This time last year Yorkshire was gearing up for the arrival of the Tour de France and, in a smart piece of programming, the West Yorkshire Playhouse staged actor Maxine Peake’s debut play, Beryl, about Morley cycling heroine Beryl Burton.
Originally created by Peake as a radio play for BBC Radio 4 in 2012, Beryl charted Burton’s extraordinary life and career, playing to large, enthusiastic audiences at the Playhouse in July 2014 and it’s now back at the theatre for a second run before touring to theatres and smaller rural venues around the country.
Burton’s story is a truly inspiring one. She was a remarkable sportswoman and competitor, highly respected in the world of cycling – five times world pursuit champion, 13 times national champion and twice road-racing world champion – but to Charlie Burton and Denise Burton Cole she was also a much-loved wife and mother. Sadly, Beryl died in 1996 at the age of just 58. For Charlie and Denise, seeing the play for the first time last summer was both a proud moment and an emotional experience.
“I had to blow my nose a few times,” says Charlie, smiling. “But I also laughed a lot. I was a bit worried that the play might be a bit OTT, but it is very accurate.” Denise agrees, saying she thinks the play is “wonderful” and that Peake has done a brilliant job.
“Maxine is lovely, absolutely fabulous,” she says. “If we could have chosen somebody to write this play, she would have been that person – she is so nice and down-to-earth.”
Both are looking forward to seeing it again and are pleased that Beryl’s story will now reach even more people through the tour. “We have never been a family to go for recognition,” says Denise. “Mum raced because she loved it and wanted to represent her country, but it is nice now this is happening – and she well deserves it.”
For all her achievements Beryl had an admirably no-nonsense approach to life and success. “She thought she was just an ordinary person,” says Denise. “She did a lot of training and she was physically and mentally incredibly strong; I think that got her through a lot.”
Beryl Charnock met keen cyclist Charlie Burton in 1954 and she soon fell in love with both Charlie and the sport of cycling – at which she was a natural. Her combination of innate talent and steely determination was hard to beat and the trophies, awards and records started to pile up, while cycling developed into a way of life for the whole family. “We didn’t really go anywhere or do anything that wasn’t to do with cycling,” says Denise. “But I don’t feel like I missed out on anything and I have some great memories.” And as Beryl’s career took off, Charlie was with her all the way. “My mum wouldn’t have been able to do any of the things she did without my dad,” says Denise. “He did a lot of the work that people didn’t see – and just being supportive, allowing her to do that, which was quite unusual in those days.”
At the performance of the play that Charlie and Denise attended last summer there was a standing ovation at the end. They were overwhelmed by the reaction and speak of it with typical modesty. “I was amazed by how many people were there and how interested they were,” says Charlie. “It is not just cyclists who are interested in her story.” It’s a testament to Beryl’s character, I suggest. “Yes,” says Charlie quietly. “She was a grand lass.”
• Beryl, WYP to July 18, then touring.