Writing Festival Theatre: “The Burnley Buggers’ Ball”
Stephen M Hornby, our National Playwright in Residence, looks back at writing “The Burnley Buggers’ Ball”, one of two pieces commissioned to make the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.
I thought I was writing a play mostly about Ray Gosling, the famous broadcaster from the 1970s. Jeff Evans and I had been discussing what to do to mark the 50th. Jeff had found the forgotten story of the first attempt to open an LGBT centre in the UK. It was a struggle that began with the 1967 Act and came to fruition in an East Lancashire mill town at the beginning of the 1970s. As everyone kept saying to me throughout the project, “Who knew?”
Ray Gosling chaired a meeting entitled ‘Homosexuals & Civil Liberty’ in Burnley Central Library on 30th July 1971 at 8pm. The local press commented on how well he chaired a confrontational meeting at which the atmosphere was described as ‘electric’. This meeting is now becoming reassessed as the birth of the civil rights movement for gay men in Britain, the moment the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) and Gay Liberation Front (GLF) came together; the moment of transition from reasoned debate to civil rights demand which literally occurs in the meeting. As Ray was the chair of the meeting, and a well known figure, it seemed reasonable to research him first as the starting point for writing the play.
Dramatising something that is in living memory was new ground for LGBT History Month. I could talk to people who remember the meeting, people who were at the meeting even. I couldn’t speak to Ray though. But there is a wonderful legacy to draw from, the documentaries, the radio programmes and his very own archive at Nottingham Trent University. Copies of Ray’s papers in relation to the meeting and his diary for the period were kindly provided by the archive, perused and duly considered. One of the actors I work with regularly met Ray. She was a big fan of his work and when she approached him and was unable to focus her appreciation into specific memories of a specific programmes, was witheringly dismissed by Ray in a textbook example of how not to respond to a tongue-tied fan.
After many hours listening to him present material, I have to say, of varied quality, I was struck by several things, conclusions that underpin the characterisation of the Ray that I wanted to write. He was very principled and cared about ordinary people. He didn’t suffer fools at all and always thought he knew best, even when he palpably didn’t. He was a bit of a blagger and a lot of a visionary. He probably wasn’t very easy to like, but he would be someone you respected, someone who would teach you valuable life lessons, someone you would always remember. His judgment may have been off sometimes and he may have drunk too much, but there was a fire, a kind of nobility and a strong instinct for what’s important in life and what’s at the core of people.
I knew Ray worked closely with Allan Horsfall, who was also at the meeting in Burnley but didn’t speak. Allan is the grandfather of LGBT rights in the UK. Allan’s silence at the meeting was problematic. How could I stay true to his silence, but also honour a man who was so important in making the 1967 partial decriminalisation happen? There’s also less of Allan, in terms of archive. The recordings and films of him that do exist show someone who is self-conscious and only gives clues to the man within. At this point in my research, I felt a bit despondent. I knew a lot about Ray’s character and a bit about Allan’s, but essentially, all I had was four men sat on a podium talking for an hour in a stuffy room in Burnley. It wasn’t the most promising premise for a dramatisation.
The something wonderfully serendipitous happened. I was working on another project and by chance met Michael Steed. Michael is, as far as we know, the only person living who spoke from the platform at the meeting. He kindly agreed to being interviewed over dinner and replayed an account of the meeting I had read before. My historical adviser on the project was Peter Scott-Presland, the author of the wonderful book “Amiable Warriors”, a multi-volume on-going record of the history of CHE. He had interviewed Michael, amongst many others, about the meeting and Michael gave pretty much the same account as he was giving me over dinner. There was a pivotal moment when the GLF somehow took over and threw away the procedural order of the CHE, zapping the meeting. Accounts of exactly what happened vary. Some say Andrew Lumsden from the GLF zapped the meeting, some say Ray picked up on what Andrew had said and that it was him who zapped the meeting. Whoever it was, the meeting was zapped:
“We are speaking as if there are no homosexuals in this room and only five in the whole of Lancashire. I want everyone who is gay to stand up. Stand up now if you’re gay.”
So went the zap…roughly. Again accounts vary but somewhere between one third and two thirds of the room stands. Peter’s account implies that, of course, all the platform speakers, Ray and Allan and Michael, all stood. A couple of glasses of wine into dinner, Michael suddenly seizes my arm and with a look of deepest sincerity says one devastating line, “Of course, the truth is none of us stood; no one on the platform stood.” How could the brave, pioneering, ceaselessly campaigning Allan Horsfall not have stood? History just changed.
To me as a writer, the moments when people behave in unexpected ways are always the most interesting. I would’ve assumed that Allan would have stood, but here was an eye witness, a man who was on the panel with him at the meeting, telling me he didn’t. There was my play. There was the way in to the material. The central question of the piece became: why didn’t Allan Horsfall come out when called upon to do so? And suddenly the play was about Allan and not about Ray.
Though the accounts of the meeting are contested, if Michael’s account is accurate, then we have a profound new insight into the events of 30th July 1971. And the process of writing a historical play has disrupted the published historical version of events. Dramatising history can change history and turn upon a few words in one sentence.
All other photo credits: Nicolas Chinardet