The Big Interview: John Godber

John Godber
John Godber
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John Godber made his name with Bouncers and remains one of our most popular playwrights. Chris Bond caught up with him in Leeds.

IT’S a sweltering day, the sun is beating down from a cloudless sky and John Godber is sitting with his sunglasses on and tucking into a salad al fresco-style. But he’s not on a sunshine break in the Mediterranean, instead he’s a little closer to home on a breathless afternoon in Leeds.

Not that a man who was once said to be the third most performed playwright in the country after Shakespeare and Alan Ayckbourn is taking it easy. A new play exploring Sheffield’s industrial past opened at the Crucible Theatre last month, while Muddy Cows, his tale of an all-female rugby union team, is well into its eight-week run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

He wrote Muddy Cows after Chris Monks, the theatre’s artistic director, approached him about doing a new production of his award-winning comedy Up ‘N’ Under.

“I felt it had been done to death, to be honest,” says Godber. “But he said he had an idea of doing it with an all women rugby league team and a male trainer, and I told him I didn’t think it would work and said I’d rather write a new one. So I talked myself into that one,” he says, smiling.

He wrote Up ‘N’ Under nearly 30 years ago to see if he could get rugby league fans to go to the theatre, which they did, and his latest play sees him return to familiar turf, albeit with women rather than men. And after watching some of the women’s teams in action he was suitably impressed. “I went to see the North play the Midlands and they can play, make no mistake about it,” he says.

According to the Rugby Football Union (RFU), around 20,000 women play the sport every week and it is apparently the fastest growing women’s sport in the country. This is despite the fact that teams struggle to attract sponsorship and get precious little TV coverage. “So why do they play?” he asks, rhetorically. “They play simply for the love of the game and the camaraderie.”

But for all the talk about the need for equality in sport these days women’s rugby is still dogged by sexist cliches and preconceptions, something Godber wanted to tackle. “I have two kids and they are bombarded with body types and told they should look like this and that and if they don’t where such and such they’re square,” he says. “So with Muddy Cows I tried to get under the skin and look at real women, because the great thing about rugby is if you’re big you play prop, if you’re fast you play on the wing and if you’re adept you play fly-half, so there’s a role for everyone.”

Godber’s plays, such as Bouncers, Teechers and April in Paris, are deeply rooted in his own northern background, which is no great surprise given that he’s lived in Yorkshire his whole life. But what is surprising is that this rugby playing son of a working class miner ended up in the theatre in the first place. “I still wonder about it today,” he says.

His father studied part time at Leeds University, where Harold Wilson was among his lecturers, and it was he who encouraged him to read and broaden his cultural horizons. “He introduced me to things like the Readers’ Digest ‘increase your word power’ where you had to find a new word a day. He would come up with something like ‘axiomatic’, I was 11 and I and didn’t have a bloody clue what it meant but then I would come up with one.”

Godber failed his 11-plus and went to a secondary modern school which, he says, “was secondary and not very modern”, and had to watch as a number of his friends went to grammar school.

However, he was “saved” by the comprehensive system. “Suddenly you could do things like drama and art and music. I liked telling stories because my dad told stories and for the first time I was encouraged at school.”

It was acting, rather than writing, that he initially pursued before training as a drama teacher at Bretton Hall, near Wakefield. He then went to the Workshop Theatre at Leeds University, but even here he saw himself as a bit of an outsider.

“I felt a bit like the elephant in the room. I was the big lad and I often felt nobody was quite sure why I was there,” he says. “I was from a mining family in Upton, I think even my mam thought I was gay for a while. I didn’t have a girlfriend for a long time and so her son was this big lad who played rugby and did plays.”

Despite his interest in acting he’d been writing since he was 16 and while at Bretton Hall he’d produced an adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, and at Leeds he wrote a play which entered the National Student Drama Festival. But then tragedy struck when a close friend killed himself. “We’d been to a club in Pontefract called Kiko’s, which is what Bouncers is based on, and he’d got in a taxi and gone home and hung himself. It was so shocking that the only way I could deal with it was writing about it.”

The ensuing play was called Cramp, about a body builder who takes his own life, and Godber went to Hull for the National Student Drama Festival where he met the likes of Anthony Minghella and James Fenton.

“On the back of meeting Anthony Minghella I was offered the opportunity to write for Grange Hill. I was still teaching at this point and on through Grange Hill, Phil Redmond asked if I wanted to help set up a TV series set in Liverpool called Brookside. So I’d gone from writing this play about my best friend to suddenly writing for these big TV shows.”

In 1984 he was offered the chance to run Hull Truck. “The guy who was in the interview before me was a fellow called Danny Boyle, I don’t know what happened to him,” he says, jokingly. “He pulled the short straw and went to Hollywood and I went to Hull.”

But if he thought his new job was going to be a bed of roses he was in for a rude awakening. “At the first board meeting the accountant said ‘ladies and gentlemen, the company is bankrupt’. I said ‘nobody mentioned this at the interview’ and I was asked what I was going to do and I said ‘I think I’ll write a play about rugby league’.” The play in question was Up ‘N’ Under and helped save the company from going to the wall.

Godber established himself as one of the country’s leading playwrights at Hull Truck where he remained at the creative helm for 26 years, before his association came to an acrimonious end in 2010. “I helped design and see through a brand new £15m theatre and the board, in their wisdom, decided to get rid of the artistic director who was a personal friend. Had he not been a personal friend I would still have had to leave because theatres need artistic directors.”

He felt he had no option but to step down, although leaving what had been his artistic home for more than a quarter of a century was a wrench.

“I never thought I would leave Hull Truck. But there was always a kind of tension – was it John Godber, or was it Hull Truck?” he says.

“I never wanted to be the name above the title, it wasn’t an ego thing. I think there was a misconception that Hull Truck only ever did my plays, historically that just wasn’t the case.

“It just so happened that the touring became very lucrative for the company and because they were so poorly subsidised it made up a third of their turnover.

“So they couldn’t live without it and that was just an accident, it wasn’t designed that way.”

After leaving Hull Truck he became involved with Wakefield Theatre, where he’s now “creative director”, which has brought his career full circle. He runs his own company and is enjoying the creative freedom to choose who he works with. “I’m much freer now, I can have a relationship with Scarborough, I can work in Wakefield, I can do things in Sheffield and I’m now on talking terms again with Hull Truck, which is great. Mark Babych is the new artistic director there and we’ve been having conversations about co-productions. It’s wonderful to be able to go back to the theatre and put on stuff in the city because I still live in East Yorkshire.”

At 57, Godber remains as prolific as ever. “I’ve still got a student’s enthusiasm for the craft, you see things and you want to write about them,” he says. “I used to think that being on the outside was a bad thing but actually being on the outside, which I put down to failing my 11-plus, means you’re always looking in and you question what’s going on around you.”

He believes that plays, as with music, literature and art, remind us what is to be human. “Society has become increasingly de-sensitised, the emphasis is on non-verbal communication. So if theatre does anything it re-sensitises us and consequently makes us better civilians.”

So does he find the writing gets easier? “It’s easier now I’m not running a theatre. I had a conversation with Alan Ayckbourn about a month ago and he asked how it was going and I said ‘all right’. He said ‘how do you feel now you’re just writing plays?’ I said ‘it feels good’ and he nodded and said ‘it works for me’. Well, if it’s good enough for Alan Ayckbourn it’s good enough for me.”

Muddy Cows is on at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until August 31. 01723 370541, www.sjt.uk.com