Tony Hippolyte: The Black 007 – James Blonde, Licenced to Spill

I met Tony back in 1993 when he came up to Liverpool from London to reignite his acting and directing career in the theatre. I was struck immediately by his energy and passion for his work. I hadn’t seen him in Absolute Beginners, or fully understood the iconic status he had as a result of his appearance in that film, but when I saw him on stage in front of me, there was no doubt that we had a truly original talent here which needed to find the right channels to express itself.

We worked together first on a new play I had written for part of a new theatre writing season at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre back in 1993. It was called Hunting the Dead Daughter and was a macabre story about a young girl being rejected by her father to such an extent that she was born old and regressed to the womb at her death. It was heavy duty stuff and Tony played the role of the demonic father with a frightening intensity. He showed me how good actors don’t just read text, they wrestle it off the page and scare it into physical existence: and if he had heard me say that, he would have shouted out that out-size Tony-laugh in a way only he could.  HA! he would have shouted. HA!

After that project – directed by Clare McColgan incidentally, who went on to be CEO of the Liverpool Capital of Culture – we kept in touch and toyed with many ideas about some further collaboration but it wasn’t until some friends and I had set up a new film company, Latent Productions, that Tony really came into his own.

Together, years before Idris Elba was on the scene, we proposed that the next James Bond should be a black man; and that the best black man to play him would of course be Tony Hippolyte.

There was only one problem with this proposition: none of us had a clue about how to get Tony in front of the casting agents. And even if we had, we thought it was unlikely that Tony would have got a look in.

But undeterred, we soldiered on with the idea until he hit upon the brilliant idea that the project would be a cartoon and that he would provide the voice of the new, black James Bond: or as Tony put it: “The Black 007 – James Blonde, Licenced to Spill”.

Before too long, he had invented a crazy new James Blonde world with his usual manic energy. He saw Blonde living in an International Garden Centre who would, every morning, leap off his bed with abandon and karate chop his way to breakfast, clicking his fingers every step of the way. Rather than the traditional Vodka Martini, Tony’s James Blonde was a committed Kristall drinker: which probably accounted for the crazy characters that inhabited this world.

They included Q (the sssssttutttering professor); Bloch (the bald baddy about to let forth a plague of mechanical gnats which would defoliate Europe unless his mad demands were satisfied) and of course the ‘Blonde girl’ called Honey (named not because of her blonde hair, charming personality or physical attributes – but because she tended to stick to people, like glue, often outstaying her welcome into the bargain.)

Bloch: a villain from James Blonde 007: Licensed to Thrill (thanks to Tony Ealey)

And Tony being Tony, he quickly came up with some memorable ‘James Blonde’ quotes which we were convinced would soon make it into popular culture. Quotes like:

“Why do you roll a dice if you didn’t wanna bet?”

“I’ve never met an institution that never looked after itself”

“She loves me. It’s just a matter of time.”

“I taught myself to survive and don’t you forget it.”

And many, many more.

Sadly, Tony’s Black 007 never made it beyond the idea stage and a few scribbled notes on the backs of fag packets and their virtual equivalent.  Tony and I went our separate ways: him to Skelmersdale, and me eventually to Nottingham: and now it looks like he’ll be taken to rest at his final resting place in St Lucia (hence the photo at the top of this text), whilst I move onto my next chapter in Leicester.

But I’ll never forget his enthusiasm, talent and energy: it provided me with some unforgettable times in Liverpool and who knows? Perhaps some-one out there might like to breath some life into the work one of our original thinkers and actors: Tony Hippolyte, the Black 007. James Blonde, Licenced to Spill.

RIP Tony Hippolyte, 12 May 1958 – 17 May 2016

Coming Closer to Home at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre: it’s not me, it’s EU. See

“Take the fucking money! Why don’t you take the fucking money?” The Chairman of the Liverpool Everyman Theatre had me with my back to the wall in the little kitchenette attached to the theatre’s most prestigious rehearsal room, The Red Room. He was clearly irked and my unwillingness to accept some kind of pay off from him, as his role as Chairman of the Theatre, to me, in my role as Director of the Hope Street Project, was irking him even further.

I continued to decline his pay off as politely as I could but can’t remember who left the kitchenette first or what happened immediately afterwards although I knew I had to get back to our rehearsals of Carmina Burana; a multimedia production we had devised with musicians from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and video support from MITES (which was later to become FACT) and which was due to be performed in the Theatre in just a few days time.

The payment in question was a large sum of cash which the theatre had received from its backers – most notably the European Union in the form of European Social Funds – which were to be used for various training programmes which the Everyman had established through its training wing, the Hope Street Project.  Or more accurately – which the Hope St Project had established and which the Everyman Theatre occasionally looked at with various degrees of affection, bewilderment or hostility, depending on where you sat within the organisational heirarchy.

The payment being offered to me was an enticement which amounted to: “Take the fucking money, stick it in your organisation, and then take your fucking organisation off our backs so that we can run the theatre like we did in the good old days.”  

