbot was regarded as the play’s most notable and successful element.   

For much of Shakespeare’s career he wrote exclusively for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (after 1603 renamed The King’s Men) the theatrical company for which he acted and wrote, in which he owned a one-eighth share, and which performed, over the years, at various venues across London built or owned by Shakespeare’s fellow actor, Richard Burbage, and/or Burbage’s brother Cuthbert or their Father, James.

Very few records related to this company survive. Earlier in his career, however, Shakespeare wrote for a variety of companies, including for those performing in venues owned and run by Philip Henslowe, the bear-baiter, financier, social climber and public official. Extensive papers related to Henslowe’s business dealings were deposited in the library of Dulwich College, the then poor, now private, school founded by Henslowe’s son-in-law, the actor Ned Alleyn. From these we learn that a play “Harey Vj” was performed on 2nd March 1592 (Henslowe’s spelling is non-standard, perhaps eccentric even in the 1590s: at one point he renders Shakespeare’s play Titus Andronicus as “Titus &ondronicus”, something which has always given me great joy.) “Harey” or Henry, was  marked “ne”, usually taken to indicate that the play was new, and the box office takings are indicative of a premiere: that that afternoon it took 3s 16s 8d. As admission to the Rose was a penny a head for groundlings, rising to up to 3d if you wanted to sit in the galleries, and its capacity was around three hundred, this a full house. The play was performed more than a dozen further occasions over the next few months. The practice of the time was to rotate plays, allowing people to see a large repertory in very quick succession, rather than the modern practice of long runs.

There are also few surviving documents in which people record their own responses to theatrical events of this period, but for Henry VI Part 1 we have one: The writer Thomas Nashe’s ‘Piers Penniless’, which was registered with the Stationer’s Office (the 1590s equivalent of copyright registration) in August 1592 sees Nashe praise the play, saying:

How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators, at least, who in the tragedian that represents his person imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.

Henry VI Part 1 has been made for television by the BBC three times before, always as now as part of a longer sequence. An Age of Kings (1961) reduced it to an hour, and The War of the Roses (1965) was a version of the RSC’s 1963 productions, retaining their cuts. Only in 1983 did it play (practically) uncut, running for nearly three hours.(It was cut into two 90m episodes for the American market.)  This magical production directed by Jane Howell contained within a single set representing a children’s playground, which she later utilised for parts 2 and 3 and Richard III as well, is an abstract, defiantly unrealistic staging of the play about as far from The Hollow Crown’s mimetic, shot-on-location style as it’s possible to imagine. The rival dukes arrive on hobby horses, and at one point its Talbot, Trevor Peacock, does what we’d now recognise as a “Miranda Hart Look To Camera”. It’s quite a lot to live up to.

The new BBC version has an exception cast (I mean, look at it), and the production standards of the first series can’t be faulted. It’s hard to argue that first series of The Hollow Crown didn’t draw on richer and more complex plays than the second, but the Henry VI plays particularly showcase an earlier Shakespeare, whose work is more boisterous and direct; simplifying hugely, they have a little more action and a little less introspection. They’re exciting dramas of civil strife and internecine warfare, with quite a lot of sex and violence: great crowd-pleasing popular hits.

There’s no reason at all why they can’t be again.