THIS year marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Taking place between 1936 and 1939 it was fought between the Republicans on the side of the Second Spanish Republic and the Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco.
Among those who fought in the war were the International Brigades (IB), a group of mostly men from across Europe, volunteers who came together in a bid to defeat fascism.
To mark the anniversary a new play has been commissioned looking at the role of the IB and in particular two men within its ranks - Clem Beckett, a Lancashire blacksmith and star of the speedway track and Christopher Caudwell, a self taught and renowned writer, poet and philosopher.
Written by and starring Neil Gore, and staged by Townsend Productions, Dare Devil Rides To Jarama mixes theatricality, drama and humour with song, poetry, movement and dance to trace the lives and the friendship of these two extraordinary men who were killed together at Jarama in February 1937.
Through their stories, the play will also shed light on the political and social world of the 1930s and all that inspired and confronted the IB volunteers on their journeys to Spain as well as the raw passions and emotions of idealism, hope, anger, determination and fear they had.
As part of a nationwide tour it comes to the Bussey Building in Peckham on Tuesday, October 25 for six nights.
“We are known for our political work and were looking for a story that had plenty of resonance for our times now,” Neil tells me.
“The Spanish Civil War happened at a pretty critical time and all the events leading up to it have resonance with what is happening in the world today so it appealed to me to do something about it.
“Then the International Brigades Memorial Trust (IBMT) got in touch with me and said as it was the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the war whether they could commission me to write a piece about it.
“I had an idea about following the lives of a couple of members for the story as a way of telling the story of all of those who fought with the IB.
“The IBMT suggested Clem Beckett as a central focus of the story so that’s how it came about.”
Not knowing anything about him, Neil began researching Clem and his story and found he had an extraordinary life. He was a star of the motorcycle speedway circuit, a blacksmith by trade and a fighter for the rights of riders in his sport.
He was eventually kicked out of the sport for trying to unionise the riders and so set up a touring company with his Wall Of Death act. He travelled extensively, most notably to the then Soviet Union before joining up with the IB and fighting in the Spanish Civil War.
“Clem was a fascinating character and so interesting,” says Neil.
“He was a political person from early on - it was a time when the Labour Party was in dire straits, much like it is at the moment, and he got involved with the Young Communist League.
“His principle concern as he was growing up was an ambition to make his sport as true as possible, without the influence of money and commercialisation that tends to ruin sport.
“Touring his Wall Of Death act he went all over Europe and saw the rise of Hitler and Mussolini not to mention other political systems.
“He was extremely well travelled for a man in his 20s at that time.”
As well as Clem the other focus of the play is Christopher Caudwell who Neil says was another “extraordinary man with a brilliant brain”.
“He didn’t go to university but rather was self taught,” says Neil. “He was an expert in science, maths and physic, writing articles on aeronautics, thrillers and other stories.
“Later on in his late 20s he discovered Marxism and interpreted literary works from the Marxist perspective.
“Even now he is still held up as having written some of the finest critiques of literature and poetry.
“But he ended up fighting with the IB and met and formed a friendship with Clem. They died together at Jarama covering a retreat. In total 600 British and Irish fought in that battle and only 200 came out alive. It was a tragedy.
“So the play is about them and their friendship as well as the background to it all, the story of the IB and how its members came from all over Europe.”
In true Townsend Production style, music and song forms an integral part of the story and together with a healthy dose of theatricality, helps bring out the humour and emotion of the piece.
Although Neil says he hopes the play will entertain audiences he says he hopes in the cloud of post-Brexit Britain, people who come and see it will learn something about our recent history and feel hopeful for our future.
“I do think that the Spanish Civil War is not well known enough,” he says. “I find it incompressible that we are taught about the First and Second World Wars but not enough about the Spanish Civil War. It’s vital we know about it.
“Those who went to fight were mostly working class for example from the pits and shipyards but there were academics from Oxford University and Westminster School as well as famous poets and other bright young writers and actors such as James Robertson Justice.
“I think this play offers hope because these people got together and fought for themselves and their class to make a difference to the world.
“And it shows that the modern world we live in isn’t quite so modern - there are so many parallels.
“So I hope those who come and see it at the Bussey Building - which is a superb place to stage such a show and suits our work perfectly - will be inspired and be hopeful,” he adds.
“It’s been fascinating to research and write it so I hope audiences will be entertained and informed by what they see and hear.”
Dare Devil Rides To Jarama is at the Bussey Building, Peckham from tonight until Saturday October 29. Visit www.townsendproductions.org.uk for tickets and full listings.