“Be thoroughly prepared as far as the work is concerned, so you can handle the madness.” – Author Michael Mears discusses Fringe success and This Evil Thing


“The absolutists were as their name suggests, absolutely opposed to doing anything at all that could even remotely be construed as helping the war effort.”

In 1916, at the height of the First World War, Henry Asquith, Britain’s beleaguered Liberal Prime Minister, “begged leave to introduce a bill with respect to military service.” Little did he know just how strong the opposition to it would be. Although he had ensured, as a result of vigorous campaigning both inside and outside Parliament, that one of the exemptions contained in the bill would be, “on the ground of having a conscientious objection to bearing arms,” in practice it proved extremely difficult to obtain this exemption.

Arrests soon followed. C.O.s would be forcibly escorted to barracks and there ordered to put on a uniform, and do drill – which they politely refused to do. This civil disobedience would result in punishments, bread and water diets, solitary confinement, and worse. At least they couldn’t face the ultimate threat – execution – as they were not in the war-zone, and therefore not deemed to be on active service. Unless, of course the Army started sending C.O.s across the Channel to France…

Michael Mears – actor, playwright, long-distance walker – has enjoyed a rich and varied career in theatre, television, radio and film. His on stage work includes seasons with the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Peter Hall Company, portraying many classical and Shakespearean roles.

On television, Michael’s roles include Rifleman Cooper in Sharpe, two series of The Lenny Henry Show, and appearances in Parades End, The Colour of Magic, My Family, and Birds of a Feather. On film Michael is most delighted to have been the hotel barman who brings Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell together in Four Weddings And A Funeral.

This Evil Thing was published in April 2017 by 49Knights. To find out more click here.

Why WWI conscientious objectors?

As a playwright, I was looking for a subject as the First World War 100 year commemorations were approaching. There I was, a pacifist, but I didn’t appreciate what my subject matter had to be until I casually picked up and read, the way you do, a book I’d been given for Christmas – Robert Graves’ autobiography, Goodbye To All That – in the course of which he describes his experiences in WW1, including his meeting and friendship with Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon, known for his superb war (anti-war?) poetry – served loyally and courageously as a Lieutenant in the trenches, before having a Damascene conversion and realizing the horror and utter futility of it all – and becoming, in effect, a conscientious objector.

Oh yes, I now thought, who were the conscientious objectors exactly? Within days I was discovering all kinds of books, articles, you name it, about the subject – an utterly fascinating, riveting and rarely told part of the history of the First War. I felt compelled to make my own dramatic contribution, inspired by the stories I read, feeling I wanted to play my part in helping give their courageous stand against war and conscription more oxygen and daylight.

This Evil Thing is a play for one actor yet there are dozens of characters represented. What was your process to ensure that each has an individual voice?

michael-mears-in-this-evil-thing-2-999x450Myself and Rosamunde Hutt, my director, made sure that the smallest character, even an army sergeant who has just a couple of lines in the piece, say, had a name, a motivation and their own integrity. We ascertained what their background would be, how they might sound (through playful exploration) and similarly explored how they would move, what physical gestures/tics/mannerisms they might have. Obviously this work would be more in-depth when looking at the more substantial characters. We strenuously tried to avoid any kind of caricature – although occasionally a cartoon-like style might be briefly employed where appropriate.

You’ve enjoyed considerable success at the Fringe both with This Evil Thing and previous productions. What are the best and worst things a new company can do during August in Edinburgh?

Best things you can do – are to be thoroughly prepared as far as the work is concerned, so you can handle the madness of whirlwind get-ins and get-outs, as show follows show follows show. Be as charming and polite as possible to those you are given to work with in the venue, and your venue managers, publicity people etc. Whatever the frustrations, (and there are oh so many) try not to let these affect the way you are in public, and way you deal with people in public. And yes, unless you get that early 5-star review and then sell-out pronto, do hand out flyers and spread the word about your show on a daily basis, but as charmingly as possible – while being fully accepting of the many brush-offs and rejections of your leaflets that you will encounter. Tall order, I know.

