Mary McGregor interviews communist and actor, Tam Dean Burn.
Tam Dean Burn is the most respected political actor in Scotland today. He was born in Leith and grew up in Clermiston, a west Edinburgh housing estate. He went to Queen Margaret College to study acting at a time when working class men were encouraged to take up the profession. Tam cites James Dean and his teacher, Ken Morley (Reg in Coronation Street) as his early influences on his acting.
I first met Tam in 1993 when he was in Dundee appearing in court for Breach of the Peace on the Timex picket line. He had famously jumped onto the front of one of the scab buses and earned the nickname ‘spider-man’. Tam introduced me to communist politics. When I spoke to him recently I found him, as ever, full of ideas and challenges to orthodox Marxist thinking.
So apart from Reg from Coronation Street and James Dean, are there any other artistic or political influences that were pivotal because I am interested in the point where the art and politics started to merge?
I got into punk at the very beginning. I was ready for it, because of the type of bands I was already listening to, like Dr Feelgood. It was the difference between those who were into Yes, prog rock and heavy metal – they were more middle class – and those of us that were into pub rock bands such as Dr Feelgood and Sensational Alex Harvey Band. When punk came along I was totally up for it. It was like a personal, social revolution that really got me going politically as well.
At my first show after leaving Queen Margaret’s, I had a chance to combine all the elements of politics and art. We did a play at the Edinburgh Festival with my wee brother’s band, Fire Engines, with some songs that had been written especially for the show that I was singing. It was initially a 2-hander called Workers of the world confess, looking at the relationship between the boss and the worker in the form of a confession. We developed a cantata it was called Why does the pope not come to Glasgow? As we were in rehearsals we got the news he was coming and we just thought – the power of theatre! It was a good strong political piece. We had discussions as an essential part of the show. The guy who wrote it George Byatt was an old anarchist. Immediately me and George started to tussle as I started to go down the communist road even though I saw myself as an anarchist punk at the time.
The Dirty Reds, our band, had a gig for Edinburgh University Communist Society who were trying to latch onto this punk thing going on. They had banners with Marx and Engels. I said,
Fuck all this old fashioned shite! We are anarchists! People started jumping up and pulling them all down. I have often chuckled to myself as to what my comrades in years to come would have had to say about that.
I went to the Soviet Union in 1983 for a holiday with a friend. We thought we would be with old trade unionists, but it was geared towards young folk and we found ourselves there with a big posse from Liverpool including this post punk band called Echo and the Bunnymen, so we had a great time. I was very romantic about the Soviet Union.
What about big political events back at home?
It was really the miners’ strike in 1984 that made me realise I had to be in an organisation to have any real impact. I got involved in the Miners’ Support Group in Edinburgh so I was looking around the different left wing organisations. I wanted to be in the Communist Party but I could not really work out where they were in Edinburgh. They did not really seem to exist. I had an aversion to Trots because of their view of the Soviet Union. Although the Militant did seem to be the most dynamic organisation around. I did collect with them outside football grounds for the miners. I went through their induction programme but then found I could not go with them. Their main man was more trade union based. They did not believe in the dictatorship of the proletariat and they certainly did not support the Soviet Union. I then picked up on the paper The Leninist. What they were saying about the miners’ strike really gob smacked me. I was not able to put it into practice but I started communicating with them.
By the time of the Poll Tax I had moved to London and had got much more involved with the Leninist and was politically organised by them. This was a totally positive experience because what I had always been trying do was find a way to combine the politics with the culture. I was being encouraged to do that. Although it was a small organisation, there was a lot of time and resources put into what I was trying to do culturally.
I had picked up on the type of agit-prop that Ewan McColl had been doing with the YCL in the late 20s and early 30s, like street theatre on the issues of the day. We started by doing the original sketches and then developed our own versions of them with issues like the Poll Tax and Ireland.
There was a great sketch about Indian workers that had been banged up for being members of a trade union. It was done behind these six huge banner poles that you would have on a demonstration and they made the bars of the cell. At the end of the piece the bars would get smashed down through class struggle and international solidarity. In 1988 we adapted the sketch to Ireland and called it 20 years. This was because it was around 20 years since the start of the most recent troubles in Ireland. This was all done as part of the Workers’ Theatre Movement.
