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Revival of Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine

For personal reasons which I will divulge later I was so delighted to hear that Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine is to be revived at the Octagon Theatre Bolton.

Bill Naughton was of poor Irish stock in County Mayo and moved to Bolton where he bagged and delivered coal.

His breakthrough as a writer came through his play about a cockney philanderer first broadcast on Radio 3.

That play was Alfie and the rest is history. Alfie was followed by Spring and Port Wine.

Both plays – and the subsequent films of them – made Bill so much money that he, as good working class socialists do, became a tax exile in the Isle of Man.

My parents knew Bill well or, to be exact, he was a close friend of my Uncle Gus – probably the cleverest man I met in my life.

When Bill became depressed about his legacy on that windswept island in the Irish Sea my uncle Gus cheered him up by saying there would always be a bookshop selling his books and I was so over-joyed to see one of them in an antiquarian bookshop that I paid well over the odds for it.

Bill did not have children of his own but wrote many children’s books.

I always enjoyed his appearances at my parents’ grand dinner parties – and not just because he invariably slipped me half a crown. Once he did not do so, he wrote to me afterwards enclosing the coin.

He was that type of guy for whom my father reserved his highest form of descriptive praise: ‘grand ‘.

Spring and Port Wine was first shown at Bernard Miles’ Mermaid Theatre at Puddle Dock.

I still recall going to the first night, when each theatregoer was given a miniature of port with a spring attached.

Probably my love of theatre began there.

Incidentally Bernard Miles made a successful career as a bucolic countryman and his Mackeson advert financed the theatre project, but the nearest he ever got to the country was his home in Chiswick.

I owe my parents for the actors I met through them: Miriam Karlin, Joss Auckland, Anita Dobson, American Harold Gary – and Bernard Miles himself who – with his wife Josephine – would do readings at the end of the dinner party.

I heard of the revival on BBC Arts programme Front Row.

“ Spring and Port Wine” is a period piece where Rafe, the autocratic working class father, tries to impose discipline over his wayward child of the Sixties – played in the film version by Susan George.

James Mason gives a fine performance as Rafe.

Inevitably the Front Row presenter criticised Rafe for his misogyny, but the piece was an accurate portrayal of the type of working class man who wore a suit at dinner, called his wife ‘Mother’ and insists his errant daughter eats a herring which is produced at every meal.

It is called a comedy but it was really gritty northern kitchen sink at its best.

You may wonder how you go from coal-bagger to successful playwright.

The answer lies in Bill Naughton’s coat! . He always insisted upon a larger inner (“poacher’s”) pocket in which he kept a notepad for his observations.

I am so pleased that his legacy has continued in his home town.

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About Tim Holford-Smith

Despite running his architectural practice full-time, Tim is a frequent theatre-goer and occasional am-dram producer. More Posts