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Playwright, Clifford 'Olly' Oliver

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


"Football is where the real theatre is, but for it to remain relevant it has to adapt." The struggle against racism in British football - on and off the field - has turned up many champions, but none as committed as 44 year old playwright Clifford Oliver.


A lifelong fan of east London's lower-league strugglers, Leyton Orient (based a few miles from Premier League club West Ham), Oliver co-founded the Arc Theatre Ensemble in 1984 with the intention of using drama to explore key issues in urban, multi-cultural society. In his early days as an actor-turned writer, remembers Oliver, racist abuse on the football terraces was still common. He then realised that at Orient's homely Brisbane Road ground, located in the midst of a large and long established Asian community, there were virtually no non-white faces to be seen amongst the home fans.


Oliver's response was to write 'Kicking Out', in which the amateur coach of a youth team is made to confront his racist past by a talented Asian teenager called Showab Khan. Oliver's central theme came as a shock to some within football - that beneath the veneer of supposedly cosmopolitan attitudes, deep-seated prejudice still holds back the progress of players of Asian origin. Some 60% of Bangladeshi boys and 43% of Pakistani boys in Britain play football. Those Oliver met were experts on the top teams and players. Yet very few ever attended games, and not a single Asian player has played in the Premier League.


With its hard-hitting climax, 'Kicking Out' left audiences both numbed and humbled. After one performance the Asian mayor of Brentford (in west London) wept. A senior club manager admitted to Oliver that he had indeed allowed prejudice to rule his football instincts.


'Kicking Out' was followed by 'Ooh Aah Showab Khan,' in which Khan finally makes it onto the books of a Premier League club, only to be dropped after he is sent off for reacting to racist abuse from a rival player. 'The play is about tolerance on one level,' says Oliver. The club chairman is proud to have an Asian in his team. 'But it also shows the barriers that any Asian player who does break through will inevitably face. The football industry wants Khan to become an icon, for political correctness and to attract more Asian supporters - and let's face it, some good things do come out of commerce - but Khan himself just wants to be judged as a footballer.'


Similarly challenging is the final play in Oliver's football trilogy. Called 'My England,' this takes place in a police cell under Wembley Stadium, where two England fans, one white, one black, are thrown together after being ejected from the stands. The pair have more in common than they would ever have imagined.


For Oliver, the central issue is not how different ethnic groups can learn to live together, but how can they move forward together. 'Anti-racist leaflets and posters are fine as they go, but to change the way people behave you have to get into their heads. Football is a place where all kinds of different attitudes come together. It is and always has been a community event. For me it is where the real theatre is. But for it to remain relevant it has to adapt.'


Simon Inglis, June 2001




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