"The King’s what?" is the response actors' and writers' agents used to give 35 years ago when approached by what is now hailed as Britain’s leading fringe theatre. This is one of a thousand memories that assailed me when I read the sad news of Dan Crawford’s in July 2005. Dan and I started the King's Head Pub Theatre together in 1970. It is a wild, wonderful and hugely improbable tale which seems at this point to be well worth the telling. To begin with, neither of us had ever managed a pub, or run a theatre - Dan had worked as barman and stage manager, I had worked as a waitress and had done some acting at University. Hardly impressive credentials.
When I first met Dan he was looking for a pub to run as a Greenwich Village type bar. One evening, over several glasses of wine, he said: "Maybe it could have a dinner theatre as well". At that moment the mutual dream was born. Dan had a small amount of capital and I had none. Also, as a Canadian and an American, we knew nothing about the London theatre scene. However, in our total naivete, enthusiasm and innocence we were not in the least deterred.
We decided to explore an affordable up and coming area and settled on Islington. Upper Street seemed the best bet. One spring evening we started at the bottom of the main drag, stopping at any pub that looked even remotely possible, ordered a glass of wine, and at some point innocently said to a member of the bar staff, "I understand that this pub is for sale". We were greeted with bemusement until, half way up Upper Street, already well oiled, we entered the gloom of The King's Head. It was virtually empty. I asked for a glass of red wine and, such a request being entirely unfamiliar, was given port. When we recited our well rehearsed line, the barman said, "Yes, it’s been on the market for months... It’s a total white elephant and nobody wants to buy it". The clubroom in the back had been variously used as a boxing ring and a folk club venue, and seemed the ideal space for the theatre we had envisioned.
When we approached the brewery area manager, he was clearly desperate to offload this pub but our proposal met his, entirely understandable, scepticism. What swung it was that his superior, the regional manager, had a passion for amateur dramatics and was swept along by our enthusiasm. With £1100 to purchase the so-called furniture and the stock on hand, we became the proud and terrified tenants of the King's Head in July 1970.
Over the next five months, with the help of many willing hands, we redecorated the pub and fitted out the theatre: sanded floors, bought antiquated stage lamps from a West End theatre, picked up cast-off cinema seats, converted sewing machine bases into bar tables, built a lighting board from an antediluvian system we got for pennies. Two Canadian folk singers, Jesse and Luke, came and lived with us above the pub, helped with the conversions and in the evenings played banjo and guitar in the bar. They were a hit - the weekly turnover soared from £65 to £1000 within three months! A local Irish builder, John Scully, one of the few original regulars, passed us his business card at the bar one evening. He was rapidly converted to the cause and became foreman of the operation, working unimaginable overtime. Further funds we had expected failed to materialize, and the entire fitting-out was financed by the simple expedient of not paying our brewery bills. By the time this came to the notice of someone in accounts, the unpaid bill stood at £2000 - a lot of money in 1970. The sceptical area manager was, unsurprisingly, alarmed.
Green and broke though we were, we were approached by hungry directors and writers who had sniffed us out, eager for a platform for their work. When we opened the theatre in December 1970 with Boris Vian's The Empire Builders, we expected droves of critics and public to come flocking through our doors. As it was, seven people straggled in for the opening night. A desultory attendance and no critical acclaim continued for the four week run. The bills got bigger and bigger. The tide turned with an adaptation of John Fowles' The Collector. This, however, was not without a hiccup, as two weeks into rehearsal we discovered that John Fowles had not approved the adaptation, and we made a frantic visit to Lyme Regis to persuade him to let the production go ahead. When the play finally opened the stampede occurred. It met with critical acclaim and we had to hire more bar staff... We even managed to pay the brewery a portion of what we owed them. At one point someone commented to Dan that we must be rolling in it, to which he quipped, "It’s been a long hard climb from rags to rags".
This pattern of feast and famine continued over the years. Shortly after The Collector, Peter Stevenson, then a solicitor, gave up his job and came to live and work at the King's Head for the princely sum of £5 a week. Collecting offal from the local butcher, which served as blood and guts in Chris Wilkinson's play I Was Hitler’s Maid, opened up a whole new world for him! Peter rapidly graduated to directing, and proposed a production of Athol Fugard’s People Are Living There. Maureen Pryor agreed to play the lead. Again, half way through rehearsals, there was a panic. We received a polite but frosty phone call from a major literary agent who claimed to have the rights and to be currently negotiating a production with The Royal Court. It transpired that the Fugard rights had been granted to both the publisher, with whom we had negotiated, and the agency. Hung with horseshoes as we seemed to be, our production went ahead.
Subsequent to this, Peter directed two further Fugard plays, Hello and Goodbye with Janet Suzman and Ben Kingsley and The Blood Knot. These marked a high water point of artistic achievement and we thought we had made it. However, a further period of famine followed in 1973/74. On top of everything else, the then Greater London Council threatened to close us down because we had no fire exit. We had previously applied for access to the North London Sorting Office of the GPO, which lay directly behind us, but had been turned down on the grounds of security. We appealed to the Arts Council who were then funding us, and it was all settled between Lord Goodman, the then Chairman of the Arts Council, and the Head of the GPO over a brandy snifter in a gentleman’s club!
When in 1974 we were approached by an American producer who was doing the rounds of London theatres with a play called Kennedy’s Children by Robert Patrick, we were close to bankruptcy. We had no further productions planned because we could see no way of financing them. Kennedy’s Children was our last ditch stand. Three days before the production opened a bailiff from the London Electricity Board descended on us. We had a stark choice - give him a cheque for £357 or have our electricity cut off. I boldly wrote out the cheque knowing with absolute certainty that there were no funds in the bank to cover it. Three days later the play opened to rave reviews, and the bookings flowed in. On the Monday Dan visited the bank manager with the booking sheets and implored him to meet the cheque, to which he agreed, despite having previously insisted he would never give us another inch of credit.
As we had planned no further productions, we were able to run Kennedy’s Children with packed houses every night for five months. There was an uncanny parallel between the stories of the off-Broadway theatre that shot to stardom overnight and of the King's Head rising like a phoenix from the ashes of potential ruin. I got a sore wrist writing cheques daily to our multiple creditors.
Throughout all this Dan and I and our stalwart team made fires -all twelve of them- pulled pints, cashed up the till, hired and fired bar staff, chose plays, directors, actors, made fast friends, fought, despaired, hoped and created something eccentric and unique.
In 1975 Dan and I separated and I left the King's Head. In his indomitable way Dan carried on for a further 30 years in the face of endless adversity, producing an exotic mixture of revivals, musicals and radical new plays, firmly establishing the King's Head's reputation as the leading London pub theatre. When I look back now with the caution of advancing years I am gobsmacked by our gall and our nerve. In an age of increasing regulation it is hard to imagine such a venture succeeding now - more’s the pity.
Here’s to the King’s Head. May it find a future.