Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Look Around

"Words? What words? How can the likes of me find the words for what we 'ave to go through?" says Vivienne Martin in her role as Kate at the start of the number Look Around from the 1965 musical The Match Girls, which had words by Bill Owen (yes that ...) and a score by Tony Russell. The musical had evolved from a 1940 play by Robert Mitchell for Unity Theatre. Bill Owen was closely involved with Unity for many years, long before finding fame in Last of the Summer Wine. The East End of London has an important history of trades union activity, from the dockers to more recent struggles against low pay for contracted-out NHS services. But the story of the 1888 match girls strike is perhaps the most significant event in the area's social history. Campaigning journalist Annie Besant had written an article, White Slavery in London, highlighting the appalling conditions girls were working in at the Bryant & May factory in Bow and the effects of phosphorous poisoning. Following publication the factory's owners tried to get the match girls to sign a statement saying the article was wrong, but they refused. When one of the girls was sacked, her colleagues came out on strike. Their campaign was fought with great vitality, and gained support from many leading socialist figures. The girls won, and one of the outcomes was the formation of a matchworkers' union. As for the musical itself? Well, it had a short run in the West End (ah then you had shows by Lionel Bart and Anthony Newley in those pre-Lloyd Webbed-Foot times), and the surviving original cast recording has a lot going for it in a jazzy cockney kinda way. And I have to take my 'at off to the splendid person that posted Anita Harris' interpretation of one of the show's numbers on YouTube ...

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