Sandi Toksvig: Why I Wrote Bully Boy

As her play, Bully Boy, opens at the all-new St. James Theatre in London, Sandi Toksvig explains how her own sense of rage led her to write about the impact of a contemporary military occupation on the mental health of serving soldiers…

For someone who thinks of themselves as a pacifist I have written a lot about war lately. Perhaps it is not so surprising. We are all subjected to images of conflict every day as one faction or another shoots it out in Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan or Sudan or any number of other distant places which come home to us through the television. At first my interest was mostly academic. I was working on my new novel, Valentine Grey. It concerns a young Victorian woman who, in 1899, decides to escape the confines of the drawing room by disguising herself as a man and going to serve in the second Anglo-Boer War. The war is interesting on many fronts, not least the fact that it was one of the first where the average soldier was literate. As a consequence, there are many contemporary diaries and I found I was able to march with the men as they battled across the veld. The stories were personal as some began to question what they were doing so many miles from home. As I studied the conflict, I realised that the war was not about morals or freedom but about money and influence, and it made me think how little has changed.

Photograph by Mike Eddowes

The Honourable Artillery Company in London provided many Boer War volunteers and my research there led to my being invited to a regimental dinner. As I sat chatting with soldiers serving today, my thinking turned from whole regiments in battle to individuals. Meanwhile, my partner, a psychotherapist, was dealing with a number of returned veterans in a private mental-health facility. She was enraged by their treatment and came home each day in a state of distress.

I began to read about the effect of war on the individual. In particular, Dave Grossman’s book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, which had a huge effect on me. Some of the facts were astonishing. In Vietnam, it took an average of 50,000 rounds of ammunition to kill one enemy soldier. The truth is if the Americans had really wanted to be efficient on the battlefield, they would have been better off with bows and arrows. The US troops, it seems, were reluctant to kill anyone, and when they returned home anywhere between 400,000 and 1.5 million veterans of that war suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. I read about every war’s legacy amongst combatants of all nations – divorce, marital problems, tranquiliser use, alcoholism, joblessness, heart disease, high blood pressure, ulcers and of course, tragically, suicide.

Photograph by Mike Eddowes

I was already appalled by the Bush/Cheney strategy of ‘All-them-ragheads-look-alike-to-me’ which conflated 9/11 and Iraq; of the average member of the public’s inability to distinguish between Afghanistan and Iraq, and my rage grew. I thought about the young men I had met who had been sent to do an incomprehensibly difficult job by their nation and who, in many instances, had not been cared for properly when they returned home, broken inside. I wondered where the movies might be which celebrate the returning veteran and yet explain his vulnerable emotional state? I had so many questions. How is it possible that one in ten prisoners in England and Wales once served in the armed forces? What has gone wrong that half of all GPs are unaware of official guidelines on how to diagnose mental-health trauma because of battle scars from the front line?

When Patrick Sandford, artistic director of the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, said he wanted to commission a play from me it was as if Bully Boy poured out of my head. Part of the problem with an issue as complex and distressing as soldiers’ mental health is getting people to engage with it. I have always believed that the theatre is a wonderful forum for confronting difficult subjects. ‘Theatre’ comes from the Greek word ‘theatron’ meaning ‘place for seeing’. It is a communal place where we come together for an exchange of ideas; where we can explore experiences which may have nothing to do with our daily lives but which touch our humanity.

There is much more to say than can be covered in a single play. In the end, I focused on a tale of just two men, but I am not unaware of the stories that remain untold. The truth is most Iraqi children now suffer from psychological symptoms. According to a study of 10,000 primary-school students in the Shaab section of North Baghdad, seventy per cent of children are suffering from trauma-related issues.

Bully Boy (£9.99)

I remain full of rage on behalf of the young men who have been sent to do older men’s political bidding. I am appalled that George Bush and Tony Blair colluded in misinformation to the public. Bush quit drinking – it would have been better if he had quit lying. Meanwhile, Tony Blair ended up fantastically rich and, irony of ironies, a peace envoy.

I am thrilled to have penned this piece for Southampton, and that it has gone on to a new life in Northampton and become the opening production at the new St. James Theatre in London. North, south, I need people to pay attention – not to me but to the men whose voices deserve to be heard.

NHB are very excited to be publishing Sandi Toksvig’s play Bully Boy. To order your copy with 20% off click here – no voucher code required.

Bully Boy is currently playing at the brand new St James Theatre as the opening play in their first ever season. Click here to buy your tickets.

