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The Chronicles of OTG: Part 1 - Rolling Rock

It all started in a field. To be exact, it started in a field when we were drunk. This seems terribly appropriate as so many of Off the Ground’s finest and worst moments have been spent in fields, or drunk, or both. The precise location of the field I can’t remember, although I do remember there being a house called Stud Homes in some village with a name like Little Bonking, or Rogerton. Just checked, it was Upper Dicker.

Anyway, we were on tour with Castle Theatre Company around venues in the Southwest of England with a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I remember it as being one of the most enjoyable weeks I have ever spent, partly because I was loving playing the part of Puck, and partly because I had met so many excellent drinking partners on the tour, many of them going on to become Off the Ground regulars and good friends. We only did five performances on tour, but it seemed that we were away all summer.

We performed at Beaulieu Abbey on a beautifully still summer’s night.. The only sound was that of an owl somewhere in the darkness of the ruined cloisters that were the theatre for the night. Until, that was, an aeroplane went past overhead. Helen O’Brien, playing one of the mechanicals at the time suddenly stopped saying her lines and pointed up at the plane. The other mechanicals caught on quickly and the whole play came to a standstill while the cast on stage pointed to this fairly distant speck in the sky. It took the audience a while to catch on, but once they had they giggled for a good three minutes until the plane had disappeared and the play started again as if nothing happened.

For my last speech in the same venue I had sneaked onto stage and watched the whole last scene from one of the cloister windows. As the cast left the stage I walked slowly forward as silently as I could and was feeling pretty smug as I could see several of the audience whispering to each other that they hadn’t noticed me. Just as I was about to start my favourite speech one old lady on the front who hadn’t been whispering to her neighbour but rummaging in her bag for another very noisy boiled sweet looked up, got the shock of her life to see me standing in front of her, and cried out, “Oh my God, I didn’t see him come on!” It rather ruined the moment.

Our next night was at Bremmer Hall, which probably doesn’t exist on any map. You get the feeling that most people who go there don’t ever come back. Apparently the previous year’s performance was attended by no members of the public, but just by dinner party guests of Mr. Bremmer. We half expected to see last year’s dinner party guests in the same position in the garden, with a light dusting of cobwebs over them, but it was not to be. Our changing room had various frightening pictures of presumably dead relatives hanging on the walls. Just before going on one of the lads in the cast came out of the loo and told me it was blocked. To this day I cannot remember why I had to tell the butler why the loo was blocked, but I do remember it as a fairly frightening experience. He was a small Scottish chap who spoke at the speed of a glacier. As he spoke the whole wood panelled corridor vibrated. He walked very softly but every footstep echoed – I had to jump up and down with my heaviest boots on to achieve anywhere near the same effect. I was standing quite close to him when I mentioned that the toilet, err, well the toilet seems to be, err, well it seems to be blocked. He didn’t flinch but just turned and walked towards the offending closet. I say he walked, and I definitely heard those thunderous footsteps, but if you looked at him you would have thought that he was on casters. Just as he got to the end of the corridor he turned slowly, a small smile tweaked at the corners of his mouth, his head bowed almost imperceptibly, and this soft Lowland voice said “THANK YOU.” He was gone before the corridor had finished reverberating.

I went on stage in a state of high nervous tension. For one of my first entrances I was meant to handspring onto stage. Unfortunately that night a heavy dew had fallen and instead of impressing the audience with my gymnastic ability, one of their first sights of me was flat on my back. Two of the audience sitting on the central aisle, from where I made most of my entrances, found this particularly funny and every time I appeared they giggled insanely to themselves. It really does no good for your confidence when each scene that you appear in begins with uncontrollable laughter from two people you’ve never met before.

After the show Mr. Bremmer invited us in for drinks. He was a bit less free with the drinking cabinet than he had been in past years, due mainly to the efforts of one of last years’ cast members to drink him dry. However, we were treated to two or three very good bottles of red wine. While conversing over drinks he started to tell us of the various people who had died at the house over the years. I sat barely stifling a smirk at the back with Helen, while one of the girls took over keeping the conversation going. She was brilliant, and would have made the perfect Blue Peter presenter – the right mix of innocence and excitement – but I snorted wine through my nose when she said, in the sweetest voice imaginable, “So, you’ve told us about the murder, now tell us about the suicide.”

The company couldn’t go back to Bremmer next year because they were hosting a month long cow festival.

So it was in this heady mix of good people, entertaining nutters, and booze that Off the Ground was conceived.

