I’M BACKING BRITAIN tells the story of the “Backing Britain” movement that swept the country in the first few months of 1968. The story began in Surbiton, and I originally wrote the play for the oneACTS festival in Surbiton. Then I expanded the text and this expanded version is available in the collection Dramatic Shorts Vol.1 edited by James Quince. However, the play was edited down slightly for the Cambridge Drama Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, to fit within their time limits; this amended version lasts about 55 minutes, so if you are thinking about putting the show on, get the text in Dramatic Shorts and then contact me and I can advise on editing it down.
I can remember the stickers and badges from the Backing Britain campaign, but I was only seven at the time and I had no idea what they were about, still less that it was a story that had started near where I lived. What happened was that the British economy was in one of its periodic periods of crisis – Harold Wilson had just devalued the pound – and at a heating engineering firm in Surbiton, called Colts, the managing director suggested that if everyone worked an extra half an hour a day for free productivity around the country would soon rise. A group of young typists took him at his word and found themselves at the head of a movement that caught the nation’s imagination. It got a slogan – I’m Backing Britain – and a logo – the union jack with the slogan written across it – and soon celebrities were queueing up to endorse it and the whole country seemed to be behind it. But gradually the wheels began to fall off. The trade unions objected to the idea of working overtime for free, Robert Maxwell attempted to hijack the movement and turn it into a protectionist “Buy British” campaign, and the idea of flying the flag and backing Britain was also hijacked by the National Front, which was launched in 1968, the year of Enoch Powell’s famous “rivers of blood” speech. The final blow to the movement came when the press revealed that the Backing Britain T-shirts had actually been made in Portugal.
In the play I have fictionalised all the characters and the name of the company. I show the story through the eyes of the decidedly dodgy tabloid press, who treat it as they would any news story. First they pinch it from the local press; then they big it up, give it a slogan, get the celebrity world involved; then they stir in a bit of controversy; then, when the story goes through its inevitable wobbly period (when the girls themselves find it hard to keep the campaign going), they have a go at turning the story into something more sexy and when that doesn’t work they kill it. This is a play about the way we absorb stories from the press as much as it is about the Backing Britain campaign itself.
I’M BACKING BRITAIN was first performed at Anglia Ruskin University, directed by Bryony Webster. It won awards at the Cambridge Drama Festival and then moved to the Edinburgh Fringe, where it attracted good audiences and a couple of very positive reviews. The play evokes the whole era of the sixties, through the fashions, the music and the news. Certainly the audiences in Cambridge and Edinburgh, some of whom confessed to remembering the period, found that it brought back a lot of memories.
(GROUP OF JOURNALISTS sitting at a table looking through newspapers) JOURNO 1: Well, strike me pink, this is no fable: Baby born in Yorkshire stable. MICKEY TANNER: Born at Christmas? Mum called Mary? JOURNO 1: May or August. Versions vary. MICKEY TANNER: Show me. JOURNO: See? The baby’s sick. MICKEY TANNER: The kid is stable. God, you’re thick. JOURNO 2: Here’s a tale to warm the heart. Blind man sees; a brand new start. MICKEY TANNER: Blind? Or just mislaid his specs? JOURNO 1: Or blind from having too much sex? JOURNO 2: Oh wait, he’s just a bit short-sighted, Had a squint; now it’s been righted. MICKEY TANNER: Find me something worth my time: A criminal who’s turned from crime; A long-lost hero of the Blitz; A dolly bird with gorgeous tits; A runner with a chance of gold; The cure for the common cold. The end of some long-running feud. JOURNO 3: I’ve got Miss Norwich in the nude. MICKEY TANNER: Check the locals, not the dailies. Jumble sales and parish ceilidhs. Human interest – that’s what sells. JOURNO 1: There’s nothing on in Tunbridge Wells. JOURNO 2: There’s nothing anywhere in Kent. JOURNO 3: It’s dead in Walthamstow and Brent. JOURNO 1: Nothing happens down in Selsey. JOURNO 2: I tell you, news ain’t made in Chelsea. MICKEY TANNER: There must be something. Hurry! Hurry! JOURNO 3: Hey, wait. I’ve got one. Down in Surrey. Bunch of girlies – lovely knockers – Looks to me they’re off their rockers. They’re going to help their company By working overtime for free. JOURNO 2: For free? You’re joking. JOURNO 3: No: straight up. JOURNO 1: And Luton Town might win the cup. JOURNO 2: Are you quite sure you read that right? JOURNO 3: Look, here it is, in black and white. MICKEY TANNER: Land of Hope and bloody Glory – Nice one, mate – you’ve found our story.
PAULINE: Is this about the campaign? RON WILKS: Yes, Pauline, it is. I know you’re not a union member – PAULINE: No. I’m not. RON WILKS: And that’s a shame, Pauline, because you’re just the sort of person the unions need. You’re bright, you’ve got initiative – you’ve got all this going. PAULINE: Thank you. RON WILKS: Speaking personally, I think it’s a great thing you’ve done here. I believe in backing Britain just as much as you do. I was at Dunkirk, you know. You don’t need to tell me about pulling together in a crisis. And you’re right, Pauline. People do need to work together to get us all out of this mess. Let’s face it, the politicians aren’t going to, are they? PAULINE: I wouldn’t know. RON WILKS: Well, let me tell you – they’re not. We’ve all got to look to ourselves and our own efforts. I think you know that the workforce at Havant have been solid in support of you. As a matter of fact, I’ve stuck my neck out for you. PAULINE: I didn’t realise. Thank you. RON WILKS: But, Pauline, you’ve made your point now, and I have to ask you – seriously – to call your campaign off. PAULINE: Call it off? Why? RON WILKS: The Executive Committee of the Union has had a meeting and they’ve delegated me to communicate to you their decision. They recognise that they cannot order you to end it, since you’re not a member, but they have told me to inform you that if you do not call it off, they will instruct all union members to work normal hours for normal pay as from Thursday. Now, they don’t want any trouble, so they’ve asked me if I could have a friendly word with you. This is the friendly word. PAULINE: You call this friendly? RON WILKS: No-one is criticising you, Pauline: you must understand that. It was a good idea, a good way to kick off the new year. But it’s over now. It can’t go on. Look, you want people to back Britain. And so do we. But what is Britain, Pauline? Who are the people of Britain? They’re working people like you and me. The people the unions represent. PAULINE: But it’s my free time. If I choose to spend it here, doing some more work, I have every right to do so. RON WILKS: But why is it your free time, Pauline? Because trade unionists fought for years with management to get working hours reduced so we could all go home at the end of the day and see something of our families. Why can you afford to give a free half an hour of your time? Because trade unions fought hard to get you a decent wage in the first place. Now, you’d never thought of that, had you? PAULINE: But it’s still my time. You can’t tell me what to do with it. RON WILKS: No-one’s trying to. But think for a moment, Pauline. Where does it end? Already we’ve got some people working through their lunch hours. Next it’ll be our tea breaks. Then holidays. Then they’ll cut back on pensions. And sick pay. And wages. I know you mean it well and you’re not intending this but I’m sorry: your campaign could undo every bit of good the trade union movement has won for the working people of this country. No-one’s trying to make you look silly. But it has to end, Pauline.