How Ellie Harrison’s show brought us fifty years of Greater Manchester transport history on wheels
- Bus Regulation The Musical.
- Manchester Art Gallery, 28 September 2019 (2pm and 3pm).
- Produced by Ellie Harrison.
I could think of several ways of spending half an hour of my leisure time. One is listening to the entire ‘B’ side of Foxtrot, Genesis’ 1972 LP which includes the magnificent Supper’s Ready. Another is sitting on a 216 bus or tram bound for Manchester city centre. By opting for the latter, I unearthed a little gem in Ellie Harrison’s production, Bus Regulation The Musical.
In roughly the same time as an off-peak journey on the 216 bus from Ashton-under-Lyne to Piccadilly Gardens, Ms. Harrison’s production gave us an accessible insight into the Greater Manchester bus scene since the 1960s. The easiest way of bringing this story to the masses was inspired by Starlight Express.
Pitched at the average bus user instead of transport geeks (like yours truly), the script is jargon-free and reflects the passenger’s experience of Greater Manchester’s buses. In thirty magic minutes, we see how fifty years of bus history is dramatised by eight roller skaters. We also see how a former Labour Transport Minister has been raised from the dead.
Baroness Castle of Blackburn (or Barbara Castle MP – née Barbara Betts) was born in Hyde as Barbara Betts. Before being a Labour MP for Blackburn, she was educated at Bradford Grammar School. After the 1979 General Election, she became Labour’s first leader in the European Parliament.
In the mid to late 1960s, she was best known for her role as Transport Minister. Apart from being the only female one of the 20th Century, she didn’t have a Driving Licence. Therefore she knew a thing or three about public transport undertakings, and her best known work is the 1968 Transport Act. This led to the formation of Conurbation Transport Authorities – later Passenger Transport Executives and in Greater Manchester’s case – Transport for Greater Manchester.
Taking us through our journey was Summer Dean, who played the part of Barbara Castle. One who had turned in her grave over the demise of the Trans-Lancs Express service, swingeing cuts to the 343 route and, most egregiously, HM Government’s shotgun divorce of GM Buses. As the former Transport Minister, Summer’s delivery was clear and backed by slides detailing each stage of Greater Manchester’s bus history.
After announcing the 1968 Transport Act, we see our eight roller skaters for the first time. They are seen wearing costumes inspired by SELNEC PTE’s predecessors (all designed by Ellie Harrison). Leading the way was a skater in the red and cream of Manchester Corporation, followed by a fellow skater in the green and cream of Salford City Transport. At the back was a skater in SHMD’s green and cream. With eight skaters, this meant the omission of Ramsbottom and Ashton-under-Lyne from the founding municipal operators.
Each skater is dancing to the beat of their own municipal drum. When Summer announces the arrival of SELNEC, a quick costume change sees them donning the Lazy ‘S’ badge and the Sunglow Orange and Metropolitan White cloaks. All eight skaters are in control as part of a happy family.
With a quick change from the Lazy ‘S’ to the M-blem of Greater Manchester Transport, we see more of the same. By then, Summer mentions the achievements of GMPTE with new bus/rail interchanges, integrated ticketing and connections, and electric buses.
Halfway through the show, the synchronisation is interrupted as the visual display switched from an orange 1970s to a blue 1980s. Yes, the chaos of bus deregulation.
In Starlight Express, there is a racing element between diesel, steam, and electric locomotives. In Bus Regulation The Musical, this is introduced when we get to 1986. This time we see skaters representing The Bee Line Buzz Company, Finglands, Mayne of Manchester, and Citibus – alongside skaters that have traded in their M-blem for a GM Buses logo.
At that point, the dancing is more chaotic. We later see quick costume changes where the GM Buses party is split into GMS Buses and GM Buses North. Then, fast forwarding us to 1996, we see the GMS Buses skater donning a Stagecoach cloak, shortly before the GM Buses North skater donned the First cloak.
By then, our slightly more grizzled Barbara Castle mentions the cuts that have been made to Greater Manchester’s bus routes. There, she also cites the improvements made to the rail network and the arrival of Metrolink. To comic effect, we see how the UK North skaters muscle in on the Stagecoach skaters (in Magic Bus and standard Stagecoach Manchester incarnations).
Like the beginning of the musical, we went full circle towards the end. This time towards an integrated future network as per Andy Burnham’s Our Network. We see our skaters donning black and white outfits with the First and Stagecoach logos giving way to the New TfGM M-blem. The comic capers of the Stagecoach/UK North tussle gives way to the joyous synchronisation of the SELNEC and Greater Manchester Transport scenes.
Needless to say, this paves the way for a potential follow-up and a number of spin-offs. With a successful airing at Manchester Art Gallery, this could be wheeled out to other parts of Greater Manchester. Perhaps the Greater Manchester Museum of Transport could be a good venue. If First Greater Manchester didn’t close the Pennine Lounge at Oldham depot, that could have been another ideal one.
Like the premise of bus re-regulation and integrated transport policies, cooperation made Bus Regulation The Musical possible. As well as Ellie Harrison, there was Summer Dean’s creative background and her work with the Association of British Commuters. Also Pascale Robinson through the We Own It campaign group, which believes in public services for people instead of profit.
What’s more, the audience response was marvellous. Especially with a healthy amount of booing for anything to do with bus deregulation and the Conservatives. There was also a few boos for Stagecoach, more to do with its outspoken co-owner’s politics than the current state of the 389 route.
For me, Bus Regulation The Musical was well worth seeing. I made my journey on the Metrolink to St Peter’s Square, after getting a bus to Ashton. Before deregulation, I could have got a single bus there and back to Piccadilly Gardens and made the short walk to Manchester Art Gallery. For 20p on two journeys (child fare). Every half hour.
Bus Regulation The Musical aims to play a part in taking back control of Greater Manchester’s bus routes. I would be surprised if children’s fares were ten pence again. Seeing the 220 upgraded from five journeys a week to once an hour from 5am to 12 midnight seven days a week would do me (with an upgrade for the 221).
If Bus Regulation The Musical is on elsewhere in Greater Manchester, I suggest you ought to go and see it. A superb half hour’s worth of entertainment.
S.V., 28 September 2019.