The Chairman was clearly rattled and he had good cause to be.  The Everyman had been suffering financially for many years, not least because of falling public sector involvement, falling audiences and artistic policies which weren’t cutting the mustard any longer. Then, in 1988, the City Council and the Theatre’s Administrator came up with a scheme to end all schemes.  They identified a vast pot of national regeneration money, coupled it to an equally large pot of European money and turned it into a training programme which the Everyman  – or indeed any other regional theatres – had never seen in living memory.

The programme – the Hope Street Project – was soon causing ructions both in and out of the theatre and posing lots of difficult questions to its staff, audiences, Board members, politicians and funders.  What was to be done with this funding?  How could the Everyman manage what amounted to a 100% increase in turnover literally overnight?  And most crucially – what did it now mean to be a regional producing theatre?

The last question was particularly potent and exercised many of us over many hours tortuous debate not only in the Red Room but in every nook and cranny of the building and its hidey hole of last resort – The Bistro.  To some, the concept of The Everyman was that it was a fantastic little bar (The Bistro) which had a theatre attached to it; rather than a fantastic little theatre which had a bar attached to it but that’s another story.

The questioning went on for years and left everyone exhausted by the time the theatre was close to finally falling on its knees due to yet another round of funding cuts and falling audiences.  The Chairman’s view was that the fault of this malaise was completely down to the Hope Street Project causing everyone to take their eye of the collective artistic ball which led, in his words, to a theatre ‘for social engineering’ – something he was adamant in the press that he didn’t want.

So his proposal was simple: ‘take the fucking money and get off our backs and let us get on with saving and running this theatre’.

Unfortunately for him, the proposal didn’t stack up and it wasn’t long after that the Theatre went into receivership, the Hope Street staff and trainees were all made redundant and a knight in white armour (in the form of the union, MSF) came galloping over the hill to save the Hope St. Project and rescue its EU funding from the jaws of an untimely and unpleasant liquidation.

Whether the bureaucrats had any idea of how EU funding was transforming (wrecking or saving – take your pick) regional British Theatre in the late 1980s is anyone’s guess.  But I do know that without it, Hope St would never had started; the ground work for LIPA would never have started and the cultural vibrancy of one of the UK’s great cities would have taken a severe beating.  One thing we can be certain of: without EU funding, the City’s European City of Culture would have stalled down in the Bistro years before, along with countless other plans for cultural urban regeneration in the city.

‘It’s not me, Peter,” I should have said to the Chairman when I left the Red Room to go back to the rehearsal. “It’s you.”







Coming Closer to Home: the Prospect of the UK becoming a EU free zone.

So, we’re under starters orders; and we’re off.

The rumours are starting to circulate already at work. If we opt for Brexit, there’s a possibility that the very large EU contract we are about to have signed off by DCLG may be delayed until after the referendum. Meaning not only that over 350 creative and cultural businesses miss out on much needed business support to help them deal with the ravages of the public sector cuts of the last five years; but also, closer to home, a small group of staff are suddenly faced with potential cut backs and downsizing until such time that the contract is signed. The safety afforded by what looked like regular funding is suddenly looking very fragile. Childcare is reconsidered, holidays put on hold and we try to remember if we have any premium bonds locked up under the bed.

It’s at times like this that you realise the impact that the EU has had on the cultural sector in the UK. I worked in Liverpool for over 25 years and there wasn’t one day in that period that hadn’t benefited in one way or another from EU support. Whether this was at the Everyman Theatre in the late 1980s when the EU propped up that ailing theatre for a good 5 years (although you’d be hard pressed to find anybody in that organisation who would admit it); or at LIPA, when McCartney’s modest financial contribution to firing up the Mothership had the galvanising effect of attracting container loads of ERDF funding in through the gates; or at Aspire when EU funding in the shape of Comenius, Grundtvig or Youth in Action grants had a powerful impact on the working lives of teachers, students, families and everyone in between: the fact is that EU support has been a major source for economic, social and cultural good in Liverpool, across Merseyside and indeed the world as a whole.

And closer to home, it helped shape careers, livelihoods and families. Whilst many were leaving Liverpool in the 1980s to find work, me and many others were able to gravitate to the city precisely because of the job and training opportunities European funding generated.

There are so many stories that EU support has afforded the cultural and creative industries in Liverpool and beyond, I’ll never be able to capture them all here. But I’ll try to capture as many as I can because right now we are faced with the possibility that the respite that funding has provided in the last 30 years could now be sucked out of the sector irreversibly: and the opportunities it provided for the young people, its creative and cultural movers and shapers – and most importantly, it’s communities – could be lost for at least the next generation.

So: over the next few months this blog is going to try and remember the impact that EU support has had on us working in the arts and culture – not just in Liverpool but further afield.

One thing we do know is that working in the arts involves dropping a lot of stones in lots of ponds and that the resonances of our work are felt well beyond the streets, studios and workshops of struggling artists trying to come to terms with their practice in some quiet city back street. One thing we learnt is that EU support makes us citizens of the world, not just our local neighbourhood, country or continent. It makes coming ‘closer to home’ a much more expansive act than just acting out down our streets to a global, TV audience.

If you have any stories to share it would be great to hear and share them. If we don’t, come Brexit, it may well be too late to remind ourselves later on.

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