After more than ten years at the paper, the Morning Star’s talented and quick-witted arts editor Cliff Cocker (also known as Len Phelan) has died aged 72.
During his time working for Britain’s daily socialist newspaper, Cliff was instrumental in bolstering its arts coverage, often successfully fighting for more space in order to comprehensively cover the length and breadth of music, film, theatre, books, exhibitions, poetry, and much more besides. His passion for the arts was rooted in his former experience in the theatre world as an actor, director, and comic writer.
He would frequently entertain and boost morale at William Rust House, the Morning Star‘s former East London headquarters, with his outgoing demeanour and dark sense of humour, sporadically quoting Shakespeare when he saw fit. Entering the office completely drenched at the start of one stormy day, he embodied King Lear as he bellowed: ‘Let thunder rumble! Let lightning spit fire! Let the rain spray!’ His contribution to the paper’s news meetings was always an education, as he would regale those gathered with a thorough, encyclopaedic knowledge of the day’s arts coverage – whether they liked it or not.
A lifelong Communist, Cliff was born on 27 June 1949 at his grandparents’ Liverpool home on Windsor Road, in the shadow of Anfield – and needless to say, as a ‘red scouser’, he was a fanatical Liverpool supporter. His politics were cemented after passing the 11-plus and attending Alsop Grammar School, which he hated due to the stark contrast between where he came from and the posh neighbourhoods where most of his peers lived.
However, he had a comrade in comedian and fellow pupil Alexei Sayle. The pair were already acquainted due to both their parents being active Communists, and they quickly became friends, appearing together in productions at the Liverpool Youth Theatre and collaborating with each other in writing satirical sketches for Threepenny Theatre with actor Bill Monks, whose job was to feed the lines to Alexei. The hugely successful group toured working men’s and trade union colleges, clubs, and pubs, often packing them out, with one publican expressing disbelief at how much money they raised.
Cliff met his wife Mary in 1972 at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre school, and would later live in Paris from 1974-76, where they put on various plays, including a cabaret of Brecht songs and poems. Notably they staged a production of Trevor Griffiths’ Occupations, a play in response to the failure of the 1968 revolution in France, which Cliff had translated, at both the Montparnasse and Mouffetard theatres. The production was a success and received high praise from none other than acclaimed French New Wave film director Francois Truffaut.
Cliff also became heavily involved in the Fête de l’Humanité, the annual festival organised by the Communist newspaper L’Humanité, attending meetings and party events as well as helping to sell the paper at his local metro station, Château Rouge. He loved living in Paris and over time became fluent in French, occasionally teaching English in a couple of factories to help pay the rent, and in 2015 even helped put together a special French edition of the Morning Star, which included articles on Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for Labour’s leadership – Corbyn was elected leader at the weekend of the Fête.
Cliff’s varied life also saw him work with Mary in Ethiopia teaching theatre studies at Addis Ababa University during the time of the Ethiopian revolution led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. He also directed a play by the Ethiopian playwright Mengistu Lemma about Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia, and an Ethiopian version of Brecht’s Bourgeois Wedding.
Upon his return to Britain, Cliff worked for the Soviet Union’s press agency Novosti London office as an editor on Soviet Weekly, enjoying a trip to Moscow in 1988 with Scottish rockers Big Country, before it closed down in 1991. He then went on to teach performing arts at the College of North West London, before joining the Morning Star, where he worked until his death on 25 August.
Cliff leaves behind his wife Mary, their daughters Jane and Lizzie, and three grandchildren, Millie, Orla, and Arin.