Worst things – to get so inebriated, wrecked, spaced-out, whatever, that you can’t deliver brilliantly what you are here for in the first place. To quote some old playwright of yore – ‘The play’s the thing…’ (or the show, the stand-up act, the musical – substitute as necessary…) We all need a good moan. But try not to moan ad infintum. Edinburgh can be incredibly frustrating, but you’re there, you’re performing for better or worse in this huge arts festival, the city is beautiful and it’s an extraordinary place at Festival time, so relish being there, get out and see loads of stuff, especially the amazing stuff that comes from abroad, and let it feed your own work, your own imagination.

You’re an alumnus of the TV series Sharpe (in which Sean Bean plays the titular blood and guts Napoleonic war hero). Here you are writing a play about a different kind of heroism. Are the two types, soldiering and refusing to fight, antithetical?


My instinct is to say yes, and yet, as I highlight right at the end of This Evil Thing, there are different ways to be a hero, to be courageous. The very best soldiers are absolutely willing to sacrifice their lives for what they believe in – and it is exactly the same for the conscientious objectors. They were willing to face death if necessary, to face execution, rather than betray their belief that no man, no government, should be able to force another man to kill against his will.

And many COs, while imprisoned in barracks and guard-rooms, met soldiers who though they said they didn’t agree with the COs’ beliefs, nevertheless had great respect for them and their willingness to suffer in order not to betray those beliefs.

Did you ever mention that you might be a pacifist while playing Rifleman Cooper?

Warfare in those days, the days of Napoleon and Wellington, was a very different thing to warfare just a hundred years later. You got very close to your enemy, often saw the whites of their eyes, often grappled in hand to hand combat…somehow it seemed more honest, if that makes sense – unlike warfare now where generally it’s a question of dropping bombs from a great height or distance – without those doing the bombing ever having any contact with those to whom they are bringing such damage and devastation. The early 1800s was a fascinating period to research and though I was never truly comfortable holding and firing my rifle and taking part in those imagined battles, the characters were so vivid and rich and colourful – most of them survivors from the gutter, finding a home and purpose in the army. And at the time of filming Sharpe, in the early 1990s, I wasn’t consciously calling myself a pacifist. The job of being part of Sharpe was an acting challenge to me, first and foremost – to portray a hard-bitten soldier living on his wits and the camaraderie of his fellows, even though I would never have dreamt of joining the army in real life; much as to play Macbeth, you don’t actually have to have been a murderer (though I imagine it would help a bit).

Many of the absolutist COs came from a nonconformist background. Most Quakers, Methodists, etc accepted non-combat roles (such as front line stretcher bearing). What made the absolutists different, and how were they treated by their own congregational communities after WWI?

The absolutists were as their name suggests, absolutely opposed to doing anything at all that could even remotely be construed as helping the war effort. They were utterly opposed to this war, and in most cases, all war. There were 1,300 of them, and they endured tough prison sentences, with repeated stints of solitary confinement on bread and water diets, and enduring what was a Rule Of Silence for all prisoners in prison at that time. Many developed health problems as a result of their treatment.

After the war the responses the COs encountered on release varied – but in some communities there was a feeling that they had been shirkers, had had an easy war and didn’t deserve any kind of special treatment or status now. Finding work could prove very difficult, with many ads in the papers specifying that ‘COs need not apply’ ; and the vote was denied to COs for 5 years. But there were communities, such as in Huddersfield with its radical background and history, who were far more understanding of what the COs stood for and had endured.

Bert Brocklesby, the protagonist in my play, and who had been an absolutist, was ultimately spurned by his Methodist congregation in south Yorkshire. It wasn’t long before Bert joined the Quakers, understandably.

Do you see a difference between refusing wartime service between 1914-18 and 1939-45?

An early choice of title for my play was ‘What About Hitler?’ Sort of says it all, really – in terms of this question. The most passionate pacifists, and I consider myself one, are nevertheless brought up short when confronted with the ghastly phenomenon of AH. War is an appalling way to resolve international disputes, but when someone like Hitler appears on the scene – what do you do? But there were COs in WW2, a lot more in fact than in WW1, and because of those early trailblazers and the way in which they had in fact helped to reshape public opinion to a considerable extent, COs in WW2 generally had a far more sympathetic hearing.

Although This Evil Thing is a play for one actor you’ve been directed, stage managed, designed and produced. How does a solo player successfully pick a team?

