Alice Nutter’s new play is, superficially at least, a war story. It’s about the women who worked in a Leeds munitions factory and it’s about the explosion which ripped through the lives of dozens of ordinary families. But Barnbow Canaries is about more more than that. It’s about the freedom those women tasted when the men went off to war and it’s about the new lives they glimpsed. It’s also a story of friendship and of Nutter’s own relationship with her sister.
“Shirley was five years older than me and growing up we fought like anything. Each of us thought we were so different than the other. It turned out we weren’t. We really became close after our parents died and I’m so glad that we got the chance to know each other. She died six years ago and this play is really in honour of her. It’s about the ties that bind sisters.”
When Nutter was approached by James Brining, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, about writing a play based on what happened at Barnbow during the First World War, she says she wasn’t sure it had legs.
“I didn’t know anything about the story, so I went off and did some research. An explosion doesn’t make a play, but what does make a play is a story of freedom and of friendships. There’s a myth that women didn’t work before the First World War. They did or at least working class women did, but during the war many of them – like the Barnbow Canaries – found financial independence. Many of them honestly thought that life was changed forever, but when the war ended, the freedom they had enjoyed was taken away from them.”
While much of Nutter’s play is rooted in fact, it’s central characters Agnes and Edith are fictional and she’s also allowed herself a helping of artistic licence in portraying William Parkin. When an explosion ripped through Hut 42 leaving 35 women and girls dead and many more injured by fire and flying shrapnel, it was Parkin, a mechanic at the plant, who rushed into the smouldering ruins. According to reports from the time he went back almost a dozen times, returning each time with a girl on his shoulder.
“Initially I had him as a nice guy, in fact I pretty much had Bob Hoskins in mind, but where’s the drama in someone who is nice at the beginning, middle and end? If you are writing about history, I’ve learned that you need to research, research and research and then forget about it. You need your head in the particular world you’re writing about, but you can’t allow yourself to be constrained by the minutiae.”
Nutter has a forensic approach to writing, which comes in part from the fact she was a late starter and had spent her 20s and all her 30s in the anarchist music outfit Chumbawamba, founded by Allan ‘Boff’ Whalley and Danbert Nobacon
“Given that I’m not particularly musical, no one is more surprised than me that I ended up in a band for 20 years. They were my friends, I moved into the squat they had in Armley and joined the band. We all shared a Protestant work ethic, but none of us ever expected to make any money out of it. That was never the point, but then quite unexpectedly we ended up at number two in the charts.”
Nutter is referring to the success of Tubthumbing which was only kept off the top spot by rerelease of Elton John’s Candle in the Wind following the death of Princess Diana. The single secured them a table at the following year’s Brit awards, where Nobacon gained further notoriety by tipping an ice bucket over the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. “They were good times. Back then no one told you in advance where you were in the charts, you had to listen to the radio like everyone else did. When we heard we were at number two we were in Cologne on tour and we ended up dancing around the hotel room singing ‘who’d have thought it could happen to scum like us?’”
Chumbawamba eventually ran its course. By then Nutter had a bit of money in the bank and decided to give herself two years to make it as a writer.
“An English teacher once wrote in a school report that I had a strong command of the English language. I forget her name, but I never forgot her words.
“I always knew that I had a muscle for writing, but I didn’t know whether I could make it pay the bills.”
Nutter initially enrolled on a scriptwriting MA at Salford University, but even before the course was halfway through she was already securing paid work. In the 10 years since, on television she has written for the likes of Casualty, Moving On and The Accused and has half a dozen stage and radio dramas to her credit.
“I’ve been lucky, but I’ve also worked hard. Because I was starting late I knew that I had to grab every opportunity I could. In this business you don’t get many chances to impress. I knew that when I signed up for a course with the Arvon Foundation that I had to go there with something which would blow their socks off.
“A lot of people now ask me to read their scripts and I always tell them that I will, so long as what they are giving me is the absolute best it can be. There are so many people who get to the end of the first draft, put a full stop and think that’s it. They don’t even both spell-checking it and it ends up as one amorphous blob.”
Nutter is good company, but she admits that she can also be infuriatingly meticulous and she won’t accept second best, not even from the community cast of amateurs which is helping to bring Barnbow Canaries to life.
“This is the third time I’ve worked with a community cast and I love it, but they have to be good. I think they are often surprised by how critical I am, but when they see how much work I put into a production they realise that I’m being tough for a reason.”
Nutter grew up in Manchester in an ordinary working class family. Her dad was a petrol station attendant; her mum a weaver who later retrained as a nurse and the arts, she says, was a viable escape route.
“I was born in 1961 and for my generation there was genuine social mobility. The kind which just doesn’t exist any more. There were certain people outraged by the fact people could go to art college and claim the dole during the holidays. They were portrayed as dossers, but Bowie did it, Bryan Ferry did it, Pulp did it and whatever they had from the state they paid back in taxes many times over.
“At some point we stopped valuing the arts and now unless you have parents who can bankroll you, it’s a dead end. I’m pretty sure that if I was starting out now I wouldn’t have the chance to be in a band or be a playwright.”
It would have been our loss. Nutter has already signed up to work with Simon Beaufoy on Trust, a new series for American channel FX about John Paul Getty III. It is, she says, flattering to be mentioned in even the same breath as the Bradford-born Oscar-winner, but having had her fair share of rejection, she knows better than to believe her own hype.
“If I’ve learnt one thing in the last decade, it’s that you have to be sensitive enough to tell a story people want to listen to, but you also have to be as tough as an old rhino. Sometimes your face doesn’t fit and sometimes people will say unpleasant things about your work. Every time I have a new production out, I tell myself I am not going to read the reviews. I always crack eventually, but I must do better, because I do know being praise-hungry is a pretty unattractive trait.”
Barnbow Canaries, West Yorkshire Playhouse, June 15 to july 9. 0113 213 7700, wyp.org.uk