The National Youth Theatre’s revival of Peter Terson’s 1960s terraces-set musical marks its 50th anniversary. Nick Smurthwaite looks back at the birth of the boisterous ‘football opera’, the NYT’s first ever new-writing commission.
Half a century after it was written, the title anthem of Peter Terson’s iconic musical Zigger Zagger – set in and around the football terraces of a club in the 1960s – still rings out loud and clear at Stamford Bridge, the home of current Premier League champions Chelsea: “Zigger zagger! Oi! Oi! Oi!”
To mark the work’s 50th anniversary, the National Youth Theatre, for which the show was written in 1967, is staging a rare revival at Wilton’s, London’s oldest surviving music hall.
It is an appropriate venue for a show that, like John Osborne’s The Entertainer, owes a lot to old-fashioned values. One critic at the time of its premiere at the now defunct Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in London described it as “a football opera”, but in truth its roots were more firmly planted in boisterous music hall.
Though the NYT had already been in existence for a decade, its founder-director Michael Croft had concentrated mostly on producing Shakespeare and the classics with his untrained youngsters.
On seeing a musical adaptation of Arnold Bennett’s short story Jock-on-the-Go at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, Croft invited Terson, then resident playwright at the venue, to be the first person to write a play specially for the NYT. His only stipulation was that it had to serve a large cast of young people.
“Peter Terson was the writer I’d been looking for since we started,” Croft told a journalist later. “Somebody who could write plays for kids without patronising them, someone with a keen and wise eye, and a generosity of spirit towards the more unlikeable aspects of human nature.”
Two months later, Croft received the first draft of Zigger Zagger, accompanied by a note from the author that read: “At first I thought it was great, but then I was struck with the thought, ‘Who’s interested in football nowadays – it’s square!’ But if you are interested in the idea and put your own schemes forward, I am still keen to work on it.”
Croft was indeed interested in the idea, being steeped in football culture from his early years growing up in Manchester in the 1930s.
But they both knew that football – and the tribal nature of the terraces – was only the framework for Zigger Zagger. At its heart was dispossessed youth and a young man’s search for something to validate his existence.
As Croft wrote in his introduction to the text: “Zigger Zagger showed the dismal prospect awaiting the average lad, the narrow limits of his opportunity, the tiredness and cynicism of the adults in authority over him.”
The big challenge for Croft and Terson was how to stage this unwieldy hybrid of musical and contemporary drama. The jokey, plain-speaking playwright made it clear from the start that finding a modus operandi was more Croft’s problem than his. “I just write it,” he told Croft. “You’ve got to work it out.”
Croft’s solution was to put the football fans in a specially constructed stand upstage as an ever-present Greek chorus, either commenting on the action, taking part in it or simply to lift up its heart in song whenever required. The entire company, making up the football crowd, was on stage throughout the show. Cast members came out of the stand for their individual scenes, then returned to it when no longer involved in the action.
During the four-week rehearsal period, with a 90-strong cast – average age 17 – Zigger Zagger gradually took shape. Together, Croft and Terson created a groundbreaking show that was to put NYT on the map.
Croft writes: “There was a heady excitement to all the early rehearsals. New ideas could be tried out, new routines added. Everything evolved from that football stand. On the one hand it provided a rigid framework, on the other immense fluidity. Terson fell into immediate rapport with the company, altering dialogue where he felt lines could be improved to suit the actor, and sometimes adding [lines] where the actor’s own personality sparked off fresh ideas about the part he was playing.”
One visitor to rehearsals was football fanatic and ex-NYT member Bill Kenwright, then a jobbing actor, who was shocked at the exclusion of the Liverpool football anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone. Croft agreed, found a place for it and, sung by the fans with appropriate passion, it became a highlight of the performance.
Right up to the dress rehearsal, Croft said he doubted it would succeed. “My first intimation that we might have a success on our hands came when Simon Ward, another NYT alumni, who was co-directing a Shakespeare play with me at the time, saw one of the final rehearsals and said that it had left him completely stunned. He assured me it would be a knock-out.”
Opening to £20-worth of advance booking, Zigger Zagger proceeded to wow audiences and critics alike. The four-week run was quickly sold out, and the show has been produced by countless schools, colleges and youth companies ever since. This is the NYT’s ninth revival of it.
Terson, now 85 and living in Ross-on-Wye, dedicated the playscript of Zigger Zagger to “a bully of genius”, referring to the normally affable Croft. For his part, Croft paid tribute in his introduction to their “exhilarating and often hilarious friendship”.
Zigger Zagger is at Wilton’s Music Hall, London , from September 6-9