Don’t miss BOLDtext Playwrights’ latest endeavour, Follow Me, on Sunday 6th October starting at 2pm at Digbeth Coach Station, as part of the wonderful Birmingham Weekender.
Join us on a sometimes giddy, often unhygienic and always revealing walking tour of Digbeth’s hidden history: the one that exists in our heads. En route you’ll be guided through childhood memories and ushered past passionate exchanges. You’ll visit the site of bad decisions, not to mention a few life-changing ones. We’re pulling back the curtain on our shared experience of this vibrant artery at the beating heart of Birmingham. All those things that are better left unsaid… well, we’re just going to say them! Click HERE for tickets – we have limited numbers so don’t delay.
BOLDtext are professional writers from the West Midlands who collaborate on work that, while diverse, is always close to home. Join us in person, as we tell you our most intimate Digbeth stories. The hour-long stroll starts at the Coach Station and finishes at the Old Crown, stopping off at various points along the High Street, so do come prepared for any weather.
“BOLDtext Playwrights are guilty of putting on a captivating show” British Theatre Guide on Behind Bars: Ghosts of the Lock-Up
Our latest show Behind Bars: Ghosts of the Lock-Up recently closed after captivating sell-out audiences over the course of twelve successful shows. Don’t just take our word for it. Read Steve Orme’s review in the British Theatre Guide:
Bold Text Playwrights is a group of eight professional writers from the West Midlands whose aim is to create fresh platforms for their work.
Individually, the eight have written everything from scripts for The Archers on Radio 4 and Doctors on television to comedy, serious drama and opera. Collectively, they present regular showcases of new writing at Birmingham REP.
They could hardly have chosen a more appropriate setting for Behind Bars: Ghosts of the Lock-up. The building that’s being turned into a museum was until three years ago your destination if you were arrested by the police in Birmingham; the austerity of the cells almost takes your breath away.
The eight playwrights each contribute a scene to Behind Bars, writing about some of the police officers and notorious characters from the past who for various reasons found themselves in a cell with their name chalked on a board outside.
A captive audience of 70 is led through the building in a promenade performance, experiencing the harsh, stark reality of life in prison.
Behind Bars starts slowly as we meet handcuffed Thomas Larvin, nicknamed Tommy Tank because of his ability to drink in huge quantities. He tries to get the better of Charles Muscroft, a CID officer turned police photographer who continually wants to take his mug shot.
From then on, the production rattles along through a chain of fascinating and illuminating tales.
It’s held together admirably by Graeme Rose as fishmonger Tommy Tank, a loveable rogue who was locked up after someone played a trick on him, stealing his barrow and fish. They were returned as he called in a policeman and in his frustration he smashed a pub window, leading to his arrest for criminal damage.
Rose then transforms himself into James Twitty, a young man with a speech impediment and a tottering gait. He and an accomplice broke into a woman’s house with the intention of robbing her. They were charged with murder after the woman suffocated by swallowing her false teeth. Twitty’s cry of “we only meant to gag her” echoes chillingly around the building.
The action moves to an upstairs cell to hear the story of Frederick Ratcliff, a police officer wounded in World War I. He tries to get his colleagues to strike for better conditions, not realising that they all died or were wounded at the Front and their names are inscribed on a roll of honour on a wall.
It’s a moving portrayal by Laurence Saunders, exploring the depth of a character suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who is broken when the truth sinks in. It’s written by Tim Simpson who sensitively directs the whole performance.
Did you know that Sarah Bernhardt had to attend the Lock-up to sign the “aliens register”? Alison Belbin cleverly depicts the French actress who had only one leg as well as showing us a down-to-earth Evelyn Miles who became one of the UK’s first women police officers at the age of 50.
Becky Wright shines as Maud Dillon, a respectable woman who was arrested for shouting and swearing in public, described in the 1920s as “indecent behaviour”. She elicits sympathy as she reveals she will lose her daughter and her job if the magistrates send her to prison.
Behind Bars: Ghosts of the Lock-up is an arresting production full of realism and injustice. Bold Text Playwrights are guilty of putting on a captivating show that will no doubt be judged a success.
We were delighted to be invited to appear on the Sunny and Shay show on BBC Radio WM to talk about our show Behind Bars: Ghosts of the Lock-Up. BOLDtext member and director Tim Stimpson joined Corinne Brazier from the West Midlands Police Museum to chat about how the production came about, some of the characters and stories involved, and the exciting plans for the Lock-Up’s future. You can listen by the clicking on the links below.
If you’re reading this before the production closes there are still a few tickets left for 11am, 2pm and 5pm on Sunday 21st July 2019. Grab them while you have the chance!
I’ve been banged up, locked up… I’m spending the week in prison. Some might say it was only a matter of time and no more than I deserve. Just throw away the key and leave me to rot. But I haven’t been convicted of any crime. I’m here in Birmingham Central Lock Up working on our theatrical show Behind Bars: Ghosts of the Lock Up – which is back by popular demand.
My fellow inmates are four wonderful actors plus our director Tim Stimpson. I’ve volunteered to be stage manager. We are once more bringing to life some of the thieves, murderers and police officers who haunt this place. They are a colourful crew – but maybe the real star is the building itself.
