By John Knowles

V is an epic modern poem set in the 1980s written by the highly acclaimed Tony Harrison. The Mary Whitehouse group tried to ban the poem, alongside a host of Tory MPs, due to the use of a certain four letter word: the C-word. Yet this is a hugely important and powerful work and we have been given permission by the author to create a performance piece which has already been picked up by the Leeds LitFest. V will premiere January 20th – 22nd at The St Leonards public house.

Jonny Magnanti

Both Jonny Magnanti (performer) and I are huge fans of Tony Harrison’s work. He is well known for his anti-war poems and his plays at The National Theatre (and translations of French plays). His passion and personal political vision ring true for both of us: we both grew up during the miners’ strike, football hooliganism and the troubles in Northern Ireland. Jonny, growing up in Leeds (as did Harrison), and myself, from Liverpool. This is a piece which reflects a turning point for the working class, the wholesale destruction of an industry, a community and a social system, which has its echoes in today’s zero hours and low pay systems. 

But more than that, this is a piece which battled ignorance and self-righteous, far-right religious and moral intolerance. Its broadcast was initially opposed by Mary Whitehouse and a whole gaggle of Tory MPs, many of whom had never even read the piece, but were swayed by the likes of the Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Sun and The Star that this four-letter-filled piece of filth should not be broadcast into the homes of decent people. This is an angry piece but also a deeply personal work, which sees Tony Harrison standing in Beeston Cemetery by his parents’ grave sprayed with the swastika and various Vs: Leeds United v whoever the football club of the day. In this work, Tony imagines an argument with a skinhead who sees his future as bleak and meaningless, and questions Tony’s middle class betrayal of his roots. 

I guess that is at the core of what Jonny and I see in this piece, for we are both born of working-class parents, educated in working-class comprehensive school systems and yet both of us found a voice and a meaning in the middle-class world of theatre and the arts. We are both aware of our own class betrayals, we both feel passionately about social justice questions, and for my own part I’ve lived in a city and within a class hated by those in power who wanted to destroy us for our voice, our passion and because we wanted more than we were being offered. 

V is a poem that refuses to sit down and beg to be read, it shouts, it howls and it rages, but it does so with deep personal resonance and with an eloquence that belies the use of the four-letter expletives that so worried the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Mary Whitehouse.

• V will premiere at The St Leonards public house on ​20th January, 2.00pm 21st and 22nd January, 7.30pm  Tickets are  £8.00 and available from https://vhastings.brownpapertickets.com


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