Actually, strictly speaking this isn’t true as the idea of forming a company had been discussed and decided upon. John Lofthouse and I had formed a company in much the same way as you form a gang when you’re ten. When I was ten I was in the Secret Agent Gang, or SAG for short. SAG members had all individually envisaged world recognition, or at the very least, undeniable respect from the criminal underworld who would all be behind bars after a month or two of our inception. As it was we spent quite a long time fixing Paul’s shed and building an underground den, referred to by most adults as a hole, in our back garden. This kept us going for several years as my Dad would fill it in for us every winter. But it was great being in a gang, and we were much harder and cooler than the kids from the cul-de-sac up the road.

And this was very much what it was like in the company that was later to become Off the Ground. We had formed the company to produce shows at Durham University, and beyond if possible, and had several basic aims, many of which the company still sticks to. We had decided to work together because we enjoyed it, and all our productions should be staffed by people who wanted to be the best that they possibly could while enjoying themselves. We would try to encourage as many people as possible to become involved with theatre, either on-stage, backstage or as audience members, and try to promote new talent. All very laudable aims, but if it hadn’t been for the Midsummer Night’s Dream tour, we would have had no actual plans of what to do. It could have been a couple of years of theatrical underground dens – great fun but with nothing to show for it at the end.

As SAG showed I never had a great penchant for catchy names. Unfortunately John was much of the same ilk, and the vast majority of time in our first few meetings was spent trying to decide upon a name. I say meetings, but drinking sessions would be just as appropriate a phrase. It all came to a head one evening in Dunelm bar – the student union bar in Durham. We needed a name and needed it that night, and still neither of us had had any ideas. So we decided on what seemed an absolutely appropriate course of action – we would choose a name from behind the bar. “Directors” sounded too poncey, “Jose Cuervo” (tequila) made us sound like a South American big band leader and “Theakstons” was, well, it was the name of a beer. It wasn’t until we moved onto the bottles that inspiration struck. We looked at each other, mulled the proposed title over a few times and, working on the principal that we hadn’t come up with anything better over the past few weeks, named ourselves. Rolling Rock Productions was born.

But we still had nothing to do (except lots of meetings, of course). Until that drunken night in a field somewhere in the New Forest. We were having such a good time on the tour that I suggested to John, or he suggested to me, or we both came out with same thing at once, its not altogether clear, that we could organise a tour for the next summer for the North. John was from the Lakes and I from the Wirral, so between us we could contact and visit a fair few places in the Northwest. And so it was, while probably quite drunk, we agreed that this was a great idea and that we should go for it.

By way of a celebration we went outside the campsite and sat by the side of the road with a flagon of Cripple Cock cider and a cigarette. As often happens when any large group of people get together, catchphrases tend to be created, catchphrases which are screamingly funny to those involved and absolutely meaningless to anyone else. As normally happens when a group of students get together, these catchphrases tend to border on the profane, and this tour’s phrase was no exception – “Up the s*****r” would be the words that could make us all fall into fits of giggles. Well, there we were, sat by the side of a long, straight road at an ungodly hour in the morning with toxins floating merrily around our bodies and ideas of theatrical glory in our heads when a car drove past. It was only natural that John should yell, “Up the s*****r” at it. The car drove on to the end of the straight, braked, did a three point turn and came back towards us. It was, of course, a police car.

One minute we were rock and roll rebels (or Rolling Rock rebels), the next, the nicest middle-class boys you could ever wish to meet. We very politely gave our names and addresses to the police, John explaining how he was senior man at his college, and me telling them how I was president of the student theatre. Half way through taking my details they gave us up as a bad job, or maybe too good a job to be of any interest , and just told us not to sit in the road as it made for a lot of paperwork if we got run over. We returned to the tent that 11 of us were sharing in fits of giggles. For some strange reason the others had decided that John and I would be sleeping right in the middle of the tent, which wasn’t the smartest of moves as we were always amongst the last to go to bed. After kicking three or four bodies, which seemed very funny at the time, I finally lay down to sleep.

Next morning started late. Slightly bleary-eyed but, all things considered, feeling remarkably well, it would have been easy for either of us to deny the previous evening’s conversation, or put it down to over-confident high spirits. But no. I remember looking at John and asking if he meant it. He sort of nodded and uttered a cautious but definite, “Yeah.” He then asked me the same question. I thought about it, sort of nodded and uttered a cautious but definite, “Yeah”. And so Rolling Rock was off the ground.

- Dan Meigh


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