The true story of the Angry Brigade
James Graham’s explosive new play The Angry Brigade runs here at the Bush from 30 April – 13 June! We thought it was about time we took a look at the true story behind the play…
2 July 1971
359 Amhurst Road, Hackney
Mr and Mrs. George Buchanan walked into the first floor flat they had rented from Mr. Lewis the estate agent. They were school teachers, so they said, and were looking for a place to share with their friend, Miss Nancy Pye. Little over a month later, the property was raided by police. They found 33 sticks of explosive Gelignite, guns and ammunition, and four young, well-educated individuals. They were members of “the first urban guerrilla group”, otherwise known as the Angry Brigade. Their names were John Barker, Jim Greenfield, Anna Mendelssohn and Hilary Creek, and they were charged with Conspiracy to Cause Explosion.
John Barker grew up in Willesden, the son of a journalist, and ended up studying at Cambridge where he met his co-conspirator to be, Jim Greenfield. The two of them took part in a protest against the education system by ripping up their final exams in 1968 and leaving the university without their degrees. Hilary Creek and Anna Mendelssohn studied at the radically political University of Essex and met John and Jim at political meetings in London.
They took part in a sustained campaign of bombing, arson and property damage which began in 1968 and continued for 4 years. Banks, airlines, Conservative Associations were all fair game. In January 1971, two bombs were detonated outside Tory MP Robert Carr’s house. Later in the year, high street fashion hotspot, Biba was bombed by the Angry Brigade. The motivation behind targets was not always clear, but the Angry Brigade provided a number of Communiques that helped explain their agenda, such as this one:
“If you’re not busy being born you’re busy buying”.
All the sales girls in the flash boutiques are made to dress the same and have the same make-up, representing the 1940’s. In fashion as in everything else, capitalism can only go backwards — they’ve nowhere to go — they’re dead.
The future is ours.
Life is so boring there is nothing to do except spend all our wages on the latest skirt or shirt.
Brothers and Sisters, what are your real desires?
Sit in the drugstore, look distant, empty, bored, drinking some tasteless coffee? Or perhaps BLOW IT UP OR BURN IT DOWN. The only thing you can do with modern slave-houses — called boutiques — IS WRECK THEM. You can’t reform profit capitalism and inhumanity. Just kick it till it breaks.
The Angry Brigade
The Angry Brigade seems to have faded from our collective memory but, at the time, the group was a household name. Although, John, Jim, Anna and Hilary came to be regarded as the poster children for the movement, they actually went on trial with a further four defendants, who were later acquitted. Unusually, three of the four convicted represented themselves, in what turned out to be one of the most protracted criminal trials in British history. Together, they became known as The Stoke Newington Eight. It is clear that there were many others who were part of the collective, who banded together to fund the defence of the Eight, but who remained anonymous.
The group did not have widespread support, and was criticised as “distracting” by many of their peers, who were trying for change through more peaceful means, but there were plenty of people with whom the message resonated. The 1970s were coloured by economic hardship and deep class divides which affected vast swathes of society. Thousands of badges with the words “I’m with the Angry Brigade” were bought at various strike protests throughout the country, and once the trials began, radical groups rallied around the defendants despite their differences in opinions.
The trials themselves have courted controversy; the 1970s have been marred by a number of serious miscarriages of justice, such as the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, which left many people questioning the outcome of the Angry Brigade trials. In an interview to the Guardian, Hilary Creek questioned the forensic evidence, particularly with regard to a pair of trousers which were apparently found to have gloves covered in explosive residue in their pockets. The trousers were proved to not, in fact, have pockets. John Barker has, however, in recent years admitted that if the police had framed him, they framed a guilty man.
When the Four were convicted, the jury pleaded to the judge for leniency, which led to the reduced sentence of 10 years each. Anna Mendelssohn was the only prisoner to be released early on parole. She became very ill whilst in prison, so dedicated the rest of her life to education, art and poetry , writing under the name Grace Lake. She withdrew from the world until her death in 2009, aged 61. Hilary Creek completed a degree and rebuilt her life following her release. John Barker and Jim Greenfield were both involved in a multi-million pound drug smuggling ring, and whilst nothing has been heard from Greenfield since his arrest, John Barker is now an author.
The Angry Brigade by James Graham runs at the Bush Theatre from 30 Apr – 13 June. It is a Paines Plough and Theatre Royal Plymouth production.