Say the word ‘Freemans’ to anyone over a certain age, and they’ll respond with the word ‘catalogues’. Say it to anyone who was brought up in Peterborough, and they’ll likely come back with whole a lot more. Now a new community play from Eastern Angles aims to capture the memories, the experiences, the trials and triumphs of life working at Freemans during its 40 years in the city. Toby Venables unwraps the latest offering with Eastern Angles director Ivan Cutting and tries it on for size...
You’ve done several community productions before, reflecting the history of the city, but how did the Freemans project come about?
It partly comes out of the Forty Years On project, where we did lots of interviews with people who had arrived in Peterborough within the last 40 years. Many of them said ‘Oh, I worked at Freemans…’ We realised that this was a central part of the city’s history, so we put in an application to Heritage Lottery for the project.
What are some of the key moments in the life of Freemans?
There are strikes occasionally. There’s a very significant equal pay dispute. There are also postal strikes, which obviously have a huge effect on a catalogue distribution company. In fact, Freemans only came to Peterborough in the first place because the Post Office was having a huge parcel depot built at the railway station, and they actually built a kind of conveyor across the railway there to the warehouse. It was a huge place. They used to leave bikes around so people could get from one side to the other. But a lot changes. It’s 1969 to 2009, so in the early days they’re still sewing up the bags – like convicts, really! Those were the stiff paper packages that they used to use. Then they went over to plastic, then digital arrived in the early 90s and it all went computerised. They’d always had lots of conveyor belts there, but it got even more complex, with lasers to read labels. I’ve had to get the women drawing me diagrams of who sat where and how it all worked!
Can you describe the work that was done there?
There were the pickers, who basically got the orders out and labelled them. Then there were the packers, who put them into the appropriate bags. There were the laser girls, who sat up on a kind of gantry making sure the labels could be read by the laser. But Returns was one of the really interesting ones. People often over-ordered, or things weren’t quite right, and they would send them back again. The Returns people had to decide whether it went straight back into stock, or if it was only slightly soiled they’d put it into the staff shop, or if it was too far-gone it might get returned to the customer. People would sometimes order a wedding suit, and it would come back with a note saying ‘Sorry, it didn’t fit’, and they’d find confetti in the pocket… It could get quite dodgy, too. At one point they had a contract with a Dutch company who were supplying vibrators, and the women said: ‘We are NOT touching this stuff in the Returns Dept…’ A key feature was the staff shop. A woman I interviewed showed me a coat which was supposed to be £90, but it was marked down to £30, and then she went along on a 90% day, so she got it for £3. She’s still got it. People were desperate to get inside that shop, but it was only open for very short periods – during the lunch hour or just after work, so you had to get a move on. In fact, people said: ‘Don’t take your own stuff off, because someone will try to buy it!’ I’ve had people tell me they furnished their entire home from that shop.
What’s the process for putting a play like this together?
You have various elements: there are the interviews in which people describe their first day or some of the funny things that happened – kind of documentary theatre. Then there’s a fictional script, which I am writing, which has representative characters of different ages. Then you also have songs which have some fun with it and give a sense of the period. We’re going to have a company of 24 community performers rehearsing over a period of ten weeks with Poppy Rowley, who is directing. Then we perform it at the The Undercroft. But we still want to hear from anyone who has a story. Things will get added right up to the last minute – but it’s also more than just a play. We’re doing an exhibition which we’ll curate from the information we’ve gathered, and that will be touring, hopefully next March. So, if anyone has anything from that period which could go into the exhibition – clothes, documents, newsletters – we’d like to hear from them.
All Wrapped Up in Westwood ● 26 Oct-5 Nov ● The Undercroft, Serpentine Green Shopping Centre, Hampton ● Full-price £12, Concession £10 ● To book call: 01473 211498 or visit: www.easternangles.co.uk