The Warp

The Warp at the Regent Cinema Edinburgh 1979

Dancing in Balham




The Warp at the Regent Cinema Edinburgh 1979

On Monday the 20th August 1979, at the beginning of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the first of five 24 hour Warp Marathons, exploded on one of the many recently built stages inside the vast, squatted ex-Victorian Music Hall, situated above the ancient Holyrood Palace. That it began on time at 9pm on the advertised day, was due to the heroic achievement of a seemly near impossible task. The task—mostly executed by the members of the very large cast, included first finding a venue….then squatting it….then draining it of a large 6 feet deep lake at the bottom of the sloping ex-cinema…installing a water supply by digging up pavements…installing loos after looting un-occupied houses…digging up more pavements to get an electricity supply…mending the roof (the building had been empty for 20 years)…creating a café area…changing rooms….getting the building passed for public performance by the Edinburgh Building Department, which required proper architectural plans----which was achieved by Margo Sagov getting plans from the Edinburgh Archives, through bribing the Keeper with two packets of Capstan Extra Strong cigarettes---and then, she used these original plans to draw up new plans which she presented to the Building Department---who were astonished that she could produce these new plans. Margo calmly explained that she wasn’t just a rock ‘n roll guitar player, but a qualified architect. So the building was passed and the entertainment licence granted an hour before the show was due to begin.

The poster designed by Mitch stated in Bold that The Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool presents Ken Campbell’s Epic Production of THE WARP---NEIL ORAM’S MAMMOTH 10 PLAY SAGA at The Regent Cinema, Abbey Mount---20 Aug—8th Sept.

And for the 6th time the indefatigable Russell Denton stepped into theatrical history, by brilliantly acting the part of Phil Masters for a non stop twenty hours. The play tracks the long on-going battle-- 1487—1978-- between an eternal pacifist embodied soul—Philip Masters-- and an evil eternal tyrant known as the Baron. I named the hero Phil Masters, after the blind poet Philip Marston (1850-1887). There were-- and still are—deep personal reasons why I chose to tell his, and Mary’s true love story.

Back on Tuesday morning, the 17th January 1979, in the third week of The Warp at the I.C.A. in The Mall, London, I was standing watching Russell and Mitch acting out a scene set in Turkey. I and the rest of the audience shuffled around in 4 inches of peat! The stages were in a circle and we—the audience-- were inside. Suddenly Ken is whispering in my ear, “ I’ve got news abat your future! Russell’s froat’s going---and if ‘e carries on---‘e wont be able to do the first marathon on Thursday. He needs ‘is froat vocal chords painted very soon! So since you wrote this saga, and only you and Russell know the whole text, only you can take over from Russel when this third play ends in ‘alf an ‘our.”

So suddenly I’m acting out a previous incarnation on stage---with no acting experience. Ken explained to the audience what was happening. I can’t say I really enjoyed it. It was a bit of an ordeal, because although I had written every word---I didn’t always remember the cue words which the other actor/actress ends their speech with. So they might end talking---and I’d be staring---and trying to remember what comes next!?

Most of the cast were friendly and helpful by saying things like” O was that when Meg….?” Sort of thing. Jim Broadbent was very helpful like that. Bill Nighy seemed a complete bastard, and went out of his way to ridicule my struggle. (As if embodying the spite of The Baron).

Well I got through plays 4 and 5 that day, and to my surprise the audience gave me a great ovation and were all there the next day when I acted Phil Masters through plays 6—to—ten. I enjoyed the last five better, because I winged the whole lot, not even trying to be word perfect. And that worked, and the audience stayed all the way through, and wildly, enthusiastically applauded the end of each play and more so at the final end.

Ken’s strategy worked, and Russell was fit to take on the first Marathon. This first Marathon was electric. Russell outrageously bold and breathtakingly dazzling. Word perfect and utterly lovable.

The next day Michael Coveney writing in The Financial Times, announced that “The world may soon divide into those who have been through THE WARP and those who have not.”

Michael Coveny’s review came to the attention of Hilary Rubenstein, a director of A.P.Watt, the most prestigious literary agents in Britain. He asked me if I would be able to cope with becoming very wealthy?—(some of his stable of writers had drunk themselves to death) –I said I didn’t drink, and had a lot of land in Scotland which could do with a financial injection. So this meeting with Hilary led to me signing a contract with Sphere Books. I signed to agree that I would deliver to Sphere Books, three volumes of a novelized version of The Warp—one every six months. I fulfilled this project and all three volumes can still be purchased.

