Theatre in Wales

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“No Writer Has Done More to Democratise Drama in Britain”

In Memory

Peter Terson: Playwright of Eighty Plays , Youth and Community Theatre , June 9, 2021
In Memory by Peter Terson: Playwright of Eighty Plays In 2019 the streets of Mold saw a company of 100-plus re-enact the riots of 1869. Bethan Marlow was writer for “the Mold Riots", Katie Posner the director. The promenade performance, that staged the shooting of four people by the military, had children, a choir, a brass band and four professional actors. It was by every account thrilling.

Anne Jellicoe was the originator of this strand of theatre. Peter Terson was its greatest exponent and champion. Theatre journalist Jonathan Croall visited Bradford-on-Avon to see first hand the making of “Under the Fish and Over the Water.” He cited Terson: “It's brought together so many people whose lives wouldn't touch otherwise. People who've been involved have got a terrific lot out of it- and it's been like a Christmas party for the children. The company has a cast of 160, ages ranging from 4-70. The backstage crew runs to 400.”

Croall cited a sixth-former. “He's quite tough with us, he doesn't allow much for us being amateurs.” A head teacher said: “the play has brought people together more than any other initiative has.”

Peter Terson is most associated with “Zigger Zagger”, theatre of explosive impact. In 1967 the National Youth Theatre performed the first new play it had ever commissioned. 80 performers acted on a set depicting a football stand. “Zigger Zagger” was revived with new casts eight times over the next 20 years. It was at Wilton’s Music Hall in London in 2017, was televised twice, and entered the school curriculum.

Born in Tyneside Peter Terson left school when he was fifteen and worked in a drawing office, attending Newcastle-upon-Tyne Technical College. After national service in the RAF he spent ten years as a teacher of physical education. In these years he wrote plays and had “enough rejection slips to paper the wall”.

“Possibly no writer has done more to democratise drama in Britain” ran a line in the Guardan's obituary. As a resident playwright at the Victoria theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, brought in by its director, Peter Cheeseman, his scripts included “the 1861 Whitby Lifeboat Disaster.” “The Fishing Party”, commissioned for radio, won a Writers Guild award and was televised. In the 1980s “Strippers”, set in Newcastle, was performed in the West End.

From the 1990s he returned to theatre was for non-traditional audiences. His large-scale community plays had a regular collaborator in Claque theatre, formerly the Colway theatre trust. The tally of his plays produced rose above eighty.

Jon Oram of Claque Theatre wrote in tribute:

“Pete was the most diligent in meeting the community face to face. These plays can take up to two years to develop. Pete not only made flash visits, the more common approach by busy writers committed to other projects at the same time, he would come and live or holiday in the town with Shelia. As a director I never worked harder having to keep up with Peter. In Minehead he wanted to know about Butlins, both as a holiday maker and behind the scenes, so he insisted I organise a week end stay. We followed the day in the life of a Bluecoat, and the holiday maker, We sang Karaoke, joined a quiz team and played crazy golf with a family...Peter watched, listened and most particularly picked up the rhythms, accents, turns-of-phrase of local people. He incorporated these experiences and their personal stories into the play.

“The play scripts emerged over the weeks, inspired by events of the previous day or some newly discovered research. Odd scenes would arrive in no particular order. Eventually the full script would arrive in the post. Typed on an old Olivetti typewriter with an old ribbon on various lined, plain yellowing paper or opened envelopes pinned and sellotaped together. There were amicable exchanges of ideas to get to a rehearsal draft, I was to learn that Pete didn't consider a script finished till the show was over.

“Peter Terson's plays are social dramas as relevant today as ever they were. It is beholden on the theatre and those who can to resurrect past plays and produce the more recent ones; we still have a lot to learn from him. He should be as honoured as a dramatist equal to Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker, especially as he never abandoned his working class roots.

“There were no pretensions about Peter, in finding the play he was diligent in his research and, more significantly, connecting with the community he was writing for; he steeped himself in their lives, lived among them, frequented their places of work, and leisure. He listened to people, picked up the rhythms, and manner of their speech. Peter sat in rehearsals and would regularly change the script to suit the nature of a particular actor. He incorporated others’ ideas readily, a script was not finished till the show was over. This flexibility went hand in hand with being a tough defender of the play as a work of art, in the service of the community.”

Peter Terson (Patterson) 24th February 1932-8th April 2021


Jonathan Croall's account can be found in his collection “Closely Observed Theatre” reviewed on this site 2014.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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