John Godber on David Hockney, the future of theatre and his new play being staged in Scarborough
So has there ever been one occasion when they were all together, in the same room and at the same time? John Godber thinks for a moment, and then says: “Sadly no. Wouldn’t that be marvellous?
"I think the nearest that I’ve come to Mr Hockney, who I admire beyond belief, was sitting next to his lovely sister at some official ‘do’, where she told me that she’d lived in Fitzwilliam at some point, and I’d been able to inform her that I knew every bin in the community – when I was on holiday from university I’d had a part-time job on one of the local dustcarts, and that, inevitably, I must have emptied hers,” he says.
“I came a bit closer to the great man when I was first chairman of the Visit the East Coast board, trying to get people of some influence to join us – and since Mr Hockney was then living in Bridlington, I plucked up the courage to write to him, and to ask if we could have his backing.
“Back came the response – he’d be delighted to do anything at all for us, but there was a single condition. We had to provide him with his very own smoking cabin on the platform at York station, so that he could enjoy a few ciggies in there, in splendid isolation, while waiting for his London train. It was, lamentably, something that we just couldn’t pull off.”
Godber is, however, a close pal of Sir Alan Ayckbourn and it’s a friendship that goes back a long way. The pair hold the international record for being – along with William Shakespeare – the most-performed playwrights in the world.
It’s a fair bet that until the Covid pandemic hit there was a play by one of the trio on stage somewhere around the globe, and that has led to a few odd encounters, recalls Godber. “Jane and I were on honeymoon in Ghent a good few decades back,” he laughs, “and we saw a poster up for something at the theatre and decided that we’d book up a couple of tickets for the evening.
It turned out that we were watching their version of Bouncers in Flemish. Well, they got the laughs, but neither of us understood a word – the only thing we knew was the plot. It was a surreal experience, let’s put it like that.”
Though perhaps not as surreal as the situation faced by those working in theatre industry right now. “This pandemic has just wiped the slate clean as far as being on a stage is concerned. It’s alarming. Who on earth knows where it will go from here?”
Godber, though, has been keeping himself busy. He’s been going to his office (at his home near Hull) and has written no less than 15 short plays for radio, and one – Sunny Side Up! – will have a short run next month at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.
Social distancing will be strictly adhered to, and Godber has made sure that the actors will all be from (and in) their own little “bubble”. How has he managed that? Well, the rest of the company – he’s in the cast himself – will be wife Jane Thornton and his daughter Martha.
It’s about three people (Barney, Kath and Tina) who run and live in a B&B in a mythical Yorkshire seaside town called Sunnyside. “It could be Scarborough, but it’s not. Well, not quite. I’ve a lot of time for Scarborough, and of course knowledge of the town has informed the piece, but the people and their rather down-at-heel home are completely fictional,” he says.
Godber is pleased to be producing a new piece of work for the stage, but feels for the younger generations that face an uncertain future. “At the age of 64, which is what I am now, you’ve experienced most of what can be thrown at you.
"But Jane and I really do feel for all the youngsters who are just starting out, or looking to get to drama school. They are like ships without rudders – what are they going to do, where are they going to perform, is it worth their learning a craft which won’t be put to full use for the foreseeable future? It’s all very sad.
“And please don’t think that I am pleading a special case for would-be actors, performers and stage technicians. So many of the young people of this country have been thrown into total confusion and disarray by the recent exam results debacle, which was nothing short of a disgrace.
"One minute, we’ve got a government telling us that the Health Service is screaming out for doctors and nurses, and then the next they’re saying that the exam results produced too many of these wonderful kids who were eligible to go to uni, and that there aren’t enough places for them.”
He, though, has managed to find an even keel through all this. The Godber “family bubble” during the pandemic has been formed by John and Jane, John’s father, Jane’s parents, daughters Martha and Elizabeth, and their boyfriends.
“It could be a play in itself,” chuckles Godber, “because inevitably there have been the odd disagreements, but we’ve all really got along well and – I suspect that this is the same for so many other units across the UK – you learn when to keep your distance and when to come together”.
You sense that there is indeed drama to emerge from all of this, and that it will not be long in coming. He cannot wait to return to steering the John Godber Company through many more years at the Theatre Royal in Wakefield (they celebrate ten years in 2021) where it has achieved much since he departed – amid some acrimony – from Hull Truck Theatre, the company he steered for nearly three decades.
In recent months he has found refuge from the current situation with his writing and by going for long walks on the beaches at Fraisthorpe, Hornsea and Mappleton. “They’re beautifully unspoiled,” he enthuses.
“Not quite as deserted these days as they used to be, and you realise that a lot of the people enjoying the spaces would have been away in France or Spain at this time of year. Instead, they’re at home discovering the beauty of extraordinary places on their own doorstep. So maybe, just maybe, there has been a tiny shred of something good to emerge from all of this terrible time. We can only hope.”
Sunny Side Up! is at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from October 28 to 31. Bookings start on September 11 on 01723 370541 (box office currently open Thursday to Saturday) or via the theatre’s website, www.sjt.uk.com
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