Arthur Berry was one of North Staffordshire’s finest 20th Century artists, but he was much more than this.
Arthur’s main association with the Vic began in 1974. A chance meeting with Peter Cheeseman at a pub in Burslem revealed Arthur to be a poet and a playwright as well as an artist.
Arthur had seen the Vic’s 1972 production of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood and he was inspired to write a play for the Vic. This eventually emerged as The Spanish Dancer of Pinnox Street in 1976, the story of a redundant park keeper who decides to become an artist.
Arthur at rehearsal of “The Sweet Bird of Card Street” (1984)
(photo Gerald Wells)
From the start of Arthur’s involvement with the Vic on this first play it was clear that his contribution was going to extend far beyond the provision a script. When the first draft of the play appeared - in Arthur’s nearly unreadable and unpunctuated handwriting – this was just the beginning. It was obvious that as an artist he could inspire the stage designer with drawings of his very special world. But very soon he was persuaded to make drawings for posters and playbills as well. Though he hated doing it the results were always very powerful. For The Spanish Dancer Arthur set to and drew a chimney-pot townscape of Tunstall in white chalk all around the theatre walls – about 150 feet of drawings encircling the audience.
His contribution to rehearsals was unforgettable. Knowing Arthur well by now the Company weren’t surprised, though endlessly delighted, at his commentaries and explanations of characters and events. But what was unexpected was his physical expressiveness. And Arthur was not built to be Buster Keaton – he was towering tall, bulky, cloth-capped, - and stood with his useless right hand stuffed in his jacket pocket. He was nevertheless as physically expressive as he was eloquent. And he could act out lengthy and hilarious speeches by every man and woman in every play.
On virtually the first morning of rehearsals of The Spanish Dancer he stepped on stage and showed the actor Bob Austin the particular idle and precise leaning position of the hero Edgar Barnish as he read the paper and supped his tea. A clear observation of posture and gesture seemed a likely skill for such a great artist. That he could act it out so eloquently never ceased to astonish the Company.
Arthur Berry was born in Smallthorne, Stoke-on-Trent in 1925. He was the son of a publican and, having been born with a deformed arm, was exempt from war service and went instead to study at the Royal College of Art. After the Second World War he became an art teacher in London and Manchester and then at Burslem College of Art which was eventually absorbed into North Staffordshire Polytechnic (from 1992 Staffordshire University) where he was Principal Lecturer in Painting.
Berry was fiercely interested in all things related to Stoke-on-Trent and to a community and culture he saw rapidly vanishing in the sixties and seventies. In addition to his painting, which often focused on subjects and faces he found in the Potteries, he became a poet, novelist and playwright. His first full length play was The Spanish Dancer From Pinnox Street first performed at Vic in 1976. In 1986 the New Vic Theatre opened and premiered his last play, St George of Scotia Road.
He died in Stoke-on-Trent in 1994.
Arthur’s drawings for the poster for the programme for the 1982 production “Dr. Fergo Rides Again” (showing Dr Fergo and Klondyke) and for the 1976 production “The Spanish Dancer from Pinnox Street” (showing Edgar Barnish)
Arthur’s drawings for Albert Boot’s Builders Yard (for the 1984 play “The Sweet Bird of Card Street”)
Between 1976 and 1986 Arthur Berry wrote six plays for The Victoria Theatre:
He also wrote the linking dialogue for the 1977 production Wizards All.
Arthur combined his efforts with theatre Director Peter Cheeseman and Music Advisor Stuart Johnson to transform a number of these plays into “Ballad Operas” hallmarked by the original characters bursting with energy and saucy good humour.
Image shows Arthur Berry with the cast at a rehearsal of his 1984 play “The Sweet Bird of Card Street” (photo Gerald Wells)
The Programmes for Arthur’s plays:
A selection of Arthur’s character drawings for his plays:
Arthur’s deep roots in the working-class tradition are the foundation of all his work. His outlook is highly subjective, reflecting his environment and the working-class characters who populate it.
These characters are instantly recognisable and Arthur gives them a universal quality while at the same time portraying them with warmth and humour.
This lively community is a vital source tapped by Arthur for his plays, poems and paintings. Barking dogs, pipe-smoking old women in men’s caps, corpulent middle-aged women, gangs of kids, drunken brawls, its chapels, its picture palaces and its streets with curious names – layer upon layer of life permeates his work. It is the richness of poor things that he is drawn to.
Arthur once commented about one of his plays: “The tale is a tragedy, at times a comedy and then again a mystery – a malfangled set of circumstances if ever there was one”. A comment which could be applied to all of his plays.
Illustrations from Dr Fergo's Last Passion (1979):
Dr Fergo (played by Jim Wiggins) in his surgery
(photo Don McNeil);
and the cast in rehearsal with director Peter Cheeseman
The New Victoria Theatre opened its doors in August 1986 and it fell to Arthur to write the play that welcomed the first audience –
“St George of Scotia Road”.
Arthur’s illustration for “St George of Scotia Road” (1986)
In addition to presenting six of Arthur's plays, the Vic has had a long-standing relationship with him, exhibiting his pictures in the theatre and devoting evenings to his poetry and prose writing.
Arthur’s drawing for his evening of poetry and prose (1984)
His Ode to the Oatcake became his best-selling broadsheet.
Arthur’s drawing for the Broadsheet of “Ode to the Oatcake” (1980)
And finally, an image which epitomises Arthur’s characterisations of the incumbents of his plays.
