3 October 2019
“Are you here for the bus event?” asks the woman, with just a trace of weariness. Myself and two other people confirm that, yes, we are here to attend Bus Regulation: The Musical.
We are directed to the first floor of Manchester Art Gallery where a lengthy queue is forming outside gallery 12. Staff, who seem surprised but unfazed by the high turnout, begin sorting us into two queues; those who booked ahead and those who didn’t. It is going to be a full house, despite the torrential rain outside.
This 30 minute musical, a collaboration between Manchester Art Gallery and artist Ellie Harrison, was inspired by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1984 musical, Starlight Express. It seeks to tell the history of bus regulation in the Greater Manchester area from the 1960s onwards.
Our compere is Barbara Castle (ably played by Summer Dean) who, as transport minister in the first Wilson government, sought to unite and integrate the 11 municipal bus companies operating in the Greater Manchester area. Castle introduces the audience to the bus fleets, each of whom is represented by a skater from Arcadia Roller Derby. They are dressed in capes like superheroes, and proudly sport the crest of their local corporation on their t-shirt.
As Castle describes the various stages of bus regulation, from local control to the founding of the Greater Manchester Authority and greater integration of council areas and services, the “buses” echo the changes, removing their town crests and donning the orange branding of Greater Manchester’s integrated fleet, SELNEC. They seamlessly circuit the audience, holding onto each others capes, moving as a smooth, well oiled machine.
The audience are a mixture of ages and backgrounds, and they seem to be enjoying themselves. There is laughter at the often acerbic commentary by Castle, and there’s a good deal of pantomime style booing when we reach 1979 and the election of Margaret Thatcher.
As the decades flash by, and the effect of bus deregulation in 1986 becomes manifest, we can see the impact on the buses as the circling skaters become more chaotic: logos and capes are changed at an increasingly giddying speed, representing the rapid acceleration of company buyouts and takeovers. There are fewer buses and those that are left begin to overtake and menace each other in an echo of the city’s infamous bus wars. They begin to bunch up, leaving long gaps in the circuit, suggesting bad timetabling and a scarcity of services.
And then, just when you think all is lost, a bit of sunshine comes over the horizon in the form of the 2017 Bus Services Act and the tantalising carrot of public control.
The buzz of conversation after the show suggests that the audience have enjoyed the performance but that they have also been left with a lot to think about. Many stop to talk to Harrison or to campaigner Pascale Robinson of the Better Buses for Greater Manchester group, who is handing out flyers by the exit.
Better Buses support Mayor Andy Burnham’s plans for public control of the Greater Manchester bus network, plans which are due to go out to public consultation on 15 October. Should the scheme go ahead, it will be a green light for other local authorities, such as Newcastle and Glasgow, who are keenly watching events in Manchester. Bus Regulation: The Musical is an unlikely tool in the campaign’s arsenal – but as the audience figures show, unusual times call for unusual measures.
Cazz Blase campaigns for bus reform as part of Better Buses for Greater Manchester.