United We Stand out to set record straight at New Wolsey, Ipswich

United We Stand, at the New Wolsey Theatre March 19

United We Stand, at the New Wolsey Theatre March 19 - Credit: Archant

The 1972 builders strike and subsequent jailing of the Shrewsbury 24 is described as one of the biggest cases of injustice still outstanding, Wayne Savage talks to the writer of new play United We Stand, Neil Gore.

United We Stand, from left Neil Gore and William Fox. Photo: Brian O'Carroll

United We Stand, from left Neil Gore and William Fox. Photo: Brian O'Carroll - Credit: Brian O'Carroll

All they wanted were safer conditions, fairer pay, shorter hours, security. What builders got was one of the most tubulent industrial battles in the country’s history.

The 1972 builders’ strike, and the jailing of the Shrewbury 24, form new play United We Stand. Brought to Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre March 19 by Townsend Productions, responsible for The Ragged Trouserered Philantropists, it aims to dispute and dispel the myth of the time that the pickets were criminally violent rather than ordinary working men seeking a better life for themselves and their fellow workers.

“They were the worst conditions of any trade... There was a death a day on the building sites, thousands of injuries annually. Health and safety wasn’t adhered to, sub-contracting, cash in hand labour with no job security, no insurance,” says writer Neil Gore.

With the union unable to afford to back an all-out strike, bringing them into conflict with the rank and file, the builders were lifted by the success picketing miners had previously. With the rich were getting richer and the Tory government trying to control trade union activity they’d had enough.

United We Stand, from left Neil Gore and William Fox. Photo: Brian O'Carroll

United We Stand, from left Neil Gore and William Fox. Photo: Brian O'Carroll - Credit: Brian O'Carroll

“There are aspects of this which will resonate with people even today. The level of union bashing the lengths the establishment will go to get what it wants, that doesn’t change. There have been improvements in health and safety over the last 30-40 years which are now being chipped away. All those large and little victories... We’re going back in time now, working practices are going back to how they were 40 years ago,” says Gore.

Events surrounding the strike continue to make headlines today, notably the Shrewsbury 24 campaign, led by picketer turned actor Ricky Tomlinson, one of those jailed, which is still trying to overturn the verdict.

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Brought about, says Gore, by building company bosses pressurising Tory backbenchers to change picketing laws to reduce its effectiveness, spurious evidence and heavy-handed police, the odds were against those arrested. The paperwork connected to the case are still being withheld by the government on the grounds of national security. They’re not due for release to 2021.

The suggestion for a play about the strike came from their Ragged Trousered audience, many connected to the building industry. Gore knew a little, looking into it and meeting with the campaigners and Tomlinson, he realised it was an extraordinary story and - in his mind - one of the biggest cases of injustice still outstanding.

“It took the picketers and supporters a while to come round to the idea of a play because we said it’s a tricky subject, there’s a lot to it and I don’t how we’re going to do it, we’ve only got two actors but I’ll just have to try. They chose to trust us and, thankfully, they’re delighted with it,” says Gore, who along with fellow actor William Fox, plays a plethora of people.

Describing it as five different plays in one stylistically - ranging from meetings, picket lines, police stations and court rooms - it also features popular and political songs arranged by renowned folk musician John Kirkpatrick.

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