A tribute to Heathcote Williams

Posted on: 03 July 2017

Written by: Charlie Marshall

The playwright, poet, actor and activist Heathcote Williams died aged 75 this weekend. Cardboard Citizens was privileged to work with Heathcote over the past year as part of the Home Truths season. Here Artistic Director and CEO Adrian Jackson pays tribute.

The playwright/poet/activist and general contrarian Heathcote Williams died on Saturday. Cardboard Citizens had the honour of staging his last play, The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency Or Frestonia Rules OK, as part of our Home Truths season on the history of housing at The Bunker – I am sad because Heathcote never got a chance to see the production, as he was too unwell to travel during the run; I sent him a video recording link late last week, but I don’t know if he managed to watch it.

It was a great privilege to get to know him a little during the commissioning and making of the production. I had for some years wanted to track him down and see if I could persuade him to write about this amazing activist period of his life, in which he and a bunch of mates created and ran a remarkable estate agency for would-be squatters, open day and night and housing homeless people with selfless commitment combined with mischievous pleasure; commitment in being open at all hours of day and night to the sometimes demanding approaches of those in need of housing;  pleasure at the prospect of sticking two fingers up at the establishment, ‘épater le bourgeois’ and all that, whilst at the same time performing a vital public service for those with nothing.

I finally managed to meet him a year or so back, thanks to a friend who was a neighbour of his. By arrangement, I went to his house in Oxford to be treated to a wonderfully extravagant tea, complete with cakes and cucumber sandwiches and all manner of goodies. Between stories, he took the loaf of bread in his hand, buttered the open end with studied care, then neatly cut off the slice, perfectly buttered and ready; this was a man who had made many a sandwich in his life, probably part of the culinary duties of Ruff Tuff, along with ‘rubbish risotto’.

Having little time on the drive over, we had stopped at Sainsbury’s on the way to bring things to contribute to the feast and I was a little fearful that this scourge of the motor car, protector of whales and all-round warrior against capitalism might be irritated by the liveried bags of a supermarket. If he was, he never showed it. He was the most relaxed and solicitous host, interested in our project, interested in Cardboard Citizens, and incredibly unself-important and self-deprecating for such a major figure of our culture who had achieved so much in so many fields.

The stories were endless and fascinating. He was so erudite, so well-read, always with a literary or historical reference at hand. And his stories often concerned his own outrageous exploits, which often reduced all of us to paroxysms of laughter.

When I left this first encounter with him, I asked if he might consider writing something about that period of his life – not only the estate agency, but also the amazing story of the establishment with Nicholas Albery and others of the nation state of Frestonia, around three roads in North Kensington (sadly close to where Grenfell Tower now stands as a terrifying reminder of the failure and demise of social housing in the  years since Heathcote and chums made their own DIY solution to the problem of homelessness). He said he would think about it.

About three weeks later, the wonderful sprawling hilarious Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency Or Frestonia Rules OK landed on my desk – before I had managed to suggest to Heathcote any limitations on length or number of actors or any other stipulation. We did two days R & D with some actors, which Heathcote attended – and we attempted to shape this incredible anarchic chronicle into a form that would work for what we had at our disposal. Heathcote was incredibly generous and completely relaxed about changes we made to the play – later with the important intervention of Sarah Woods, as supporting writer and collaborator. And it was probably one of the highlights of our Home Truths season, offering as it did a hopeful vision of what it is possible to do about things if you put your mind to it.

Typically, though the central character of the play is clearly a composite of Heathcote and a couple of others, he remained entirely anonymous, not needing to take any credit for his own part in this serious and meaningful piece of political activism. It was only after a second session with Sarah and myself that we discovered that he had had to bring the venture to an end after he had been stabbed by a disgruntled punter. Who was it, we said? I think it was Denny Fish – or maybe that was the other time…

I loved Heathcote and all he stood for. There are few equivalents I can think of now, who have breadth of vision, righteous anger, wit and passion for the poor and downtrodden (actually Kate Tempest, who we have also been fortunate enough to work with, is the only person who comes to mind).

One of our last communications concerned turning Ruff Tuff into a fully-fledged musical – what a gas, he said. I'm really grateful to you for being instrumental in poulticing that piece out of me!

A line of his play, intended to describe the squatters estate agency, also sums up how he saw his struggle in the world, conjuring as it does his wit and anger and humanity; ‘a tiny oasis in the capitalist consumerist shithole run by bloviating wank-puddles and the forces of awe and boredom.’ (I had to look up ‘bloviating’ but I have been using it ever since).

RIP Heathcote Williams,

Adrian Jackson, Artistic Director and CEO of Cardboard Citizens

Gallery

With thanks to

Arts Council England Lottery funded