In Part Two of an in-depth interview with writer and musician Boff Whalley, Rich Jevons catches up with his post-Chumba activities.
How has it been working with Red Ladder Theatre Company?
It’s great. I love it. I love their working practises, their political ethos, their fight, their commitment to quality productions. There’s such a lack of that bureaucratic crap that gets flung around all over the arts nowadays. They’re people with a vision and with guts. Rod Dixon is legendary – as the company’s director he’s half the artistic genius and half the maverick loudmouth who can’t help putting his foot in it. He’s a theatrical car-crash all of his own. Basically it’s a company that consistently punches above its weight, and as a lifelong supporter of Burnley FC I’d say that’s just perfect.
What in particular draws you to use the miners’ strike as a subject for We’re Not Going Back?
It’s an anniversary, that’s the first thing. And that means the established media might take notice. Personally I don’t care if it’s an anniversary – I remember these events that link together a personal history through the years, and they don’t fall into neat cyclical patterns.
In my head I draw the past in circles, and the miners ‘ strike is a point on one of those circles that keeps on coming round. Whenever there’s what I would see as a systematic attack on a class, whenever the unions are invigorated or deflated, whenever the Labour Party are going through their interminable cycle of betrayal and desperation. But the press loves an anniversary!
And the miners’ strike is such a good subject for writing, for narrative and story, because it can be treated as personal and can be told through people’s lives. That’s so important – history has for so long ignored the personal and focussed on the general, the geo-political. Which gives little indication of what ordinary people were thinking, doing and saying.
Can you tell us about the three sisters and the loose Chekhov link?
Well the connection got looser as the play went along. I started with this high-falutin’ idea of re-working Chekhov and then eventually, with seeing how the actors and director (Rod Dixon) work with the play, I just thought, Chekhov belongs to another time, another place. This is about the resonance and the echo of a strike that happened in my lifetime.
And Chekhov, bless ‘im, he’ll have to take a back seat. I did start with him. And his sisters. Seemed like a lovely place to start. But then these girls in our play, they took the words and grabbed them by the throat and made them their own.
And with the Bicyclism exhibition at Leeds City Museum what appeals to you about being on two wheels in Leeds?
I’ve always loved bicycles. But the Bicyclism exhibition seemed like a great opportunity to really dig around in that love and work out what the politics of cycling really are. Reading and learning about the suffragettes’ championing of the bicycle, listening to Leeds old folk talking about their bikes, knowing that the bicycle can represent a return to a simple, uncluttered, cheap, green way of moving around… that all went into the Bicyclism project.
And then the book on walks discovering sites of radical history, can you give examples?
I did a walk recently with eighty people around the trail of the Yorkshire Luddite. It was a beautiful day of rain and mud, but also a gathering of minds and learning, and of fun-mixed-with-adventure. There are a hundred different walks that can be based on this country’s amazing history.
And that’s it, really, I just wanted to write about the British people and British history from the point of view of the dissenters and rebels; and I also wanted to write about walking, about the physical landscape, about that connection between our walking feet and the history that’s in the ground below us. A walking guide book-cum-cultural/political/historical rant fitted the bill. I haven’t written it yet, beyond three chapters.
And Gipton – the Musical, how will that work?
It will work, somehow! It’s not really me writing it, more a team effort between me and Jane Morland and Space 2 and all the people who turn up at workshops etc in a community centre in Gipton on Tuesday nights. Talking about the history of the area and people’s attitudes and ideas, trying to write it down and package it and make it entertaining and funny.
I wrote a musical about Armley [Armley – The Musical at West Leeds Festival 2008] six or seven years ago and really enjoyed it. It’s lovely to take a place without any trendiness and discover some fun and heart and life there. Then put it to music and have people dancing!
STOP PRESS: It was recently announced Red Ladder has received a 100% cut to its Arts Council funding. In response to this an independent campaign has been set up to save the UK’s leading radical theatre company.
Tweeting from @saveredladder and using the hash-tag of #GisATenner a team of supporters has launched an online fundraising campaign in association with online giving platform Localgiving.com. See http://saveredladder.co.uk/gisatenner/.
Click here for We’re Not Going Back tour dates. As well as these Culture Vulture can confirm the show will be coming to Leeds’ City Varieties from 19 to 21 February 2015.
Chumbawamba website http://chumba.com/index.php
Boff Whalley website http://www.boffwhalley.com/
Click here to go back to Part One: Life With Chumba.