To Hull and back: A writer’s journey

Richard Bean pictured by the Marina in Hull. Picture by Tony Johnson
Richard Bean pictured by the Marina in Hull. Picture by Tony Johnson
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Richard Bean is the acclaimed playwright behind the hit comedy One Man, Two Guvnors. He talks to Chris Bond about writing and his affection for Hull.

WE’RE sitting in the lounge at the impressive Hull Truck Theatre in Richard Bean’s home city.

One Man, Two Guvnors was a big hit for the National Theatre. Picture: Johan Persson

One Man, Two Guvnors was a big hit for the National Theatre. Picture: Johan Persson

Although it’s a city the playwright refers to it affectionately as a “town”. There’s also one thing he’s keen to point out about his home town. “There’s west Hull and there’s east Hull and we’re currently in west Hull, even though this is the town centre. But it’s a friendly rivalry for the most part,” he says.

He’s back on home turf ahead of his hit comedy One Man, Two Guvnors, which begins a six-night run at Hull New Theatre on Monday.

The play, which has become a runaway success since first opening at the National Theatre in 2011, tells the story of Francis Henshall, a failed skiffle player who is constantly hungry.

Eager for money he becomes the minder to Roscoe Crabbe. But Roscoe is really Rachel, posing as her own dead brother.

Francis spots the chance of an extra meal ticket and takes a job with snooty toff Stanley Stubbers, who not only killed Rachel’s brother but also happens to be her secret lover – cue much hilarity as Francis bounces between them as he tries to keep his two guvnors apart.

Along with Michael Frayn’s brilliant Noises Off it must rank as one of the funniest plays ever written, but it’s the first time it has come to Hull and Bean is eager for it to do well. “Although it’s a piece of light entertainment and isn’t going to change the world for the better, I’d still like it to be loved in this town.”

It’s more than 30 years since he lived in Hull but he retains a great affection for the place. “Most writers owe their living to their home town, that’s certainly true of me. Harold Pinter’s roots are in Hackney, Alan Plater’s are in Hull and Newcastle and the first three, or four plays I wrote are about the people of this town.

“I stole their lives and put them on stage and I owe them a debt of honour. If they weren’t the funniest people in the world my plays would be less successful.”

Bean was born and raised in Hull and has fond memories of growing up there. “In the summer we made dens out of hay and used to ride our scooters around the fields.

“It was all football and cricket and because everywhere’s flat you can play anywhere. I just thought it was the centre of the world.”

In the past Hull has been the butt of jokes but Bean says the city he grew up in was far more interesting than many people realise. “It’s always had a good theatre and music scene and my crowd got into alternative, eastern European cinema, which was shown at the library on a rickety screen.

“We were proud because David Bowie’s band were Hull kids, so Bowie was a big thing and Mick Ronson was our hero.”

Even though he’s not lived here for a long time, he’s excited at the prospect of Hull being the UK’s City of Culture in 2017. “ I think it’s going to be great and really transformative.”

However, he feels locals should embrace the city’s heritage more than they do. “I’d like to see Hull people love the town a bit more and know a bit more of its history.

“Even my dad, who was born here and worked here, knew nothing of the English Civil War and the fact that in 1642 we were the first town to close the gates on the king. And he didn’t know that the HMS Bounty was built here,” he says.

“Hull has been a major port right through history. You would think London had the biggest arsenal during the Civil War, but no, Hull did, because it was near Holland. But these things are all part of the city’s incredibly rich history.”

Although Bean is widely regarded as one of our most talented playwrights, he came to it relatively late in life, writing his first play, Toast, about the time he spent working in a Hull bakery, when he was 41.

He worked as an occupational psychologist for 15 years before “burning out” as he puts it. “I just couldn’t get up in the morning and put a suit on any more.”

He gave up his lucrative job, sold his house, lived in a squat and started doing the stand-up comedy circuit in London. “I had good material but I was never very successful,” he says. “I just had to find out who I was, it wasn’t about enjoyment. My life’s never been about enjoyment.”

He wrote jokes for radio shows but after six years felt his stand-up career wasn’t going anywhere. By this time, though, he had written Toast and when this was picked up by the Royal Court Theatre with Richard Wilson (of One Foot In The Grave fame) at the helm as director, it changed his life.

He became a full time playwright and it was while working with the National Theatre that he collaborated with its then artistic director Nick Hytner, who approached him about adapting Carlo Golini’s 18th century farce, The Servant of Two Masters, which became One Man, Two Guvnors.

Farces, as any playwright will tell you, are incredibly difficult to write. “It’s like building a car engine when there’s no drawings. I wrote my own farce called In The Club, about an MEP in the European Union who fiddles his expenses and has an affair.

“But with a farce, it’s not enough just to be funny. You can have funny lines and funny characters in a play and the audience will laugh. But farce doesn’t work like that.

“You build and build and build because what you’re really aiming at is hysteria. But it’s the most difficult thing in the world to make people laugh in a structured way, in a written way. To try and make people hysterical is an insane task to take on.”

Surely, his background in stand-up helped? “Even with stand-up you’re not trying to make people hysterical. With someone like Stewart Lee, who I really admire, you’re going to laugh and admire his intelligent insight on the way the world works, but he’s not going to have you rolling around on the floor.”

He found writing a farce a painful experience at times. “I actually remember one day when I was writing In The Club just sitting in the corner crying because I couldn’t get it to work.

“Someone has to come in every five minutes with an intention and someone has to leave with an intention, it’s like engineering – and I’m not an engineer.

“But you get through it, although it’s a pretty bad day at the office when you sit in the corner and cry,” he says, laughing.

Even so, he’s far happier writing for the stage than he was for himself. “It’s what I enjoy doing. Before I write a play I’ve probably got five or six good lines in my head and I want to find a home for them.”

Bean is now 58 and has been a playwright for the past 15 years and isn’t afraid of tackling controversial topics like global warming and multi-culturalism – the kind of things you’re advised to avoid talking about at dinner parties.

“There’s a desire on my part to put the other side when the other side isn’t getting a fair hearing. Sometimes you also want to state what you think is obvious but which the rest of the world has missed.

“Someone said to me once that they would love to write plays but they never have any ideas, but the first thing you need is the idea. You’ve got to have something to say and I’m the kind of guy who spends a lot of time shouting at the television.”

But he appreciates that modern theatre isn’t just about good stories. “If you’re doing big shows you need a little bit more than good writing. In One Man, Two Guvnors the scene changes are just as entertaining as the scenes.

“It’s got great music, even though it’s not a musical, and Nick Hytner’s got to take the credit for that, apart from the skiffle, that was my idea.”

He feels theatre needs to astound audiences more than it does.

“With One Man, Two Guvnors we had a reading and we realised one of the key scenes wasn’t working with the characters.

“So I went away and introduced a new character and put a little bit of magic, in the sense of sleight of hand, into it. So you convince the audience this person is X when in fact they’re Y.”

It’s something he’s keen to explore further.

“I’d like to go and talk to a magician and ask them ‘how do you convince a thousand people in a theatre that you can read this person’s mind on the front row?’

“It’s stuff like that which I think theatre needs a little bit more of, that genuine surprise in the theatre, where the audience goes ‘I’ve just seen someone walk through a wall ... wow.’

“I want people to walk through walls on the set.”

• One Man, Two Guvnors is on at Hull New Theatre, June 23 to 28; Bradford Alhambra, July 21 to 26; Grand Theatre, Leeds, November 4 to 8.