The ‘uniquely Welsh’ tale of a £100m drugs bust

By Julie McNicholls Vale   |   Deputy news editor   |
Friday 22nd July 2022 12:24 pm
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Operation Julie
(Aberystwyth Arts Centre )

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MORE than four decades ago, rural west Wales was at the centre of the greatest drugs bust in history.

The police investigation, Operation Julie, resulted in dozens of arrests and the discovery of LSD worth £100 million.

This summer, a new musical play from Theatr na nÓg and Aberystwyth Arts Centre explores the story from both sides of the drugs divide – the police, and the hippies who settled in Ceredigion hoping to spread their ideals in a changing world.

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 per cent 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.

Writer and director Geinor Styles met and interviewed 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, 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. [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 changed lots and lots of things about society, and instead we went the other way, it just went into this global consumerism.”

It is a philosophy that was shared by Christine Bott. She and partner Richard Kemp lived a seemingly normal life in Tregaron, 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.

“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,” said Kate.

“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 added: “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.

“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.”

Greg Palmer, the show’s composer, discussed Smiles’ psychedelic musical tastes and the records that influenced him.

“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 this combination of drama, comedy and music will result in a truly memorable production when Operation Julie opens on Saturday, 30 July.

“Operation Julie will be a popular and important theatre production,” said 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 premieres at Aberystwyth Arts Centre with performances running from 30 July to 13 August.

It will then tour to Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon (24 to 26 August) and the Lyric Theatre, Carmarthen (31 August to 2 September).

There will be a Q&A with some of the characters from the historical story on Monday after the performance 1 August.

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