So what does it mean to have gone through The Warp? Does it have more than the meaning of attending the theatrical performances?

Ken told me that directing The Warp had brought him back to life. He related how he had once been possessed by a Muse of mirth and wonder, but she had for some time, abandoned him: but when he heard me telling my tales of intense paranoia at the I.C.A. Theatre in June 1978, he said he felt her coming near again. And when I said I would dramatize for him my long, life adventures over many centuries—he said he felt possessed by her again. Going through The Warp for one man, meant discovering another dimension to existence. A few followed up the references to higher consciousness. Many found their soul-mates through the experience.

At first, Ken arranged with the I.C.A for me to deliver 15 plays to begin on my 41st birthday the 2nd January 1979. He also arranged with the Arts Council for me to be given a £500 bursary to write The Warp. Ken was so keen to get the plays finished and typed out, that he offered to type for me. He said he was a wizard with his electric typewriter and we could work in his garden shed in his back garden in Haverstock Hill. (In his over blown romanticizing of The Warp’s beginning, he used to declare that he had the shed built in order to type out The Warp.)

On the first hot day in the middle of June, I dictated about 15 scenes which Ken typed out. But they were scenes determined by Ken recalling the stories he had heard me relate at my one man I.C.A. performance. He’d say “do the one with the fuzz busting the jazz reading in your caff.” Or “the King David Tramp scene” or “being a statue in Trafalgar Square”. And so on. At the end of the day’s typing, he said that that was the first play. I said that’s not a play it’s like a revue. I said there’s no structure! Ken snapped back, “Fuck structure! People want fun and action. So all I do is sling on one wild scene after anover! Fuck structure! One night we’ll do tramps. Another we’ll do prostitutes. Another Soho gangsters. Another night---India.”

When Neil Cunningham came round to the garden shed to see what Ken was doing? Ken introduced me and said I was a modern Shakespeare, who could knock off a play a day! I felt so embarrassed, (there were no plays but a collection of scenes)-- and thought I would back out of the whole project! Then I was saved at the end of the week when Ken was called to go to Northern Ireland and act in a film.

Utterly relieved to be able to write miles away from Ken’s forceful personality, I moved down to a friend’s large house in Butleigh, Somerset, not far from Glastonbury Tor. Christopher Rudman, the owner of the fish ponds and house, gave me the use of the very long wooden floored ballroom. Following Stravinsky’s method of laying out his score on the floor in order to grasp the whole overview of the composition---I did the same. Of the many scenes which Ken had typed out for me, I only kept five or six, because on reflection they lacked the needed thread to link up the meanings transmitted through the centuries’ long Phil Masters, contra—Baron saga. And I actually used thread to link up the many, many scenes I was writing (by hand) laid out in piles on the sun-lit floor.

So over the next five months, I wrote by hand and then got typed by Jane Read, (now passed away) a thousand page Warp script. I had promised Ken I would deliver 4 copies of the script to The Bubble Rehearsal Theatre on the 1st December 1978 which I did. The whole play was rehearsed ---three days to a play—through the cold, wet days of December.

Whilst the 5th Marathon was being acted at The Edinburgh Festival, I was approached by Werner Nekkes outside The Regent , who said The Warp was so magnificent, he wanted to make a film version of it. He said he was a well known film director in Germany, and because I was the writer of this vast work, would I give him permission to write a film score of the play. I said I would on condition that I was there when the film was being made, and I could object and stop him proceeding with a scene if I felt it was not artistically good. We agreed, and in Essen in his studio overlooking The River Ruhr, I signed a contract giving him the rights to use my text of The Warp. His whole film called ‘ULISSES’, was shot mostly in his studio, using the entire Warp cast who every night were comfortably camped on his floor. He was a wonderful, sensitive host to all of us. He paid for everything. Brilliant German breakfasts with hot croissants delivered at seven. The end result is a very weird warped version of my play, which nevertheless won a first prize in Germany for best art film 1980.

