Late cycling legend Beryl Burton is the greatest, says Maxine Peake

Maxine Peake unveils the blue plaque for Beryl Burton, Queen Street, Morley, Leeds. Picture by Simon Hulme
Maxine Peake unveils the blue plaque for Beryl Burton, Queen Street, Morley, Leeds. Picture by Simon Hulme
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Beryl Burton is the greatest sportsperson this country has ever produced.

Those are the words of Maxine Peake, the acclaimed actor-turned-writer behind the theatre production based on late Morley cyclist Burton’s life on two wheels which will show at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from Monday.

A remarkable sportswoman, Beryl Burton was crowned world champion over 3,000metres, was named British best all-rounder champion for 25 successive years and out-cycled the opposite sex by holding the men’s world 12hour time trial record for two years in the 1960s.

Her sizeable achievements are finally getting the recognition they deserve 18 years after she died of heart failure aged 58. Leeds City Council this week unveiled plans to honour the cyclist with a posthumous civic honour, weeks after a blue plaque was placed in her honour at Morley’s Beryl Burton Gardens, off Queen Street, as Leeds gears up to host the send off of the Tour de France Grand Depart next Saturday.

Peake, who is renowned for acting roles in TV’s Shameless and Dinner Ladies, said: “It’s not just that she was an incredible athlete, but that she achieved so much on a shoestring. Beryl didn’t have a great big support team.

“All she had was a supply of rice pudding and an incredible determination to succeed.”

Having been given a copy of Beryl Burton’s autobiography as a birthday present by her partner, Peake was inspired to turn it into a script and took up the mantle herself – the result was a BBC Radio4 play entitled Beryl.

The production aroused the attention of James Brining, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, who was looking for a cycling themed show to stage during the Grand Depart’s £2m cultural celebration, Yorkshire Festival 2014.

She said: “I was very flattered, but then the panic set in. Writing for the theatre is a completely different prospect and I pretty much had to rip it up and start again.

“On the radio we had one actor playing about 19 different characters, but with the play I was limited to a cast of four. I spent a lot of time wondering how on earth it was going to work.

“Then someone told me about a show where the actors were all on bikes and as they pedalled, they powered a light show. That’s when it all started to fall into place, although I’ll admit I didn’t think it through.”

Mother-of-one Burton is to be recognised when councillors support a recommendation for her to be given a posthumous civic honour at Leeds Civic Hall on Wednesday, with Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme in attendance.

Coun Keith Wakefield, Leeds City Council leader, said: “As a city we should not only be immensely proud, but also make sure that her vast achievements are never forgotten.”

The Beryl play will show at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, in Quarry Hill, Leeds, from Monday to July 19. Tickets cost from £12. Call 0113 2137700 or visit www.wyp.org.uk.

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