Built-in the nineteenth century, this prison is a scary, scary place – three floors of clanging cell doors and echoing walkways. It’s worth the ticket price on its own. Astonishingly it was still in use until three years ago.
A number of my friends have told me they’ve spent a night in here (remind me to mix with a better class of people) although not all of them were stranglers or burglars. One of my respectable friends fell into a diabetic coma on a bus. The police thought she was drunk and locked her up!
Drunks have been regular visitors to these cells. My contribution to Behind Bars is a piece about Tommy Tank, possibly Birmingham’s most notorious drunkard. At one time he was banned from every pub in the city. But come along and he’ll tell you his version of the story – alongside a few other Ghosts of the Lock Up.
Hope you can make it.
It started with a place. The Birmingham Lock-Up on Steelhouse Lane. It started with the Birmingham Police Records and the plans of Boldtext Playwrights and of Corinne Brazier and Steve Rice from the police museum to create a new piece of theatre to reflect some of the history of the Birmingham Lock-Up.
As the 8 members of Boldtext entered the lock-up for the first time, we were stunned by the space. We were amazed by the atmospheric, Victorian building which has actually been in use right up until 2016. It is a hidden place which few people have seen, besides the police officers and the people arrested or charged with crimes. As you wander through the stairways, cells, kitchen, charge desk and the underground tunnel leading to the Magistrates Court, you cannot help but wonder about the people who worked there or were held there in the last 100 years.
But wonder no more, as the police records provide details of those men and women. We discussed with Corinne the history of the building and people in order to work out the best story to be told. We decided on the time period when Police Chief Constable Charles Rafter was in charge of Birmingham from 1899 to 1935. It was the time of the 1st World War, the police strike, political upheavals, the Peaky Blinders and the first women police officers. At first we were centering our play on the Chief Constable but then we came across a character who spent a lot of time in the lock-up – the notorious drunk, Tommy Tank. He was the person to lead us through the building and introduce us to the ghosts from the past, both the criminals and the police men and women who worked there.
So we went away and each of us took the information on a real person to weave into a short play. We wrote, we met, we discussed the links and the differences. We wandered around the lock-up listening to echoes, banging on metal doors, calling from top to bottom of the building. And finally it all came together with 8 writers with 8 real characters emerging into a cohesive play about the lock-up. 8 stories became one play. And the audiences flocked in and left having received a unique experience. And now it’s back. Don’t miss it this time around.
Before cameras came along, police had to rely on an artist’s impression or their own memory to identify a suspected offender. ‘Sitting for a portrait’ involved the entire police watch crowding round the suspect, staring into his/her face to memorise distinctive features for future reference. That alone would have put many off a life of crime!
But by the late 1840-50s, commercial photographers had been brought in to provide a rather more reliable service in the form of ‘mugshots’. In those early days, studio photographer William Eagle was used by Birmingham police, and you can admire his craft from the many collodium plates at the proposed West Midlands Police Museum on Steelhouse Lane, Birmingham’s notorious former Lock Up. They have a genuine rogues gallery of mugshots on display.
Murderers and thieves were accorded the same careful attention from Mr Eagle, as would a visiting dignitary: he would pose his ‘clients’, providing a screen behind them and one can imagine him positioning their elbow on a dainty table, next to the elegant pot plant used for his paying customers. His mugshots even included a gilt frame!
By the time CID officer Charles Muscroft became police photographer at Birmingham Lock Up in the 1930s, things had changed quite a lot. Yorkshire-born Muscroft relished his new role, delivering regular lectures to local photographic societies and happily offering his portrait services in a private capacity. So when he was accepted as an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society, you can imagine his pure delight. He knew the intricate skill – talent, indeed – that was essential to capture scenes of crime accurately and comprehensively, and to produce reliable mugshots for use by police and the courts. He felt his photography was capturing the truth.
Sergeant Charles Muscroft features in Behind Bars – Ghosts of the Lock Up – which is being performed on site at the Lock Up this July 12/13th and 20th/21st. Last autumn, the first run quickly sold out and many eager visitors missed out. So now the museum has recommissioned the event, also inviting attendees to look round the Lock Up after the show.
Other ‘ghosts’ you’ll meet include notorious Brummie drunkard Tommy Tank, pioneering policewoman Evelyn Miles, and world-famous Sarah Bernhardt, the French singer and actress who had to sign the ‘alien register’ at the Lock Up during her UK tour in 1916.
The show is at various times on Friday July 12th & Saturday 13th, and again Saturday 20th & Sunday 21st. Book your tickets HERE.
References & more information
The Burden of Representation, J. Tagg. University of Minnesota Press, 1988.
Under Arrest (A History of Twentieth Century in Mugshots), G. Papi. Granta Books, 2006.
‘Photography as I see it’, Midland Counties Photographic Federation Lecture given by C. Muscroft ARPS, 1939-40.
‘In the Frame: Early Police Photography in Birmingham’, lecture notes from P. James for Birmingham Central Lock Up/Ikon Gallery event March 2018.