We also developed a political cabaret which was hard hitting, honouring the dead hunger strikers in Ireland. This was part of a polemic with left Labourites and their ‘Time to Go’ campaign. I remember performing 20 years before a big demo that they were organising. We were playing it and getting a great response from the marchers because invariably they were the best audiences; the most partisan. The organisers wanted to stop us and I remember a big guy wi’ his hand on my shoulder saying,
You have to stop! You have to stop! but there was no way they could stop us because of the response we were getting from the crowd.
It was the same wi’ the dockers in 1989. We performed in support of the Tilbury dockers and their struggle to stop the privatisation of the docks. I remember their leader saying that what we had said in a 5 minute sketch is what he would have liked to say in a 20 minute speech. You could sense the value of what we were about and what we were trying to achieve. With the Poll Tax sketches we realised that we could get our message across by using mega phones. By having everybody ‘megaphoned up’ you could really blast across a message.
We also combined street theatre with a political cabaret called the Internationale where we could start doing things that worked more effectively indoors. We would invite people to come along and do themes like Ireland or International Women’s day. It was being able to be a sort of memory for the class as well of celebrating events like that. There was a real attempt to tie together as much as I could of the culture and the politics.
You have continued to do that. The last overtly political thing I saw you do was Perdition
(A play by Jim Allan that dealt with the collaboration between Hungarian Nazis and Zionists that led to Jews being killed.)
Yes, there have been differences when I have been able to pull together performances myself, like that, and those roles that I would do as a job. I am always looking for possibilities. Perdition was a special one. It had been 20 years since the play was originally going to be performed at the Royal Court theatre in London. Then they pulled the plugs on it at the last minute which is unheard of now.
The Zionist lobby now isn’t nearly so strong that they could pull off something like that. Our performance of it was still controversial. It was suggested by the SWP that it was ‘bad taste’ to do it in Holocaust Memorial week. Perdition was directly about the Holocaust and about the way that Jews were basically being sacrificed for the Zionist cause. The Holocaust Memorial week was exactly the right time that we should have been doing it. I think that says much more about the SWP than it did about us.
Doing it in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee and seeing too that you didn’t need a full production – the actors were doing it as a reading with the scripts in their hands but that made very little difference. It was theatre about ideas with good actors doing it and able to put it across. It’s a form of entertainment that is my favourite because it’s stimulating and you are a lot more engaged as an audience. It has an archetypal dramatic form of the courtroom. That form has been used so often. It works because people know they, the audience, become a jury. You are engaged in it in that way and you are implicated. It was a good strong piece.
Has it become easier or harder to express your communism through your art as you have become an established actor and moved away from street theatre?
It has become harder because I am less organised now. Unless you are a practising communist, you cann’ae really call yourself one. That is still of course where my heart lies but I have been open to a lot of other influences as well. I don’t get the opportunity to express myself in quite the same way which is mair to do with the times than me, so I have to find different ways of doing it.
But you made it happen with Perdition it was very much your baby?
Well, the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign in Scotland is very dynamic and it was through discussions wi’ them that I was able to make it happen. When you are encouraged and supported these things can take place. A lot of the time people are pretty shabbily organised politically so it is not like a great deal goes on. I didn’t find the same opportunities to go at things within the SSP. There would be the odd, little event and I know some people did some things but I felt culturally it lacked something. It settled for a lower common denominator for culture and that can be a great problem within politics.
What should the stance of a revolutionary socialist be towards art especially under capitalism? Should there be a more serious approach amongst revolutionary socialists towards the whole concept of art?
Absolutely, especially when I think of the influence of William Blake on me over the past few years. He has been with me through the last two years because I’ve been reading all his poems and prose on a radio programme every week. I have been reading a lot about him as well. His view is that the way we look at politics is too narrow. It is too materialist. He believes that unless you have a spiritual element to what you are going for and a sense of moving beyond the three dimensions that we accept, it’s worthless. His idea is that imagination is the most important thing of all.
In the past as far as materialists go, we look on it as labour that would define us that is what fired the mind. But for him the imagination and poetic vision is what we should laud and pay attention to. It’s a duty for all of us
to build Jerusalem by that artistic, poetic vision and imagination. That’s given me some sense that we are looking on things far too narrowly. I know he would be looked on by some Marxists as completely idealistic – a radical idealist and even revolutionary but I just think who is to say you’re right. Blake says,
To see a world in a grain of sand.
