Chichester: remarkable tale of WWI London buses brought to the stage

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Carol Godsmark says it was an exhilarating experience to see the actors with her script in their hands on the first day of rehearsals.

She’s expecting the experience to be all the more remarkable still when the play actually hits the stage.

The company

The company

Carol is the co-author with Greg Mosse of Number 60 to the Somme.

A play with music celebrating the ‘only and best’ B-Type London bus, it enjoys its premiere from November 3-7 at the Riverside Theatre, Chichester College, Chichester, directed by Roger Redfarn.

Based on a storyline from Carol’s novel, Ghost Army, the play – a Chichester Community Theatre Production – tells the story of Jim Swift, a London double-decker bus driver who, against his family’s wishes, enlists to drive his bus to the front, one of the many leaving London streets in their red livery as part of the First World War effort.

“The Great War was an extraordinary mobilisation of men, women, animals and machines,” Carol said. “The B-Type bus – open-topped, steel-wheeled, solid, dependable – was dispatched in huge numbers to serve in Belgium and France.

“The vehicles became troop transports, mobile hospitals, pigeon lofts – and were put to any and every perilous use on the rough roads and tracks.”

It’s a remarkable story but one very much unknown, says Carol who came across it through an article in the Evening Standard talking about the Heritage Lottery-funded restoration of one of the buses which is now at the London Transport Museum.

“It now looks absolutely stunning, but it goes to show how difficult it must have been for the soldiers to climb up the back stairs often with nearly a hundred pounds of kit on their back. I just thought no one knows about this story and what an extraordinary story it was. They are so iconic, these red buses, throughout the world. They have always been part of the London scene and nowhere else. You just can’t imagine them going off to the front still with Piccadilly on the front. They were taken over by the army service corps to transport soldiers initially.

“I did more than a year’s research at the Imperial War Museum and the London Transport Museum and various other places. I was trying to visualise who was driving, why they went and why there were so many of them, and so I wrote the book Ghost Army, about a 45-year-old bus driver trying to have the last great adventure of his life and trying to persuade his wife and daughter that he was going to be back soon because they were expecting the war to be over by Christmas.”

Carol is currently reworking the novel with a view to publication: “But I did a year’s play-writing course with Greg at the CFT. Greg was the leader and I was talking about the storyline toward the end of the course, and he said ‘This would make a really good play. Why don’t we write this play?’ He could visualise much more of a music-hall side to the play, and in fact the character in the play becomes quite different to the book. Jim is the bus driver. He is much younger, and he has got a fiancée.”

Carol was delighted to work with Greg on the piece: “He has got a lot of experience. I thought it would make a very good collaboration, though we would never sit down side by side to write. We discussed the outline, and then the collaboration was more ‘I don’t think this piece works’ or ‘Yes, I do think this bit works.’”

Tickets on www.chichestercommunitytheatre.org.uk.

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