There are all kinds of elements that go into picking a team – experience (the older you get, the more people you work with and thus gain an excellent knowledge of people’s abilities or particular skills); word of mouth; getting out there and seeing (in my case) other directors’ solo work (partly how I found Ros Hutt – I saw a splendid solo piece she had directed a year earlier); chance meetings; serendipity; and of course, calling on people you’ve worked with well before – like Mark Friend my set designer, who had designed a previous solo play of mine. I came across my sound designer Mark Noble, when I was in a play sat Salisbury that he had designed sound and video for – and I thought, ‘Gosh, he’s good. And he’s very young. So maybe he won’t be too expensive – yet!’

30477-6715What’s next for This Evil Thing?

A 600 seat tent, 3 Quaker school halls, the studio of Hull Truck theatre, London’s only surviving Elizabethan Church in Stoke Newington, a small wine bar in Wanstead, East London – all these with their differing shapes, sizes and acoustics, and many more, will be hosting the play this August, and through the autumn. Check out michaelmears.org for more details.

I’m also looking for possible American openings – no, not Hollywood, but the Quakers in Philadelphia perhaps…

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading This Evil Thing?

Ideally nothing. But if you do want something on in the background…then almost certainly something by Vaughan-Williams – his ‘Pastoral Symphony’ – which captures the sense of loss and sadness connected with the First World War… or his ‘The Lark Ascending.’

Or a haunting and beautiful piece of acapella music called ‘Unmarked Graves’ by Helen Chadwick, from her album ‘AMAR’ – she recorded other beautiful acapella material for the production of This Evil Thing.


“The Devils in Skirts still scare the bejesus out of the natives.” – Author Adrian Greenwood discusses Victoria’s Scottish Lion

“Beware the London establishment trying to bring you to heel with honours, flattery and peerages; that’s what they tried with Campbell.”

In May 1808 the son of a Glaswegian cabinet-maker was commissioned an ensign in the 9th Foot (without purchase). That August he saw his first action at the Battle of Vimeiro. The military career of Colin Campbell, later 1st Baron Clyde, would include The Peninsular War, The War of 1812, The First Opium War, The Second Anglo-Sikh War, and The Crimean War. His “Thin Red Line” won immortality at the Battle of Balaclava.

Campbell, in contradiction of many assumptions about class and the British Army in the 19th Century, ended his career as a Field Marshall. When he received an honorary degree from Oxford University, it was in the company of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Dr. David Livingstone. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. A statue of Campbell (by John Foley) stands in Glasgow’s George Square. A complex, mercurial man, loved by his troops and admired by Queen Victoria, he’s been called Britain’s first ‘working-class’ field marshal.

Adrian Greenwood, Campbell’s most recent biographer, read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Christ Church, Oxford before taking an MBA at Imperial College. After university he started buying British Rail lost property at auction and selling it at car boot sales around London. From there he moved on to antiques, and eventually specialised in antiquarian books. Having supplied items to a broad range of clients – including the British Library and the Getty Museum – Adrian retired to concentrate on his writing.

Victoria’s Scottish Lion: The Life of Colin Campbell, Lord Clyde (published by the History Press, July 28th). To find out more visit: www.adriangreenwoodbooks.co.uk

Why Campbell?

I first came across him 25 years ago when I was doing History ‘A’ Level – I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t more famous. Over the years I kept seeing his name in books on the Victorian army, by historians like Trevor Royle and Saul David, and he seemed by far the most brilliant general of his age, yet no one had looked at his career thoroughly for a century or more. Then, as I found out more about him, the idea of writing the story of this working class maverick, riling the Victorian establishment, became irresistible. As one reader said to me, ‘You wonder why you haven’t heard of this man before.’

What accounts for Campbell’s rise through the ranks?

Well, back in the Peninsular War it wasn’t quite as hard to get promotion as Sharpe would have you believe. Campbell got his first commission for free because there was such a demand for new officers. He was promoted lieutenant because the officers above him got shot or died of disease, then he was made captain for leading a ‘forlorn hope’ at San Sebastian – that’s when a young officer leads a detachment to storm a town’s defenses. In that assault he was hit twice by musket balls but won his captaincy.

