Alice Nutter spent years living in a Leeds squat as part of the anarchist band Chumbawamba. Now a playwright, she talks to Sarah Freeman.
Alice Nutter’s new play is, superficially at least, a war story. It’s about the women who worked in a Leeds munitions factory and it’s about the explosion which ripped through the lives of dozens of ordinary families. But Barnbow Canaries is about more than that. It’s about the freedom those women tasted when the men went off to war and it’s about the new lives they glimpsed. It’s also a story of friendship and of Nutter’s own relationship with her sister.
“Shirley was five years older than me and growing up we fought like anything. We really became close after our parents died and I’m so glad that we got the chance to know each other. She died six years ago and this play is really in honour of her. It’s about the ties that bind sisters.”
When Nutter was approached by James Brining, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, about writing a play based on what happened at Barnbow during the First World War, she says she wasn’t sure it had legs.
“I didn’t know anything about the story, so I went off and did some research. An explosion doesn’t make a play, but what does make a play is a story of freedom and of friendships. There’s a myth that women didn’t work before the First World War. They did or at least working class women did, but during the war many of them – like the Barnbow Canaries – found financial independence. Many of them honestly thought life was changed forever, but when the war ended, the freedom they had enjoyed was taken away from them.”
While much of Nutter’s play is rooted in fact, it’s central characters Agnes and Edith are fictional. When an explosion ripped through Hut 42 leaving 35 women and girls dead and many more injured by fire and flying shrapnel, it was WIlliam Parkin, a mechanic at the plant, who rushed into the smouldering ruins. According to reports from the time he went back almost a dozen times, returning each time with a girl on his shoulder.
“Initially I had him as a nice guy, in fact I pretty much had Bob Hoskins in mind, but where’s the drama in someone who is nice at the beginning, middle and end? If you are writing about history, I’ve learned that you need to research, research and research and then forget about it. You need your head in the particular world you’re writing about, but you can’t allow yourself to be constrained by the minutiae.”
Nutter has a forensic approach to writing, which comes in part from the fact she was a late starter and had spent her 20s and all her 30s in the anarchist music outfit Chumbawamba, founded by Allan ‘Boff’ Whalley and Danbert Nobacon.
“Given that I’m not particularly musical, no-one is more surprised than me I ended up in a band for 20 years. They were my friends, I moved into the squat they had in Armley and joined the band. We all shared a Protestant work ethic but none of us ever expected to make any money out of it. That was never the point, but then quite unexpectedly we ended up at number two in the charts.”
Nutter is referring to the success of Tubthumbing which was only kept off the top spot by rerelease of Elton John’s Candle in the Wind following the death of Princess Diana. The single secured them a table at the following year’s Brit awards, where Nobacon gained further notoriety by tipping an ice bucket over the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. “They were good times. Back then no-one told you in advance where you were in the charts, you had to listen to the radio like everyone else did. When we heard we were at number two we were in Cologne on tour and we ended up dancing around the hotel room singing ‘who’d have thought it could happen to scum like us?’”
Chumbawamba eventually ran its course. By then Nutter had a bit of money in the bank and decided to give herself two years to make it as a writer.
“An English teacher once wrote in a school report I had a strong command of the English language. I always knew I had a muscle for writing, but I didn’t know whether I could make it pay.”
Nutter initially enrolled on a scriptwriting MA at Salford University but even before the course was halfway through she was already securing paid work. In the 10 years since, on television she has written for the likes of Casualty, Moving On and The Accused and has half a dozen stage and radio dramas to her credit.
“I’ve been lucky, but I’ve also worked hard. Because I was starting late I knew that I had to grab every opportunity I could. In this business you don’t get many chances to impress. I knew that when I signed up for a course with the Arvon Foundation that I had to go there with something which would blow their socks off.
“A lot of people now ask me to read their scripts and I always tell them that I will, so long as what they are giving me is the absolute best it can be. There are so many people who get to the end of the first draft, put a full stop and think that’s it. They don’t even both spell-checking it and it ends up as one amorphous blob.”
Nutter grew up in Manchester in an ordinary working class family. Her dad was a petrol station attendant; her mum a weaver who later retrained as a nurse and the arts, she says, was a viable escape route.
“I was born in 1961 and for my generation there was genuine social mobility. The kind which just doesn’t exist any more. There were certain people outraged by the fact people could go to art college and claim the dole during the holidays. They were portrayed as dossers, but Bowie did it, Bryan Ferry did it, Pulp did it and whatever they had from the state they paid back in taxes many times over. At some point we stopped valuing the arts. Now unless you have parents to bankroll you, it’s a dead end. I’m sure if I was starting out I wouldn’t have the chance to be in a band or be a playwright.”