York Mystery Plays

[Skip navigation]

Search the NCEM archive

Search the archive for

Show a full index A-Z

Item details

Interview with John White

Interviews : Interview of actor John White, transcript

Item type: Interviews
Archive reference: YMP/C/4
Date/year: 18 February 2002
Description: Transcription of Interview 18/2/2002
The National Centre for Early Music
Interviewer: Mike Tyler
Interviewee: John White
Recording Reference: INT/02

MT: Right, today's the 18th of February 2002, my name is Mike Tyler and I'm
speaking to Mr John White on behalf of the York Early Music Foundation 'Illumination: From Shadow into Light' research project. The first thing I've got to say, John, is thanks very much for helping us with this project and agreeing to speak with us this afternoon. Could I begin by asking you to introduce yourself; tell us who you are, how long you've lived in York and how you first came into contact with our subject today, the York Mystery Plays.

JW: Well, my name is John White, I've lived in York for seventy-two years, on
and off that is.  I came to the plays in 1957, in Martin Browne's last production, playing the part of Adam.  I came back into the plays in 1960 to play Gabriel under David Giles' direction, and then I gave the plays a miss until 1969 when it was decided to do the all-amateur production, I was fortunate enough to be given the parts of Christ, Judas and God the Father, because the three amateur players it was felt was unfair to ask amateurs to understudy those roles, so they picked three people to play the parts and then they rotated them throughout the run of the plays. I did no more with the plays because you think you've played Christ, 'follow that!' sort of thing.  But I was very interested in 1980, when Patrick Garland was doing it, Patrick Garland had an international reputation, so I went back into the plays and played Pilate and the archangel Michael, and that's the last I know of being involved in the plays since then.

MT: Right, so you're basically York-born, are you?

JW: York-born.

MT: Excellent. Whereabouts in York did you live?

JW: Well, I started life just up the road towards Fishergate here, then after marriage moved to Clifton, and latterly, last thirty-six years I've been living overlooking the university, on the hill near the water-tower. In between that I've spent quite a lot of my life as a professional actor [Richard Conway]. Now, not through inclination, but health and circumstance I'm more or less retired,  but moving back into the amateur field in the city, which I find very pleasant.  It is power without responsibility! [laughs]

MT: [laughs] The ideal combination! What was your first sort of contact with amateur theatricals then, how did you get into it?

JW: All together? There's a little school used to be up the road here, called St George's, which being part of this parish or this area which was the predominant Catholic ghetto of the city, used to do a St Patrick concert, so at the age of three and a half, four being in the crèche appearing in a minuet in the, what is now the Mecca bingo hall, the Rialto cinema. That was my first thing, but, seriously, getting into amateur theatricals was when I was about sixteen, seventeen years of age and going around with some girl in the youth club, and she was in three one-act plays and someone had fallen out and they talked me into taking over his part, which was terrifying, and I did it and it seemed to be quite successful.  I'd got the bug, and then I was asked to go into a three-act play by the same group in the Rowntree Theatre which was unheard of to go from church hall to the Rowntree Theatre, and I was so diabolical it, it cured me! [laughter] For two or three years, by which time I'd now been through the forces you see, and then came back into the theatre when I got back, and again, moved through.I suppose Catholic, Methodist and Church of England dramatic societies, it was, it was ecumenism forty years before it was thought of, even! [laughter]

MT: I'm interested you mention youth club there, which particular youth club was it?

JW: It was English Martyrs Church, which was in Dalton Terrace, used to have a hall and school, at the side of the Odeon cinema, the York side of the Odeon cinema down an alleyway.  All through the war that was a very popular youth club, which as kids, was our life, you know, going there two or three times a week.  When that was closing, 'cause I suppose that it just ran out of steam, St George's Church opened up a parish club and all those sort of activities seemed to come over here.  It's all been pulled down, but along Margaret Street there were all the school buildings and the club was situated in that. That went on, I believe, well into the seventies, eight, seventies, probably.  I had sort of graduated from church dramatic societies to the big time, you know, the Rowntree Players and York Settlement Community Players and all this sort of thing, and then latterly the Arts Centre, Theatre '61[?] and the Arts Centre. And in actual fact it was Patrick Garland who was instrumental in getting me to go and become a professional actor, you see, when I went with him to Chester Festival. That started my professional career.

