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Birthday for Borderline and back on the road

THE BROWN sugar had barely dissolved in the latte when Eddie Jackson was again stirring up the debate about funding for theatre in Scotland.

CANDID: Eddie Jackson says arts funding has become bureaucratic.
CANDID: Eddie Jackson says arts funding has become bureaucratic.

It is eight years since the Scottish Arts Council announced backing for the producer's Borderline Theatre company was to be pulled, leaving the Ayrshire-based outfit on the theatrical equivalent of life support.

While the move still leaves a bitter taste in Jackson's mouth, his reflections are apposite. Our meeting has been arranged to talk about Borderline's rejuvenation, and a touring production of David Harrower's A Slow Air.

"It's an interesting play," he says of the compelling brother/sister relationship monologues, which reveal how we can create our own versions of a truth in our minds.

However, as Jackson - now retired - sips his coffee in the cafe at Ayr's Gaiety Theatre (another life-after-a-long-coma story) he's far more effusive when it comes to talking about what he considers the fundamental flaws in the manner in which theatres are supported in Scotland.

"Those who back theatre have become bureaucrats," he maintains. "They are people with a vested interested in the serious and esoteric, caught up in their own processes. And I believe they don't have a generosity of spirit. But you and I know the audience for the serious and the esoteric is toatie.

"My interest has always been the final end user, the person who sits in the auditorium. The buzz you get from this, of seeing someone enjoying themselves, is incredible."

Jackson has always been a populist, his entry to the world of entertainment and escapism first illuminated by his mother, a cinema usherette at the La Scala in Helensburgh.

Young Eddie wasn't a performer, but he could "make things happen" and in 1971 he joined Tom McGrath at the Scottish Arts Council's new Third Eye Centre in Glasgow "to turn Tom's ideas into reality".

"One of the first things I pulled together was the Mahavishnu Orchestra at the Kelvin Hall and went on to bring Miles Davis and Duke Ellington to the Apollo. I believe it was the first time the Arts Council made a profit. It was fantastic."

But the bottom line wasn't always the bottom line.

"This was a world of hippies and gurus, not of balance sheets," he says, grinning. "But you can still make money if you put on the right shows."

In 1975 Jackson learned new theatre company Borderline were looking for a co-ordinator and landed the job, based in the west coast. "I'm sure I got it because Borderline were looking for someone who could sook up the Arts Council's backside to get money," says the gamekeeper-turned-poacher, laughing.

However, Borderline didn't put on the right shows. At first.

"We did a play about the infamous murderer Dr Crippen. It didn't really work. Nor did a theatre play by Willie McIlvanney, The Attic, at the Fringe. The big tipping point was getting An Me Wi' A Bad Leg, the Billy Connolly play. The audience response was fantastic. It was of its time in 1976, but we did three tours of it, such was the astonishing demand.

"And the Arts Council were happy with it. It was a different cultural move."

Borderline moved to Irvine and went on to have more incredible success with the likes of Dario Fo's farce, Trumpets And Raspberries, starring fresh faces Elaine C Smith and Andy Gray. And Jackson proved he could part oceans during a sabbatical when he produced Bill Bryden's epic creation, The Ship.

However, in 2009 the Arts Council pulled the curtain down on Borderline's Ayrshire base, cutting the £218,000 grant, claiming the submissions lacked artistic merit.

"My whole life was devastated," he says, his face reflecting the period. "The application they refused had a play by John Byrne and a play by Daniel Jackson (his son, now a major playwright with an international reputation). Now, the reason they had a Daniel Jackson play was because Oran Mor producer Dave MacLennan really rated him."

Could his bitterness towards the Arts Council be seen as sour grapes? "Naw," he says. "Here's the thing. We put Daniel's play on anyway and it was a huge success, and the Arts Council at least had the good grace to say they were wrong. But they had already picked off 7:84, Wildcat and then us. It was a cultural cull."

The Arts Council no longer exists now, with Creative Scotland being the umbrella arts organisation. "I've no idea of how funding is now allocated," he says. "But I don't believe there's a real connection with theatre companies these days."

"In 1978, we did an adaptation of John Galt's novel, The Provost, a mix of high art and showbiz and we toured all over Scotland. One day the drama director of the Arts Council phoned me up and said: 'I see you're going to Arran on tour. Can I come with you?' And he did, travelling on the company bus. That would never have happened in the past two decades with the Arts Council or Creative Scotland."

But what of the argument theatre should be self-supporting?

"Then you have empty venues, because the shows that suck the people through the doors are so rare, you cannot predict what's going to work. You are constantly searching for the Holy Grail, and so you are duty bound to try things you believe will appeal to a mass audience."

He sips his coffee, smiles, and speaks softly, from the heart. "You need backing because theatre can do things for human beings that can't really happen elsewhere. Sitting in a theatre, the shared experience of 500 people laughing at the same time. How wonderful is that?"

A Slow Air is on tour throughout Scotland and plays Irvine Harbour Arts Centre on April 25 and 26. borderlinetheatre.co.uk

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