She’s written plays about a cycling legend and a group of miners’ wives, but Maxine Peake tells Sarah Freeman how she found a brand new hero in the shape of a Hull fishwife.
Some playwrights do the bulk of their research in a library, hunched over a computer. Not Maxine Peake. For her latest project she instead found enlightenment in the back of a succession of Hull taxis.
The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca is inspired by the story of the Hull fishwife, who along with Christine Jensen, Mary Denness and Yvonne Blenkinsop, stepped out of quiet 1960s domesticity to campaign for better safety at sea.
Known as the Headscarf Revolutionaries, the quartet were moved to enter the political arena following the sinking of three Hull trawlers, found not to be fit for purpose, which left just one survivor among the 58 crewmen.
“These women mobilised a campaign, they picketed the docks and they went to parliament to get the ear of ministers,” says Peake. “You read what they did and think, ‘Surely these women should be local heroes’, but I quickly discovered a darker side to the story.
“I spent a lot of time in Hull researching the story and whenever I hopped in a taxi I would ask, ‘Have you heard of Lillian Bilocca?’ Often they had, but the reaction wasn’t what I expected. I was really taken aback by how much hate and anger there was still was surrounding what happened.”
While the campaign was successful - 24 hours after the women’s visit to the House of Commons new health and safety regulations were introduced - the victory almost immediately became tainted. Unhappy at being dictated to by woman, some of the trawlers companies claimed the cost of improvements was prohibitive and as a result the four, and Lillian in particular, became scapegoats for an industry already in decline.
“It was the Cod Wars which really did for Hull’s fishing industry, but that was a threat without a face,” says Peake. “Lillian on the other hand had become particularly recognisable. There was a definite feeling that not only had she got above her station, but she had brought the fishing community into disrepute.
“Hessle Road where most of the fishing families lived was a town within a city. It had its own rules and it didn’t want to be scrutinised by outsiders. When Lillian, whose husband and son both worked at sea, appeared on the Eamonn Andrews Chat Show she spoke how she always did.
“Asked what the fishermen did when they came home she said the married ones took their wives out and the singles ones saw their tarts. In Hull at the time, ‘tart’ simply meant girlfriend, but obviously it has other connotations and many felt that she had opened them up to ridicule and criticism.”
In recent years, much has been done to restore the reputation of Lillian. Last year, a huge mural was unveiled in the streets which she called home, but outside of the city she remains a largely unknown figure.
“I only found out about her story a couple of years ago when I came across Brian Lavery’s book The Headscarf Revolutionaries,” says Peake. “I was intrigued by the title and the more I read, the more I thought ‘Why don’t I know about this?’
“I originally pitched it as an idea for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester where I am an associate artist and it was they who encouraged me to pitch it as part of the Hull UK City of Culture programme.
“I called it The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca because I wanted to give her back her voice. After the campaign she was shunned. She was even turned down for a job in a seamen’s mission and ended up working as a cloakroom attendant.
“These four women didn’t know each other before 1968. They came together for a couple of weeks to do what they thought was right, but it came to overshadow the rest of Lillian’s life, which ended prematurely when she died in 1988 aged just 59.”
Earlier this year Richard Bean’s The Hypocrite celebrated another famous chapter in Hull’s history in which MP Sir John Hotham lit the fuse which sparked the English Civil War when he refused King Charles I entry to the city. Peake hopes that her play will similarly put the character of Hull centre stage.
“Working on the trawlers was a hard life,” she says. “The industry operated on what today we would call zero-hours contracts. If you upset the skipper you wouldn’t work, so even when the men wanted to complain they often didn’t. It was a real master and servant relationship and that I found quite shocking
“But it was just as hard for the women. The men went to sea for three weeks and would return for just three days and one of the things which really intrigued me was how much these communities were governed by superstition.
“It was supposed to be bad luck for a woman to wave her husband off at the docks and even washing their clothes on the day they went to sea was frowned upon. You can see why these superstitions grew up. Once the men sailed out of Hull there was no way of contacting them, no way of checking that they were ok until they stepped off that boat again.
“And of course some didn’t come back and with no body to mourn or say goodbye to, I do wonder how they managed that grief.”
When we speak, Peake is the middle of previews and she says the early response to the play has been incredibly moving.
“After one performance I was stopped by a woman who said, ‘How did you know?” I asked her what she meant and she said, ‘How did you know that’s how we felt?’. I am an outsider. I’ll admit that before I started working on this play I hadn’t been to Hull before.
“However, I am from Salford so I know only too well about living somewhere that people automatically have a negative opinion of. I do feel an affinity with Hull. It is a beautiful city, a very special place.
“There are figures to show that 90 per cent of people in Hull have seen at least one City of Culture event. That’s incredible, but it’s also a chance for Hull to show off. It’s not something it has done, but it has a lot to show off about.”
While Peake is best known for her acting roles, having starred in the likes of Dinnerladies, Shameless and Silk, The Testament of Lillian Bilocca is not her first foray into playwriting. In 2014 Beryl, her take on the life of Leeds cycling legend Beryl Burton premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and before that Queens of the Coal Age, a radio dramatisation of four women who attempted to save pits from closure by occupying a mine, gained critical acclaim.
“I want to tell the story of ordinary women who have lived extraordinary lives. It’s important because those roles of strong, opinionated, larger than life women have largely been airbrushed form theatre and film and I think it’s time we brought them back.”
The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca, Hull Guildhall, to November 18. For returns go to hull2017.co.uk