About twenty years ago, while I was still living in Brighton and struggling with my first novel, Mortal Engines, I took some time off to work with my friend Brian Mitchell on a musical called The Ministry of Biscuits. It was a 1984-ish affair, set in a parallel post-war Britain where biscuits are strictly controlled by the eponymous Ministry (sensible biscuits such as the digestive and the Scotch Abernathy are permitted, of course, but dubious exotic confections like the gypsy cream and the jaffa cake are suppressed with the full power of the state). But when Cedric Hobson, a meek junior biscuit designer working on the recipe for a thinner, drier Rich Tea Finger, falls hopelessly in love with his new secretary, he resolves to win her heart by creating the most delicious biscuit ever imagined…
Brian is a much better writer than I am (the plays he writes with Joseph Nixon are all little masterpieces) and I learned a lot from working him. He’s also a very good composer, and he filled the show with songs which draw on the British Light Classical tradition, emphasising the wonky 1940s/1950s quality. (I didn’t really have much to do with the songs: I just provided Brian with tea (and biscuits) and watched him pace about my living room inventing lyrics, occasionally chucking in a suggestion when he was stuck for a rhyme.)
I think The Ministry of Biscuits was the moment when I found my feet as a writer. I knew while we were working on it that it was better than anything I’d done before. I suppose I could say that I had finally ‘found my own voice’. In fact, what I’d found was Brian’s voice, and it was such a good voice that I had to up my game considerably to try and match it. He understood things I hadn’t yet grasped, like the importance of a consistent tone, and how a scene can sometimes be funnier if it isn’t stuffed full of jokes. The lessons I learned from him helped to shape Mortal Engines, and I think there’s a hint of Mortal Engines in The Ministry… too; a kind of broad, retro sci-fi flavour which I brought to the proceedings. (Ideas flowed the other way, too: Chudleigh Pomeroy and the other senior guildsmen in Mortal Engines would feel right at home in MiniBic.) But, like any successful collaboration, now that it’s finished I find it impossible to say for sure which bits were mine and which were Brian’s. It’s simply The Ministry of Biscuits, and I’m very fond of it.
It was staged several times in Brighton in the late 90s/early 2000s, did a small regional tour, and played at the Edinburgh Fringe, but nothing much has been heard of it since. UNTIL NOW… because The Ministry of Biscuits is being revived this winter by the Foundry Group, at the Lantern Theatre in Brighton.
Much has changed since we wrote The Ministry… Back then, the idea of the government trying to control what biscuits people liked was an absurdist fantasy – now Public Health England is probably busy drafting stringent dunking regulations. How will this whimsical bit of lightweight political satire from the liberal late ’90s fare in the age of Brexiteers and Corbynoids?