Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview

Barbara Jane Mackie: Rumpy Pumpy

By | Published on Thursday 2 April 2015

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Screenwriter and novelist Barbara Jane Mackie’s latest project is ‘Rumpy Pumpy’, a new musical based on the story of two Women’s Institute campaigners who led a campaign to improve the situation of sex workers.

I sent some questions over to Barbara, to find out about the show, and what inspired her to tackle this slightly tricky subject matter.

CM: Please can you give us an idea of what ‘Rumpy Pumpy’ is about? What happens in the show, and where does the story take us?
BJM: ‘Rumpy Pumpy!’ tells the true story of two brave Hampshire Women’s Institute Ladies, Jean Johnson (61) and Shirley Landels (72, now deceased) who in 2007 went on a worldwide tour to find the perfect brothel after researching conditions for working girls on the streets of Southampton.

They were appalled at the danger the young women were in at the edge of the motorway so decided that the WI should do something about it. They got backing and interest from Channel 4 who sent a TV crew with them to firstly Amsterdam, then Nevada – where brothels are legal – and finally to New Zealand, where ‘S.O.O.B.S’ – Self-Owner Operated Brothels – exist, with the working girls running things themselves – with no madames or pimps around.

Jean and Shirley decided that they should persuade the british government to adopt this model and Jean Johnson, with her lobby group (which includes the ECP, English Collective of Prostitutes) are still campaigning to get the New Zealand model adopted here – and for all prostitution to be decriminalised.

CM: Why did you decide to make it a musical, as opposed to a play or screenplay?
BJM: ‘Rumpy Pumpy!’ started life as a screenplay and I would like to turn into a screenplay at a later date, but I decided – at the beginning of last year – to make it a musical as there are many differing viewpoints on the complex subject of prostitution and I wanted each character to give over their particular viewpoint in song. Songs in musicals are a great way to express the ‘inner thoughts’ of each character, so the very form of the musical suddenly struck me as the perfect way to write a show about the search for the ‘perfect brothel’. The form of the musical quite simply suited the content perfectly.

CM: What inspired you to create a show based on this subject matter?
BJM: I saw a documentary about Jean and Shirley on Channel 4 called ‘The Ladies of the Hampshire WI and their search for a perfect brothel’ and watched it and loved the idea of the WI and the conflicting world of brothels and working girls. Jean and Shirley’s search formed the perfect spine for the narrative.

I approached them and went to have lunch with them. We clicked and they liked my pedigree – ex BBC Drama, a Scriptwriter etc – and they opened all doors for me. I spent a couple of days with them at the beginning, but Shirley, very sadly, had a stroke and died a few weeks later.

They sent me off up north to meet a real madame and her working girls in a brothel. Talking to the women there I was knocked out about how naïve I was! I expected a place with lots of red veils and coloured lights and somewhere rather seedy, but what I found was a spotless, clean, health and safety checked brothel on an industrial estate – and the Madame was paying VAT! Talking to the women working there, I was hearing that they all juggled other jobs on top – teachers, nurses, hairdressers, gym instructors, single mums – and so on. The normality of their lives was what shocked and inspired me – it was the stuff of drama and sometimes comedy! The council knew the madame and her girls were there as did the local police – all of whom were her best customers!

After spending five or so days in and out of the brothel (where I posed as the ‘new receptionist’ so as not to frighten off the punters!) I had enough material to get started. Jean Johnson was incredibly helpful and gave me all press cuttings and spent more time with me until I had the treatment for a screenplay worked out. I then had a novel to write which took me two years but I came back to ‘Rumpy Pumpy!’ at the beginning of last year. I couldn’t find a composer where I lived, so decided to write/compose all the songs myself! I had tremendous fun doing this and am already writing my second musical.

CM: Is the decriminalisation of prostitution something that you yourself have a strong opinion on?
BJM: Yes, indeed. I do now after meeting Jean and Shirley! Like the Hampshire WI and Jean’s lobby group, I feel strongly that the health, comfort and safety of all working girls is a woman’s issue as any of us might have to make the harsh and complex kind of decision that brothel workers have to make themselves.

What happens at the moment is that police from the nearby county or borough raid the brothels and close them down, but they don’t raid on their own patch as the Police are well aware they might find the Police using the brothel. Good old British hypocrisy! When brothels are raided, the madame gets charged and the working girls are kicked out, so sometimes then hit the streets where life is, of course, very, very dangerous, and the reality of criminal gangs very real. It’s a merry go round, as the brothels open up again elsewhere and the whole thing just carries on. I’m a firm believer that as long as money exists you will never get rid of prostitution. The best thing is to make it legal and clean and comfortable.

CM: Does the show have an agenda or is it merely intended as entertainment?
BJM: The show has many serious themes but I would hesitate to call them ‘agendas’ as that smacks of the writer preaching to the audience – which is what I’ve tried my darndest not to do. My choice was to make ‘Rumpy Pumpy!’ a family friendly comedy-drama – like ‘The Full Monty’ for example – where our women are shown – as in ‘The Full Monty’! – to have to make very difficult choices.

Working in a brothel isn’t always great, but it’s not always (in the female empowered decent brothels) awful either, but it’s certainly all about choice. That is woven into to the show, but again, I hope with a light and humorous touch. I wanted to first and foremost entertain. There are more serious themes about loneliness too, and as my madame says ‘It’s a lonely world out there’ – and that’s often why men go to brothels. For company, cups of tea and cuddles.

CM: This year is the 100th anniversary of the WI, isn’t it? Is the timing of this staging significant? Are you a fan of the WI?
BJM: I am now! Before I met Jean Johnson and Shirley Landels I was a bit blasé and naïve about the WI, but always thought of them warmly as a helpful, perhaps do-gooding, knitting and jam-making organisation, but after meeting my WI Ladies, who were campaigning and serious, they enlightened me about all the amazing things the WI has done over the years and I figure this in my song that Jean sings ‘The Perfect Brothel’. The WI led a campaign to cure VD, was always at the forefront of women’s rights, helped set up a nationwide food bank with tinned fruit and veg in the war years, and have been involved in some really edgy stuff. They impress me deeply now!

CM: What’s next for Rumpy Pumpy? Will it be developed further?
BM: I want to get a bigger theatre company – The Young Vic, or The Curve Leicester, The Royal Exchange – for example, to see and pick up on my show. It’s getting great reviews and hugely positive audience feedback at The Kings Head, Islington, where it’s being showcased, and the audience at the opening night were so enthusiastic many of them said they were coming back! ‘Funny and Moving’, ‘Highly exciting!’, ‘Bound for the West End!’ and ‘Amazing Songs!’ are among the comments, so I’m feeling really pleased and excited and am hoping too that West End producers will pick up on this really fun, commercial but highly individual new Musical. I’ve been backed by Arts Council England and am hoping that they will back me further for a longer 3-4 week run in London. Exciting times ahead!

‘Rumpy Pumpy’ can be seen on selected dates to 9 Apr at the King’s Head Theatre (tickets and info here) and subsequently at the Landor Theatre (tickets and info here) from 14-19 Apr.

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