NOBODY can quite pinpoint the turning point in 7:84 Scotland's fortunes but the decay might have set in about the time the late John McGrath, in a story the company's founding director used to tell against himself, stopped his Volvo estate at a petrol station on northern side of Perth.

In those days, the late 1970s, the A9 was still a daunting enough journey for a driver to welcome a break, so McGrath, riding high on the success of a theatre company that broke the dramatic mould, leapt out of the car and left the petrol pump attendant to fill 'er up. On returning he noticed the teenager was eyeing the gleaming company vehicle from end to end.

"What does 7:84 stand for?" asked the pump attendant, referring to the window sticker. Rather than going into a long explanation of how the figure was the abbreviated name for the most ground-breaking and radical theatre company Scotland had ever seen, McGrath decided to keep it short. "It's a statistic about Britain - 7-per cent of the population owns 84-per cent of the wealth, " said McGrath. The boy looked at the car again, then disdainfully back at McGrath, and said: "No need to show it off though, is there?"

The attendant must have been one of the few in Scotland not to have heard of 7:84 in the 1970s. The theatre company, its reputation cemented by a sensational first play, The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil, was internationally renowned for blending radical politics, populist drama, music and song in its stage performances. Each play had all the ingredients, as McGrath listed them, for a "good night out". But since the halcyon days, the company's polemical style became increasingly discordant in an industry and a country that had moved on.

First, McGrath himself was ousted in an Arts Council putsch, and afterwards the company lost its political and aesthetic direction.

Workshop-based pieces with marginalised groups, from young offenders to the homeless, didn't cut the mustard for its Scottish Arts Council (SAC) funders, and despite the arrival of a new artistic director, Lorenzo Mele, 7:84 Scotland, with its burden of the legacy of 33 years of radical theatre, hit the buffers. It's been a long road from a rushed cast reading of a fresh-penned play called The Cheviot. . . in March 1973 to Carnegie Hall in Dunfermline, last Friday night, where the current company performed its latest offering, ironically titled Free-Fall, with the sword of Damocles hanging over it.

The previous day the SAC, announcing its restructured funding of the industry, confirmed what many in the theatre world had been expecting - 7:84 Scotland is to lose its core funding and the company will, failing a miracle, fold this autumn.

Other arts organisations, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Theatre Babel and Borderline amongst them, also find themselves cut adrift from the new funding structure for the arts in Scotland. But it's 7:84 Scotland, the company that truly shaped theatre and politics in the early 70s and fostered the careers of numerous actors including Bill Paterson, David Hayman, Alex Norton and other stars of Taggart, that will be most lamented.

As a theatre company 7:84 Scotland was at the forefront of an incredible political and creative flowering that lapped Caledonia's shores in the early 1970s. The Cheviot . . . a kind of ceilidh-play fused music, history, economics and politics in a rumbustious denunciation of landlordism and capitalism from the Clearances through to the oil boom. It was stirring stuff that changed the way people looked at themselves, their history and the oil industry that was knocking at their door.

Last Thursday, as news broke of the SAC's decision to end funding for the company, it all seemed a long time ago. But the administrators at the SAC had been groping around under 7:84's sickbed for some time, tugging at the power cable and searching for the off switch. Internal SAC reports on 7:84, obtained by the theatre company under the Freedom of Information Act, confirmed their paranoia - the Scottish Arts Council was out to get them. The internal documents showed that the SAC's experts thought 7:84's output was of "poor quality", had not recommended funding last year and, in a stinging criticism, accused the company of "turning sharp political comment into panto for the working classes".

FOR a the company that prides itself in connecting with non-theatre audiences, that was all evidence of a snobbish art-establishment enmity for its work. "It rides roughshod over our audiences and what we try to do, " says Lorenzo Mele. "There are people who don't see much theatre other than our performances. They know us and trust us to bring them theatre."

Mele has been credited with with getting the company back to a more theatrical, less polemical style, but to no avail. "Personally, it's distressing, " he admits. "I've done everything I can to make the company relevant to 21st century Scotland and, a couple of critics notwithstanding, we've had success. But there's a disparity between what the intelligentsia want to see on stage and what ordinary people want to see. The SAC has a slightly skewed vision of what people want to see." Artistically, there are few left in Scotland who will defend 7:84's reputation, but then, looking for solidarity in the Scottish theatre world, where those who are favoured for funding tend to stay schtum and those who don't would wail anyway, is like trying to find a stage mark with the lights down.

