Mark Bunyan, cabaret performer, songwriter and playwright, is having the premiere of his comedy Private Member performed on Zoom on Tuesday 16th March, thirty-one years after writing it. Peter Scott-Presland, director of the company Homo Promos which is presenting it, finds out why it’s taken so long to see the light of day.
Peter Scott-Presland: Mark, you’ve been writing and performing ever since God was a lad. I first saw you just after Gay’s The Word opened in 1979.
Mark Bunyan: I was a friend of Ernest Holt, who lived next door to me, and we were both members of Gay Icebreakers. He became the first manager of the bookshop, and I remember going with my husband Andrew to do some of the painting and cleaning before it opened. There was a piano in the shop, and I was asked to go and do some shows there. They were always packed.
I think you and I must have been the only solo cabaret performers in London regularly doing our own explicitly gay material then. How did that come about for you?
I’d always been a good actor. I was Drama Captain at school, which gave me a bizarre confidence and ability to stand up and do things. Then I joined the Mermaids, the Drama Group at St Andrew’s University. John Cleese became Rector, and I must be one of the few people left alive who can claim they performed as part of the Monty Python stage show, apart from the Pythons themselves. They came and did two performances, and I got to be the Tea Lady at the Ministry of Silly Walks, and played piano for the Lumberjack Song. There were over a thousand people in the hall each time, and I’ve never been so nervous in my life.
It wasn’t all hilarity at university, though…
I’d had the classic Freudian sex education, which was appalling. It was torture. It told me that normal human beings went through four stages of development, and apart from normal human beings there are people with arrested development who are nymphomaniacs, prostitutes and homosexuals. So everything was bottled up inside me. So in my second year at St Andrews I became increasingly depressed and had a very minor attempt at suicide. So they gave me lots and lots of drugs to take. I was on Librium, Valium and Imipramine. I was on eight tablets a day, and one was to counteract the side effects of the first one, and the third was to counteract the effects of the second. Eventually I was taken to Stratheden, a psychiatric hospital outside St Andrews and the old lunatic asylum, it was an absolute gothic pile. Eventually I said in a whisper, ‘I am a homosexual’ and burst into tears.
“Never forget that Oscar Wilde was a happily married man with two kids,” he said. My response when I got away to London was to join Icebreakers, which was an advice line and counselling service formed out of the anti-psychiatry group of the Gay Liberation Front. I was determined that nobody else would ever have to go through what I had been through if I could help it.
This of course was meant to be confidential, but then I was called in to the college psychiatrist, who demanded, “Do you not find girls attractive? Do you not like to run your fingers through their silken hair? Caress their full warm bosoms? Their pert little butts?” His advice was that I should get married immediately and think about it later. “Never forget that Oscar Wilde was a happily married man with two kids,” he said. My response when I got away to London was to join Icebreakers, which was an advice line and counselling service formed out of the anti-psychiatry group of the Gay Liberation Front. I was determined that nobody else would ever have to go through what I had been through if I could help it.
The performance and song writing came out of that really. I was asked to write songs for occasions, then appear at benefits, Gay News Fighting Fund, Pretty Policeman’s Ball for Switchboard and so on. Then it got to the point where I could make my professional debut at the Country Club.
At this point it must have seemed that you had the world opening up for you. But it never seems to have done so in the way your talent deserved, despite the support of people like producer and broadcaster Ned Sherrin. What went wrong?
I was trying to be a professional cabaret performer rather than a gay activist, and it was actually impossible. Someone from the Noel Gay Organisation [agency] came to see a show and told me, “I’m sure we can work together”. So I went to see the big man in the office, and he actually told me, “I’ve been asking around and you’ve got a reputation as being extremely talented and a gay crusader. Well, we can’t do anything with that. We can’t put that on the Val Doonican Show.”
At the same time, Alexei Sayle, who I shared a venue with in Edinburgh, got me an audition at the Comic Strip, and Peter Richardson saw me. “I did a song called ‘Do Yourself In’, [a cheerful injunction to suicide] and he said, “This is just middle class reassurance material, isn’t it?” Then I did another one, about a policeman calling a mother to tell her that her son has been queerbashed. “If you want to sing about being gay you should tell it like it is,” he said. I walked out with steam coming out of my ears. How dare a straight man tell a gay man what being gay is like!
What I was doing was extremely radical, but I suffered from my image. I didn’t have the right accent, you see. I was brought up in a council house in Bleadon. My grandfather was a chauffeur, though my father got a scholarship to a minor public school and I went to the local grammar school. But somehow I was the only one who spoke with a middle class accent, so people assumed I was middle class.
When you turned to writing musicals, what happened?
The Cockpit Theatre ran a competition for a new Youth Theatre musical, and I won with Just Good Friends. There are things in it I am inordinately proud of. Nobody had ever celebrated the life-long friendship of a gay man with a female friend. Imagine, Boy meets Girl with no sex and no romantic love! Then there’s the 11 o‘clock number. At that time any song for a gay man had to be about a lover, or a love object. But Eddie’s Song which is the finale is a memory of fifty years of varied relationships, all of which bring something to the singer Eddie. On the cast recording from the last night you can hear sobbing in the audience.
That wasn’t the only competition you won…
No, I won the Croydon Warehouse International Playwriting Competition with Dinner in 1989, and followed it with Mysterious Ways, a clerical farce set in a Bishop’s Palace. That got me an interview with an agent, and we were about to open the Champagne because they said they loved the play. But then they added, “But of course we can’t do anything with it.” All I got out of them was a commission for a 12-minute children’s play.
I didn’t know any closeted MPs, but I did know Islington’s Chris Smith, who had come out a few years earlier. I met him at the last night of The Gateways. It was the most famous lesbian club in the world, but its closing night was mixed. We became good friends for a few years.
Which brings us to Private Member, written the same year and gathering dust in a trunk. 1989 was just after the passage of Section 28, and the AIDS pandemic was also at its height.
At that time gay MPs in the closet were a major annoyance. I didn’t know any closeted MPs, but I did know Islington’s Chris Smith, who had come out a few years earlier. I met him at the last night of The Gateways. It was the most famous lesbian club in the world, but its closing night was mixed. We became good friends for a few years. I also knew Marjorie Thompson who was a parliamentary lobbyist for the Royal College of Nursing, and also chair of CND. As such she became one of the two major public voices against the Iraq War. So I was able to discuss a lot of internal stuff about MPs and their routines.
It also reflects concerns about AIDS. Someone very close to me got diagnosed in 1986, and one day he rang me up and said, “I’ve had a bit of a cold but I’m OK now.” It was like a sledgehammer to the stomach. How do you live with ‘I could have a cold and it could kill me.’?
I think the play is an accurate portrait of its times. This is what 1989 is like. It’s difficult for people to realise now how much has changed – my generation and young people too. But I also hope people will discuss the morality of being an MP, and what that involves. Robin [the gay MP character] defends himself for being in a party which voted for Section 28, “Well, I didn’t vote for it. I was paired.” Really? Is that enough?
I don’t want to say too much about Private Member, because I want its surprises to work. But I can say now, looking back, I am proud of my achievements, because I realise the world would have been a slightly different place if any of my suicide attempts had succeeded.
Mark Bunyan in It’s a Wonderful [Gay] Life…?
Private Member by Mark Bunyan is on Tuesday 16th March. Curtain up 7.30pm. Approx 2 hours including interval. To access the performance please click on the link below:
For more information about the Homo promos season please go to http://homopromos.org/zoom-readings.html