The privilege of being in a van on a long drive with your mates is one of the fantastic fringe benefits of being in a touring theatre company. I love the conversation, the music playing, the sense of adventure, the tense map reading and the landscape scrolling by.
It took a long time and being responsible for The Black Maze before I finally let go of the delightful idea that Stan’s Cafe could own a van. Realistically we don’t do enough days touring for this to make any financial sense, especially as some shows need big vans and others small. If we owned a van we’d also be denied the stimulating variety that hiring vans brings.
I remember a terrible old Leyland Daf van hired from Northfield in the early days. They didn’t do transits (“The Irish ‘ave ‘em. They drive ‘m over on the ferry and never bring ‘em back” – apparently). That thing was rough, very slow up hills, tortuous on the way to Exeter, a rolling roadblock causing big queues, troubling the local traffic news. It also stank, but that was our fault, we were touring Canute the King and the water we flooded the stage with never successfully dried off and the whole thing grew a bit fetid. For the Kendal leg of that tour we upgraded, a decision prompted by the fact we were going via Scotland to a mate’s wedding with a plan for sleeping overnight in the van to avoid expensive hotel costs, no doubt we looked dapper.
For the Simple Maths tour we rented the blue Talking Birds‘ Renault, embarrassingly it died on us near Banbury, we hired a replacement and had to affect a transfer of set from one van to the other in a lay-by, post heist chic. I’m not sure what happened to the Renault abandoned in the lay-by, maybe they tarmaced over it. Amazingly we still got to Portsmouth in time for that gig. That tour was somewhat cursed as I’m sure a van from the mighty Valley Self Drive broke down later on and as the firm were on the way out, they’d let their recovery cover lapse and the lads had to leap into one of their other vans and charge down to meet us somewhere in south London and sort things out – but I could be misremembering that. We liked Valley Self Drive, they operated out of the back of a petrol station then built a proper office and garage on the land out back. There was a lot of backstage/roadie memorabilia from Heavy Metal Gigs on the wall. They were sound and cheap and eventually did go bust. The whole site is overgrown and behind hoardings now, we see it occasionally on the way to Billesley School.
The trouble with van hire companies is that they are either expensive, efficient and annoyingly up tight or cheap and a bit chaotic, with rubbish vans and a helpfully relaxed attitude to time and paperwork. The paper work thing was especially important in the days when they’d ask your occupation and if you mentioned ‘theatre’ you couldn’t be insured because they would automatically assume you’d be piling up the M6 with a major uninsurable film star on board. We like Practical in Birmingham, you can usually get what you need from them. Their office is almost entirely covered in witticisms engraved on wooden plaques – You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here – But it helps. That’s Not A Bald Patch – It’s a Solar Panel for my Love Machine etc. This approach to decorating is helpful as the process of Ash booking your van out can be enormously protracted.
It’s always a nightmare if you allow your set size to creep from Transit to Luton size – the power to weight ratio is all wrong and you’re into Canute flashbacks. The big metal ring from the Good and True revolve meant that tour was strictly Luton all the way – though driving that size van INTO THE LIFT at the Royal Opera House was a special van experience – to this day I regret we didn’t prove it was possible to do a three point turn in there. Above Luton the going becomes fun once more. The Cleansing of Constance Brown always travels in an articulated lorry, but mostly because Paul Matthews don’t deal in anything smaller. There’s an inevitable rock’n’roll frisson when one of those pulls up with your set on board, though our bubble was burst on that one when in Edinburgh a guy we’d hired in to help with the unload and get-in saw the lorry and merely asked “how many of these are coming?”
“Just the one on this occasion”.
We always get a slick van for driving abroad, you don’t want any mechanical issues 1000 miles from home, though getting a puncture repaired in Prague was fun. Some of my fondest touring memories are of zooming along in a high-powered Mercedes Sprinter on a continental road. Occasionally others have driven for us, Craig’s right bum cheek wore the gold embossing off his passport sat beside Welsh Nigel keeping him awake from Estonia to Croatia. Welsh Nigel wore two watches, one for home time, one for local time. The guy who took the set to Macedonia got arrested in Scopia at the start of the second Gulf War. He’d inadvertently parked the van behind the parliament buildings next to a car belonging to a suspected gangster, then couldn’t prove where he’d slept the previous few nights because he was crashing on the floor of Benny’s hotel room to save some cash for his new young kid. He got out with some help from the local embassy, but it was all a bit awkward.
Of course a Greame Rose relates elsewhere the worst thing you can do on tour is to pretend that your car is a van.
Currently in favour with us a Flora, they’re at the more relaxed end of the spectrum but have yet to let us down. Through a worrying engine icon warning light blinked and shone at us most of the way to and from Edinburgh it didn’t seem to handicap the van at all and the journey was great for all the reasons these journeys are always great.