Some felt it was like marching into the lion’s den. ‘Red Ken’ Livingstone taking his new on-stage talk-show to true-blue Guildford. What could he be thinking of?
In fact An Audience With Ken Livingstone went down a storm. Not only did the former London Mayor emerge from the town’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre unscathed but he did so with rapturous applause ringing in his ears.
Things had threatened to get off to an inauspicious start. An hour before the 7.45pm show a reporter and photographer from the Surrey Advertiser were kicking their heels backstage waiting for Ken to arrive for a 6.30pm interview.
The minutes ticked by. The photographer looked at his watch. “If he’s not here in 10 minutes we’ll have to go,” he huffed. “We’re getting a pub up the road to cook us a load of horsemeat burgers. We’ve got to feed them to local people and get their reaction.” Ken arrived moments later moaning about the state of the railways. The interview went ahead, its subject blissfully unaware that he’d almost been abandoned for a plate of horsemeat
All was well with the show too. The audience hung on his every word as he discussed his controversial 40 year political career with broadcaster Bill Heine. He covered everything from his clashes with Margaret Thatcher to his achievements as Mayor of London. They lapped it up.
They didn’t even bat an eyelid when he spoke of the furore caused by his support for a United Ireland, republicanism and lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender rights. They laughed heartily too when he spoke of holidaying with his five children, their three mothers and “all the overlapping partners.”
There was suprising praise for Thatcher and Ronald Reagan for sticking to their guns and a withering dismissal of Tony Blair’s “control-freakery” and “rubber-stamp” government. He spoke of living through surreal cold-war strategies for the survival of the nation’s administrators in the event of nuclear attack.
As leader of the GLC, he revealed, he had been told he would be whisked off to a secret bunker in Essex as the nuclear warheads approached. “And there I would sit for the rest of my life with Margaret Thatcher and the Royal family.” He shook his head gravely at the thought.
During the interval the good citizens of this long-time stronghold of the Tory heartland bought copies of Ken’s latest book You Can’t Say That before waiting in line for him to sign it. He sold so many that supplies actually ran out. “I wish I’d brought more,” sighed bookseller Ray Hatch. “I really didn’t expect this.”
The second half of the show was a question and answer session. “Be as rude as you like,” Ken challenged. “I don’t mind.” No one was rude. Instead the questioners asked about the legacy of his mayoral terms, the 2012 Olympic bid, the future of the Labour Party, alternatives to capitalism, and of course his opinion of arch rival Boris Johnson. Ken thought for a moment before replying “Boris has had a great first four years as mayor, opening all the things that I started.”
The veteran of decades of political campaigns seemed genuinely surprised by the warmth of the reception he had received. Scanning the audience from the stage, he admitted he hadn’t had a particularly high opinion of Guildford which he associated with the devastating 5.35 per cent swing to the Tories that spelled the end of Harold Wilson’s 1970 government. He hadn’t expected them to have a high opinion of them either. “I half expected to find an empty theatre,” he admitted.
He was rapidly changing his view of this wealthy Surrey town. As he bid his farewell he joked: “On the basis of the questions this evening we could be on the verge of socialist revolution. I look forward to seeing a Marxist elected in Guildford.”
*An Audience With Ken Livingstone next plays The Fowey Festival in Cornwall on 12th of May, 2013. Further appearances are planned at Lincoln, Leicester and South Shields later this year.