Some 250 people have added their name to the company's online petition in the last few days and a parliamentary motion expressing concern over the funding threat has been signed by 20 MSPs. Nobody, though, is prepared to defend the company on its laurels, or even on its current output.

George Gunn, the director of the Grey Coast theatre company in Sutherland, who has often called on 7:84 to return to its Highland roots, is one of its most outspoken defenders. "All companies have fallow years but 7:84 has always had a loyal audience, " says Gunn. "It seems that the SAC have been after the company for a few years but this is terrible timing. What is the SAC doing taking those huge decisions when it is going to be disbanded itself in 2008?"

There is a sense that the SAC is clearing the decks for its merger with Scottish Screen in a few years and among some observers an understanding of its invidious position. "Without an increase in funding it's not possible to grow the arts without cutting, " says the head of one organisation that has benefited from funding. "The demands on the SAC have been greater while their share of the cake has been static."

The critics seem divided. Joyce MacMillan, the matriarch of Scottish drama critics, has pointed out the unfortunate symbolism of closing down the most established theatre company in Scotland just as a Scottish National Theatre was being kicked off.

CONVERSELY, The Herald's drama critic, Neil Cooper, was dancing on the grave before a sod had been turned.

Cooper wrote in The Herald recently: "In short, 7:84 isn't very good. It isn't terrible, just average, really, a purveyor of harmless fun. Everything, then, a 'political' theatre company shouldn't be. Withdraw 7:84's funds, I say, and give it to some of the younger, more urgent voices intent on tearing down theatrical barricades."

Somewhere in the middle of this the Sunday Herald's own drama critic, Mark Brown, feels the company should have been given more time. "I don't like this regular round of celebrations and recriminations as some companies win and others lose, " says Brown. "I believe 7:84 was beginning to find its feet again but without stable funding companies are less likely to take risks."

Few blame the SAC directly. Probe around the Scottish arts scene and you find the same views being expressed, albeit anonymously, as practitioners defend their own funding. "The SAC has to take responsibility for the parliament not delivering, " says one arts director.

"Key decisions have been taken by the politicians and they have failed in seven years to invest in the arts." Another voice adds: "The Arts Council is in an invidious position of having to choose between Peter and Paul, " says one high ranking arts administrator. "The resulting cull was all the SAC could do given that the politicians in the parliament couldn't match their rhetoric and sound bites with funding."

Funding for the arts has actually increased since devolution, a National Theatre has been established with ring fenced money and the national Opera and Ballet companies, have been removed from the SAC budgets. All sensible moves, say the arts community, but funding for English regional arts, in the same period, has increased more.

Part of the trouble, claims Mark Brown, is that there are few political advocates for the arts in parliament or the Executive. Apart from Jack McConnell, the artistic community can only point to Frank McAveety, a previous arts minister, as someone who had a feel for the arts. The current minister for tourism, culture and sport, Patricia Ferguson, is not regarded as having a personal interest in the field.

Despite 20 MSPs signing a motion backing 7:84 Scotland, there's a feeling that there's only mediocre support for the company, and in reflection, the broader arts in the parliament.

There is a funding appeals process to go through but one suspects, like a well-regarded but ignored regular in the pub, the theatre company won't be appreciated until it's gone.

On the last night of The Cheviot . . . at the Edinburgh Lyceum, after it had set Scotland alight in a year-long tour, it seemed that most of nation's political and theatrical establishment turned out to salute the company.

The atmosphere, as Dolina MacLennan sang the last verses of a 19th century Gaelic protest song, was electric. "The place was so emotional that it was difficult enough to get the song out, " recalls MacLennan. "Then McGrath joined us on stage and the theatre rose as one."

When the curtain does come down on the current 7:84 Scotland tour at the Traverse in Edinburgh, somewhere in the back of the auditorium, or in the midst of the hall, will be an echo of MacLennan singing a Mairi Mhor song, of John Bett and Bill Paterson in one final double act, as the play stops and the ceilidh begins at the end of a good night out.


IN 1971 dramatist John McGrath brought his play Trees In The Wind to the Edinburgh Festival.

With his wife Elizabeth and her brother David McLennan they went on to form 7:84 (based on a 1960s statistic that 7-per cent of the population controlled 84-per cent of Britain's wealth) in 1973.

It was hailed a drama company "able to relate to the distinct historical, cultural and political traditions" of Scotland.

Lauded for their political stance, 7:84 found success with The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil.

Recent productions include Boiling A Frog, an adaptation of Christopher Brookmyre's novel.

Last week, the Scottish Arts Council announced that in the future 7:84 and others will only be able to apply for funding for one-off projects, effectively ending its status as a full-time company.