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> > > Julie McNamara, Artistic Director of Vital Xposure talks about their touring production The Knitting Circle
The sheep dip - Sanjiv Hayre plays Colin Shine rushing the women through the bathing room in a scene from The Knitting Circle

The sheep dip - Sanjiv Hayre plays Colin Shine rushing the women through the bathing room. Photo by Sandy Senior

Playwright and long-term advocate of positive change in the mental health system Julie McNamara tells Sheila McWattie about her profound experiences of unearthing untold stories of patients and staff from long-stay institutions

“Who are you? What are you doing here? Where should you be?” Those three questions were all we had to ask those who wanted to contribute to The Knitting Circle,” says disabled artist and mental health system survivor Julie McNamara. Overwhelming isn’t a word Julie uses lightly. But what’s happened since finding a long-abandoned tape in her basement telling the real stories of those who lived at Harperbury Hospital in Hertfordshire, England, has been an emotional roller-coaster.

“So many stories were right there on that recording from the women’s group I ran in the 1980s at the hospital’s Social Education and Assessment Centre, which we called our Knitting Circle. I transcribed the 30-year-old tape and now it’s knackered as I’ve replayed it so often,” says Julie, full of characteristically empathic humour mixed with searing passion for telling the truth about what really happened. “And I decided that the stories of those women and many others like them, and the women themselves, some still living in old long-stay asylums, had been neglected long enough.”

Over the three years since finding the tape and inviting spoken and written contributions to her Knitting Circle project by getting the word out on mental health networks, Julie has received and transcribed a deluge of letters, poems and calls from survivors, not just of Harperbury, where she worked for two years as a nursing assistant and trainee drama therapist – but from asylums across the UK.

“Many long-stay residents, and some staff too, haven’t had a chance to process what actually went on in those grim places and how it felt to be stuck there. Harperbury, for example, was built to accommodate 2,000 people on the site of a First World War aerodrome. For some, this project and the resulting play might be their first experience of telling or hearing their own and others’ stories or finding anyone who is the least bit interested. It wasn’t gloomy all the time – some of the patients’ flashes of mischief and a few compassionate staff helped to keep us all going, but the places themselves and the tales they could tell are often built on decades of abuse.”

Knitting the past together
Gathering and melding those memories into a play, The Knitting Circle, produced by Vital Xposure and with Julie as its Artistic Director, has been her way of breathing life into an era of suppression that is still only too vivid in the minds of those who had any contact with so-called asylums.

“I couldn’t knit a stitch, so I had to pretend. I’d turn up at our Harperbury women’s group with loads of patterns,” she remembers. “But luckily one patient from a locked ward was a brilliant knitter and allowed to attend our group – when she got involved, it helped us all look as if we were there to knit. I just needed a reason to invite the women living there – some had been stuck in there for decades – to a regular women’s group. We were expected to make items for the hospital shop, and of course knitting was seen as a respectable activity. Between nine and 15 women came along each week. It was very fluid – whatever they wanted to talk about while knitting or pretending to knit was fine. Occasionally a man would turn up: 'Heard it was good here. I want to learn to knit too…'"

Some of the 72 storytellers who contacted Julie from across the UK were born in long-stay hospitals. Among the highly complex reminiscences she unearthed, several stretch back over generations, bringing stark meaning to institutionalisation: patients who had never known anywhere else; those who couldn’t leave, even if they wanted to; those who felt desperate to move but were given little or no support to face the changing world outside, against a backdrop of scarce and dwindling resources.

With Thatcher’s Community Care policies taking hold, the twin threats of continuing to endure the devastating power-play on the inside and tackling life on the outside proved too much for some – including vulnerable staff, like the bullying union rep who warned Julie “We don’t like whistleblowers here,” and eventually hanged himself. Julie only pieced this part of the jigsaw together when she was contacted by a care worker who heard about her project via Disability Arts Online (DAO), which has played a key part in reconnecting old links.

“The few former patients who came from Harperbury contacted me through DAO, long after the first outing of The Knitting Circle at Soho Theatre,” explains Julie. I was contacted by a care worker on behalf of three former patients I’d lived and worked alongside in the mid-’80s. They wanted a reunion – a re-visit to Harperbury, as they were making an exhibition called We Live Here Now. It was an amazing experience, going back to the grounds of that great big bin to meet with Anne, Betty and Miriam – and of course it was also astonishing that two of them had been in our original knitting group and were still alive and kicking. Thriving, in fact.”

Getting the message across
The long dismal drive into Harperbury passes the bleak segregated cells for female and male staff, followed by those accommodating patients. Now it’s known as Kingsley Green. “Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Kind of village-ey.” When Vital Xposure’s current tour of The Knitting Circle opened at Enfield’s Dugdale Theatre, seven people from Harperbury – five former patients and two staff members – all came to watch.

“It was so emotional to re-connect,” says Julie. “And the rest of our testimonies were gathered from people from a very wide range of hospitals and asylums in the long-stay care system. They came from far and wide.”

Following dates at the Bluecoat in Julie’s home town of Liverpool, Arena in Wolverhampton and The Albany in Deptford the company’s tour, directed by Antonia Lester, culminates at Bristol’s Brewery at Tobacco Factory on Monday 20 May where a tribute will be held to honour the forgotten voices of those affected by asylums. A group who were ‘put away’ in Yatton, Somerset, will travel specially from the West Country for this final performance.

“Harperbury is synonymous with what has so often happened to people in the mental health system without their consent. A public apology from the British Government is essential and long overdue,” says Julie. “There’s no public recognition in this country about the thousands put away and forgotten in institutions. What happened in Ireland on 19 February this year, when the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny received a standing ovation for his government’s unreserved apology to the women who had been trapped in the Magdalene Laundries, has to happen here.

“Between 1922 and 1996 some 10,000 women and girls were made to work unpaid in laundries run by Roman Catholic nuns. Their stories are shockingly similar to those I’ve met from Harperbury and other asylums, yet there’s no official move in this country to acknowledge decades of misery, neglect, abuse and pain.”

Access all areas
Vital Xposure’s bilingual play integrates signing and spoken words to ensure that involvement in the story is communicated in an inclusive way, with two Deaf actors and two who are hearing all using BSL.

“Our cast and crew represent a motley crew of disabled and non-disabled people from a wide range of cultural backgrounds,” Julie explains. "Each actor is matched with a number of storytellers, representing their combined voices in a powerful mesh of memories. Access is absolutely central to this play, as it illustrates how voices and dreams were hidden as the institutional dynamics and abuse of power became a normal part of everyday life in places such as Harperbury.

"And I’m really impressed with the audience access at Oxford’s Pegasus theatre – their refurbishment is brilliant, and I love their little boxes, specially designed to facilitate feedback from the audience, from one star through to five. One to four were empty after our recent performance – glad to say we only attracted five-star ratings!”

This is a brilliant production. And you still have a chance to catch it on its national tour. It’s a refreshing antidote to all the high-kicking glitz of last year’s Olympics, in that it sheds light on the continued marginalisation shared by the vast majority of disabled people living in this country today.
Joe McConnell, Disability Arts Online

A powerful and well-crafted piece.  Very poignant. Great writing.
Sue Williams, Arts Council England

Years of experience and memories of gone into this play... all true stories from the lives of patients and healthcare workers who inhabited them… Julie McNamara doesn't shy away from the brutality that went on.
Harriet Vickers - British Medical Journal, 2 March 2011

This is a play with enormous heart.
Mel Harris, Sparklab Productions

For more information about the tour please go to

For dates please see DAOs listings pages