Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Eddie Elks: Botallack O’Clock

By | Published on Wednesday 13 January 2016


‘Botallack O’Clock’, currently in the early stages of a run at London’s Old Red Lion theatre, is a biographical piece about renowned British post war artist Roger Hilton. We first came across the play quite a long time ago – at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival if I remember correctly – so I was quite excited to see that it was getting another airing.

To find out more about the play, and the new production, I spoke to playwight Eddie Elks of Third Man Theatre, ahead of the show’s upcoming run.

CM: The play is about Roger Hilton, but what area or time in his life does it focus on?
EE: The piece is set during Roger Hilton’s final days in the early 1970’s when he was living in the coastal village of Botallack in Cornwall. It takes place in the middle of the night between 3 and 4am – a time that he was often awake, painting from his bed. He was confined to working from his bed due to bad health brought on by the excesses of whisky. However, despite his failing body his mind remained razor sharp.

CM: What themes does the play explore? Is it about art in general, or him as a person?
EE: It has Roger’s thoughts on art itself but which are also transferable to everyday living. It is very much about him as a man, an artist and a person existing in this world. I really just tried to put together something that I felt was truthful to his spirit and at the same time something that interested me.

CM: How would you describe it? Is it comedy? Drama?
EE: Comedy drama is fine. Probably more black comedy. There is music and dancing too… although calling it a musical would be a bit of a stretch!

CM: What made you choose to write about Hilton in particular?
EE: Back in 2007/8 I wrote a play called ‘Stalag Happy’ with my Third Man friend and colleague Dan Frost, based on the true story of the artist Sir Terry Frost (Dan’s Grandfather). It focused on Terry discovering painting in a WW2 PoW Camp. Terry and Roger were very good mates. (Incidentally Roger was also a PoW – although not at the same camp). Whilst researching the piece Roger’s name kept cropping up along with various entertaining and often shocking stories. I started researching Roger’s life and it became clear that there was dramatic potential in his story – particularly the last few years of his life.

I was then lucky enough to meet Roger’s widow Rose Hilton, (also a wonderful artist) and she welcomed the idea of the play. I stayed with her down in Botallack at the family cottage when beginning the piece, looking over letters, pictures and books – a very special experience. In his final years, as well as painting through the night Roger would write letters, lists and instructions for his wife Rose to collect in the morning. These were published after his death and became known as The Night Letters. They are an incredibly insightful, humorous, shocking and revealing insight into Roger personality and existence and are the main basis for the play.

CM: As you’ve mentioned, he’s not the first artist you have written about. Do artists have more interesting lives to draw on, do you think?
EE: I think people are fascinating generally. Everyone has a story. I guess with artists it’s the dedication, sacrifice and the belief in their creative process that draws me in, which is often not the easiest trodden path.

It has also been down to circumstance and timing. I was at drama school with Dan Frost and it was through Dan and his family and learning about Terry that the idea for ‘Stalag Happy’ came about. We had just finished drama school and were setting out in our careers and Terry’s story of discovering art in such difficult conditions and forging a life in art really struck a chord in me – it’s an incredibly inspiring story and he was a huge life force from all I’ve read and heard. When I then came across Roger’s story, in contrast it was the end of his life, and end of a creative life that intrigued me – the commitment and the sacrifices.

CM: Are you an art aficionado? Are you a fan of Hilton’s work?
EE: I’m by no means an aficionado. I know a lot more about art (particularly the St. Ives set) than I did six years ago! But that by no means makes me an authority. I guess I know more about the characters and their personalities down there as I do about their craft.

I am very much a fan of Hilton’s work. Spending so much time with his pictures and words helped me understand and appreciate the quality of his work and his incredible talent. When I had been at the Hilton cottage researching the show in Botallack, I returned to London and visited the Tate Britain. I turned a corner and saw a large Hilton painting hanging amongst a host of other great artist’s paintings like Bacon and Freud. It was the first time I had seen one of Roger’s paintings in a gallery and it was a very special moment for me.

CM: The show premiered back in 2011 – what has inspired this 2016 revival?
EE: We have a lot of love for the piece so we wanted to bring it back at some point. We’ve developed a great relationship with Stewart Pringle and The Old Red Lion Theatre over the last couple of years whilst performing our most recent show ‘Mugs’ Arrows’ there. We mentioned reviving ‘Botallack O’Clock’ as the Old Red is an ideal intimate space for the piece, and Stewart welcomed the idea. Plus the fact that the actor who plays Roger, Dan Frost, is a few years nearer to Roger’s real age of 65 now. We’ll revive it again in 30 years and he won’t need the make up…

CM: You’re a performer, on film and in theatre, as well as a writer. Do you prefer any one facet of your career, or does it all interlock for you?
EE: I enjoy the challenge of all of them. I guess they all inform each other to an extent. The Third Man work is the work that is closest to my heart as we create it from scratch. It’s hard work but really satisfying when it comes together.

CM: What’s coming up next for you?
EE: I’m hopefully going to be working on a new theatre piece in conjunction with the Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter (we’re a resident company down there – fantastic theatre) and also developing a screenplay. And hopefully a few acting gigs will come along as well.

‘Botallack O’Clock’ is on at the Old Red Lion theatre until 6 Feb. See the venue website here for more info and to book.

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Image: Chris Mann