MT: The reason I mention youth clubs at that point is that.that's a similar sort of background to another name that we'll be returning to later on, Peter Blanshard.

JW: Oh yes, I know Peter.

MT: Peter was another point of this triumvirate from 1969 which we'll be discussing at length.  I know he came from the old Priory Youth Club backgrounds.

JW: That's right. He went with Edward Taylor - obviously you know of Edward Taylor - he was a.great powerful figure in Hambleton Theatre in York over many, many years, probably about sixty years I would think. He probably put more people into the professional theatre than anyone, you know, people like David Bradley.  They came from the Co-operative Players which was a sort of spin-off from the Co-operative Society. Peter Blanshard was with him, I went to the York Settlement Community Players, Peter stayed with, with Edward.  But we worked together quite a lot later in life, 'cause for many years I ran a some 'evenings'.  I used to run these Victorian and Edwardian evenings where, where we did parlour material, not musical material, parlour material, and there werr four of us, two men, two women, two singers and a pianist, which made seven in all.and the idea was, ideally, that we'd go to some organisation that was collecting money for whatever and they would put on a meal, and we'd do one half of.all this sort of nineteenth century material, and have the meal very leisurely, and drink the wine and then do the second half, so the evening could last three or four hours and people had had a civilised night-out, you know, not, no pressure.  We did that for many years, Peter and I, and as I say, two colleagues.and yes, fine acting presence.

MT: Now, going back to the subject of the Mystery Plays which is the focus of our discussion, you were around in York for 1951 for the revival or were you still away at that time?

JW: Yes,  I was demobbed, well demobbed by then. But, as I said earlier, I'd had very little experience.  And as a young man, what I viewed as quite a complete flop in a three-act play has much more effect on you at that age than it would now, you know! [laughter] And I just felt that I didn't have any talent, and I was useless and all the rest of it, so when '51 came along, although I knew people going into the plays I just felt no, that wasn't for me, and interestingly enough, the City Council at that time organises various groups to go round the city entertaining, because York was full of hospitals and rest-homes in those days, going round early evening entertaining patients and old people and what-have-you, which was very, very good, we, we thoroughly enjoyed doing that.and so we missed the plays. '54 I thought about it again, and came to the same conclusion that it was probably.too good for me.  But 1957, mainly through my wife pushing I went, and I was absolutely staggered when Martin Brown said play Adam, because, Adam was one of the high-powered parts, you see.  In 1951 and '54   Adam, Eve certainly, was a professional engagement. Adam, Kenneth Parsons was a very good Settlement player, played it one year, I can't remember who played the first or the second time. But it was looked upon as one of the prestigious roles, and to sort of going in '57 it was a bit of a vindication to come out playing Adam.and that was really you know, my first involvement, with the plays.

MT: So you hadn't seen them.

JW: I'd been to see them, yes, and been completely knocked out by them.  As I think everyone says, the first time you see the plays is the seminal performance, it's the one that you always go back to in your mind and think that was, that was brilliant.  Of course many many years later working at the RSC I was.sitting one day in the green room, having a cup of coffee with a couple of chaps, and I said to them, what have we three got in.common?  They were racking their brains.  We all three had played Christ in York Mystery Plays, Joseph O'Conor, David Bradley and myself. Oh, I thought Joseph O'Conor was absolutely incredible.

MT: Yes. Sadly, he died recently.

JW: Yes, he died.  Mind you, Joe'd had a good long career and he'd enjoyed life.  He was a terribly reserved man, a very highly principled man, and this came through in his performance.  And he was that sort of man, when you knew him as an individual.  But he really did knock York and district for six when he played Christ.

MT: I've spoken to other people from those early days, '51, and a common feature is the performance that Joseph O'Conor gave certainly made an impact on people. I mean, from your perspective, having been both sides of the coin now, how would you sum up his performance, what was it that made it such a...?.