Actors Jim Wiggins and Colum Convey as two of Arthur’s most memorable characters Dr Fergo and his assistant Klondyke in the 1982 production “Dr Fergo Rides Again”
A photo of one of the production copies of the script with annotations in pencil.
This is an excellent example of the complexities in working in a theatre in the round. On the left page, pencil annotations show a hand drawn illustration of the stage area and labelled arrows (A, B, C and D) to show which entry the cast will be using at each point in the scene. On the right page the labels are repeated at various points in the dialogue to show at which point in the scene the exits will take place.
Also notable is the use of phonetic speech in the dialogue of the script in order to make it clear that it was intended to be spoken with a Stoke accent, such as "Almighty God didner think so". This is in-keeping with Berry's inspiration by the Potteries area and the intended local audience.
A poster for Arthur Berry's play Wizards All! compiled by Ken Whitmore. Arthur Berry contributed dialogue for two characters, Dr. Fergo and Klondyke, and produced this original illustration for the poster. Wizards All! was performed at the Vic Theatre in May 1977.
Berry was very inspired by L.S. Lowry and it is clear that Lowry influenced the style of Berry's work. In his obituary published in The Guardian on 7 July 1994, Peter Cheeseman, the creative director of the Victoria Theatre, said of Berry:
"It is ironic that I should be writing the obituary of a painter of Arthur Berry's mighty stature, because his plays were a little sideline that came to him late in life. His pictures are the works of a modern master straining to paint a world he loved passionately for its vigour and energy and richness before the bulldozer scraped it away and covered it 'with pink council houses'. His paintings are deeply felt, the most eloquent of his utterances, portraits of a world seen 'from the bottom of my own rut'. But despite several major exhibitions and TV documentaries, the wider world has not found Arthur Berry. I believe they will, sadly for him, now his living presence has gone from us, because we have his writing, his recordings, his films, and his paintings. Arthur would be philosophical about it all. He painted, he said, 'a world filled with images of people and landscapes that have been twisted and worn into strange shapes by hard work or poverty. My Parthenon is an allotment hut knocked together out of bits of rubbish. It is the richness of poor things that I am drawn to. The dandelion is my true flower and my greatest loss is that this world I love is disappearing, but then I draw what comfort I can from the thought that 10 minutes ago is gone forever if it comes to that' "
This photo shows Jim Wiggins as Dr Fergo in a scene from Dr Fergo's Last Passion by Arthur Berry.
The play was first performed in 1979 and was directed by Peter Cheeseman, the creative director for the Victoria Theatre.
In Arthur Berry's obituary in The Guardian, July 7 1994, Peter Cheeseman recalled: "That formidable literary agent Margaret Ramsay came to see his first pub-opera, Dr Fergo's Last Passion, in 1979. She said Dr Fergo was "a work of genius - too bloody good to be performed in the West End". And of course it wasn't done there"
This "Ode to the Oatcake" was written by Arthur Berry for the old Vic Roadshow and published in broadsheet No.3 in 1980. The penmanship was by Holly Gleave but the illustration was by Arthur Berry too.
It highlights the oatcake's still beloved status as a local dish as well as highlighting some darker aspects of local life; 'Potter's Rot' is a local term for silicosis (also known as Grinder's disease) and comparing the oatcake to a collier's skin isn't particularly complimentary to the colliers.
Let us pay homage to the Oatcake
Or Otcake or woodcake as the old men called them
The Oatcake is not a cake at all really
Not like the fairy cake or the Eccles cake
Not a cake in that way
More of a Potteries Popadum [sic]
A sort of Tunstall Tortilla
A Clay Suzzette.
As flat and thin as a dishcloth
An obedient and suppliant cheek
That will bend any way you want it
Round and floppy, the Oatcake
Has the texture similar to the
Skins of old colliers or men
Dying of Potters' rot.
These are not cakes made for every day
And should only be eaten twice
Or at the most three times a week
Preferably at weekends when you are flush
And filled with drink
Or the prospect of drink
Such richness every day would be too much
Rather like having the News of the World
Delivered as a morning paper
There would surely be a drop in production
And an explosion in the birth rate.
NO! Oatcakes are best eaten at weekends
And all genuine Oatcake shops are shut in the week
And their proprietors lie late abed
And spend the rest of the day
Watching horse racing on the telly.
I have heard it said that small fortunes
Are made in this trade
And among the Potteries working class
When a child is born
There can be no higher hope for it
Than that it could become a
Proprietor of a damned good
Oatcake and Pikelet shop.
The Pikelet you ask – what is that?
It’s a sort of female Oatcake
Smaller, thicker, sweeter
More immediately seductive
Sometimes with currants in it
A muffin for the Lumpen working class
Best eaten soaked in butter or marge.
If over indulged in
Both these cakes can play the very
Devil with your waistline
I must WARN!
Leads to BULGENCE
Beer mats advertising the Arthur Berry play Dr Fergo Rides Again. This advert again features an original illustration by Berry and sponsorship for the production by local brewery Bass (Burton-on-Trent). The play was performed at the old Vic in May 1982.
This photo also features a beer mat created to celebrate the 10th season of the New Vic Theatre in 1996.
Arthur Berry, the North Staffordshire artist, poet, author and playwright, wrote a number of plays for the Vic. Arthur was a great fan of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy. After his death, this bowler hat was presented to the Vic Theatre Archive from his personal effects.