Under the Loofah Tree - a new production

On 7th Feb 2006, a new production of this play was broadcast on radio 4, directed by Martin Jenkins. It was preceded by some remarks by Michael Bakewell (of "Lord of the Rings" and "Hercule Poirot" fame) and Ric Cooper, younger son of Giles Cooper.

The production marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Giles Cooper, who was one of the most innovative and original radio dramatists of his time.

RC: First and foremost he was a very fine writer. He had a wonderful ear for language and a wonderful method of creating characters. He was also in the right place at the right time, so far as the technicalities of production were concerned. "Under the Loofah Tree" was written to exploit the Radiophonic Workshop which Desmond Briscoe had just established, and went out of its way to use as many effects as possible to 'turn on' the public, which I think it did, at the time.

MB:I joined the radio drama department in 1955, as a director. I met Giles Cooper fairly early in his career. He made his name in radio not with an original play to start with, but in an adaptation of William Golding's "Lord of the Flies", which was pretty tremendous..... very good, and quite terrifying. This established one of the main themes of Giles's work; the easy descent from civilisation into barbarism, and this is the underlying theme of quite a number of his plays.

"Unman, Wittering and Zigo", which is perhaps his most popular play, is about a group of schoolchildren who've murdered their previous master, and are about to murder the new incumbent...it's a horrifying schoolboy world of violence and sex and God knows what else. It's a marvellous play ... very very funny.

RC: He was so much the product of an upper-class background that his army friends couldn't believe it when he suddenly started hanging around with the Goons..he liked to be very respectable, but he also liked to be anti-establishment at the same time. I think ... there was a tremendous shyness to him, and doing a solitary job alone in his attic, quietly smoking his pipe, occasionally raiding London, having some fun with friends, but rather like Evelyn Waugh, getting straight out again; not hanging around with literary types; not interested in competing; not seeing the art world as some sort of competition....easy to do that when you've become successful....

MB: Giles was nothing like his work at all; he was extremely genial - always laughing; always ready with a dry martini, as far as I can recollect ... no, he was a delightful person, He was totally un-actorish, he was totally unlike any other writer I'd met; he appeared to treat the entire world as a joke. He was enormous fun to be with, and the absolute opposite of the kind of things that happened in his plays, although in all of them, there are characters slightly like Giles.

RC:I did have one report from an actor, Geoffrey Chaytor, who said his greatest memory of Giles Cooper was that whenever anything exciting happened, Giles would go into a cupboard and produce some fireworks; let off rockets...something I try to do myself...

MB: What Giles realised is that radio is a complete world in itself...it is completely different from any other medium because it works directly upon the imagination of the listener.You don't need props, scenery, or indeed anything except the wordto stimulate the mind. A lot of his plays are 'minimalist' in a sense; you just fire imaginative shots at the brain, and let the brain of the listener do the rest. This I think he grasped extremely well...

RC: There was one element ... he was completely unmusical...he liked listening to music, but he couldn't sing a note or play an instrument, or do anything musical, and yet his radio scripts are the most beautifully written musical "scores" in one sense, for the human voice...

I think his greatest radio plays are MATHRY BEACON, THE DISAGREEABLE OYSTER (about a man sent from the south of England to the north of England - he might as well have been sent to the moon..), and certainly this play, UNDER THE LOOFAH TREE, which takes a man in his bath, and brings his whole life running before his eyes...

RADIO TIMES said the following:

Although he died forty years ago, Giles Cooper remains one of the giants of the radio play. His masterpiece Under the Loofah Tree, first broadcast in 1958, made full use of the BBC's radiophonic workshop, then only recently established. This new production displays Cooper's mastery of minimalistic form with a simple premise - a man (Michael Maloney, playing Edward) takes a leisurely bath and lets his mind drift over his life, revealing much about his character in the process. Brutal at times, and yet very funny and always closely observed, the rhythmic use of language, perfectly delineated characters (cameos played with relish by Bernard Cribbins, Sam Kelly, Ian Masters and Sandy Walsh) and rich and detailed sound effects, combine into an aural treat which behaves like a musical score. As Michael Bakewell explains in a brief eulogy that opens the programme, Cooper grasped the fact that radio works directly upon the mind of the listener... you don't need props, scenery, or anything except the word to stimulate the mind". ....Richard Partridge

Cast: Michael Maloney, Jenny Funnell, Thomas Helm, Sam kelly, Iam Masters, Bernard Cribbins, Sandy Walsh. Producer Martin Jenkins.

There are some remarks by Donald MacWhinnie about the first broadcast of this play, in 1958, on the Giles Cooper page.

Clive Lever recently listened to all three BBC versions of this play (1958, 1970s, and the new one) and offers the following observationss:

The first remake is a faithful recreation of the original. Interesting that Kathleen Helme plays Muriel, Edward Thwaite's mother, in both.

The original seems to owe much to the Goons, at times reminding me strongly of Henry Crun and Minnie Bannister. The first re-make holds a unique position for "Archers" fans , as far as I'm aware, by featuring Haydn Jones and Edward Kelsey, or, if you like, Joe Grundy 2 and Joe Grundy 3.

Martin Jenkins appears to have moved the Archers south for the first time.

When Muriel reminds Edward that his son can't read, in the "packet - submarine" exchange, he sounded right when the actresses in the first two productions played the boy, conjuring up a four year old. In the new production he sounded a bit old to be unable to read and to be using words like "sleepies" but he still burst into tears at the slightest reprimand. The lad who played Rory was called Helme - I wonder if he was Kathleen's grandson ... if so, it would make a nice connection.

Thanks, Clive .... N.D.

compiled by Nigel Deacon / Diversity website

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