Salakta Balloon Band

Company name: Salakta Balloon Band

Founders: Oswaldo Salvi founded the group in Italy and then moved to London. He passed it on to Johnny Melville and Marie Green when he left to go back to Italy in 1974 to join the clowning group, Quelli di Grock.

Established: 1973

Reason: Oswaldo Salvi was in Tunisia in 1973 and wanted to start a theatre group. He named the group Salakta Balloon Band after a small town on the coast of Tunisia.

Current status: Disbanded

Area of Work: Community & Street Theatre

Policy: To create a magical world of celebration of the childlike mind, using the elements of clown, workshops and special projects, with audiences of any and every age. Taking theatre to the people wherever THEY were.

Structure: Operated as a cooperative but artistic vision came from Johnny Melville and Marie Green. Johnny Melville looked after most of the administration, directing the groups concepts and dramaturgy.

Based: Oval House until 1975, then Battersea Arts Centre. Toured extensively in Britain and Europe.

Funding: Generally the Greater London Arts Association (GLAA) would give roughly half the fee required by the group to the organisation applying to see a show. Around 1974, the group’s core members were earning about £50 a week. The group’s members took very small wages and channeled most of the money back into the group, to buy props, costumes and to get further training. In 1976, Salakta Balloon Band received a small grant from the Arts Council. When the group was resident at Battersea Arts Centre they received money from Wandsworth Council.

Performance venues: Oval house, Battersea Arts Centre, ICA, old people’s homes, pub theatres, church halls, parks, hospitals, street festivals, schools, European festival circuit.

Audiences: Street festivals would be comprised of people from the local community and also those who had found out about it from Time Out. The audience was mixed – families, young people and those interested in street theatre.

For more Johnny Melville images see the Kaboodle web page.

Company work and process:
Johnny Melville:
‘We were based at Oval house at the beginning and Battersea Arts Centre invited us in 1975 to be a resident group, which gave us a lot of freedom and nice space to work in for free. We just paid them back by doing performances. The first year saw Marie Green and I learning a lot of new tricks. For example, we’d arrive at a kids’ playground and they’d ask us to juggle, and at that point we couldn’t juggle, so we’d go away and learn how to juggle for a few weeks. The same happened with acrobatics. So over the months we built up a repertoire of skills. Of course now there are circus schools, but then it was new territory in many ways. We also had a couple jazz musicians who liked to dress up as clowns and would improvise with us. In the last 18 months (1975-76) we had a bass, keyboard and drums as well.

We had a bunch of shows we could do in different situations. If an old people’s home wanted an afternoon show we had a little pool of people that could tap dance and sing. It was a mix of outrageous clowning and some real entertainment. It was always done with a little bit of tongue and cheek – and always a bit of a parody.

The first year was really about discovering through our madness, craziness and our sense of humour, plus our need to survive in London. I remember the thrill of getting a first paid gig, it was very exciting. And suddenly it all took off, very quickly. There was a need for street theatre at the time, so it was perfect timing. There was a big improvement over those first months. We didn’t use any of the stuff that Osvaldo Salvi, the group’s originator, had pushed. We did a lot of improvisation, what we called roving clowning, which involved arriving as a character in a situation and then improvising and having fun with the audience. And through that a maturity came out as to what clowning was for us. The main show then was The Flying Frazinis, which we played everywhere, it seemed like.’

Personal appraisal & thoughts:
Johnny Melville: ‘I think it was probably the richest time in theatre of all the periods I can think of. Part of that was I was young and I had a lot of energy. I spent hours and hours and hours either doing admin or training. Sleep was only something I did in between. That was also reflected in all the other work that was going on at the time. There was Pip Simmons and the People’s Show, 7:84 and Hull Truck Theatre Company. Theatre was everywhere, as, of course, it was before video and the internet. I don’t think theatre has had the evolve with the same importance to develop in the same way since (maybe when the electric grid crashes it will be needed again).

That time was my own personal apprenticeship with the public and learning. I didn’t expect to be doing comedy. I thought I’d be doing more avant-garde or experimental work ( like I had been doing with Nancy Meckler and Pam Brighton). Before Salakta I had worked with some excellent groups. One of them was Freehold Theatre Company. They were doing amazing work and I used to see them at Edinburgh when I was at university. The first thing I did when I went South to London was join Freehold as their Company Manager, so I learnt a lot of the trade on the road. I did lights and sound for them, for a show called Beowulf.

When I was in London, I was one of the resident teachers on there with some fantastic young actors, the Oval House School for Radical Theatre, which is where I met Osvaldo Salvi through my friend Frederick Warderwho, who was working with him. I taught a course – Geraldine Pilgrim [Hesitate and Demonstrate] was one of the students – and we did a performance with the students in August 1973 in the Serpentine Gallery. The Oval House School for Radical Theatre was probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever been part of, and all the people that were connected to it were the main people from the 1960s and 70s British theatre scene. It also spiralled out into mainstream theatre and effects were also felt in society. It was about finding alternative ways of doing things.’


