Grand designs: from left to right, James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore.
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The Manic Street Preachers: “I’ll always hate the Tory party. But now I hate Labour, too”

The Manic Street Preachers talk to Dorian Lynskey about meeting Castro, losing faith in politics and why Europe is a “unified art movement”.

Some bands wear their influences on their sleeve; the Manic Street Preachers paper walls with them. When you climb the stairs to the living room of the trio’s Faster Studios in central Cardiff, you’re greeted by a vast photographic collage of their inspirations: Ian Curtis and Tony Hancock, Miles Davis and Malcolm Tucker, Fela Kuti and Norman Mailer, and so on, in a visual representation of magpie curiosity. The studio is named after their megalomaniacal 1994 single that declared, “I am stronger than Mensa, Miller and Mailer./I spat out Plath and Pinter.”

“This jumble of quotes is ingrained in my head,” says the bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire, offering me a pallid brew he not unfairly describes as the worst cup of tea in history. “I don’t even know what I’m nicking most of the time because there’s just a mass of shit in there.” He has a mind like a filing cabinet from which he compulsively plucks quotations (Nietzsche, Stockhausen, Rodchenko), not to flaunt his erudition but because, you suspect, he prefers their formulations to his own: “We’ve always been honest that the things we’re trying to pass on are better than what we can do as a band.” A current favourite, from the American photographer William Eggleston, is particularly apt: “I’m at war with the obvious.”

Wire, the singer/guitarist James Dean Bradfield, the drummer Sean Moore and the chief strategist, Richey Edwards, started out in 1988, ablaze with the belief that they could and should inhale as much of the world as possible and breathe it into pop songs, combining intellectual rigour with “rock’n’roll folly”. Like all great bands, they believed they were necessary.

When Edwards (“a poet who can’t play guitar”, in the words of the 1998 song “Prologue to History”) disappeared in 1995, they might have been finished. Instead, they became Britain’s second-biggest band after Oasis, with songs such as “A Design for Life”, a magnificently graceful hymn to working-class culture and socialist values. (Wire writes the lyrics, Bradfield and Moore the music, although the division of labour is more fluid these days.)

Their first number-one single, “If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next”, saluted those who fought in the International Brigades during the Spanish civil war; last year, to Wire’s delight, they performed it on The X Factor in New Zealand. Their second, “The Masses Against the Classes”, opened with the voice of Noam Chomsky and became Britain’s first new chart-topper of the 21st century. A week after they headlined Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on New Year’s Eve, Wire considered detonating the band then and there. “I remember thinking, how can it get any better than that? What a perfect way to end – to live out what we said at the start.”

Now, all aged 45, the Manics are enjoying an Indian summer of creativity with two albums in quick succession: last year’s Rewind the Film (acoustic, introspective, profoundly Welsh) and Futurology (dynamic, extrovert, Europhile), released this month. The band has rejuvenated itself by letting go of the desire for hit singles and arena shows. “It was extremely liberating but quite depressing,” says Wire, who speaks in long, sighing cadences punctuated with flashes of ire. “We can do whatever we want but, let’s face it, it’s not going to be as big as it was. We had to realise that or become something of an embarrassment.”

“Some people would say we were lucky to get as big as we ever did,” counters Bradfield, who talks to me separately in the studio, his feet resting on a mixing desk. “I’ve come to think that it’s amazing people ever gave us a chance to that degree.” He’s more sociable than Wire, less prone to melancholy and self-criticism. “Nick is 3D. He thinks about the past, present and future all the time. I don’t think like that. If I think about the past I get depressed. If I think about the future I get lost.”

The young Manic Street Preachers were unreasonably, delusionally ambitious. Bradfield remembers listening to Wire and Edwards during the band’s first interviews and thinking, “I haven’t met those people before. They’re nerveless.” They accepted no limits to what they could achieve – mass communication, a huge stage from which to rain down ideas and provocations. Their 1992 single “Motorcycle Emptiness” was a situationist rock anthem that declared, “Your joys are counterfeit.” They were genuinely surprised that it didn’t make them as big as Guns N’ Roses.

“Twenty-two years ago today we were doing it on Top of the Pops,” Wire says wistfully. “We had rose petals on the floor. We’ve been dumbed down to such a gigantic degree that anything other than the obvious seems really difficult but I don’t think it is.”

It has become a cliché to bemoan the dearth of politically engaged young bands and Bradfield skirts the subject for fear of sounding like a grumpy old man. He says he doesn’t know how it feels to be young and discontented in 2014, when Labour is the party that invaded Iraq and let the City run riot and: “Centrist politics have won, utterly.” The circumstances that created the Manics no longer exist. Nor, thinks Wire, does a certain kind of angry, razor-brained, working-class voice. “From John Lydon onwards, it was always there, pulsing through the culture, and it’s not at the moment. It probably won’t come back and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

The Manics grew up in Blackwood, the South Wales Valleys town that was the launchpad for the 1839 Chartist uprising. They were teenagers during the miners’ strike, which inspired Wire’s first lyric, “Aftermath”, and a recent one, “30-Year War”. “The marches were going straight past my door,” Bradfield remembers. “If you live in the provinces, you only see where you live through the naked eye – it’s never on TV – and suddenly you’re seeing it on the News at Ten but for all the wrong reasons. That makes an indelible scar.”

