© 2005 by Roger Harding
I first met Ed in 1989, a year after moving to Napton. I had heard about the famous Napton Open Air Theatre, so telephoned and spoke to his wife Hilary. I think I asked if I could join Ed's playgroup.
I was desperate to act, but when I learned that the local big-wig was an American, all my base anti-American sentiment took over and I went along to his house determined not to be impressed. I came away somewhat overwhelmed. If only all Americans could be as good as this, I thought. He was immediately perceptive, generous, encouraging and welcoming. Without an audition, he cast me as a scarecrow. How perceptive is that?
He was such a fun director - imaginative but realistic. He never missed an opportunity for a laugh on stage, whether it was achieved by a movement or a line - and he changed a few of those. Captain Bugby, for example, became Captain Rugby. He re-wrote the last page of The Scarecrow to make it simple and moving - it certainly choked me every night.
The stage we built was made entirely of pallets and chipboard, with straw bales concealing the inner workings. There were wires going in and out all over the place - through the bushes, across the lawn and into the house. The Fire Officer inspected us for our last minute Occasional Theatre Licence and followed the wires from the house, along the lawn, through the bushes, muttering – well, I'd better not say what he was muttering. Suffice to say the expletives were getting worse and worse until he arrived at the straw bales, whereupon he called upon the Almighty himself in first name terms.
"No one is going to be smoking on this stage in this production," he said. Ed assumed this was couched as a question, "Well, actually, the Scarecrow is brought to life by Brimstone Tobacco, so it's pretty important ..."
"NO ONE IS GOING TO BE SMOKING IN THIS PRODUCTION !" reiterated the fire officer, "Or you don't get a licence."
Shame really, I had just spent three weeks training on a foul tasting corn bob pipe.
The following year, we tried a Little Theatre experiment - a 25 seater next to Ed's barn. He had ideas of hiring in small scale touring professional companies and augmenting them with local productions. In the end we just did the one: A Phoenix Too Frequent by Christopher Fry. The local TV came to interview us.
We repeated the exercise outdoors the following year – and we still had the problem of constructing a stage, but Ed soon came up with a solution to that. He had been to the Birmingham Conservatoire to see an opera - Puccini, I think - and had been bowled over by the set. It was huge, entirely wooden and constructed at many different heights. He established that it would be dumped at the end of the run - which appalled him. The opera management countered with an entirely unrealistic offer, given the size of the set - get yourself a lorry, collect it and take it away and you can have it for nothing.
Any normal person would have taken that as a challenge too far. Not Ed. He quickly had a lorry booked, along with a driver and a team of, what can only be described as slightly less than completely sane, scene shifters. As the show finished the set was dismantled and a large proportion of it loaded up and transported back to Napton for storage in Ed's barn. It was a 5.00 am finish. Some people still went to work that day !
Ed and I were very close when he was up here in Warwickshire. We used to do a lot of "shooting the breeze" in his kitchen - and I listened to him decrying the injustices in the world, about which we could do very little except protest. He did plenty of that.
We once drove all the way up to Manchester to protest about the first Gulf War. He had encouraged me to write a spoof of Henry V. I would never have thought it possible, but I managed to produce something in pentameter relating to golf balls rather than tennis balls and we "performed" it for an audience of like-minded people. Strange how familiar the Shakespearian arguments all sounded, that justified King Henry going to war – much the same as those advanced by King George Bush the First.
Ed also set up the Napton Action Group project, which was intended to stop over-development in the village. We looked at the Local Plan, noted the areas where the land owner had expressed an interest in development and calculated how many houses could be built on those areas if they were developed at the same density as the local Hillside development. The leaflet we produced was circulated around the village and resulted in probably the biggest village meeting Napton has ever seen. I think the Planners got the message.
I have often thought that I would like to have recorded some of Ed's reminiscences. The problem was, you could never tell when they were going to come out. An apparently innocent question would spark off, not a one word answer (which would probably have sufficed), but a fascinating half hour, detailed and funny story. It was the detail that made them so good - every bit as good as anything Alan Bennett put into his Talking Heads.
I once asked him where he had met his second wife, Hilary. "Trafalgar Square" would have been a sufficient answer, but I was treated to a complete and detailed history of Bishop chat up lines and tactics while he was serving his drama apprenticeship in London. Fascinating. No normal person would have the nerve to do what he did to secure an introduction, on-street, to a completely unknown, but chique looking target woman.
This brings me on to another of Ed's qualities: the sheer NERVE of the man. There seemed to be nothing he wouldn't try on. I need no better example than the story he told me about the time he was employed to play the part of General Pinochet at a demonstration organised by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.
The idea was that five actors would be employed to play the roles of five dictators who had been supplied with arms by Britain – and who had subsequently turned nasty. They would roll up in a hired limmo at the demonstration outside the arms fair, present themselves at the head of the demonstration, apparently trying to get in to the fair – and would be photographed by Jane as they were turned away.
That was all that was required of them.
But that was not good enough for Ed.
After the initial demo, he suggested that the actors should REALLY try to get in and instructed the chauffeur to drive around the perimeter fence to another checkpoint.
I believe there was disbelief among the other actors to begin with, which rose to mild panic as they spotted and approached a manned barrier.
Ed was in the front of the car with a blue uniform, gold braid and a shiny peaked cap – and an attache case of photocopied US dollars.
