Odd fellows in arms

Neil Gore in Dare Devil Rides to Jarama at the Lantern Theatre, Sheffield
Neil Gore in Dare Devil Rides to Jarama at the Lantern Theatre, Sheffield

Marking the 80th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, Dare Devil Rides To Jarama commemorates and celebrates the contribution and sacrifice of the Volunteer International Brigades, including 2,500 from Britain and Ireland.

The play, touring to the Lantern Theatre next week, focuses on the contrasting lives of Clem Beckett, a Lancashire blacksmith and famous star of the speedway track, and an intellectual called Christopher Caudwell. Both men were killed together at Jarama in February 1937, having become friends as members of the British Battalion’s machine-gun company.

It is written by Neil Gore, who also plays Caudwell and other parts opposite David Heywood as Clem Beckett.

There is a strong Sheffield connection to the story because it was Clem Beckett who founded Owlerton Stadium and was responsible for starting up the Sheffield Tigers speedway team.

“The play covers the period 1929-1936 from when Clem became a star to the time he goes to Spain. In those seven years it is extraordinary what he achieves,” asserts Gore.

“He fought for the rights and conditions for speedway riders for which he got banned from the sport and then went off and formed the wall of death with Skid Skinner of Rotherham who married Daredevil Alma Johnson. They toured the Wall of Death in Europe, to Denmark where he met his wife, to Germany where he came face to face with the Blackshirts, and the Soviet Union. There’s a photo of Clem in the museum at Tashkent. He was important over there as introducing speedway to the Soviet Union.

“He was active in the British Workers’ Sports Federation and in 1932 took part in the Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout in the campaign to gain public access to open spaces. All this time he was running a motorcycle business in Manchester and became a megastar as a sportsman, earning £11,000 which was a fortune in those days. Speedway had become a massive sport with 15,000 crowds at Owlerton Stadium.”

In showing why so many ordinary people made the extraordinary choice to leave family and livelihoods and fight in a brutal war so far from home, the play addresses the broader political and economic context of 1930s Europe and, Gore believes, has a particular resonance in the current rise of xenophobic tendencies throughout Europe and the failure of a unified left to join together to successfully challenge these forces.

This show is similar in style to Townsend Productions’ The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, previously seen at the Lantern, with movement, projections, poetry and songs with musical direction from folk singer and squeeze box virtuoso John Kirkpatrick.

“A fellow member of Clem’s in the Manchester Communist League was Jimmy Miller, who became better known as the folk singer Ewan McColl, and we have used a lot his material to get the flavour of the time and the politics,” says Gore.

Dare Devil Rides To Jarama is at The Civic, Barnsley, tonight, November 10, Cast, Doncaster, on Saturday and at the Lantern Theatre, Nether Edge, from Monday to Saturday.