As James Brining prepares to unveil his first season, does his Leeds upbringing make him an ideal artistic director of West Yorkshire Playhouse? Rod McPhee retraced his childhood.
‘That’s it,” says James Brining, excitedly pointing to the first floor window of red-brick semi in Chapel Allerton. “That’s the room I was born in. By that stage my mum had already had my two brothers, so giving birth at home was nothing. It was still 1968, remember, so dad just got the doctor down from up the road, and that was that.”
Standing halfway along Scott Hall Road surveying his former family home, you couldn’t pick a more Leedsy location. Just a mile south are the inner-city council houses of Potternewton and the terraced streets of Chapeltown. A mile in the other direction are the larger, leafier avenues of Moortown and Alwoodley, where mini-mansions regularly sell for seven-figure sums.
“It was a typical lower middle class area when I lived here,” recalls Brining staring across the dual carriageway running through his old neighbourhood, “but when I left the city I’d hear people talking about how Chapel Allerton was really up and coming and trendy and I was like: ‘Chapel Allerton? Really? Is it?
“As a kid it just seemed like an ordinary place with a little library and the little police station next door. It didn’t seem to me a particularly swanky suburb at all back then, but it’s quite nice now isn’t it?
“That’s the story of me really. It’s kind of classic. An inbetweener.”
So much of Brining’s life reflects this in-between status. After leaving his local middle school, his parents worked hard to pay for him to attend Leeds Grammar School which led on to Cambridge University and a 20-year directing career taking him down south and north of the border.
But this represented a huge departure from his family’s past. Although his mother, a primary school teacher in Harehills, came from Hastings on the south coast, his dad was a Leeds born-and-bred blue collar worker. His grandfather was a conscript in the war who went on to become a painter and decorator.
When he developed a lifelong love of Leeds United, it was deemed perfectly normal. “But back in the 70s and 80s I was always a bit too scared to get the bus to Elland Road because of all the trouble - so I used to walk all the way,” he says. “And even when I got there I’d be reading TS Eliot on the terraces, waiting for the game to start.”
His bookishness, although welcomed by his parents, didn’t always go down well with his grandmother who lived at Cross Gates and worked at the Burton’s factory in Harehills.
“When I was doing my A-levels I read all the time: poetry, Jane Eyre,” he says, “and I remember my nan said to me: ‘What are those books for? You can’t put books on your feet, lad.’
“In other words, get a proper job!” he laughs. Then he imitates a thick Leeds brogue: “She’d then say something like: ‘Get a job int’ bank. Mrs Rooks’s grandson’s got a job int’ bank at Halton Moor. You need to do that, lad!” That was her careers advice.”
Although amused by the class conversion he went through, he’s intensely proud of his Leeds past and despite leaving the city at 18, and only just returning at the age of 44, he vehemently defends it.
While walking to his old primary school, Carr Manor, he argues against the idea that you have to prescriptively adhere to a certain lifestyle to be considered a bona fide Loiner.
“What is Leedsness anyway?” he says “Yes, I went away and achieved a lot academically, so is that NOT Leedsy? Tony Harrison is from Leeds. David Batty is from Leeds. Leeds and success can be acquainted with each other.
“It’s a bit of a cliché to say there’s only one form of Leedsness. In fact, the one thing that’s really struck me since I’ve been back is that there are as many different definitions of what Leeds is as there are people in Leeds.”
In theory, this assertion may make sense, but in practice being a Renaissance man targeting a national audience and an everyman able to draw in a local crowd, represents a huge challenge.
Yet, unlike many people who work in the arts world, Brining masters it. Whether he’s donning a Leeds United hat next to the statue of Billy Bremner or addressing an audience of theatre-lovers at the Playhouse, he has a perfectly-pitched manner which means he never seems out of place. Disarmingly charming, but obviously highly capable, even his accent is an amenable mix of Yorkshire softened by flashes of received pronunciation.
But how is this persona, this Leeds persona, likely to translate into his tenure as artistic director at West Yorkshire Playhouse?
“Well, I’m not saying that I’m better than an outsider, because I think being an outsider as a theatre-maker can offer a useful perspective,” he says. “But the fact I am from here just means that I have a sort of instinctive connectivity and understanding.
“I’m a bit loathe to play the Leeds card too much, it’s a bit of a cliché really. But wherever I’ve been in the world I’ve always talked about Leeds, so why not talk about it while I am here?
“My nana always used to preach: ‘Never get too big for your boots and remember where you come from, lad!” I think that’s one trait of Leedsness - it’s about being grounded and direct and not pretentious.
“(In terms of the Playhouse) pretentiousness for its own sake - and maybe this is a Leeds thing - I’m not interested in. It’s a terrible thing for people to leave a theatre and feel confused or alienated by their experiences. The whole point of a theatre event is to bring people together.
“The challenge isn’t just to get regular theatre-goers to come to the Playhouse, it’s getting non-theatre goers to come. That is hugely satisfying. I want people to think: ‘I’ve never been to the Playhouse before, but I’m going to go and see this show because it looks brilliant.’ I want to attract the attention of people who don’t necessarily ask: ‘What’s on at the Playhouse today?’
“The great thing about the Playhouse is that it’s genuinely rooted in communities in this city and it needs to reflect those communities more.
“And, I’m not skirting around it: I’ve been given the job of artistic director on the agenda of change. I haven’t had enough direct experience of what has gone before to make any comment on that, but I got the job on the back of what I did before, and what I plan to do.”
But as Brining unveils his new season in two weeks time, he’s equally keen to point out that the programme, which will alter in character under his tenure, will still reflect a broad spectrum of both challenging and populist productions.
“I think highbrow theatre can be a bit inward, and you can get away with that in somewhere like London where you have a big enough theatre community,” he says. “But in a city like Leeds there’s a range of audiences. And at one end, for financial reasons - and also because we want to - we need to have a popular following.
“But if all our work is populist you end up asking the serious question: why are they getting public funding to do work which could just be on at The Grand as a commercial venture? There’s nothing wrong with commercial productions, but there’s a theatre in Leeds doing that.”
Brining admits he’s on “a mission”, but after touring the streets of the Leeds which formed his formative years you suspect he’s the best man for the job.
The ambition of drawing a broader Playhouse crowd - not just bourgeoisie public schoolboys and Cambridge graduates, but the cool kids of Chapel Allerton, the schoolkids of Meanwood and Elland Road’s faithful - was always one best realised by an in-betweener.
The new West Yorkshire Playhouse season is unveiled on April 12. Visit www.wyp.org.uk for more details.