Cabaret sketches
Director: Johnny Melville
Cast: Johnny Melville, Marie Green, John Rawlinson, Patti Bee
The Albany Empire, Joan Littlewood theatre workshop1974
Snow White and the Chicken
Writer: Johnny Melville
Director: Johnny Melville
Cast: Johnny Melville, Marie Green, Alan Hawkridge, John Rawlinson, Sally Cranfield, Bob Stratt
Costume Designer: Company
Music: Bob Stratton
Tramshed Theatre, ICA, Tour of Wandsworth Housing Estates1974 -75
Galaxy Girl
Writer: Johnny Melville
Director: Johnny Melville
Cast: Sally Cranfield, Tim Robinson, Johnny Melville, Jim Sweeney, Steve Steen
Rotterdam Science Fiction Festival, Battersea Arts Centre, Wandsworth Borough1974
Flying Frazinis
Writer: Oswaldo Salvi and Johnny Melville
Director: Johnny Melville
Cast: Marie Green, Oswado Salvi, Johnny Melville, Jon Rawlinson, Bob Stratton, Dave de Fries, Chris Francisnoj, Steve Lewis, Jim Sweeney, Pete Banham, Patti Bee, Edward Tudor Pole
Music: Bob Stratton, Dave de Fries, Chris Francis
London festival circuit, Southhampton parks, Tour of Scotland, Cambridge, Anglesey, Cardiff, Swansea, various UK hospitals and pensioners' homes1974 - 76
The Piddlesmere Players
Writer: Johnny Melville
Director: Johnny Melville
Cast: Johnny Melville, Marie Green, Franki Anderson, Tim Robinson, Steve Lewis, Edward Tudor Pole, Pete Banham, Noj, Jim Sweeney, John Rawlinson, Patti Bee
Barsham Fair1974, 1975
Vote Baroni
Writer: Johnny Melville
Director: : Johnny Melville
Cast: Johnny Melville, Steve Lewis, Tim Robinson, Jim Sweeney, Melanie Thomson, Pete Banham, Noj, Gavin Brown
Music: Steve Lewis
Battersea Arts Centre, Ovalhouse, Amsterdam Festival of Fools and two tours of Holland1975
Christmas Show - comprised different theatre groups from
Written by the company
Director: Alphie Pritchard
Fantasy Factory
Devised by the company
Director: Wally Wonker
Cast: Johnny Melville, Steve Lewis, Franki Anderson, Pete Banham
Battersea Arts Centre, tour of southwest arts centresSept 1976
2001 BC A Salaktic Odyssey
Devised by: the company
Director: Johnny Melville
Cast: Johnny Melville, Alan Hawlridge, Sally Cranfield, Steve Lewid, Bernice Stegers, Marie Green, Tim Robinson
Music: Steve Lewis
Rotterdam Festival of Science Fiction, Battersea Arts CentreMay 1976

Interviewee reference: Johnny Melville

Links: Johnny Melville’s website, his Facebook, videos of his performances and his vimeo channel 

Existing archive material: Unfinished Histories

Reason for disbanding: They spent three years building up the group and then the third year, in 1976, the group decided to take a new direction. They organised a performance which was more theatrical than their previous work, with a rock band – more visual theatre as opposed to the previous comedy style. There was an internal conflict in the group, a kind of showdown where some of the group decided to hijack the group. They held a meeting in the town hall in Battersea Arts Centre in December 1976. Five of the group said ‘we want you out’ to two members of the group, on of them being Johnny Melville, the other Franki Anderson. Another two people in the group took Melville’s side so it was four against four. Johnny Melville then went to a lawyer.

Johnny Melville: ‘These were the days before any real decisions about how companies should be run were in place. I think we were called a ‘cooperative’ on the legal framework. It meant everyone had an equal right, even though we had histories to prove I was the first one there. The lawyer suggested that we made sure we held on to the truck, which was a big Mercedes. The drummer Pete Banham, had to drive the truck every night and park it in a different place. One night he parked it in the same place and they found it and took it. In the truck was a lot our stuff like speakers and equipment needed for our shows. I called the lawyer and told him they had the truck and he just said ‘hmmmm’. So it was at that point I decided to start a new company in March 1977 called Kaboodle. A lot of people were in shock that this happened and that I was railroaded form my own group, but it made me work in a more advanced direction.

Kaboodle gave me the opportunity to start anew. We managed to pay actors to be in the group for a lot of projects to do with summer holidays, festivals, kids projects, and a lot of shows for children in theatres. From 1974 to 1979, until Margaret Thatcher came in to power, there was a whole movement of street theatre and street festivals and community theatre that was exploding from 1972/73 until 1979. In that time we became one of the main groups that people brought to festivals. A new direction would have been difficult with the same name, so in some sense it was also a blessing to have a new group with new people which became better and stronger than the Salakta group.’

Acknowledgements: This page was constructed by Phoebe Ferris-Rotman with the help of Johnny Melville (Salakta Balloon Band director and writer). November 2013

This page was created with the support of the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.