26 April 2022
The National (p.17)

You might imagine that Bus Regulation: The Musical would be a niche-interest affair. Who wants to spend part of a sunny Sunday afternoon learning why public transport in west central Scotland is fragmented, inefficient and expensive?

Well, you might be surprised, as the answer is quite a lot of people – the waiting list for this half-hour show was longer than the queue for the night bus after pub chucking-out time.

To be honest, calling Ellie Harrison’s show a musical is a slight stretch, as there is no singing, and only a little freestyle grooving. There is, however, lots of rollerskating and countless costume changes as it charts a dizzying series of splits, mergers and rebranding exercises (literally dizzying, if you’re keeping your eyes on the skaters as they zoom around the theatre). It tells the story of how bus travel within the boundaries of the former Strathclyde Regional Council was deregulated and privatised.

The effect is to demonstrate how getting us where we are today – expensive buses, a confusing jumble of ticket types, and little integration between different modes of transport – didn’t happen by accident. On the contrary, it took a huge amount of effort to make things this bad.

The Conservatives, Harrison tells us, “saw no benefits in co-ordination and integration and saw great dangers in public subsidy.” They viewed bus users as life’s failures (except those in London, which avoided deregulation) and preferred to leave things to the invisible hand of the market, which has been picking the pockets of bus passengers ever since.

No disrespect to Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose 1980s Starlight Express provides the melodies, but anyone who’s been following the Get Glasgow Moving campaign will know the oldies are the best when it comes to jams about public transport integration. If the campaigners really want to get the message out ahead of the local elections, they should share the 1970s Trans Clyde advert with some energetic TikTokers and watch the message go viral. “Link up! Link up! Link up! Link up! Trans-Clyde links you Clyde-wide!” If Louis Theroux’s “Jiggle Jiggle” rap can inspire them, surely this can.

There might be less than two weeks to go until the local elections, but are there any other key issues that could be highlighted in a similar way? How can wannabe councillors cut through the party-political point-scoring and connect with people artistically about the issues that matter most in their local communities?

Perhaps in Edinburgh a Green council candidate could start a conga line in the Old Town, and weave voters in and out of the streets where tell-tale key safes hang from every gate and fence. They could shake a tambourine every time they pass by another stair full of Airbnb properties, and lead a chant of “what do we want? A city-wide short-term let control area! When do we want it? Now!” If the commotion wakes up anyone trying to enjoy an overpriced lie-in, oh well.

Cleansing is another big local issue that drives people up the wall, whether it’s fly-tippers in town and cities or irresponsible campers in rural areas. Why not send a strong message to potential “dumb dumpers” by having a troupe of Parkour practitioners pop out randomly from behind walls, hedges or sand dunes in areas where littering is most common, while a speaker blasts out the sinister chorus of Somebody’s Watching Me?

Any Scottish Labour candidates looking to drum up support for their local policies could … oh wait, do they actually have local plans? It appears their election materials are addressing the cost-of-living crisis by pledging to put hundreds of pounds back in people’s pockets via new policies. New UK Government and Scottish Government policies, that is. It’s certainly an unconventional approach to local election campaigning.

Perhaps the best way to communicate this creatively would be to set up a replica of the crystal dome from The Crystal Maze in every town centre, and have voters enter a lottery to take part. Pop a team of them in, start the fans, and enjoy watching them jump about grabbing foil tickets and sorting the gold from the silver. It’ll be a hoot when they emerge, breathless, to find that all they’ve won is a piggy bank with Anas Sarwar’s face on it, and that Scottish Labour will be doing precisely hee-haw to reduce their cost of living.

Bus Regulation: The Musical does end on a positive note, looking to the future and reminding us that decent public transport services are not a distant dream, but a simple reality in most other parts of the world. Harrison first produced the show in 2019 for an arts programme in Manchester called Get Together & Get Things Done, and the quirky concept attracted lots of media attention. Within months of its premiere, things actually did get done – specifically, Manchester became the first region in the UK to re-regulate its buses since the 1980s. Will lightning strike twice, and integrated smart ticketing become a reality in Glasgow, as first envisaged five decades ago? Here’s hoping.

Shona Craven