JW: It was authority.  You see, my big complaint about York Mystery Plays is that not in every case, but.but you see, directors don't trust the material. Directors think it needs interpreting, they don't realise that the man who put it together, if it was one man, and Canon Purvis believed it was a monk, I think, who wrote sermons for the then Archbishop, that man had all sorts of doubts in his life, but one thing he didn't doubt was the fact that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, who came down to earth to redeem us. And once you've got directors, and we've had them, gosh we've had them, who didn't, I mean they didn't have to believe it, but they had to trust the text, 'cause the text believed that, and once they start trying to interpret it, the thing falls apart. Quite a lot of the Mystery Plays have fallen apart for me from that very point of view.  Now, in Martin Browne, who wasn't a committed Christian, Joseph O'Conor certainly wasn't a committed Christian, they had no doubts, they were playing, playing the text, very simply.  But by God it was powerful, incredibly powerful.you know, you don't have to have angina to be able to play a heart patient in theatre, but you've got to be able to believe that angina exists! And these people did believe that, and I think that those early productions had an integrity which gave them this strength, and audiences took that message away. We've had other productions, and one comes to mind was William Gaskin's production where he had Christ putting on the Dan Dare/Mikon heads to play God.  And it was all terribly, terribly sort of natural, so that if you weren't on the front row, you didn't know what the dickens the plays were about, because they were playing it as if they were playing it in this room, and it just didn't read.

MT: That's William Gaskill's production in 1963.

JW: But you see I think he'd just, he'd just done something like Barber, at the Royal Court when he came here.  He came from Brecht to York Mystery Plays, and was continuing the same thought patterns when he got here! [pause] So, you know, about the only thing I can remember was poor old, oh dear I've forgotten his name, it's just gone out of my head!  Very fine actor who played Christ but was completely swamped by the role. Ah, it'll come to me. And a crowd of the unwashed who we made into knights and Roman soldiers and gave great acres of those interminable knight's plays to these people to ham it up on stage, and we couldn't understand what they were on about, or what they were doing.  But I mean, that's just picking one production, but I think there were certain productions like that where they were trying to make the thing, into extravaganzas or carnivals.  You know, there's so far you can go so far in bringing animals and children and everybody whooping up into the Entry of Jerusalem, all very, very spectacular, street-carnival fashion, but the point of the plays, the real point is that it's telling the story from Creation to Final Judgement, by a man who actually believed that that is what happened.  If you're trying to pad it out and make it acceptable to a modern audience that doesn't believe in sin or damnation or anything like that, you end up by falling between the two stools.  And this is I think what Alan Dobie, who was Christ in '63, fine actor, very fine actor [got wrong].  They just to me got a completely, completely wrong slant on, on what the plays are about. 


MT: The productions that you've taken part in, '57, '60, '69, '80; got a very interesting spread of directors there, and in some ways it's almost a unique experience.  Well obviously it's unique to you, it's a unique experience, but this sort of sampling of directors, I mean, when we think of the names that we've got - there's E. Martin Browne, David Giles, Edward Taylor, Patrick Garland. I mean, those particular four names there, from your perspective, given that you were playing different parts for different directors, it's slightly skewed in that respect, but from your perspective, what were the features of each of their directorial approaches to the plays?

