BOLDtext’s Liz John talks about her latest site-specific piece in Behind Bars at Birmingham’s Lock Up.
There’s nothing like a ghostly Victorian building, echoing with strange tales and past voices, combined with the rampant enthusiasm of other BOLDtext writers, to give you Writer’s Block. Where to start? The Lock Up practically oozes Brummie history – countless possibilities of character, story, theme, era (it only closed two years ago!) – plus there’s the added question of setting. Which corner of this fascinating Victorian building should I focus on? Whose experience in this place can I depict? We really want to feel the Lock Up burst into life.
Lucky for me this wasn’t my first time in the Lock Up on Steelhouse Lane. Before you ask, no I wasn’t there as an inmate! In fact I attended a wonderful presentation by the Ikon Gallery relaying research conducted by the late Pete James, Birmingham’s foremost photographic historian. The talk was about the history and role of photography in our region’s policing – from mugshots to surveillance. Turns out we practically invented mugshots in Birmingham. Who knew? So when I stood again in this eerie building, tasked with creating a very short but meaningful piece of theatre that could mesh with other writers’ stories, my mind flew back to that lecture. A police photographer could be my focus, someone who was a vital part of the fabric, actively participating in an offender’s journey through the Lock Up. And that’s when Detective Charles Muscroft, ARPS, stepped into the light.
Man on a Mission
Down-to-earth Yorkshireman Charles Muscroft (above) was a CID officer turned police photographer, based at the Lock Up from the 1920s. He embraced his role with dedication and delight, producing hundreds of perfectly crafted ‘mugshots’ over his career. He regularly gave lectures to local photographic societies and even offered his ‘portrait services’ to the general public! When he was awarded Associateship of the Royal Photographic Society in the 1930s, he was overjoyed – despite his exemplary record as a Birmingham City Police Officer, he viewed RPS recognition of his professional photographic talents as the ultimate accolade. As a playwright, I was fascinated by the quiet intensity with which Muscroft undertook his work, and his unshakeable love of his ‘art’ even when he was having to photograph dangerous offenders and gruesome crime scenes.
Behind Bars, Ghosts of the Lock Up from BOLDtext Playwrights runs 19-21 October at the Lock Up on Steelhouse Lane, Birmingham.
Book your tickets at: www.lockupbehindbars.eventbrite.co.uk
Supported by Arts Council England and the Sir Barry Jackson Trust.
If you’re interested in Mugshots and their history, take a look at Under Arrest by Giacomo Papi – a collection of mugshots of celebs like Hugh Grant, Al Pacino, Ozzy Osbourne and Janis Joplin; prominent figures like Martin Luther King, Bill Gates and Fidel Castro; as well as notorious names like Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Ronnie Biggs and Lee Harvey Oswald.