Inside rock musical ‘Operation Julie: The World’s Greatest Drug Bust’
It was hardly a typical drugs bust. It was the drugs bust in rural 1970s Wales that shook the world.
When police from around the country swooped before dawn on Tregaron one morning in 1977, dozens of undercover officers amongst the 800 working the case looked like unshaven, long-haired hippies plucked from Woodstock.
The vast LSD co-operative they were targeting was, if anything, even more unconventional. Led by doctors, scientists and academics – motivated, they insisted, by an evangelical drive to transform human consciousness itself.
The bust resulted in dozens of arrests and the discovery of LSD worth £100 million. It’s a story that gripped village gossips and worldwide media alike.
This summer, Theatr na nÓg and Aberystwyth Arts Centre will present an ambitious bilingual co-production for audiences in Aberystwyth before touring Wales.
Operation Julie is a musical play packed with songs, drama and comedy, telling the extraordinary story of what happened in and around west Wales in the mid-1970s when hippies settled in the area seeking a new way of living fuelled by acid and an alternative attitude.
When a chance clue is discovered following a car accident, the local constabulary work with detectives from across Britain to uncover what turned out to be the biggest stash of acid ever found, taking out up to 60% of the world’s LSD market at that time.
Among the main protagonists are Richard Kemp and Christine Bott, a couple living near Tregaron who find a way of making the purest LSD the world had ever known, and roguish dealer, Smiles, based in Llanddewi Brefi.
Theatr na nÓg and Aberystwyth Arts Centre’s version of events tells the story from both sides of the law, with Geinor Styles, writer and director of the show meeting and interviewing a variety of people from that time, including one of the main acid dealers, Alston ‘Smiles’ Hughes – who was a key part of the LSD chain from his modest home in Llanddewi Brefi – and Anne Parry, the wife of the late Detective Sergeant Richie Parry.
Speaking today, Smiles says the acid movement was as much about a sustainable lifestyle and a commitment to saving the planet, as it was about psychedelic trips:
“We were raising the flag and saying look, look, this is an emergency. We [humans] were spending the world’s capital, we weren’t living off the interest, we were spending the capital. And look at the state of the world now. They should have listened – they should have bloody listened… Then [in the 1970s], there was still the time to change. We could have society, and instead we went the other way.”
It is a philosophy that was shared by Christine Bott. She and partner Richard Kemp lived a seemingly normal life in Tregaron in the seventies, with Christine a respected doctor and breeder of goats.
Kate Hayes was one of Bott’s closest companions before Christine passed away in 2007 and has since published her friend’s memoirs from the Operation Julie period.
She said: “It was about accepting people for who they are and accepting the need to respect values and to take care of each other – and the planet.”
“I think about it in terms of COP26 and Extinction Rebellion today… they could see it as a very efficient and quick way of addressing environmental issues – they felt time was running out for the planet.
“That was the only reason she really engaged with it – the urgency she and Richard felt in what was unfolding around them.”
Geinor Styles feels that the story continues to grow in its modern-day relevance: “I was astonished how relevant this story was to us living in a time where the effect of what we are doing and continue to do to the planet is a threat to our existence. It is as simple as that. Kemp and Bott knew this and wanted to do all that they could to save humanity.”
In light of recent films like ‘Don’t Look Up’ and the continued denial of climate change, the message is relevant and urgent and still needs to be told and retold. Styles says: “This philosophy was emphasised by our protagonist Richard Kemp, a talented scientist, who moved to Tregaron in the early ’70s and created the purest form of LSD.”
Operation Julie is a musical play, a format favoured by the popular and forward-thinking Theatr na nÓg.
Greg Palmer is Operation Julie’s composer and he discussed Smiles’ psychedelic musical tastes and the records that influenced him during the period of creating the play.
He said: “Smiles has referenced a number of bands from that era – Caravan, Bob Dylan, Steely Dan. I’ve been very keen from the beginning of the process to have the sound world of the play reflect those musical trends.”
Theatr na nÓg and Aberystwyth Arts Centre are confident that this combination of drama, comedy and music will result in a truly memorable production when Operation Julie launches this weekend.
“Operation Julie will be a popular and important theatre production,” says Dafydd Rhys, Director of Aberystwyth Arts Centre, “We’re looking forward to seeing this production of a uniquely Welsh tale that had an impact throughout the world. It also has the added bonus that the music will be fantastic! We know the audience will be in for a treat – a really good night of quality, thought provoking and popular theatre.”
Operation Julie will premiere at Aberystwyth Arts Centre this evening with performances running from 30th July to 13th August 2022 and will then tour to Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon 24th – 26th August and Lyric Theatre, Carmarthen 31st August – 2nd September.
There will be a fascinating Q&A with some of the characters from the historical story on Monday, 1st August after the performance.
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