Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and Chris Hoy have achieved great things in cycling, but as Maxine Peake tells Sarah Freeman they were nothing compared to Leeds legend Beryl Burton.
It’s a grand claim, but Maxine Peake doesn’t care. The question of who is Britain’s greatest ever sports star is one that has divided critics and tested even the closest friendships. At some point in the discussion, the names of Steve Redgrave, Bobby Moore and Seb Coe and, in this part of the world at least, Geoffrey Boycott, are likely to get a mention.
All worthy contenders says Peake, but there achievements don’t come close to her own number one – Leeds cyclist Beryl Burton.
“No doubt about it,” she says on a break from filming a new series of The Village. “Beryl Burton is the greatest sportsperson this country has ever produced.”
There really is no point arguing. She won’t change her mind. Besides she has a point. The story of Burton’s domination of the sport in the 1960s does have everything. As a child she spent 15 months in hospital suffering from the effects of rheumatic fever and was only introduced to cycling through her husband Charlie whom she married in 1955. Two years later she won her first national championship and by the end of the decade was competing internationally. During her career she won 90 domestic championships, secured seven world titles and for two consecutive years beat the men’s 12-hour time trial record.
“The story goes that in 1967 as she sailed past Mike McNamara, who was one of Britain’s best cyclists at the time, she gave him a Liquorice Allsort. I don’t know whether it’s true, but I like to think it is. You know, 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.”
Peake does a bit of cycling – it is she says the easiest way to get around her home city of Salford – but she’s by no means a fanatic. It was her partner who made her aware of Beryl and the more she read, the more she grew determined to tell her story.
“He happened to be building a bike and while he was ordering various bits and pieces on eBay he came across a copy of Beryl’s biography. He gave it to me for my birthday that year with a note which read ‘get yourself a curly wig’. He thought there was a part in it for me and so I started to think who I might be able to get to write it.”
It was a director friend who suggested that instead of touting for a scriptwriter she should give it a go herself and the result was a play for Radio 4 in 2011 simply entitled Beryl. Peake is typically modest about her talents as a writer, but it was enough to arouse the attention of James Brining, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, who was looking for a cycling-themed show to stage during the Grand Départ.
“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 st art 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. I nipped into rehearsals the other day and the cast were telling me that they have to start every day with a half hour warm-up. I was wondering why and then it clicked that riding on a bike for that long probably takes it out of you. I did apologise.”
Peake is drawn to strong female characters and her second radio play, Queens of the Coal Age, focused on another formidable Yorkshire woman – Anne Scargill. When it comes to politics, she is openly left leaning and sees a role for herself in telling the stories of those whose voices are often ignored or distorted.
“The story of the miners’ wives was the first thing I ever really wanted to write, long before Beryl came along, but I was aware it was a bit of a hard sell,” she says. “I still don’t think what really happened in the Miners Strike has been told without bias. I knew if I went to the BBC and said I want to do a play about the pickets they would run a mile. That’s why I set it in the early 1990s, but their spirit was undimmed.
“Thatcher definitely underestimated the miners’ wives. There was no way she thought the dispute would last as long as it did because she assumed the women would pressure their husbands back into work.
“When men achieve great things they make films and write books about it, but the stories of females tend to be ignored. Someone once said to me: ‘Why are you attracted to stories of strong women?’ I don’t know any other kind. I’ve even half thought of setting up a production company to make work about women.”
Growing up in Bolton, Peake wasn’t from the kind of family where acting was a natural career choice. Her parents separated when she was young and she and her elder sister lived with her mother, who was a part-time care worker. Later she moved in with her grandfather and, while some have credited him with igniting her creative side, it wasn’t quite how it happened.
“My grandfather was a member of the Communist Party,” she says. “He was very active, driving up and down the country to go to meetings and there was always lots of people in his house reading poetry and playing music. It showed me another side of life. However, I do remember him telling me that I wasn’t self-centred enough to go into acting. He said: ‘You know, Maxine, you’ve got to be as tough as old boots’. There was a perception that world wasn’t for people like us. Buy you know what? When I finally got to RADA, I was a bit disappointed to find there were a few other Northerners there. I’d convinced myself I’d be the only one.”
Unable to fund the cost of the course herself, Peake’s ultimately successful search for sponsorship was the subject of a South Bank Show documentary. It’s 20 years since she first walked through the doors of RADA, but sadly she says little has changed for those from a similar background to her.
“I remember applying to Bolton Council. They wrote back to say they would give me £600 in the final year, but that was it. I think they were banking on the fact that I wouldn’t be able to find the money for the first two years, so they would never have to part with the money. I never forgot and when I got to year three I bloody made sure that they gave me that cash. It’s never been easy to be working class and get into acting, but when I was at drama school I honestly thought things were changing and that in another five years the doors would have been flung open a little. In fact, things started to go into reverse.”
Since graduating from RADA, Peake has worked pretty much consistently. Her early CV has the usual bit parts in the likes of Coronation Street and Holby City, but long-running roles in Dinner Ladies and Shameless, together with impressive performances in the likes of See No Evil: The Moors Murderers, in which she played Myra Hindley, and her turn as John Prescott’s mistress Tracey Temple in Confessions of a Diary Secretary have made her one of Britain’s best-known and most dependable actors.
“I’ve been lucky,” she says, her Bolton accent much as it was when she first left Lancashire for drama school. “There were a few people who suggested I might think of getting rid of the accent and I might have done had I’d been confident that was I was a brilliant actor, but I wasn’t. I reckoned my accent was the one thing that made me different. Also I knew that at the time there was a lot of Northern drama being made and I’m glad I didn’t change. I know some people who did lose their accent and then when later they got cast in a Northern role they really struggled to get it back.
Once filming on The Village is finished, Peake will go straight into rehearsals for a new production of Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. She’s too old for Ophelia, too young for Gertrude, so instead she will play Hamlet.
“No one bats an eyelid when an all-male company does Shakespeare. It’s not about being deliberately provocative, it’s about exploring what effect the gender change has on the work. Theatre will always be my first love. I like to mix it up with a bit of TV and film, but theatre is the real thrill and you have to keep that muscle working.”
Next month Peake will celebrate her 40th birthday and while some in the acting business prefer to talk about anything but their age, predictably she’s not bothered about the looming landmark.
“I just want to get there now. I remember when I hit 30, I kept telling myself: ‘Well now I’m this age, I can’t do that or shouldn’t be seen doing this’. Now I don’t care. I’m looking forward to 40 because life is good at the moment. I don’t live in London, so there’s no crippling mortgage or rent to pay, and at the moment I have the freedom to do the work I want.
“I don’t think you ever lose the fear that suddenly roles will dry up. People fall out of fashion, but that’s just the way it is and if I learnt anything this career is a marathon not a sprint.“
Words which could have come straight from the mouth of Beryl Burton herself.
• Beryl by Maxine Peake, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, June 30 to July 19. 0113 213 7700, www.wyp.org.uk