Theatre interview: John Godber

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Playwright John Godber, the son of a miner, explores the legacy of the 1984-5 miners’ strike in his latest play, Shafted. He spoke to Nick Ahad.

In 1984 John, son of an Upton miner, Godber, went East.

Leaving his native West Yorkshire to take up the job of running Hull Truck Theatre, he took with him the son-of-a-miner sensibilities. He didn’t, however, take all of his stories. Surprisingly, he never told the story of the miners’ strike.

“To be frank I didn’t write about the miners’ strike because I didn’t want to be seen to be making any money out of it,” says Godber, whose principles remain at the core of who he is. “I’d gone to Hull and it didn’t seem right to write about it at the time. Hull had its own issues with the ups and downs of what was happening with the docks and the shipping industry.”

It’s now 30 years on and for Godber, it’s time.

Shafted is the new play from the BAFTA and Olivier award winning writer and it premieres, appropriately, in the heart of where the miners’ strikes hit the hardest – Godber’s native Wakefield.

“In a way this is a vanity project. We’re doing it because we want to, because we feel there are stories still to be told about the strikes,” he says. “It’s a story about how people got their lives back together, it’s an ‘against all odds story’ about how it happened after the strikes.”

The play, currently at Wakefield Theatre Royal, stars Godber and his wife Jane Thornton, who has previously written plays about the strike specifically about the role women took.

Thornton says: “The play’s really funny, but it is quite scary being on stage with John because sometimes he adds bits. Which I really wish he wouldn’t do.”

“I’m glad Jane finds it funny,” says Godber. “I do think it is amusing, but I also think it’s touching and it’s angry – I think plays need to be angry. The theatre is a good arena to place your anger.”

He is still angry about the miners’ strikes – or rather, the reason the miners felt the need to take industrial action.

Godber says: “Shafted is about what’s happened in the 30 years since the strike. It’s my view that the North has never recovered from the closing of the pits.

“Statistically – I’ve spent the past nine months researching this for the play – only 47 percent of those jobs have been replaced over the past 30 years. That’s a big hole in those mining communities. They broke the spirit, they broke communities – they shafted them – and a lot of those communities never got over it,” says Godber.

“You can point to the European money a lot of those communities have had and the regional development money, but they never recovered. The East Coast was affected because people had no money to go on holiday with, so Bridlington and Filey were massively affected as well.

“Once the strike was over, the media light disappeared, there was another story somewhere else – but those people were still living in those communities, trying to make lives with hardly any opportunitues. The soup kitchens were still open 18 months after the end of the strikes. It wasn’t strike over and back to normal life. It was strike over and it was utter devastation.”

Godber’s wife Thornton, though not the daughter of a miner, clearly has similar passions to those of her husband when it comes to the strikes. At the time, she was a young playwright working with the Royal Court. The ‘Max Stafford-Clarke method’, as she calls it, was popular at the time – it meant entrenching yourself in a situation and really experiencing what you were writing about. Me and the actor Lindsay Duncan went picketing with Anne Scargill. It was like a war zone, really frightening. One day the police charged us on horses,” she says.

“I remember jumping over someone’s garden wall and hiding with Lindsay. We were shaking. A woman came out of her house and shouted us to get in – we ran through the garden and hid in her house until it had quietened down.”

It’s clear to see why, 30 years on, they want to tell this story.

* Shafted, Wakefield Theatre Royal until April 18 and then on tour.