JW: Well, Martin Browne as I say was a committed Christian, he'd done a lot of work with T. S. Eliot and Eliot's plays  As such he was telling a story and he wasn't embellishing the story.  So he tended I suppose, not to be interested in mechanics of production. You know if you look at the photographs of the set, they were in the main, you know, you had heaven and hell stage right, stage left, and just hut arrangements for the various parts of the play.  And so you had this simple narrative without embellishment. David Giles,  my memory of David Giles was he was a fairly lazy director, he didn't seem to want to do a great deal of work. He's had a very distinguished career but he seemed to just let them happen.and quite honestly I can't remember a lot about them, you know.  I know that he had a go at really making the.bells of St Olave's Church, and the trumpet voluntaries and the rest of it a great sort of cacophony of heavenly music.  But he seemed to just sort of sit at rehearsals and watch it, and do it again, and then move on.  I don't ever remember having a lot of, I can remember fighting a great battle with the.costume designer which I subsequently won, because.they'd had this business that they wanted all the angels figures to be more or less just white from head to foot, and you couldn't see them at all.  I objected to that fact as I was playing Gabriel, and I said as Gabriel -  it's a sort of intimate scene with Mary - that Gabriel wouldn't show up as just a white ghost.  In effect, it's a very loving scene between.Mary and Gabriel, and of course between Joseph and Gabriel when he puts Joseph's mind at rest and the rest of it, and again Gabriel with the shepherds. I objected strongly that we couldn't have somebody just covered in a white balaclava and white dustsheet and all the rest of it, and project that to an audience.  Now, he did concede that, 'cause my costume was altered and so I was wearing, I was in the white robes but my face and head was shiny. [pause] In the case of Edward Taylor, Edward I think was a little bit fazed by the plays.  He was getting on in years, I feel and he, I think, the production eventually was a good one.  It again was accepting the plays for what they were saying, he probably was a little bit besotted by the idea of - he had a very great love and a great knowledge of renaissance and late renaissance painting - and he was very conscious of this in the costume, so  the characters were dressed as characters in pictures that he'd seen, illustrations that he had.  He allowed great latitude to play the parts, he didn't try to constrain people, and if a situation was going in a certain direction, he would make it possible for that to happen.  Which again was to his credit, I felt, that he allowed people to develop a character. And by and large, I think the result was pretty good, although I seem to remember the Evening Press particularly didn't like it, but maybe that was a bit of prejudice, I don't know, because it was an all-amateur cast.  Maybe there was a feeling abroad that the plays were coming down-market, because, Martin Browne was using anything up to seventeen or eighteen professionals in the company, and by the time it got to '69 there wasn't one professional, you know! So maybe the Press felt the plays were sort of belly-flopping, I don't know. He did it again the following year with John Stuart-Anderson, which was probably the single worst performance of the plays.  Which maybe was not down to Edward so much, I don't know.  Coming to Patrick Garland, I found Patrick Garland excellent, absolutely excellent.  He set out to try and do the two things, he tried to tell the story as it was, and he tried to broaden it out, you know. Christopher Timothy as Christ was a sort of Everyman Christ, you know.  I don't know whether you're familiar with that production, but, there was a sort of Everyman character that opened the play, which Christopher Timothy played as well.  I can't say how successful that was [for the audience], being in the play, but it was very binding for the company, because you started the evening doing all sorts of things, chatting, wandering about, a bit of dancing, bit of whatever.  And then it was pulled together by the appearance of this character from the audience, and then after this sequence the plays started, and took over.  It seemed, certainly to us on the stage, as if it was a focussing, starting as a sort of amorphous group, doing their own thing, and then gradually it focussed, and the plays, the plays started. Maybe the thinking was that people are milling around in the street and then the plays arrive on carts, and you're going to spend the next fourteen hours [laughs] watching this pass!  I enjoyed that production, and again, he was the one who really tackled the sound.  Because he did put a lot of directional microphones in, which must have been a great boon to people sitting on the terraces.  I remember the direction of that production, I know it's the nearest to me now, but, but somehow.he moulded a company which was remarkable, the spirit in that company, I mean, the amount of time the company spent together, the amount of extramural activity that was organised, you know, we really were a group of people.  Now maybe people can say that about every production, but I certainly don't remember it in the ones I was in like that, if there was anything like that it came from the group itself.  Garland seemed to work at making that happen.  A very flexible man who was doing what he wanted to do, but at the same time giving people the impression that it was they that were doing it. I don't know whether that answers the question in any way, but that is a reflection I have of it, and I think he got probably as good acting work from the people involved than maybe of all the ones I was in. [laughing] That answers your original question?

MT: It does, very complete. Certainly the Patrick Garland production is very fondly remembered by many people.   I know for yourself it's your most recent active production, but for many people who have seen productions, have only ever seen productions, or who have been involved in productions after that point, certainly that Patrick Garland production is very fondly remembered.

