How a Bafta winner, the Beautiful South drummer and a group of school pupils created a new musical for Hull
Jane Thornton, the Bafta winning writer has teamed up with the lead singer and the drummer of The Beautiful South to write a new musical that will be staged by the pupils of a school in one of the most challenging areas of the city before taking the show to Barcelona.
Did I mention that this has all been made possible thanks to a fundraising drive to get the £26,000 needed to stage the project and to which former deputy prime minister John Prescott wrote a personal cheque after hearing the young performers share their story? It’s quite the story and the backdrop is being provided by Archbishop Sentamu Academy in Hull. Thornton, the wife of another Bafta winning writer, John Godber, says: “The school is behind the prison near Hull Kingston Rovers and it’s in the 16th most deprived area in the UK. Apparently.”
That ‘apparently’ is said with the kind of righteous indignation only a northern working class woman can summon up. Still, she has every right to be indignant. Thornton has seen the arts attacked and the city she and Godber have called home for decades written off so many times that she will never tire of seeing people proved wrong.
As dawn rose on the first day of Hull’s year long tenure as UK City of Culture, the Sun newspaper printed a story of New Year drunkenness under the headline ‘Scrapital of Culture’. It was a familiar hatchet job on Hull, but by that time Thornton, who had previously launched a scholarship programme at the Academy, had a plan to create something truly special for the city.
“The scheme is called Spotlight and it helps those kids who are gifted and enthusiastic, but might need some extra support,” says Thornton. “The children on it receive an extra 75 minutes each week to do drama on top of the curriculum, which is an amazing thing when arts provision in schools is being cut to the bone.
“The scholarship might also help with things like helping young people get to auditions that they might not otherwise be able to afford, or to provide financial help with buying an instrument or a pair of ballet shoes.”
Thornton and Godber very quickly found themselves wrapped up in the lives, hopes and aspirations of the young people they met. At around the same time they were approached by former Beautiful South drummer Gary Hammond, who wanted to work with the pair on a story of the eight men from Hull who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
“It’s a story he’s really passionate about,” says Thornton. “Four came home, four died while fighting and all there is in the city to commemorate their sacrifice is a little plaque in the Guild Hall. He knew that John and I are from Hull and obviously that we write plays. He wanted to raise awareness of what they did so he came to us.”
Serendipity now came into play.
In one hand Thornton had links to a school with challenges but also a motivated group of young people who wanted to stage a play. In the other she had a story was rooted in Hull which one of the city’s most famous musical sons wanted to tell. The result is Ocho, a new musical written specifically for pupils at Archbishop Sentamu Academy with a script by Thornton and music Hammond and fellow Beautiful South member Dave Hemingway.
This magical combination happened when Hull was still gearing up for its year in the spotlight at the UK’s City of Culture and there was funding up for grabs. Thornton’s application was knocked back, but the project was too important to shelve.
“When we didn’t get the funding we had a choice to give up, but I didn’t want to give up on the young people from the school,” she says. “We could either say, ‘Oh well we tried’ or we could say, ‘Right, let’s make this happen anyway’. I decided to go even bigger. Rather than just putting it on in the school, I thought we’d do a little tour, so we decided to take it to East Riding Theatre, the Shire Hall in Howden and to LIPA (Liverpool School of Performing Arts) where John and I have contacts.”
Then came Barcelona.
Remember that this is a challenging school where some of pupils don’t have passports and others have never left Yorkshire. Regardless, Thornton decided Ocho should go international.
The breakthrough came when Godber, a visiting lecturer at several universities discovered that the course he teaches at Liverpool John Moores has direct links to an international arts school in Barcelona. It just happens to be led by a woman called Julie Hargreaves, who just happened to train when she was a student with Thornton at Wakefield’s Bretton Hall.
Thornton says: “I once heard Tony Benn give a talk and someone asked him what you do when you can’t be as energetic as you once was and he said you have to pass the baton on. If you want your work to continue then that’s what you have to do, you have to pass the baton on.
“Doing this feeds your own soul as well. Working with young people like this boosts you, it gives you energy. Sometimes it might be the end of a long day and it’s hard to drag yourself down to the school, but the minute you walk in and the kids are really excited and can’t wait to get to work, it’s completely worth it.
“It’s about raising aspiration. Some of them might want to go to drama school, some of them won’t, but you know when you have those things in your life that you do and you remember forever? Well now these 17 young people will have something that they will remember and talk about forever, something amazing and exciting that they helped to create.”
That’s the one last piece to this story that’s missing. When Thornton was turned down by the City of Culture when she applied for funding, how did the £26,000 needed to cover the accommodation and flights, the costumes and set come from?
“We held an event and, because of the drama training we’d been doing with the young people, they were all able to present to local business people and leaders and talk with real passion about what they were fundraising for and what it meant for them,” she says. “Businesses have made big donations, people have heard about the project and sent an envelope to the school with £20 cash. John Prescott even wrote a personal cheque to help with the funding.”
Like I said, an incredible story and one amazing summer that a group of young people from a sometimes forgotten corner of the City of Culture 2017 will never forget.
Ocho, Archbishop Sentamu Academy, June 27 to 30; Kardomah Theatre, July 4: Howden Shire Hall, July 5, East Riding Theatre, Beverley, July 6 and the Institute of the Arts, Sitges, Barcelona, July 11. For more details go to hull2017.co.uk