The role of touring professional theatre to Dartmoor venues was taken over from the West of England Theatre Company by Orchard Theatre. In 1980, not long after Paul Chamberlain became artistic director of Orchard, a play which was both genuinely about Dartmoor and was premiered there, rather than in London, came into being – To Be A Farmer’s Boy. Ironically it was written by a complete outsider, the northern playwright C.P. Taylor, who came from a Jewish background in Glasgow, and had spent most of his working life in Newcastle. But it was not a play written from the outside, because it was based on the experience of a particular Dartmoor farming family, related to Paul Chamberlain’s then wife, Heather (now married to Nick Stimson and for many years a teacher at South Dartmoor Community College). The Chamberlains had become close friends of Cecil Taylor while Paul was working in Newcastle, and when he came to Devon it was Paul and Heather who suggested that Heather’s extended family would make a good subject for a play that could be toured by Orchard. Taylor came to stay with the Chamberlains at Beaford and spent time with Heather’s family on Dartmoor, learning about them and their way of life.
The play was premiered in Chagford Jubilee Hall, and toured to Ashburton, Buckfastleigh and Bovey Tracey among other South West venues. It tells the story of the sale of a farm brought on by a farming family’s exposure to changes in the outside world. These changes are mediated through the character of incomer Clair, who as a woman is able to impose her modernity on the males in control of a Dartmoor farm as father and son fall in love with her. The issue of land and its ownership is crucial – the play opens with the auction of the farm and in the flashbacks which follow the central character Peter is shown at first longing to own Furzeland Farm, then finding ownership a burden, in a sense preventing his own development. When Clair wants to buy a part of one of his fields for her garden, he refuses, but tries to win Clair’s love by giving it to her instead. Finally Peter gives the farm to his son Eric when Eric wins Clair, almost as a way of keeping them both under his control. Eric loses the will to farm, and sells up. But in the process, the family relationships are saved. Taylor succeeds in capturing the humour and the sadness of a traditional Dartmoor farming family’s attempts to come to terms with and adapt to forces beyond their control without in any way patronising the characters – a success symbolised by the fact that he manages to suggest the Dartmoor way of speech and thought without using dialect. In this he was fortunate in choosing a family that had been adapting for a long time, and was looking outwards rather than inwards. To Be a Farmer’s Boy’s importance in the history of Dartmoor theatre was that it showed how Dartmoor could be taken seriously as a subject for plays performed on Dartmoor, for the first time that we know about. Less than two years after the premier, C.P. Taylor was dead.
Orchard toured two more plays in the 1980s about farming on Dartmoor, The Cuckoo and The Lie of the Land, both by Jane Beeson. Jane Beeson, my mother, came to live on Dartmoor in 1959, where she contributed to running a farm with my father for the rest of her life. She trained as a painter, and later exhibited, but turned to writing during the 1970s. She has written poetry, novels, short stories, a television serial, and plays for stage and radio. The Cuckoo, like To Be a Farmer’s Boy , is a play about a Dartmoor farming family, but one, like her own, not from a traditional Dartmoor background. Whereas in To Be a Farmer’s Boy the spotlight is on the father/son relationship, in The Cuckoo the focal relationships are between a man and his daughters. The farm in The Cuckoo passes out of the family to a male ‘trained’ graduate who has been working there, not because of a son who fails to cope with the pressure of being given it, as in To Be a Farmer’s Boy, but because a man does not believe that his daughters are capable of assuming what he regards as the male mantle of running it. The concern in both plays with the equality of women and the demonstration on the one hand of the naturalness of this equality at a level of feeling, and on the other hand of how deep-rooted are the pragmatic economic forces which have militated against it, are very much themes of the late twentieth century, but in a Dartmoor context take us back to John Ford. Under the directorship of Nigel Bryant, The Cuckoo was toured round Devon and played in the Dartmoor venues of Chagford and Bovey Tracey in 1984.
The Lie of the Land , a futuristic satire on the threat to the future of hill-farming, was toured by Orchard in 1987. This play, also set on Dartmoor, was written before Chernobyl’s explosion, but prophetically predicted the damage to the land and farming community that would be caused by a major nuclear explosion – in this case at an imaginary French power station on the coast of Brittany. The consequent rise in radiation levels causes a health risk and induces the break-up of a farming family: the woman, afraid for her children, desires to leave, while her husband, born on the farm, is determined to stay. The issue of attachment to land is again to the fore, good in itself, but providing a dangerous repository for intrenchment, a symbol of strength in its ability to put down roots and to expose human superficiality (for example through incomers’ lack of understanding) but at the same time a symbol of the vulnerability of everything that cannot alter and adapt.