JW: Patrick Garland was the sort of guy that you could go to in the middle of some sort of technical disaster.and you could say to him, you know,  think I should have a buckle on my shoe instead of laces, and he'd 'oh', and he'd always have a clipboard, he'd make a little note, and then a couple of days later when you'd forgotten your petulant demand, he'd pass you and say either I think you're right or I think you're wrong [laughter], and you'd think 'God, how does this man attend to such detail?'! And yet he was as approachable as that from any member. Now, I've talked about Martin Browne, I can remember on opening night in the Martin Browne '57 production, going down to the auditorium to start the play, which was the Museum Gardens of course. We'd had about a six-hour dress rehearsal, and the stage manager or assistant director or whoever he was, came into the Tempest Anderson Hall with the script and started shouting out 'page twenty-seven, line six to line forty - cut!' and he gave all these cuts to an amateur company!!  A professional company he wouldn't even dare do that, he gave all these cuts to an amateur company for opening night! And to cut something, I don't know, an hour out of the play. This is all by the way but there was an old guy who lived in the sort of follow-on from the workhouse in York, Old Ozzie, he was an absolute wonderful character, late eighties, who had about four lines in the Entry to Jerusalem, the you know, the 'Hail' speech.  They'd cut him out completely.  I can remember walking down, or coming from the back of the building to the auditorium, and Old Ozzie's sitting on what was left of a column of the Abbey church, and he was in tears was the old guy... and I was just so incensed about this, I saw this manager fellow walking by, and I offered him half a dozen of my lines for Ozzie.  And he wouldn't have it, he said you'll do nothing, nothing to do with you.  It was the attitude that got to me, so I told him, I said well, perhaps it's nothing to do with me, but if he doesn't get his lines back you can play Adam yourself tonight, because I'm not going to be doing it.  He had a word with Martin, they gave him his lines back. But I was appalled that they could be as cruel as that even though as I say, all this commitment was there.  But they probably had their problems, they were opening up in front of an audience which in those days, used to include the whole of the national press reviewing the Plays, and they were running about an hour and a half too long, you know! [laughs] But Patrick Garland wasn't made of that sort of stuff, Patrick Garland had the common touch, and it showed right the way through his company.

MT: Well, there's a natural focus, really, to your Mystery Plays career, which is provided by the Edward Taylor production of the 1969 plays which.I suppose by force of circumstance sort of dominates your experience. I wonder if we could talk in a little more detail about that. There are various aspects that I'm keen to explore with you.  One of the first ones is the significance of the 1969 production. It has been suggested that in some ways that marked a real sea change. [JW: Yes.].  It was a move, it was a definite statement, it was almost a reclaiming of the plays, these are the things that have been suggested to me, I notice there are various things.  I've got here a selection of programmes, and I believe that the 1969 production was the first occasion we had a change in programme design, because it's small, small thing, prior to that point. [Note: the NCEM Archive confirms this point of size and content]. 

JW: Yes, we'd just  had the text.

MT: We'd had an extract from the Saddler's play of the harrowing of hell, I believe, which had been used for the cover art, basically since 1951. Here in 1969 we get a distinct change.  What's your perspective on that, and the significance?

JW: 19669 is difficult to talk about because in one way it seems critical, in another way it was sublime. But said originally that I thought that it was getting away from Edward, he was finding it extremely difficult to handle groups of people, to dress stages and to do various the things that crowds and that necessarily has to happen.  There was a frustration amongst those of us playing Christ and God and Judas that we weren't getting rehearsal time.  You see I was the one who opened the plays on the first night, and the last time I'd played the part of Christ had been ten days previously. And there'd been a whole ten days when I'd done snippets, but I'd never actually played the whole piece from start to finish. Well, that's a fair cross to load onto Christ, you know, as an amateur player.  It seemed as if he'd got to the position where, you see for instance he made the decision that the second half would open with a parade of Roman soldiers coming on with those banners.  Every time we got to that situation he would say, 'Well, we'll work that out in detail', and carry on.  It was the first time that they'd had a brilliant set.  Patrick Olsen's set I think for '69 was the best set there has ever been for the Mystery Plays.  You'll have seen the pictures of it, but the use of the polystyrene, he made it look as if it was an extension of the Abbey.  What you had was that crossing arch of the old Abbey church on stage left to centre stage under the central windows which was many, many feet[up], I don't know.  Well you can see can't you, that the distance from there...

MT: We're just looking at a photograph of the 1969 set, or specifically actually a photo of the model of the '69 set that Patrick Olsen produced.

JW: Yes, well as you can see, from there if you take the scale of the thing from the stage left entry to centre stage, I would imagine is somewhere around seventy or eighty feet, at least. And this is just another little thing, he decided that he wanted the Woman Taken in Adultery thrown on from the stage left position, well, you know.

