Rose Collis left school at 18 with scant qualifications to her name, but had already become a self-taught guitarist with dozens of self-penned songs to her credit.
She appeared in many school plays, including The Importance of Being Earnest, The Monkey’s Paw and an adaptation of Cry The Beloved Country. It’s believed that her love for theatre began at the age of five, when she was one of several children coaxed by their families on to the stage of Wimbledon Theatre for a group rendition of Old Macdonald Had A Farm during a performance of Sleeping Beauty, starring Norman Vaughan. Her long blonde hair ladlylike home-made dress and obedient demeanour made her the natural choice to give voice to the pig. Her convincing performance brought the house down, and she exited laden down with an abundance of prize gifts, including a signed photo of Mr Vaughan. Her precocious, correctly-spelled note written on the back of the card was an early sign that this could be an embryo diva in the making.
One of her secondary school teachers told her that she would never have a stage career unless a) she went to drama school, and b) she lost her South London accent.
She did neither – and has now had not one but two stage careers.
She spent a year training in secretarial and admin skills (how useful would that qualification in touch-typing turn out to be…) and worked as a temp while making early forays into fringe music and ‘agit-prop’ theatre, via the Oval House, in tandem with her burgeoning activism, courtesy of some careful nurturing by the legendary Brixton gay community.
This led to some of her first performances, including a number of benefit concerts for ‘Women in Entertainment’, and the Greek gay magazine, Amfi, alongside Noel Greig and Stephen Gee (both of Gay Sweatshop).
By the age of 21, she had produced a ‘demo’ of some of her own songs; co-founded a women’s theatre group; performed with them in five European countries and in the the UK.
Her ‘demo’ tape – self-financed and produced – garnered her first professional review:
‘Close It Down is a number with all the necessary surges and variations to maintain interest and the lyrics don’t rely on the rigid rhythm structure for scanning, being used as another part of the arrangement. A lesson many find it difficult to learn but it makes a helluva difference. Who Fires The Gun? is a lighter, quite bouncy number. A lot of fun and, again, well-constructed.’
Her theatrical career began in late 1979 at the Oval House, part of a large group of performers who devised and performed an ‘Epic Workshop’ production, directed by Jim Sweeney, based on the life and work of Mary Shelley.
In 1980, she co-founded Hardware, the feminist musical-comedy troupe, for which she wrote and arranged much of its songs and the group became noted for its musical versatility and originality.
Within weeks, the group set off on an ad hoc two-month busking tour around Europe, playing at festivals, outdoor sites and venues in Sweden, Denmark, West Germany (passing through East Germany en route), Italy and Holland, including outside Nuremberg Castle; the Uffizi Gallery, Florence; and the Olympic Park, Munich.
Hardware performed extensively at UK arts festivals, including Bath, Hood Fair and the Edinburgh Fringe, and venues including Oval House, Chapter Arts Centre, Chat’s Palace, The York & Albany, Theatre Space, The Half Moon and Hoxton Hall.
The group were featured on Afternoon Plus (Thames TV) during the Women Live Festival 1982.
The group’s shows were:
‘Brass Tacks’, written and composed by the company. A cabaret show ‘seething with rude, racy, socially-relevant and irreverent renderings, served up with soupçon of satire.’
‘…a group which is aware that a protest registers more readily when not ponderously hammered home…sustained by verve and co-ordination…the songs have drive and sensitivity.’
Hampstead and Highgate Express
‘…sheer good humour, all put over with panache and clever tomfoolery… Rose Collis sings with Brechtian authority.‘
‘…zest and some comic surprises…their musical versatility is impressive…vocally, too, the harmonies of the four are effective.’
Bath & West Evening Chronicle
‘Everywoman’, devised, written and composed by the company, (Rose Collis, Carol Prior, Karen Lucas, Lisa Fairgrieve), directed by Edward Dumas.
‘A spirited answer to the medieval play of ‘Everyman’, embracing the diversity and complexity of ‘a woman’, seen at her four climactic ages.’
‘Never solemn, never didactic, often funny and tuneful, Hardware strike many more blows on behalf of women than a more explicitly ideological approach could possibly manage…’
‘The Hardware Theatre Company have now achieved the difficult feat of combining realistic detail with quick-fire musical revue style.
South London Press
‘Hardware being Hardware, there’s a lot of brass, woodwind and guitar around…’
‘These four versatile actresses turned the mirror on women in a witty and perceptive portrait undistorted by either militancy or rancour.’
‘And Pigs Might Fly’, devised by the company, scripted by Caroline Mylon, music by Rose Collis, musical director Jerry Wesley, directed by Kate Crutchley. ‘A musical satire set in a future society where the concepts of work, the media, family and social conventions have had to be redefined.’
Nice music, talented group…’
‘Hardware perform this futuristic musical farce with great elan…a clever use of music…’
‘Some excellent music…’
South London Press
After Hardware disbanded in 1982, Rose Collis continued performing until the mid-80s as a solo artist and with other fringe groups, including Dovetail Joint and Outcast Theatre (formerly Consenting Adults in Public), composing songs and co-writing their respective musical shows Rats and Romance, and Obscene and Heard. and singing and playing guitar and banjolele with Pink Rince, the world’s first gay ceilidh group.
Dovetail Joint’s latest show, a subversive and witty look at the myths of romance… Performed with considerable skill and ingenuity.
Whenever you put two or more lesbians together in a confined space, you can almost guarantee that before long they will all be shrieking with laughter and a making a string of exceedingly right-off jokes. Until very recently, this lesbian humour didn’t seem to transfer into performance very well. With the likes of Parker & Klein, The Virgin Mary Society and Siren, things have begun to change. And this is where ‘Obscene and Heard’ comes in…we are in the realms of lesbian camp.
In 1982, Rose Collis wrote and performed the song Goodbye Renée Adoree for Tony Fletcher’s triptych Renée Adorée Where Are You?, a tribute to silent screen legend Renée Adoree with images from the Ronald Grant Collection, now housed at the Cinema Museum, London. A film of this can be seen here:
Camera/Lighting Erika Stevenson. Narration and editing Ronald Grant.
In 2018, Rose Collis re-tooled and re-recorded the song for a re-mastered version of the film:
Recording: Tod Higginson
Also in 1982, Rose Collis featured in Intimate Confessions, an edition of the BBC2 youth series Something Else, writing and editing script for the programme, including the four-part Jo and Nicky, co-written with David Quantick, now a multiple award-winning music and comedy writer for NME, Veep, Brass Eye and TV Burp.