In peacetime it was much harder to rise up the ranks but Campbell managed to borrow the money to become major and then lieutenant-colonel. After that, even in the 19th century, promotion was by seniority and merit – you couldn’t buy a rank higher than lieutenant-colonel, you had to wait until the old buffers further up died off. After a long pause stuck as a colonel, he raced through the general ranks during the Crimean War (1854-56) and the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858).

Was there a particular battle, or other event, which shaped Campbell more than any other?

Difficult to pin down one, but his very first battle, Vimeiro in 1808, had a big effect. Campbell described how a captain led him by the hand up to the front while the French shot and shell thundered overhead. He was only fifteen. After that he was fearless – Queen Victoria used to tick him off for rushing into action, sword in hand, in his sixties, when he was supposed to be supervising the battle.

His other formative experience, what made him a ‘soldiers general’ (one who always looked after the men) was seeing the losses on the terrible retreat to Corunna through the Galician mountains in 1809.

What did Disraeli mean when he said that Campbell had, “only one fault – a courage too reckless for his country”?

Purple prose on Dizzy’s part, to play up to the mob, I think. He definitely wasn’t referring to rashness in strategic terms – if anything Campbell was criticized for being too cautious. Either he was referring to Campbell’s personal courage, his tendency to rush in where the fighting was thickest, or his habit of speaking his mind and rubbing people up the wrong way.

Campbell served in a time when Scotland was largely imperialist and unionist. What lessons, if any, can modern Scots draw from such ancient history?

What a disproportionately large contribution Scots made to the British army, in terms of officers and men, and to world history. Second, beware the London establishment trying to bring you to heel with honours, flattery and peerages; that’s what they tried with Campbell. Third, the Devils in Skirts still scare the bejesus out of the natives.

What has been the reaction so far from other scholars of the period?

Very positive, although at the time of writing it’s not out yet, nor are the reviews. There has been a distinct air of expectancy from a lot of academics in this field.

What’s the single best fact you’ve learned from your research into Campbell’s life and times?

From a historical perspective, whole chunks of his career – like his time in the Caribbean – were previously unreported and unstudied, but if you want a single anecdote, it was Campbell’s reaction when the 1,200 civilians he was evacuating from Lucknow, in the face of 50,000 rebels, tried to take their furniture with them. A vicar’s wife strapped a harmonium to a camel to get it out of town. When one man tried to take a ‘large, circular drawing room table’, Campbell lost his temper and ordered it left by the roadside.

Why did Campbell change his name (he was born Colin Macliver)?

That’s still opaque. It wasn’t, as usually claimed, because when his uncle, Colonel Campbell, presented him at Horse Guards, the Commander-in-Chief (the Duke of York) assumed he had the same name and no-one dared correct him. Actually, Colin started using the name Campbell before that, when his uncle took over his education and sent him to school in Gosport in his early teens. One newspaper suggested Colin was really his uncle’s son, but that seems far-fetched – he would not only have been illegitimate but the result of an incestuous affair between a brother and sister.

His mother and uncle’s family, though poor, was descended from the Dukes of Argyll, so for them the Campbell name was extremely important. Maybe his uncle, in virtually adopting him, insisted he use the name. It’s still a puzzle.

As a book dealer you sold some ultra-rare J.K. Rowling 1st and special editions. Will these really hold their value as well as a signed 1st edition by P.G. Wodehouse or a 1st French edition of Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days?

Excellent question. I remember when someone told me a Harry Potter had sold for £1,000 at auction (this was in the late 1990s), I couldn’t believe a modern children’s book could make that much, yet this June Sotheby’s sold one for £25,000. The first hardback edition of the first Harry Potter is genuinely scarce – there are probably no more than 50 really good copies.

Rowling’s place in children’s literature is well and truly cemented so they should hold their price, but they haven’t gone up as much in the last seven or eight years as other modern first editions. That’s partly because the films have come to a close and that’s a big factor.

If my customers asked whether a specific book would be a good investment I used to tell them to try the stock market instead, but if you want a ‘blue chip’ book to buy, go for Bond. They have been performing well for forty years, and they get a fillip every time a new film appears.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Victoria’s Scottish Lion?

For the action bits ‘The Campbells are Coming!’ or the ‘Thin Red Line March’. Half the book’s about India and I played quite a lot of Ravi Shankar while writing it.