Tamara von Werthern

Here’s a few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

“This is a great play for two strong male performers, one in his forties to mid-fifties, and one in his early twenties, who will both be on stage throughout the piece. It’s a moving story about the damage war does to anyone who participates in it, in whatever capacity, and deserves to be seen widely, so please pick it up and put it on, if you can!”

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‘You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught’: Engineering the Future of British Musicals

Julian Woolford With homegrown musicals such as Matilda and London Road wowing audiences and critics alike, some are saying it’s a golden age for British musicals. But any creative industry needs to invest in training for the future, and Britain lags well behind the United States in opportunities for budding writers of musicals to learn their craft. Here Julian Woolford, a successful writer and director of musicals, lecturer in writing musicals at the University of London and author of How Musicals Work (and How To Write Your Own), argues that it’s time for a change.

When I was in my early twenties I drove one of those ultimate student cars, the 2CV. It felt like a souped-up shopping trolley crossed with a deck-chair, and had an engine that sounded like a squealing hair-dryer. It got me around, and really came into its own for the three days of British summer when, with its soft roof rolled back, it felt like you were living in the south of France.

My dad was a design engineer for Ford and was always happiest tampering around with a car, so when the under-chassis of my 2CV was rusting through, he told me that it would be a simple job to strip the car off and rebuild it on a new one. For months the car sat in pieces in my parents’ garage as he took it all apart and put it back together again. He was determined that I should learn how the car worked so that I could maintain it in the future; accordingly, he would only work on it if I was with him. It was his mission to show me how the clutch worked, how the electrics all fitted together, and how the engine actually made the wheels go round.

My dad’s fascination with how things work must have been passed on genetically. When I began to study (and write) musicals I began to wonder why some musicals were the equivalent of a Jaguar XJS, purring their way into the audience’s heart, while others were clapped-out bangers that couldn’t get out of the garage. Of course musicals are an art-form and not a mechanical construction; but just as Alan Ayckbourn calls playwriting a ‘crafty art’, the writing of musical plays is both a craft and an art.

Musical theatre in the UK is big business and one of our major exports. The Phantom of the Opera, a British musical, is the most commercially successful single piece of entertainment ever created. Over the past thirty years, British writers have proven that West End musicals can dominate on Broadway as well as at home. However, exclude the shows written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Elton John and the British productions (by Cameron Mackintosh) of works by Boublil and Schönberg, and the list of hits is depressingly short. What’s more, these men are all in their sixties, and coming to the ends of their careers.

At present the West End is dominated by their works and by compilation shows of varying quality (from the still appealing Mamma Mia! to the still appalling We Will Rock You) and the two most notable new musicals of the last year have been written by teams who are new to the form: Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s Matilda and Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe’s London Road.

What is painfully obvious is that, with the sole exception of the Cameron Mackintosh supported team of Stiles and Drewe (Betty Blue Eyes, Mary Poppins), the UK is not producing new writing teams who are both committed to musical theatre and of sufficient calibre to sustain the industry in the future.

There was massive investment by the Arts Council in the 1990s and 2000s in new playwriting in the UK, and it seemed then that every producing theatre in the country had to have a new writing department. But very little of this money found its way into new musicals, which were seen as too commercial to benefit in this way. Recently, there has been a partial about-turn in the Arts Council’s thinking, and last year they came up with a modest amount of money to invest in the long-running writers organisation Mercury Musical Developments (MMD), and the fairly new Musical Theatre Network (MTN), which aims to be the UK equivalent to the influential National Alliance for Musical Theatre in the US (although it remains to be seen if it will be more than a talking-shop). 2CV Haynes Manual

But consider the size of the industry. As far back as 1997, the Wyndham Report, an economic impact study on musical theatre by the eminent economist Tony Travers, found that the total economic impact of the West End was £1.075 billion per annum and that West End theatregoers spent £433 million on restaurants, hotels, transport and merchandise in addition to the £250 million they spent on tickets. The West End theatre contributed a £225 million surplus to the UK’s balance of payments in 1997 and, as net currency earner for the UK, West End theatre is similar in size to the entire UK advertising, accounting and management consultancy industries, and far larger than the UK film and television industry. By 2011, when a much smaller study was carried out, West End musicals saw combined ticket sales of £400 million per annum (which brings in around £70 million to the Treasury in VAT alone). Using the same multiplier as Tony Travers we can therefore estimate that musical theatregoers are now spending something in the region of £692 million on restaurants, hotels etc and that the industry is now worth nearer £1.85 billion. This figure does not take into account the huge amount of touring product of all scales, nor the regional producing houses (who have a slender record in developing new musicals), nor the thriving London Fringe scene, nor the busy amateur and schools scene.

Yet no industry can sustain itself in the long run without providing training and inspiration for the creative minds that will take it forward.