When in 1980, Ken was appointed to be the artistic director of The Everyman Theatre, he appointed me to be the Associate writer. He then commissioned me to re-write the entire Warp text, and turn it into ten individual plays. The idea being that each play could stand as a play on its own. This was because his plan was a ten week season of The Warp, where each play would run for a whole six day week. Each play had to make complete sense on its own---without any reference to a previous Warp play.

Before I left London to go to Liverpool to undertake this writing task, an actor neighbour of Ken’s, showed me the day’s Guardian newspaper, with a large advert saying ‘Ken Campbell’s Warp at The Everyman Theatre, Liverpool.’ My name did not appear anywhere in the advert, and It had a list of the titles of the ten plays, which bore no reference to my titles. Dave said to me,” You need to do something very quick!”

I did. I immediately wrote to Jill Trevellick, the General Manager of The Everyman Theatre, and stated that ”I, Neil Oram, do not give permission for The Warp to be produced on stage at the Everyman, because of the way it is being promoted.” I then drove back to Goshem. A day after I had got back, I was in bed about midnight, when there was knocking at the front door, and Ken and Jill came up to my bedroom. They had driven through the night---all the way from Liverpool to Loch Ness.

They both seemed desperate and very cap in hand. Jill explained that it was all a ghastly mistake and she felt deeply sorry. Ken said it hadn’t been done by him. Jill had a contract already typed out, and ready for me to sign, rectifying the ‘Ken Campbell’s Warp’ idea. This new contract, stated that everything The Everyman would say in future, would explicitly say ‘The Warp by Neil Oram.’ I was promised, in writing, a high commission on ticket sales. Jill, Ken and I signed up for The Warp Cycle.

I was given a flat and a salary to do this work. It was not easy. And it didn’t help when Neil Cunningham stated he would not accept my changes to his parts. Nor did it help that Ken was drinking all day and evening, from ten in the morning until he crashed out late at night. I got so frustrated by the attitudes of grumbling actors and the ramblings from Ken, that I decided to pull out. Then everyone got into a panic because Ken disappeared. Apparently he turned up the next day, very bedraggled, saying he’d been sleeping in Sefton Park, had contemplated suicide, and couldn’t go on living if I backed out. I said I wouldn’t continue to re-write The Warp, if he continued drinking all through the rehearsal time. He promised to only start drinking when the day’s rehearsal was over. On the whole the ten week Liverpool Warp cycle was a great success, which nevertheless ended on a grim note with the assassination of John Lennon.

Now I understand that the main battle today is still the same, continuing struggle portrayed in The Warp. That is between impersonal forces and personal experience. Any one who has worked this out, knows how one is continually tempted to translate your own personal feeling intelligence, into conned-senses, de-personal--’I’—sing words , ideals, concepts and lies.

One of the very charming surprises which suddenly took place at The Edinburgh Festival Marathons, was the opening of the huge back doors half way through play ten—‘’ Pure White Light’. And yes, we the audience, were suddenly smothered in bright white light…and then guided to leave the theatre, where a policeman was in the middle of the busy road holding up the traffic, whilst we were led to cross the road into The Royal Holyrood Park. As I passed the policeman, I realized it was Ross Barclay, one of The Warp cast, dressed up in old fashioned London police uniform with a dark blue bell-shaped helmet. Despite the incongruity of his jolly appearance, every motorist, including lorry and taxi drivers, obeyed his very precise hand signals!

As we were led along the park path —in a rather stunned silence—we passed Indian looking beggars and women dressed in bright saris. Then on a park bench, dressed in bright white Indian shirt and lunghi, sat Stephen Williams-- acting the part of Bagwan Rajneesh (who later preferred to be called -Osho).

We were guided to sit around ‘Rajneesh’ on the early morning bright green grass. Bagwan then delivered his morning talk on the weak mindedness of Western devotees. Passer-bys heckled us for being criminal migrants.

Eventually we were led back into the theatre, passing once again our actor-copper holding up the obedient traffic for our safe crossing into the next scene: which was a screaming inferno at the Bungay Horse Fair. Maria Moustaka playing the wild Rachel---out of it on ‘white light’ cocaine—screaming on stage at the police (actors), that if they didn’t back off, she would get the gypsies onto them!

It was a brilliant stroke by Ken to turn Holyrood Royal Park into Rajneeshe’s Ashram in Koregan Park, Poona, India.

Neil oram


27th August 2019




© neil oram 2019