John Godber’s plays about working class people have been popular for many years. After attending a secondary modern school and becoming a drama teacher, he ran Hull Truck Theatre Company for 20 years. He spoke to Dave Gilchrist about his new play, Shafted, which deals with the continued fallout from the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85.
Why produce a play about the Miners’ Strike 30 years after the dispute?
I’m from a mining family and it was too raw at the time to write about the strike. My dad is 85 and still whenever we talk about the strike he starts banging the table and wanting to punch somebody.
We often hear about the “Northern Powerhouse”. I’ve not worked out where that is yet. I try to live in the real world and what I see are zero hours contracts, containerisation, large distribution warehouses and the demise of industry.
That’s why the play looks at one particular couple and how they attempted to pick their lives up post-1985 right through to 2014.
Your work generally deals with working class individuals in their circumstances. Did you focus on that rather than what might be considered “political” issues?
Yes. I was influenced by Arthur Miller, who said that the political is in the personal, so while I’ve written lots of plays I’m not widely regarded as a political playwright, but my work has always been motivated by unfairness.
If you go back to look at Bouncers, it’s a very funny play but actually it’s about the desperation of people with no money seeking some kind of solace and living for the weekend. So while my work isn’t in the agit-prop canon, it’s motivated by an interest in people who have been disenfranchised.
John McGrath said that working class theatre should be a good night out. Do you think your work also has entertainment at its heart?
Yes, I had the opportunity to write plays for the kind of people I had been teaching at school. What I tried to do over time at Hull was to establish a non theatre-going audience.
That approach was eventually attacked by bourgeois critics as not having anything to say. In fact what it was doing was getting people into the theatre who wouldn’t otherwise have come. It was about connecting with people who thought that theatregoers had to wear a cravat and have a beard. There were times where there were literally brain surgeons sat next to bricklayers and bouncers.
The question of who comes is important to you?
Yes, we had a genuine mix of people and that would create problems too. We had a policy where you could bring in your beer. In every play I wrote for the first 20 years each half wasn’t longer than a game of football. The first half was under 45 minutes the second under 40 minutes.
Why do you think theatre is important for working class people?
There is a lot of talk about whether, if Shakespeare was writing now, he’d write for Eastenders. I’m not sure that’s true. The quality of the writing and the hyperbolic nature of his work would have been diminished by recreating the mundanity of daily life on telly.
That’s why theatre is important. No matter what we may think, there are invisible barriers as to why people might not go to the theatre.
Living in Hull for 35 years, I have a duty to spread the word that there is culture here and the culture of working class people is to be celebrated in front of the people that it’s about.
We have heard recently about how opportunities for working class actors and writers are getting harder to come across.
This is true, especially now that drama is being marginalised in schools. Working class kids won’t be exposed to it. Of course, there are people who are walking out of Eton and into high profile projects.
The important thing, though, is that if you have a good idea for a play and you’ve got a mate, put it on somewhere. David Beckham didn’t just play one game of football: you do it and you do it and you do it. We need people to tell the stories of, for instance, those men at Kellingley Colliery who lost their jobs just before Christmas. We need the stories off the street to be recorded in some way.
I read an interview with you in which the interviewer was surprised to be talking about Brecht and Büchner with the author of Bouncers.
That’s a lack of understanding about a popular playwright. These people are surprised to know I did a PhD and have read a shit load of plays!
Shafted! is on at Regent’s Marylebone Theatre, London W1U 4RY, from 6-9 April