Friday, March 7, 2014

'You Must be Joking' Play About the Coventry Car-workers c1970 - Dandon Shaft.

About 1970, the Theatre in Education team at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry produced a play which, in Paul Spaven (the Deputy Stage Manager), in a communication to Dave Cooper of  Dando Shaft, "portrayed the harsh reality of the bicycle industry of the 1800's and the modern car industry of the then present 1970's.".
the words of

Paul said " Each night I stood in the wings and watched as Dando Shaft, onstage, wove the musical story that the actors verbalised......man it was magical."

I too saw the play, but not as a member of the production team like Paul and it made a lasting impression. later in 1976, while working as a Welfare Rights adviser for the Coventry Unemployed Workers Centre, Bardsley House, I attended my first WEA (Workers' Educational Association) tutored by members of Coventry Workshop - A trade Union research Unit and the course looked into the economic and social history of Coventry and its industries. Among the books / resources we had to look at, the syllabus said "we shall also use transcripts of a play - You Must be Joking - on the history of the Coventry car worker, produced 5 years ago by the Belgrade Theatre.".

Dave Cooper recalled "I remember while we were rehearsing the Coventry Toolroom Rate rose to an unimaginable staggering £1 an hour! The title song had the lyric "£40 for 40 hours making motor cars, up and down the country we're the engineering superstars"

However by 1976, Coventry was transitioning from a perennial boom town (it had even survived the depression in 20's and 30's)  into a 'Ghost Town'. The Rootes Group (Humber, Hillman, Sunbeam, Singer etc) was sold to Chryslers between 1976 -78, eliminating many of the Rootes brands in favour of imported brands with resultant job losses and moving of the industry abroad. Later they sold the company to Peugeot.


I remember in 1976 lots of car workers coming in for welfare Rights advice, confident that they would be back in a job within the week. They had never known unemployment. Back then you could walk out of a job and into another and because of the rates the shop steward movement had achieved for them, many had mortgages and financial commitments they would no longer be able to afford on benefits.

It was sad, therefore, to see the same blokes come back in 6 months later, when their Earnings related supplements had ceased and their NI contributions, pushing them on to the lower Social security rates. These guys looked crushed - the jobs were no longer there, their finances and marriages were suffering. it was wasn't going to get any better but a lot worse!

The contrast between Dave's comment about the rate in 1970 and the decline in 1976 was stark. Callaghan "the end of our cosy world" and the gutter press went into overdrive (like now) attacking the unemployed as if it was their fault.
announced at the Labour Conference that year that it was "

We were studying this course and read the script to You Must be Joking against this background. I had seen the play back in 1970 and so was familiar with it.


The flyer for the WEA course -


Because of the course, i had a copy of the script but unfortunately can't find it now, except for the cover picture of Dando Shaft, who wrote and played the musical score and the last page of the play. So I can't share the script with you or tell who wrote the play. Maybe the script will turn up in some hidden corner but I've searched the house!

The final page of the script for You Must Be Joking.


Dando Shaft's music and lyrics reflect the dialogue in the play and Paul Spaven remembered some of the lyrics  -

Coventry City of Cycles and Slums,
Everywhere in the air is the winding and grinding and factory hums,
and the men in the town making bicycle wheels whirl around.
There's Standard and Singer and Hillman and Humber
Riley and Rudge and a very great number,
of bicycle makers that
work in the City,
side by side, it would be a great pity if business should die...................

[lone worker enters stage left]....

To earn enough they work you off your feet,
no time for the wife in a factory workers life,
but at least we had enough to eat,
and the good times seem a long, long time ago.

Friday's coming 'round again, I haven't paid the rent,
Pay day is Saturday but each day seems like Lent.
Thinking of the future all the time,
Thinking of the young men who are wasted in their prim
e...and the good times seem a long, long time ago......

Of the music, Dave Cooper has said
With regards to "You Must Be Joking" somewhere there was/is an in-house recording we made of the songs(6 or 7) we wrote for the production."

If anyone has any further comments or information on this production - please let us know.

Here are some tracks from some Dando Shaft - not related to this play but excellent quality -


Dando Shaft