In the UK, excellent training in musical theatre for performers is now provided by drama schools and conservatoires, and in the last twenty years there has been an explosion of courses for producers, directors, choreographers and musical directors. But there is precious little training for those who spark the creative process: the writers of musicals.

Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota and General Motors didn’t establish their positions in the motor trade by waiting for great design engineers to suddenly appear from thin air. They trained the best minds in the necessary skills and crafts, and then let them deploy their own creativity and inspiration. More obviously, the fashion industry is awash with courses for aspiring designers, along with mentoring schemes and apprenticeships. The musical theatre industry, by not offering training to those who can create the international hits of tomorrow, is jeopardising its own future.

The increase in funding for new playwriting in theatres led to a number of playwriting courses being founded within established educational institutions, such as the one set up by David Edgar at Birmingham University. These, however, have not yet included musical theatre writing. There is a school of thought within the industry that successful new musicals will be written by those with no knowledge of the form, and that the successes of Minchin, Kelly, Cork and Blythe prove this to be true. But without training, the work of many young writers who aspire to write musicals is simply derivative; trying to emulate Sondheim, Lloyd Webber or Jason Robert Brown. In addition, the bookwriting in many of their works often ignores the basic principles of drama, and is lacking in structure and impact. Another shortcoming of the ‘let’s-find-someone-who-has-never-written-a-musical’ school of thought is that it wilfully ignores the way in which other writers new to the form have failed so miserably, among them Dave Stewart whose score for Ghost is the weakest element of that musical. No other industry would be so careless as to leave its future to the lottery of those rare and elusive ‘diamonds in the rough’.

There is currently only one place that musical theatre writers can learn their craft in a formal setting, and that is at Goldsmiths College as part of the MA in Musical Theatre. But that is a module in an academic course, and the students have only a small amount of teaching in this creative component. We urgently need a writing course in a conservatoire setting, where the best young creative minds can learn about and experiment with the form.

American writers, by contrast, have more options in their universities, and have benefited from more than fifty years of the legendary BMI Lehman Engel Workshop, the pre-eminent training ground for musical theatre writers. It offers a dynamic programme in which writers learn the basics of musical theatre dramaturgy and how to apply it to their own style. What is more, writers are invited to take part in the two-year course free of charge. Alumni from this course have created some of the biggest hits on Broadway, including A Chorus Line, Little Shop of Horrors, Nine, Once On This Island, Ragtime, Avenue Q, Next To Normal, and the current smash The Book of Mormon.

If we are going to secure a future for the British musical we need to train writers for the future and do so quickly. We must not only train them in songwriting, but more importantly, in theatre and storytelling, all the while encouraging them to find their own distinctive voices.

I am not necessarily proposing that universities and conservatoires are uniquely placed to provide this training. My dad never went to university; he was educated at a time when the sons of bus drivers didn’t do such things, and certainly couldn’t afford them. He began as an apprentice at 14 years of age and had a series of mentors who educated him and encouraged him to think for himself. What I learned about cars from my father was a form of apprenticeship, and whilst I didn’t devote my life to vehicles I still have no qualms about changing a spark plug or swapping a tyre. It is no accident that the greatest living musical theatre writer, Stephen Sondheim, undertook an apprenticeship with the greatest musical dramatist of all time, Oscar Hammerstein II. How wonderful it would be if the older generation of British-based writers – Lloyd Webber, Elton John, Don Black, Tim Rice, Boublil and Schönberg – would mentor younger writers and help them to improve their work. American writers can already benefit from this as a good deal of the Advanced course of the BMI Workshop is moderated by established members of the Broadway community.

How Musicals Work by Julian Woolford

How Musicals Work (£12.99)

Having taught the Goldsmiths course for the past four years, I wanted to write How Musicals Work as a guide for those young writers, to be a kind of Haynes manual for the musical. It includes more than fifty exercises that I have set my students in class. Do them all and it is as close to doing the course as you can get without enrolling. But it is not a substitute for the courses, mentoring schemes and apprenticeships that we so urgently need. I learned a lot from my dad because of his passion for cars, and my 2CV was a much better runner after we had stripped it down; I am hopeful that we might yet get some vintage musicals from the readers of How Musicals Work!

NHB are thrilled to publish Julian Woolford’s How Musicals Work. To order your copy with 20% off click here – no voucher code required.

‘Goldsmiths Festival of New Musicals’, the showings of the final projects for the Goldsmiths MA in Musical Theatre, is at the Tristan Bates Theatre, Tower Street, London from 12th–15th September.

Julian is appearing alongside Ruthie Henshall and Tom Chambers at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on 14th October 2012.