Greenham: 100 Years of War and Peace
Beth Flintoff at Greenham Common
On two evenings at the beginning of September, as daylight begins to fade, a large cast of local actors, singers, musicians, artists and re-enactors will set Greenham Common alive, as the site of a dramatic theatre of war becomes a spectacular theatre of performance, light projection and song.
Backed by and celebrating Greenham Trust, which has enriched the Newbury area by distributing more than £40m to local good causes over the past 20 years, Greenham: 100 Years War and Peace will portray the common’s broader history through highlights of the times of war and peace that have woven through the last century.
It is a story both rich and fascinating and the trust wants to involve as many local people as possible in the project and to explain its significance locally, nationally and worldwide.
The stories of the common will be told at this free outdoor event on the runway of the former RAF base and home to the USAF during the Cold War, by hundreds of cast members from our Newbury community, led by a professional production team, Rosa Productions, who manage outstanding festivals, arts and outdoor events.
The audience for the spectacular performance on the common will see moments of war and peace from the 100 years, experience the natural world of the common from the 1930s, hear stories of the Second World War, US forces, the arrival of the Ugandan Asian refugees and, of course, the Cold War and Peace Camps and the more recent return to nature.
The writer of the piece is Newbury’s very own Beth Flintoff, now living in Kingsclere, who is more than aware of the common’s sense of place.
"I think it’s a miracle that Greenham Common exists in its current state. It used to be a militarised zone, but now people walk their dogs there, and I can go for a six-mile run around the perimeter," she says.
"I love that the whole park is run by a charity that simply gives everything it makes back to the community; what an incredible thing that is. To have the chance to celebrate this is such a privilege, and even more so because I have a deeply-held belief in the power of community theatre.
"This event isn’t about me or even about art, it’s about the local people making it. It’s about the stories we are telling of the people who lived here; their hopes and fears, their disagreements and their triumphs. It’s about a great big coming-together of our community on a beautiful piece of land.
"One of the community participants said this was an opportunity that only comes around once in a lifetime, which made me feel very proud."
Beth’s credentials are perfect for this production. She grew up in Newbury and her parents still live here. She left for university to study English Literature and went on to drama school, after which she juggled being an actor with running a small touring theatre group.
"I lived in London for a while, but came back when I was cast in Cinderella at the Corn Exchange – where I met my future husband – and stayed on."
A seven-year stint in the outreach department at Bagnor’s Watermill theatre followed, before some 18 months ago she took the plunge and became a freelance playwright and theatre director, which proved a smart move as she has achieved considerable success.
"I’ve been writing plays to commission ever since – I’m lucky enough to be very busy and am hoping it will stay that way. My first published play, The Glove Thief, will be coming out in the autumn."
Like those of us who have lived here most of our lives, Beth has personal experience of Newbury’s role in the Cold War era and of the business park that the base became.
She was a young girl when she remembers driving past the women’s peace camp in the 80s: "As children it was just accepted as a part of life."
Then later "My first properly grown-up temp job, as a student on vacation, was on the business park, putting labels onto jam jars at English Provender. I also once had a job during a gap in acting work where my sole task was to delete the spam emails coming into the computers of a publishing company there. I rather enjoyed that one, though I can’t imagine I was really worth paying.
"After drama school, I founded a small theatre company to make touring work on the fringe, and we were based in the Open Studios office at New Greenham Arts for a while. I rehearsed plays in the studios and have gone running on the common in the summer – it’s generally been a part of my life for as long as I can remember."
But still she needed to do further research to feed into her writing. "I’ve spent a lot of time in libraries researching books, something I love doing because I’m very geeky. I had to read up about a lot of history, covering about 60 years, and then discard most of it. I also met with a few people who had very specific memories of the common: people who lived or worked there."
Along the way she learned some surprising things. "I knew about the peace protests of course, but I knew less about the use of the base during the Second World War – how crucial Greenham and this area in general was in preparations for D-Day. The thought of all those planes taking off in 1944 and then so few returning haunts me even now.
"I was also fascinated to hear about the Ugandan Asian refugees who came to Greenham in the 1970s; I met with one woman who came over when her family was expelled from Uganda and her story was incredible."
And surprisingly a valuable source emerged close to home – Beth’s grandmother – "an incredible, indomitable woman" who lived in Cold Ash until she sadly died a few months ago at the grand old age of 101.
"About a year ago I was sitting on her sofa drinking tea and talking about the Greenham project when she suddenly had a burst of memory and started talking about how she used to go to dances on the RAF base during the Second World War.
"I named the main characters, Peggy and Frank, after her and my grandfather. For me they both encapsulated a spirit of proud, British make-do-and-mend practicality. They had experienced war first-hand and knew how terrible it is to be hungry or experience trauma. She would watch the news and say ‘I don’t hold with war’."
The difficulty came in encapsulating all she learnt into a cohesive dramatic story. "There are an infinite number of ways to tell any story and it all comes down to making choices: who gets a voice, whose viewpoint do we see?
"Sometimes a historical retelling can seem impersonal – we can care more about one person than about thousands. So I decided to channel the whole story through the eyes of one person, a woman born in 1920, who grows up on the common during its pre-war days of innocence, and then lives through the war, the arrivals of the Ugandan Asian refugees and the arrival of nuclear weapons.
"I didn’t want to be seen as taking sides in the debate about the peace camp, because everyone I have ever met here has a different take on it."
And so the story evolved.
Writing for a large-scale production is very different from anything Beth has done before, but she relishes the challenge.
"For a large-scale show like this, you can’t really have any dialogue like in a normal play. This was new to me. I had to think of ways of telling the story across a massive open space with potentially thousands of people watching.
"The hardest thing has been leaving so much out: there are important stories that I haven’t been able to include because there isn’t time or resources… or because we can’t actually do a plane crash… but there is a whole series of talks and discussions going on around the main event and I hope very much that they will fill the gaps that I have had to leave."
So far the production is going well, but is Beth enjoying the process? She realises the magnitude of the event: "It’s terrifying! Please ask me afterwards when we have all got through it intact."
So what should we, the audience, expect when we come along to the performances on September 8 and 9?
"I hope that it will feel like a mass coming together, a celebration of what exists today on the common, and the enormous courage shown on this piece of land over the years. I hope also that everyone taking part and everyone watching will simply have a brilliant night.
"Something they will remember for years to come."
This article was also published in Out & About magazine. You can find the magazine online now here.