MT: That's quite a big throw that, isn't it! [laughter]

JW: It's a big throw. But he could spend a whole evening on that throw until the poor lass is black and blue, and they're doing that in the De Grey [rehearsal] Rooms anyway when it's nowhere near as long as what has to be happening.  I was sitting there thinking, 'I'm going to be on in another three or four weeks and I haven't got on my feet to do anything tonight!' And there was that sort of feeling inside each of us, and all these other things weren't being taken account of.  Certainly, Adam and Eve for instance, he didn't seem to want to rehearse their situation at all, he didn't seem to think that the scene was, I don't know whether he didn't think it was important, or if he didn't feel he knew exactly what to do with them.  There were lots of this sort of feeling in the company, certainly at my end of it with Peter and to a lesser extent Gerry Lomax, because Gerry was coming from Leeds and we didn't really have a lot of contact with him, but he must have felt the same sort of dissatisfaction. [pause] And so it started to.come to a bit of a head and I suppose I should not be signing your disclaimer, but in the end it got that I was calling rehearsals, in addition to Edward's rehearsals, to help people out, because they were lost. Adam and Eve didn't know what they were doing, nor these Roman soldiers, and there was one famous Saturday afternoon when Edward came on from stage right with a wagon play to use the set because there was no main rehearsal, and I was rehearsing all this entrance for the second half, and setting it up with the banners and all the rest of it.  He he took one look and [laughs] left. And when it happened in the production he didn't even ask what had happened, how all these soldiers came on in step and disciplined and moved to position, with their banners and came down the steps and moved off to leave Judas to do the In gentum pro enduria speech.  There was quite a lot of that in it.  Having said that, I think the production as a whole seemed to work. And I think you're quite right in saying that people did feel that there was that sea change you're talking about.  You could qualify that by saying that people felt that they'd got back to '57 and before that, you know, that there'd been too much experimental work had happened between '57 and '69, and they felt that they'd got back to the Plays. I'd go along with that, and no matter what I've been saying, it must still have been down to Edward that that happened, although we were probably too close to it.  I don't know whether Peter Blanshard would bear that out, but that was a feeling I think that was abroad with those at the time that that we were not getting a fair crack of the whip.  Because you know, there are three big parts well, not so much Judas, but God and Christ, they're fairly big roles to be playing, and when you're not getting the rehearsal you start to feel a bit exposed.

MT: Let's just talk about that approach, because it is a unique approach, certainly in my knowledge to the playing of these plays, these roles at York, to lump together, it's not really lumping together, but to split three roles across three actors, and.they are significant roles, God the Father, God the Son and then as you say, Judas.  That's rather a novel approach. Let's talk through the background to that, I mean, did you know that this was in Edward Taylor's thinking?

JW: This was his thinking from the word go. When he first approached me, I don't know whether, how he did it with Gerry, but he approached me to see if I would play them in this.  His explanation was, as I said before, that certainly God and Christ were too big as roles to ask somebody as an amateur to just understudy, and never have a chance to go on the plays.  So he'd thought that three amateurs may, I don't know, the word 'stress' didn't exist in those days, stress might be there to lay someone low. So he reasoned, probably quite correctly, that if you gave the three roles, or the two roles, and added Judas, then all you needed to do was understudy Judas.  Because on any given night the others could just move round, and if someone had fallen out, the only new entry was Judas but God and Christ would be covered.  It was sensible thinking but as I say, it cut down the rehearsal time immediately.  In the early stages there was this awful business of me doing it and then rewinding and then Peter doing it and then Gerry doing it, you know then you move on so that it's two people are having to sit there watching another one do the role.  Then you get to the position where the whole of the rehearsal is all of us in one of those roles so then you're going to have to wait at least two rehearsals before you're back again in the main roles.  The ones that are frightening the life out of you obviously are Christ, and to a lesser extent God, because God usually is fairly shapeless, particularly when he is in some sort of fifteenth-century costume of red, blue and all velvet and the rest of it, done up. But as Christ you are exposed because you're moving around, you're playing the part and so it did present these difficulties. 

< Go back