Even science now is looking on the tiniest particles as microcosms of the whole. I’ve thrown myself mair open to things. A big part of me is opening up to questioning. The most important thing is we need to be questioning for truths. The left is not willing to discuss what has become clear that the official theories of what happened on 9/11 and 7/7 just do not add up. People are scared. I see the left like that, they are scared to look at these type of questions. If these actions were state terrorism, if they were false flag operations, then that’s what we’ve got to take on board.
There was a point when the SSP was tied up with the anti-capitalist/anti-globalisation movement. That was so important for the SSP – the way that the SSP opened itself up to a lot more people and that is what really gave it an impetus into becoming a force in Scotland. Then it narrowed itself back down into a typical left wing grouping. It is only now that we are seeing how important the anti capitalist movement was. Everybody was guilty of squandering that opportunity. That’s the type of thing we need again.
There’s only a few individuals on the left saying its a set up job and we’re not buying into this. If people recognised what our enemy was really up to, a lot more people could be galvanised. I think there is a sort of fear and cravenness and conservatism. Then you start to think who is actually being fingered here. Who has been stopping this getting out? Who is calling the shots and moving the organisations away from questioning this. We can’t let the official view dominate as it does. I ever so slightly raised my baldy heid above the parapet to put it into the letters column on the Weekly Worker. It was just so pathetic the response I got back. The same nonsense arguments – utterly unscientific – pathetic.
I’ve interviewed David Icke and he would be considered a lunatic and they have been able to put that across. I treat everything he says with a degree of caution but there is more of his stuff that I have heard him say that is coming true. What we are moving towards is a micro chipped population. If this happens, we are back to being slaves again when they have us under that control. They started with animals they are now talking about prisoners. That is the very foreseeable future when we are all micro chipped then we are really fucked.
Do you think that artists have a responsibility to highlight these dangers in society?
Yes in a sense but the responsibility even mair so is to try and find out what the positives are and to be able to encourage people. I think that culture generally is somewhere that the battle can be fought wi some degree of success. Where as other areas at the moment it just seems much harder. Obviously a lot goes on online with young people and the way they are able to communicate with each other and I think the dam will burst. I am always trying to find alliances and means to be able to put forward ideas.
You mentioned young people and how they get involved. How do you view YouTube and things like that?
Its how its used. It can be turned on itself. Things can be turned into their opposites. So they can be used in a positive or a reactionary way. It can be used to dazzle and occupy and control. With something like Facebook; the political motivations behind that were really pretty apparent. It is a further degree of surveillance. Even with the internet itself. It was the American military that introduced it initially. What are you telling me that they had the benefit of humanity in mind? It has been a means of control from the start but at the same time, they have to allow it to develop. They have to hope it doesnae turn against them. But you know it can be used in all sorts of ways. It was the anniversary of Rachel Corrie’s death (US peace activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Palestine) and through the net we saw they were encouraging people to speak her words at events. We recorded on a mobile phone outside parliament where it is illegal and outside the American embassy and banged it up on Youtube and its there to be seen. That becomes world wide. As with everybody, we are just waiting for things to rupture and explode in a positive fashion.
With Emancipation and Liberation, it is criminal that you do not have your website more up to date which could be a real benefit to people [Website Ed – rectifying that now, we fell behind]. You can see the way the Weekly Worker has given people an opportunity to express themselves. You have got to offer encouragement to people, via the internet and show that there are people attempting to provide answers. It is our duty to try to encourage that.
Republicanism? You participated in the Calton Hill Declaration. What does being a republican mean to you?
It was there from the very roots of my political organisation. Both in terms of being a Hibs supporter because we supported Irish republicanism, from the terraces and from my understanding of Punk. We had complete disdain for the monarchy and the desire for a republic. These type of things are crucial. Once you get your eyes opened to these questions you can accept no compromise on them. Republicanism is an absolute bottom line of democracy, particularly in this country. I have always been wary about nationalism. I’ve never been drawn to that in any way apart from when it is revolutionary which I saw wi Ireland. But republicanism is a total line for me so I was happy to play the queen at the Carlton Hill event. Always happy to get a frock on.