Frank Vickery (1951-2018)

Frank Vickery, who died in June, was that rarity in contemporary Welsh life: an authentic national figure who never compromised his Welsh concerns and interests to garner English/British approval. As a result, the prolific playwright and occasional actor was virtually unknown in the rest of the UK and his unexpected death went unreported in the British media. And, since Wales is more or less entirely lacking a press and broadcasting sector of its own, this means most Welsh people will be unaware of his death too, let alone his life.

Even amongst what passes for a Welsh media in the heavily subsidised and ever-ailing publications and websites of the ‘arts’ sector, Vickery’s death went largely unrecorded. On the Arts Council of Wales website Chair Phil George got around to issuing a perfunctory 10-line statement which included: “He had a distinctive Welsh voice and was long a champion of Welsh theatre, while being equally attuned to universal themes” (my italics). That differentiation between the Welsh and the “universal” is so revealing – and so typical of the appointed quangocrats of Wales, whose place on the gravy train depends on them dismissing Wales as petty and parochial and everywhere else as thrillingly relevant and cosmopolitan. Meanwhile New Welsh Review, Planet, Wales Arts Review, Literature Wales and The Welsh Academy all ignored Vickery entirely – which wouldn’t have been the case had he been, say, a downtrodden Armenian trans woman challenging binary fuddy-duddies by embroidering a tapestry from her moulting leg hair. I exaggerate only ever so slightly, for polemical purposes.

The booby trap of identity politics that social liberals have so obligingly fallen into over the last decade has been a gift for Conservatives, and goes a long way towards explaining and even justifying the rise of the far right. The ludicrous focus on trivial irrelevancies such as gender, sexuality, skin pigmentation, age, disability, appearance and all the other minor variables of humanity is a wild goose chase that just lets the capitalist bastards off the hook. There are only two identities that matter: class and ownership. Everything else is a divisive distraction. Here in Wales, a dispossessed land-grabbed annexed colony owned neck and crop by hostile and malevolent external exploiters, the identity question is screamingly obvious and uncomplicated: are you Welsh or British? This is the sole issue on the agenda, the key identifier from which all others flow, the outstanding conflict that must be resolved before we can begin to tackle anything else. No wonder the prosperous upper-middle-classes in Wales who have accepted the central creeds of Thatcherite neo-Con economics, the better to line their pockets under British hegemony, never mention it. And no wonder the incestuous cultural police, comfortable in their inaccessible fortresses of self-perpetuating privilege, ignored Frank Vickery. They ignored him because he identified as working-class and as Welsh. Not fashionable. Not university educated. Not our type.

From his first one-act play in 1977, After I’m Gone, Vickery wrote 32 plays that were produced and staged. All had their premieres in Wales, all had their inaugural runs in Wales, all had a Welsh setting and all featured Welsh characters. Many have stood the test of time to become theatrical staples, performed year in year out by amateur dramatic companies across Wales or revived in the network of Welsh theatres that largely owe their survival to the abiding popularity and guaranteed full-houses of Vickery’s invariably entertaining and pertinent material. The theatres of south-east Wales were Frank Vickery’s stamping grounds and it is thanks to him that the Beaufort Theatre Ebbw Vale, the Blackwood Miners’ Institute, the Borough Theatre Abergavenny, the Coliseum Theatre Aberdâr, the Congress Theatre Cwmbrân, the Grand Pavilion Porthcawl, the Metropole Theatre Abertyleri, the Muni Arts Centre Pontypridd, the Park & Dare Theatre Treorci and the Savoy Theatre Tonyrefail still exist, the shining lights in towns otherwise stripped of every facility and amenity by the hooliganism of turbo-capitalism.

The coalminer’s son from Blaencwm in the upper Rhondda Fawr instinctively understood the old Welsh concept of the milltir sgwar – the home ‘square mile’ in which all human life and experience can be found. The centre of the world isn’t somewhere else, it’s where you are standing. Why? Because we are all much of a muchness. Global reach doesn’t broaden the mind, it narrows it into a bland soup of indistinguishable unbelonging and indiscriminate unknowing. For Vickery the world was not enough, but Wales was. And, unlike BBC Wales, ITV Wales, Wales Online etc, he did not objectify Wales, but made it his subject.

As with any body of creative work, the plays of Frank Vickery vary widely in quality. Some are superb, some are throwaway. He has been dubbed “the Welsh Ayckbourn” by critics, and there are similarities with Alan Ayckbourn’s delicious comedies but without his very English obsession with lower-middle-class one-upmanship. Vickery could equally be placed in the farce tradition of Wilde and Orton or bracketed alongside the absurdism of Beckett and Pinter, while the genre influences of slapstick, music hall, pantomime, screwball and tragicomedy are readily apparent. In other words he was entirely unique and invented his own theatrical language, shot through with the abiding Welsh strands of class consciousness, strong women, fallible men, bitter-sweet melancholy, gallows humour and earthy vulgarity. Doing for the valleys what Dylan Thomas did for Camarthenshire fishing villages, his work is packed with the recognisable archetypes and the linguistic quirks of Wales’ most defined yet least examined geographical area. Perhaps his most accomplished plays are the ingeniously constructed love pentangle of Erogenous Zones; the unblinking examination of the self-deceptions of marriage in Love Forty; A Kiss on the Bottom, following seven women’s coping strategies on a cancer ward; a couple facing memory and hindsight when returning to their honeymoon hotel on Majorca on their 25th wedding anniversary in Spanish Lies; the hilarious ensemble piece set at a funeral One O’Clock from the House; the bravura one-person monologue Sleeping with Mickey Mouse; and Amazing Grace, a rather brilliant musical about the 1904/05 ‘Welsh Revival’, co-written with Mal Pope. Mind you, I could just as well have picked another batch of his works, such was Vickery’s consistent authorial voice. He spread fun and laughter and he held up a mirror to show us ourselves. He did his bit.