A hit play about the good old days is set to go on a regional tour. Graham Young reports.
As people face an ever more uncertain social and economic future, perhaps it’s no surprise that nostalgia has become such a big business.
Bookshops are crammed to the rafters with publications echoing the past.
And that’s how Malcolm Stent is hoping the seats in a selection of Midland theatres will be once the revival of his own hit stage show Go and Play Up Your Own End opens for business again next week.
Just talking to the veteran entertainer from Saltley is to open a can of worms. Memories that have burrowed their way so deeply into your brain you’d almost forgotten you ever had the experiences in the first place.
Maybe it was just a random thing, but after five minutes chatting with Malc, as he’s known to his friends, we’d found common ground from our respective childhoods two decades and more than 100 miles apart.
And our minds were soon racing with memories of what used to be a rite of passage for every self-respecting boy...
Bicycles were bicycles from a factory and cars were a far away dream.
Filling the void between the purpose-built present and the impossibly distant future, there was a third way of owning your first vehicle. And that was finding a set of pram wheels so that you could design and build your own mode of transport.
Where I grew up on the terraced, cobbled streets of Blackburn, they were known as ‘flat wagons’. Or ‘flatties’ for short. Down here in the city I adopted while at the University of Birmingham, Malc insists that his pseudo go-karts were called ‘trolleys’.
But not the all-conquering Tesco variety.
In essence, though, our ground-huggers were one and the same thing. An independent mode of transport whereby hilly urban pavements, and not expensive petrol engines, would be the most handy thing for generating speed.
These trucks could be so varied, they were potentially able to sew the seeds of engineering genius.
That Steve Jobs-like desire to build something out of nothing but also as good as you could possibly make it.
One of mine had a metal frame from an old convertible sledge. I much preferred, though, the one I made from scratch almost entirely out of wood.
Borrowing my dad’s drill, I was able to put holes in the front chassis, a) to attach the wheels and b) to thread a rope through in order to steer.
Next up, I designed my own easel-like backrest, with a series of notches behind to facilitate the most appropriate angle of incline depending on the steepness of the hill being descended.
Not satisfied with that, I added armrests. Very executive. And, for the ultimate touch of comfort, carpet – off cuts from the Axminster (or equivalent) which had recently been laid in our back room.
Malc is enthused by the story and recalls the emotion of the motion which would follow such inventiveness. Remarkably, neither of us can remember the decade in which we last saw one on the streets.
“I remember jamming my foot in the bar and planks,” says Malc. “You’d literally risk taking the skin off your ankles while trying to stop.
“When I was a kid, pram wheels were a highly sought after commodity. If you had a set of wheels, you were the king of the street. You also had to live on a hill, of course, which I did. You could get a real speed up then.”
I ruined many pairs of shoes by chafing down the heels in the daily fight to avoid going over a kerb or into a garden wall like a berk.
“And your mum could always tell if you’d been riding a bike that was too big for you because you’d have oil all over your socks,” says Malc, throwing another spanner in our collective works of childhood whiz-bang moments to treasure.
All of which is a roundabout way of bringing us on to the matter in hand – the revival of Malc’s hit stage production of Go and Play Up Your Own End.
Last Christmas, he starred in his 21st successive annual pantomime at Solihull Arts Complex.
This week, he’s been putting the finishing touches to the tenth anniversary of a nostalgia show he reckons has now been seen by 20,000 Brummies, be it at the Hippodrome, the Alexandra Theatre or on previous tours. The show’s latest cast of 14 includes Malc alongside Don Maclean, Lizzie Wiggins and Dave Sealey performing a collection of memories from his own childhood.
Working class folks like Malc, who grew up on the streets of Saltley, weren’t rich. Not after two World Wars had all but brought the country to its knees.
But then they didn’t need to be.
With good parents to support them, they were loved and nurtured. And brought up proper with pride in their area, a respect for neighbours and an eye for making the most of an opportunity.
Not inaccurately described by his agent as ‘the Midlands’ most successful playwright of this century, Malc says: “The script stays the same, but I have tweaked it this time and made it a bit shorter.
“Since this is the touring version and not the one with the big sets, that means on stage now we have just five front doors, a street lamp and bins... and it still works.”
The story is from Malc’s childhood memories of how grown-ups talked.
“If it was true when I heard it, then it’s a true story,” he smiles. “I knew the people involved because they were neighbours.”
Only the name of the builder has been changed because the company is still in the business.
“You have to be a bit careful,” says Malc. “I’m proud of where I came from and proud of the people I was brought up amongst. But thanks to cremation, there’s now nothing to say that these people ever existed, so the play is a tribute to my family and our neighbours from a working class background.”
Malcolm hopes younger audience members will appreciate his themes of common goodness.
“They can see how there was a better time, when neighbourhoods existed and neighbours looked out for each other,” he says.
“I think people were a lot happier then, compared with this day and age when people are just chasing material things.
“That does not bring happiness. People found happiness by being together and being amongst friends.
“How many people have parties now like we used to have? “We used to have one at home every month – there did not have to be a reason!
“My Uncle John would come round. He was a good pianist. And we had a piano. So we didn’t have to spend a fortune to have a good time, everybody just entertained themselves. There was a better time – and we were all in the same boat.”
* Go and Play Up Your Own End is at Solihull Arts Complex from March 13-14 (0121 704 6962); Redditch Palace Theatre, March 16-17 (01527 65203); Swan Theatre Worcester, March 20 (01905 611427); Birmingham Town Hall, March 21 (0121 780 3333) and the Garrick Theatre, Lichfield from March 22-24 (01543 412121).