They were raised as “classic Labour”; the title of the 1998 album This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours came from Nye Bevan. They turned down a role in the Olympics closing ceremony because they couldn’t bring themselves to perform in front of the royal family. Their estrangement from Labour has come as a shock. “I’ll always hate Ukip,” spits Bradfield. “I’ll always hate the Tory party. The only problem now is that I hate Labour, too. The sea’s washed over the sand. There’s not one thing you can hang your hat on any more.”

“I actually feel bad about myself because I am disenchanted with politics,” Wire says. “I hate the idea that there’s no one left to vote for. I don’t feel anyone represents me. They certainly don’t represent the people I care about. When the left abdicates its duty to the people it should be representing, that vacuum is always filled by the right. I think the Labour Party is so distanced from its core vote. It’s just become a giant think tank. You can’t get any sicker ironies than Tony Blair being a peace envoy and the banks being nationalised – too sick to bear.” He continues, “It’s not how I want to feel. I’m not Russell Brand. I don’t feel a part of any of it, really – unless I actually stood myself. If there was a presidential system in Wales, I’d probably stand.” The campaign would be quite something.

Notwithstanding appearances at a few benefit concerts, the Manics have never been activists. They are perhaps too stubborn and too inquiring to sign up to a cause. “That’s why I watch Fox News and Russia Today,” says Wire. “I don’t just want to be taking in the Guardian Online all my life. I take everything in. I feel you’re duty bound. You’ve got to be aware of the enemy otherwise it bites you on the arse.” The Manic Street Preachers’ suspicion of liberal shibboleths has sometimes led them down some contrarian paths. They have released songs advancing the logic of the death penalty (Edwards’s “Archives of Pain”), criticising the Dalai Lama (“Freedom of Speech Won’t Feed My Children”) and extending sympathy to a reviled president (“The Love of Richard Nixon”). Of the last of these, Bradfield says with a wince, “I loved writing that lyric and then I heard it played on the radio and thought: oh, no. Curiosity is a nice thing but sometimes it should stay on the bookshelf.”

Another idea that perhaps should have stayed on the shelf was their concert in Havana in 2001, referenced on Futurology’s “The Next Jet to Leave Moscow”. They believed it was possible to maintain an ambivalent stance on Cuba but once they met Fidel Castro (“trapped in that Forrest Gump moment for ever”, says Bradfield), they were out of their depth. “It’s when I realised we’d overstepped the mark of politics and music,” Wire says. “The press conference was 100 hardcore journalists telling me I was wrong for being there. The idea was about the underdog, it was about romance, but that was all blown away.” For all their knowledge (Wire studied political history), the Manics operate best in the space between facts and ideologies, expressing better than any band the emotional dimension of political engagement: hope, elation, disillusionment, defeat. Bradfield says, “We don’t sit around going: right, what’s the new policy initiative today?”

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of The Holy Bible, the Manics’ punishing masterwork about man’s inhumanity to man, and they’re considering playing the whole album in December to commemorate their last shows as a four-piece. It’s moving to hear them talk about Richey Edwards, whom they consider the band’s cleverest, bravest, most entertaining member. To them, he is never the popular cliché of doomed youth, tortured by depression, alcoholism and anorexia, but a glamorous intellectual superhero, dauntless in his pursuit of truth, even if some of his final lyrics were “pirouettes into the abyss”, too bleak for Bradfield to set to music.

“He was absolutely fearless,” says Wire. “I’m not. That’s why I lament him not being around today so much. I think everyone’s become obsessed with sincerity rather than the truth and there’s a massive difference. I think that’s true of politics as well. Sincerity is masking the truth really.”

Wire was always more grounded than Edwards. He is a proud neat freak who lives modestly in suburban Newport with his wife and children. Yet he also considers himself “bogged down in pettiness and hatred” and was once notorious for his venomous outbursts. Bradfield says the pleasure of working with Wire comes from “hearing him piss and moan one day and then be totally unrepentant and revolutionary the next”, and I can see what he means. “When I’m in the band I feel like a slightly different person,” says Wire, “and I think it’s good that I do because I wouldn’t want to bring all of that home every night.”

These days, he tries to avoid controversy, especially online. “Every time I think I should be interesting on Twitter I decide to be bland instead because I don’t want to have to deal with that,” he says ruefully. “It becomes so snide and pitiless. I know if I was still drinking and Richey was around it would be calamitous. Twitter probably wouldn’t have harmed us as celebrities but it would have killed us as a band.”

Wire says that the new album is less about Europe as a political entity than “a unified art movement”. He loves the serendipities that arise when you cram so much of the world into your art. After a recent show in Bologna he realised that a nearby landmark had featured on one of the band’s record sleeves 20 years ago. “It’s like a secret Manics history unfolding in front of you,” he says, smiling. “The stuff you can’t google.”

Not all the coincidences are uplifting. Futurology’s cinematic punk-funk centrepiece is called “Dreaming a City (Hughesovka)” – Hughesovka being the original name of a Ukrainian city founded by the 19th-century Welsh industrialist John Hughes. After the album was finished, Hughesovka was in the headlines under its current name: Donetsk.

“That upset me,” says Bradfield. What moved him about Colin Thomas’s biography of Hughes was the initial idealism. “That’s what I admire – that glowing ember in somebody’s head or heart and they just go ‘I should do this.’ And then what happens? He becomes a brutal industrialist. It’s the same old story. A dream that becomes success but then the wheels come off.” He read the book hoping for a happier ending, where the dream remained pure. “I so want that story to be there and I’m so disappointed when it never is.”


See more:

You are probably becoming more conservative. (10 July 2014)


Dorian Lynskey is a journalist living in London. He blogs at:

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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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.