This Year, Next Year, Sometime, Never

So I wrote the (short) play Local Heroes in under two days. That was unusual.

In fact, that was very unusual.

In actual fact, it was totally unheard of! For me at any rate.

Not for Noël Coward though! In an article in the Culture section of The Guardian in 2014, Simon Callow told us that Coward had “knocked off (Present Laughter) in a few days in 1939” and Private Lives, of course, was written in three days. But then Coward was a huge talent and I… Well, let’s say I’m not!

In 1993, I was looking for a topic around which to create a musical for performance at King George. My Music colleague Freda Carney and I had written I Was the Son of the Brides of Dracula (Part 2) The Musical (later—sensibly!—shortened to Drac!). It had been well received and I wanted to do another. Then there came the announcement that the people of Shields had dreaded: Westoe Pit, the last colliery in the town, was to close with the loss of around 800 jobs. I wondered if this might be a suitable topic. I quickly decided it wouldn’t—it was much too close and raw in the town—but the idea of a mining-related play took hold somewhere in my mind.

A year or so later, a girl in my Expressive Arts GCSE class said she wanted to do a project about mining. I think her father had worked at Westoe, but I’m not sure. The project had to make use of two different art forms and she thought about writing a play and singing some mining songs. Would that be OK?

Of course it would, so she began thinking about the topic and doing some research. The play didn’t materialise and she went off in quite another direction. That was fine by me, of course, because being excited by a topic was always the best start to any project. She did a good job of it and got a pretty good mark and, at the end of it all, she gave me a pamphlet which someone had given to her for her research.

“You might as well have it, sir,” she said. “The person who gave me it doesn’t want it back and it’s not going to be any use to me but someone else might want to do something about it in future.”

I thanked her and put it on the desk in my office to look at later.

Needless to say, my desk was as neat and tidy then as it is now and it was a few months later, as I was hunting for something else I knew was on there somewhere, that I found it.

Right, I thought, I’ll read this—and I did. It was the story of the Hilda Pit Disaster of 1839 in which 51 men and boys lost their lives. It gave an hour by hour account of what happened as well as a complete list of the dead, giving jobs, ages and relationship to other victims. There were brief biographical details of some of them. There would surely, I thought, be the makings of a play here.

As I thought about it, I realised I’d done something similar back in 1974, a play about the history of Jarrow (where I was working at the time) which touched on the history of mining in the town, which included the explosion at the Alfred Pit which killed 42 in 1830. It took quite a while to dig through all the paperwork I had accumulated over the intervening 20-odd years, but eventually I found a type-written copy, copiously annotated with hand-written changes.

There was only one thing I felt I could re-use for a new piece, a song. I had come across that beautifully haunting Scottish lament, The Flowers o’ the Forest, and I wrote new words for it:

"My heart is aching and comes nigh to breaking,
Sadly I’m mourning throughout the long day
Sobbing and crying, in misery lying,
For all of the lads lying cold in the clay."

I tried. Lord knows I tried numerous times to make a start but failed miserably every time.

And then came the Millennium Dome and the South Tyneside Story and our choreographers and I created a dance piece about a pit disaster, using the song. It was generic, not the Alfred Pit nor the Hilda Pit, but it moved my thinking forward a bit.

But just a bit, for then it stalled. Again!

About seven years later, I was working with a young actress who was also a promising playwright and I asked her if she’d like to work with me on trying to breathe some life into this idea. She would, so we set to. As part of our research, we visited Beamish Museum in County Durham, went as far into the drift mine as we were allowed, explored the miners’ homes and generally immersed ourselves in all things mining.

I discovered that all the contents of that pamphlet—and more—were on the Durham Mining Museum web site. What a fantastic site and a massive resource for anyone studying the history of mining in County Durham that is.

We bounced ideas back and forth, but the most important idea to emerge was who the central characters would be. One family had lost three members in the disaster, the father and two sons, one 14 and one 16. We knew about them, because their names were on the list. Then we came across a young man who was killed and who was due to marry the daughter of another victim the day after the disaster occurred. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to give our family that daughter?

And so the family grew and a backstory began to emerge. But then, of course, things happened. Other work intervened. I had two consecutive years of a major Shakespeare project (details coming soon!) and she went off on a national tour which turned into a West End run and so, yet again, the project was forgotten.

In 2012, I became involved in writing and directing large-scale community site-specific plays for the Customs House in South Shields. Ray Spencer, the theatre’s director who knew about my interest in developing a play on the topic, pointed out that 2014 was the 175th anniversary of the disaster.

“Why not do it then?” he asked.

Why not indeed! At last, a deadline to force me to get to work!

We’ll come to that later…