THEATRE: IT WAS 15 YEARS AGO TODAY; The great Ned and Ken show

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The Independent Culture
On 25 July 1984, the titanic tussle between the Labour-led Greater London Council and Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government took a dramatic turn. The Ratepayers' Iolanthe, based on the 1882 Gilbert and Sullivan operetta about disputes between the Lords and the Commons, opened at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The new adaptation was true to its title: the GLC had subsidised it to the tune of pounds 75,000.

At the time, the political dispute had boiled down to a battle of wills between the free-spending, high-profile GLC leader "Red" Ken Livingstone and the no-nonsense, high-profile Tory leader "Iron" Maggie. At stake was the future of the GLC itself.

The satirical production "began as an idea between [producer] Raymond Gubbay and the GLC," says director Ned Sherrin, who rejigged Iolanthe with Alastair Beaton. "In those days, the GLC used to fund rather adventurous art projects and Gubbay had done a straight HMS Pinafore the year before. The proposed abolition of the GLC focused it and gave us the opportunity to have Mrs T as the Fairy Queen."

Following G&S's original, S&B's version had the impostor Fairy Queen - having banished the real Queen to the Tower without anyone noticing - trying to manoeuvre Red Strephon, her half-human, half-fairy idealistic opponent, into a neutralised position on the Labour backbenches. Red Strephon's social Utopia would have rung a few bells, particularly with critics of the GLC's "loony Left" policies: "A gay adventure playground on every street corner, discos for the disabled and wardens to help black lesbian old ladies across the street" (FT).

Gay Brown and David Kernan turned in brilliant impersonations of the (real) political opponents. Brown "received affectionate boos at the end like the villain in a Victorian melodrama" (Guardian), and Livingstone, a conspicuous first-night attendee, recalls that Kernan got him perfectly: "Every mannerism, every gesture, every item of clothing." (Sherrin says, however, that "Ken was very upset about the safari suit, which he said he hadn't worn for 10 years.") The then- GLC leader found the experience "bizarre": "It was odd watching Kernan have sex with one of the actresses. I was sitting there with my mother while this actor playing me was humping away on stage."

Phyllis, Strephon's inamorata, was a Sloane Ranger whose inheritance - the Greater London Estate - also attracted the attention of the Chancellor (based on Nigel Lawson). Two Lords became Saatchi 1 and Saatchi 2.

The critics loved the satire and the style: "A triumph of wit and resourcefulness" (Observer); "Bouncing entertainment" (Telegraph). Livingstone wasn't expecting a "Marxist Iolanthe", and the critics were impressed by its balance. "It certainly transcends the local politics that inspired it" (FT). "Red Strephon comes in for as many digs as the Iron Queen (well, nearly)" (City Limits).

Inevitably, the Telegraph felt the "somewhat venomous attitude to Thatcher overdoes and spoils the cartoon". The New Statesman thought the show was saddled with "un-GLC-like anachronisms: a blonde and passive heroine ... a load of fairies ... and only one black performer in a cast of 28." None the less, Livingstone "enjoyed it immensely. And so did my mum, minus the sex."

After a month, The Ratepayers' Iolanthe transferred to the West End for a highly successful six weeks. In August 1985, with the GLC's battle against abolition lost, Sherrin and Beaton produced The Metropolitan Mikado. Set in 1996, it had Livingstone as a gender-bending "Boy Ken", Michael Heseltine as the "Prime Mikado", and a parody of Neil Kinnock. "Even though he had enjoyed Iolanthe, Kinnock didn't attend after he heard that he was being mocked," says Sherrin. Both shows were part of the GLC's final fling at the RFH in May 1986, along with another Sherrin/Beaton satire, Small Expectations.

Ken Livingstone has been MP for Brent East since 1987 and, despite New Labour's best efforts, is the popular choice for London Mayor. "I want to make it clear that I'm a stern, unbending Tory," says Sherrin. "But I was more in favour of having the GLC than not. In fact, if Ken stands for Mayor, I may well vote for him for the first time in my life." Living- stone may well repay him: he thinks there may be another outlet for Sherrin's satirical talents very soon.