Thursday, 4 August 2011

My northern lights

I was saddened to hear this week of the death of Stan Barstow, aged 83. Pubertally reading Barstow’s first novel A Kind of Loving in the early 1960s turned a light on for me. I think it was my first encounter with northern writing, and my first realisation that authors did not necessarily come from somewhere rarefied and entirely outside of my world. Here was a miner’s son, like me, actually writing a book. The film adaptation, starring Alan Bates and with a memorable performance by Thora Hird as the snobbish mother-in-law, reinforced for me the notion that the lives of ordinary working northerners could be turned into art.

I had the privilege of meeting Stan in the early 1980s when we were involved in a Writers on Tour week, and I was able to thank him personally for his influential genius. He was kind and gracious, and an excellent reader of his own work too. I’ve long remembered watching him read in the snug atmosphere of the Queen’s Hall in Morpeth, his trim white beard slightly salted with pipe tobacco, a soft twinkle in his eyes, his warm Yorkshire tones wrapping us into his story.

His death has had me remembering other northern writers who weaved their spell on me in books, in theatre, on radio and television, and who also unwittingly helped me find my own voice and make my first tentative moves to join them in print. 

Alan Sillitoe who died last year. Sillitoe was from Nottingham, the far reaches of northern in my purview. He became famous for the amoral sexuality of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, especially through the muscular portrayal of Arthur Seaton by Albert Finney in the film version.

More influential for me was his long short story about a Borstal boy The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, also made into a film starring Tom Courtenay.

Sillitoe started me writing stories about my own environment. I always enjoy reading his, and remember my experience as an English teacher in the mid-70s, reading A Sillitoe Selection to my fifth formers. The class always clamoured for The Ragman’s Daughter, not so much for its quality as its bonking scene.

Keith Waterhouse Another Yorkshireman, like Barstow, and connected with him in that Waterhouse co-wrote the screenplay for A Kind of Loving. I remember him especially for There is a Happy Land (which indirectly influenced my treatment of the ‘daft lad’ Hughie in my story Fair Fight) and of course the poignant and hilarious Billy Liar, which became another Tom Courtenay vehicle on screen.

I too played Billy, with rather less acclaim than Tom earned, in a staff production at Blyth Ridley High School in 1975. Waterhouse famously left the first 10,000 words of his Billy Liar manuscript in a taxi, which he later said was "the best thing that happened to me" because it was "pretentious twaddle"

Shelagh Delaney  The first in my northern writers' list who, at the time of writing, is still alive (72 this year). Shelagh was born in Salford and is still best known for the play she wrote when she was only 18 - A Taste of Honey which, along with Pinter’s early comedies of menace and the north east classic Close the Coalhouse Door (see below), inspired me to start writing playscripts. Apparently Shelagh Delaney also inspired Morrisey, songwriter and lead singer of The Smiths, who said in 1986, “I’ve never made any secret of the fact that at least 50 per cent of my reason for writing can be blamed on Shelagh Delaney.”

Murray Melvin transposed his original role as the gay loner Geoffrey from the stage version to the film of A Taste of Honey, while pregnant teenager Jo was played by the other-wordly Rita Tushingham.

Alan Plater; Sid Chaplin I remember as a sixth former from Ashington catching the bus most Friday nights to Newcastle Haymarket, then taking the long walk through Jesmond to the old Flora Robson Playhouse to catch whatever was in rep that week. I saw my first Under Milkwood there, for example, but the production that most enthralled and inspired me was locally-grown – a musical drama by Alan Plater, with songs by Alex Glasgow, from the book Get Lost by Sid Chaplin. It was called Close the Coalhouse Door. In this video clip Alex Glasgow himself sings the title song. 

The superb cast included John Woodvine, James Garbutt, Bryan Pringle and Jean Becke. It was the surpise hit of the year and (like Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters in recent times) later transferred to London and in 1969 was transmitted almost unchanged as a Wednesday Play on BBC TV. I followed Alan Plater’s work from then on, whether it be his contributions to TV series like Z Cars or his individual plays, and was dismayed when he died last year.

I’m glad to have known Sid Chaplin personally, along with his wife Rene and his son, Michael who I often bump into at writerly events in Newcastle. I’ve even played a part in publishing one of Sid’s books, The Bachelor Uncle and other stories. Alan Plater and Sid Chaplin also contributed to the successful north east TV drama series When the Boat Comes In. These two, along with other North East stalwarts such as CP Taylor and Tom Hadaway, helped to convince me to become a ‘writer in the north’.

Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais  Another pair of North Easterners (except that Dick Clement is an Essex boy but his work makes him an adopted Geordie), whose excellent television work includes The Likely Lads, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen,Pet. I used to squirm with delight to hear local place names in the scripts; it wasn’t just the references, it was the characters’ intimacy with these places. Above all though, what I have always admired about the writing of Clement and La Frenais is the sharpness and wit of their dialogue. They bring the northern working-class man to life in full colour and lusty vernacular.

Barry Hines I’m pleased to say that I have worked with Barry a couple of times, in Northumberland and in Edinburgh, on writer events. He is a modest and friendly individual with a soft-spoken Barnsley accent and a quietly enthusiastic manner. He was excellent with the children on school visits, and they were delighted to hear him read from his famous book which, because of the film, was renamed Kes, though I first knew and loved it as A Kestrel for a Knave.

Of course for many people Kes is remembered more than anything for the remarkable performance of Brian Glover as the PE teacher Mr Sugden in the film version directed by Ken Loach.

I’ve also enjoyed Barry’s film and TV dramas, especially Looks and Smiles and Threads, both directed by Ken Loach, which have won many awards. I remember ringing Barry the morning after one award success (I forget which one) to congratulate him, and to ask him if he had a hangover from the awards evening. I was shocked when he told me he hadn’t been invited. That’s the credit a writer gets sometimes. 

Willy Russell; Alan Bleasdale; Phil Redmond Finally I want to mention a trio of Liverpudlians who prove that the city is not just home to great pop music. Willy Russell is best-known for Educating Rita, caught memorably on film by my favourite British actress Julie Walters, playing alongside Michael Caine.

My favourite of Russell’s plays, though, is Stags and Hens, set in the gents and ladies loos of a city centre pub as the prospective bride and groom ‘enjoy’ their last night of freedom with their respective mates.

Alan Bleasdale has written many great TV dramas, of which the best known started out as a single play and became an iconic series Boys From the Black Stuff with a catchphrase ‘Giz a job’ that reverberated around Thatcher’s Britain.

Phil Redmond’s influence on me began with his school TV series Grange Hill. I felt I’d ‘arrived’ in a small way as a writer when two of my short plays were anthologised in the Studio Scripts series along with one of Phil’s scripts for Grange Hill.

Phil went on to create memorable soaps; Brookside and Hollyoaks. I went on to create this blog.   

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