He turned to the chauffeur and suggested they try something. "Don't actually stop," he said, "Just slow right down – and let's see what happens."
"Are you kidding ?" said the chauffeur (or words to that effect) "Are you trying to get me killed ?"
As they approached the checkpoint, a guard came out and looked into the crawling car. He saw a uniform, gold braid, a shiny peaked cap – and Ed throwing a salute.
Up went the barrier.
Now in a high state of agitation, the party cruised towards the hangar where the goods were on display.
"What are we going to do now ?" was a frequently expressed question.
They were heading towards a car park, which was about 250 yards from the hangar – but there were security guards between the car park and the hangar.
Ed had another idea.
"OK. We drive right up to the steps and we wait until the chauffeur opens the doors. We get out and we walk up the steps."
You can imagine the adrenaline rush.
They drove up, they waited, the chauffeur opened the doors and out got
Adolf Hitler (in riding breeches) and
Ivan the Terrible wearing a long beard and wielding an almighty great battle axe.
I've seen the photos. This really happened.
They got into the building – but came unstuck at the next layer of security.
"May I see your permit please ?" a policewoman asked Ed.
"You want to see my permit ?" said Ed, opening his attache case to show her the fake US dollars, "This was good enough for Mrs Thatcher, it's good enough for you."
In the scrum that followed, Sadam Hussain was seen jumping up and down waving a credit card and crying "American Express anyone ?"
A very bored ITV news crew was ambling around the hall looking at a first rate range of machines for killing people. They saw the scrum and they saw an opportunity. It made the 6.00 news, but someone drew a veil over it before the 10.00 news that night.
Strangely, no one was arrested. They were ejected from the building, got back in the car and went out the same way as they had come in.
The video footage was acquired by CAAT and later used in a Channel 4 Comment programme.
The corollary to the story was the next demonstration a couple of years later. As a police inspector encouraged the demonstrators to disperse, he said "I hope you've all had a good demonstration", to which Ed replied "Yeah, but not as good as a coupla years ago – we actually got in that place."
The inspector's eyes widened "That was you ? Man you're a legend."
Ed, concerned as ever about individuals' welfare said "Yeah, I sure hope we didn't get that guy in trouble on the guard post."
"Trouble Sir ? No trouble at all – he was just shot."
I remember Ed was particularly impressed, as are many Americans, by the age of everything in Europe. Napton Church, for example - and the bells hanging in the tower. That sparked off a story about a visit he made to an American Civil War battlefield. Americans, it seems, are so keen to preserve any historic memory that they have to put up a blue plaque to mark it. The battlefield was covered in plaques stating that "On 6 July 1864, Colonel Chip Mortimer made a last stand here against overwhelming odds etc". Finally, Ed came across a house with a plaque which stated that "On this spot on 6 July 1864 ... precisely NOTHING HAPPENED"
Apparently the British are somewhat inclined to the other extreme. Ed told me about a conversation he had with a woman he used to meet up at the churchyard. The woman was talking about another woman Ed did not know. "Is she a Napton woman ?" He asked, "Oh no. No, she moved here just after the war," was the response.
I was gutted when he moved down to West Molesey. Somehow the life seemed to drain out of Napton village. We kept in touch – I went to see his productions and he came to see one of my plays performed at the Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa. But somehow emails just don't live up to warm personal communication. I couldn't hear him laughing. I miss that - because, no matter how low he was at the lack of acting work, he could still laugh at himself and, perhaps unusually for an American, the ironies of life.
"Any work Ed ?"
"No – you could use my phone for a soup ladle right now"
"No, but I am getting paid to be adored by middle aged men dressed up in Star Trek outfits at a Sci-Fi convention in Australia."
He was always self-deprecating. I admitted to him once that I had never seen UFO. One of his daughters (I won't name her) said "You didn't miss anything. It was crap."
"Listen, honey," he said, "That crap paid for an awful lot of your baby food."
I must tell you about one more incident, in Leamington. We were heading towards the Loft Theatre, when a rather malodorous, unshaven young man sitting on the ground asked for spare cash. I was about to walk past. I have the nerve to call myself a Christian. Ed, a self-professed atheist stopped.
"Where'ya from Pal ?" He was from Ireland
"How long'ya been here ?" About six months.
"Where are ya living ?" On the street.
"Can't you get any work ?"
The conversation turned the man from a scrounger to a victim; a fellow human being who deserved to be treated with dignity. Ed gave him the price of a meal.
That was a lesson.
In his last email to me he said:
"At this end of the age spectrum every twinge, act of forgetfulness, palpitation is a harbinger of The Big One! My advice is just to get all your paperwork in order! "
He thought about death a lot, I know. I think his son, Dan's accident concentrated his mind. He once told me that "There's no life after death ... this is all we get, one shot. Make the most of it."
I think you're wrong Ed – because that implies you have no soul. And you HAVE. Thanks Ed for your warmth, your encouragement and your humour.
Good luck mate.
I still think of him every day. He was an extraordinary man; intelligent, humourous, caring, campaigning. I miss him like mad. Saw him in the last episode of Colditz the other day. That was hard.
Librarian's note: Many thanks to Amelia and Ed Rogers for contacting Mr. Harding and asking him to allow us to publish this.
Ed Bishop Page