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Sandi Toksvig on Bully Boy

Bully Boy is a new play written by Sandi Toksvig, directed by Patrick Sandford, and opens at The Nuffield Theatre, Southampton on 13 May. In it, Sandi tackles the challenging moral issues of contemporary military occupation and its effects on the mental health of serving soldiers.

The play stars Anthony Andrews and introduces Joshua Miles, in his professional debut.

Major Oscar Hadley is flown to the front line to probe allegations of severe misconduct within a self-styled ‘Bully Boy’ unit of the British army. When young squaddie Eddie Clark from Burnley is interrogated, Oscar begins to discover that ‘truth’ in a modern insurgency can be a point of view rather than a fact.

Nationally known and loved as a broadcaster, Sandi Toksvig is also a writer of great skill, and kindly spared a few moments out of her hectic schedule to speak to whatsonstage.com.

What can you tell us about the play, and particularly your motivation in writing it?
Well, I have for some years now been vice president of something called BACP (which is the British Association of Councillors and Psychotherapists) so I have had lots to do with mental health, and have an interest in mental health care provision. Then - because my life is strange and curious - I got involved in something called the HAC (the Honourable Artillery Company) in the course of some historical research. They invited me to a regimental dinner, and – I was the only women there for dinner – I had a really wonderful time! I met lots of soldiers, listened to their experiences, and I became very interested in the evident gap that exists in the way we look after our returned veterans. The gap is specifically to do with those who return with mental health difficulties. I know people talk about post traumatic stress disorder but it isn’t just that, it’s shock, depression, all sorts of things. And the fact that the NHS has no specialist services to provide for soldiers who have very specific needs.

But actually what I hope is that the play is timeless as having looked at it; the issues that we raise are the same issues every time that anybody has ever gone to war. The mental health charity that I am collaberatiing with in this, Combat Stress, formed in 1919 because of the huge number of psychiatric casualties from the First World War. It wasn’t really understood at that time, and I’m not sure it is really understood today.

It’s not uncommon for someone to be absolutely fine after fighting in the Falklands, 30 years of being fine, and then suddenly collapse. There is a fairly startling statistic that more veterans of the Falklands war have committed suicide than who died in combat.

So it’s a subject I care very much about. But this is not a documentary; it’s a play – about a young man returning from a conflict. You don’t know exactly where he has come back from – it could be Iraq, or it could be Afghanistan – and that bit is not really important. You don’t know what regiment he’s been in. That’s not important. What is important is the general discussion about what happens to a young man , while on the surface appears to be absolutely fine.

Do you see theatre as an important tool in getting difficult messages across?
I really believe it. I genuinely think that the theatre is a good place to discuss difficult topics, to highlight things, talk through things, and think about them. I am passionate about the theatre. I am passionate that it is a great place to get a huge cross section of the public to come together.

I had two reactions from last night’s performance currently in preview until Friday; one, from the car park attendant who came - not a big theatre-goer - and I ask him what he thought of the play. He said ‘It was a very good show, Sandi. I didn’t nod off once’ and I thought I wanted to put that on the poster! And a GP came, a woman in her late fifties I think, and she said to me ‘You know what, I get the families of servicemen come to me and I am not sure I have been really listening. Not sure that I have really been paying attention. Isn’t that interesting?

I’m a passionate advocate of the communal experience. I think it is important that we all sit together. It a wonderful sound, everybody laughing together. But actually equally as wonderful can be the silence, as I realised last night, and it’s a new feeling for me. I am used to making a big noise in a theatre – the bigger the better! A great wave of laughter is a marvellous thing. But the silence was profound. Not a rustle or a cough, nothing, just concentration. And you think wow, how great that theatre can do that!

You are passionate about the theatre and the benefits it can bring. How do you think it will fair in these times of brutal cuts and undervaluation of the arts?
The theatre is full of fabulous, talented people and I don’t have any doubt that it will survive. What I dislike, and have always disliked, is that those of us who are passionate about it have to be patron of our own art. I resent the fact that theatre people have to work all hours, tirelessly and get paid diddly-squat. Bless their hearts; the stage management team here have been working all hours to get this on.

It really is a joke how much you get paid for writing an entire play. I’d make more money making a 20 minute after dinner speech. But I am passionate about it, and that’s what it will come down to yet again; the actors, the writers, the directors, stage management, everybody giving more than they could possibly be expected to in order for it to survive.

But of course it will survive. Theatre has been going for 2500 thousand years, and it will go on in some form or other. What I am heartened by is, I go to a lot of literary functions, and they are absolutely packed because people want the communal experience, people are interested in the arts, interested in creativity and expression. We just have to reach out and say this is very exciting, please come. And the Nuffield do a great thing – Monday night is ‘pay what you can’ night, and whats interesting is that people do. So you might get someone who’s paid £50 sitting next to someone who’s paid 50p. That levelling of society too, is very exciting.

How do you find yourself working with Patrick Sandford and the Nuffield?
Patrick and I are very old friends. When I introduced live theatre back into television through Sky Arts, Patrick directed two of the plays. By chance, one of the plays commissioned didn’t deliver, so I had a weekend to write a complete play, and Patrick directed that one. So that was our first experience of working together. He then came to me and said he wanted me to write my first serious play and I said ‘that’s a lovely idea darling, but I haven’t got time’. But here I am, nearly at the opening. He is very persuasive!

You are perhaps best known for your comedy, which in itself is a difficult career path for a woman. Do you thrive on challenge?
I’ve been doing this for nearly 30 years now, and what I really like is to be asked to do something that I really don’t think I can. Then it’s great, and exciting. Panel games… probably less exciting. I don’t really have a big performing bug so I’m quite happy not to perform, so the writing side of thing gives me joy, and pride when you hand it over to others.

This boy who has been discovered (Joshua) is just fantastic. He hasn’t even graduated from Guildhall yet, but there is something raw and thrilling about him. To watch the two of them working together this great senior actor (Anthony) with this brand new actor, and the respect and relationship between the two of them is just great.

Do you see yourself concentrating on ‘serious’ work from now on?
My life is not as ordered as that! Actually, the next thing I’m doing is writing a musical with Dillie Keane set in an old people’s home, so could not be more opposite. The important thing though is to keep writing.


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