Fri 23 Jun 2023

Meet Alan Plater, writer of the ‘Blonde Bombshells of 1943’

Alan rather liked a description of himself as a ‘gritty northern surrealist’. A longer version of this article appeared in Prompt magazine, August 2009. By Paul Allen

Alan Plater: the club anyone can join

By Paul Allen

Can any other playwright match this? In 1968 Alan Plater’s Close the Coalhouse Door, based on stories by former miner Sid Chaplin, was packing them in at Newcastle Playhouse. One Saturday a bunch of miners, in town for a Newcastle United game, inquired about tickets for that evening’s show. Discovering there were only tickets available for the matinee they opted for that rather than the match.

Plater’s was a universal talent in a regional voice.

More than once in his career he was likened to Chekhov. When it first happened he rushed off to the public library in Hull and demanded ‘everything you’ve got by Chekhov’. When he asked his agent, the great Peggy Ramsay, if he ought to know about structure, she told him: “All plays are the same, darling. Lots of little surprises and every so often a big one”. He might also, she thought, take a look at Ibsen. Of course there are people who think ‘nothing happens’ in Chekhov and this is sometimes said about Plater’s plays too. But you don’t have to look all that carefully to see that in the gentle arc of two hours or so, people’s lives have been changed forever or, in the sadder ones, that they haven’t: that the big event is the possibility of change tragically not taken.

A failed architect with the soul of a poet, Plater was that rare and precious thing: a natural storyteller whose narrative medium was dialogue and sometimes the silences in between, often with generous helpings of music.

Justly celebrated for his television work, his stage plays run like a silver thread through British regional theatre: even his commercial successes – Peggy for You or Blonde Bombshells of 1943 – have been essentially regional, Peggy as specific to Hampstead as Close the Coalhouse Door to anywhere men once worked underground. “People talk about site-specific theatre,” he once told me. “But I think of my work as audience-specific”. His view was that you have to start local and specific to achieve the universal.

But there’s another Plater thread through British theatre: his support for the rest of us, through the Writers’ Guild (he was president from 1991 to 1995), but also at a much more personal level. It started with the simple principle of turning up to see colleagues’ work and continued with private and public generosity to artists he admired: he once said of James Bolam, star of the three Beiderbecke series: “There are very few guaranteed ways of getting your work on television but the name James Bolam is one. From The Likely Lads to New Tricks he has long demonstrated his ability to deliver an audience. His secret is very simple: he’s a great actor.”

Plater was born in 1935 in Jarrow – which thanks to the great 1930s march of the unemployed and the Venerable Bede many centuries before is a spiritual location as much as an actual town. He moved to Hull as a small child, surviving a blitz every bit as destructive as London’s. Hull’s citizens, he said, were asked to be heroes, and found they could do it, driving ambulances, rescuing people from burning buildings, keeping life going. “After it was over they were told: ‘Thanks. Now we’d like you to stop. We don’t need you to live to your full potential any more.’”

And that’s his subject – the gap between the potential of ‘ordinary’ people and what they are asked or even allowed to do. It’s a social/political/economic preoccupation (“I don’t really do psychological”) and, because ‘ordinary’ people deal with hardship by making comedy out of it, it provides pretty good entertainment at the same time.

His was one of the creative lives changed by Look Back in Anger. He was into his 20s by the time he saw it in Hull and recognised his old English teacher leaving at the end. “Wasn’t that wonderful, sir?” he asked (he was sure he still called the man ‘sir’). The reply: “I thought it was rather adolescent”. Even then, Plater recalled, he could both know it to be wonderful and understand why the schoolmaster thought it adolescent, thereby exhibiting the first qualification of the dramatist: to get inside more than one head at a time.

What Osborne did in 1956, apart from unleashing a voice that wasn’t the product of natural charm, privilege and good manners, was to bring emotion back into a theatre which had largely suppressed its feelings after a war which had generated enough pain for most people’s lifetimes. Plater once argued that: “Non-metropolitan theatre starts with emotion, with the heart rather than the head.” He was a huge admirer of Lee Hall and John Godber, writers who ‘aren’t afraid of emotion’. We tend to think of plays about the working class as realist but all these writers push hard at the borders of how things are. Plater rather liked a description of himself as a ‘gritty northern surrealist’. In Hall’s Billy Elliot the near-impossible actually happens. In Godber’s Up ‘n’ Under the team of no-hopers doesn’t quite achieve victory, but are transformed by the improbable (to them) coaching of a woman.

All of these plays are about people not accepting set limits but claiming the right to realise their own potential.

There are plenty of handy labels for dismissing this kind of thing: sentimental, old-fashioned, fantastic. And, because they deal with the lived experience of people who don’t live in Chiswick or Islington they are often politically incorrect. But there is something very odd about those of us who work in theatre seeking reasons to discount work that plainly speaks very directly to audiences we have trouble getting in. To suggestions that this kind of writing is somehow easy, Plater had an unusually terse response: “Try it”. He was well aware of the condescension the entertainment establishment reserves for the culture he wrote about: the mystery is quite how he wove the strands of his narrative together into plays that slip down so easily.

One clue is in what he said about writing itself. He actually enjoyed it, loved his characters and let them tell him the story rather than treating them as puppets so he could manipulate shape and outcome. Even when writing cop shows from Z Cars in the 1960s to ITV’s Lewis he believed the point was not the climax to the story but the company of engaging characters: ‘sitting in the car with a John Thaw or a Kevin Whateley’. The only time he wrote a car chase it took place in a caravan park with a speed limit of 10 mph, which both parties observed – until one of them ran out of petrol.

He believed ‘two drafts and a bit of a polish should be enough – otherwise you lose the spontaneity’. He apologised for any obviousness but likened writing to music, the structure of a play to sonata from or a 12-bar blues: theme, second or counter-theme andre solution. It’s not a bad template, not a million miles from Aristotle’s recommendation of a three-part structure. He cited Morecambe and Wise’s sketch with Andre Previn as the perfect example, pivotal at the point where Previn decides he can’t win against Eric’s ‘all the right notes, not necessarily in the right order’ and just plays along.

He tended to work for and with friends, from Peter Cheeseman in Stoke at the start of his career to Philip Hedley at Stratford East and John Blackmore at Bolton and in the extreme case of Live Theatre, with his son-in-law, Max Roberts. There was also a Hull mafia (Tom Courtenay, Maureen Lipman) and a Geordie exile mafia (Kevin Whateley), which confirmed cynics in the belief that getting on is a matter of who you know. But look at it the other way round: writing a community play for the St Magnus Festival in Orkney, he was approached by a diffident Peter Maxwell Davies asking if Plater would mind him writing some songs. The talent leads to the friends, and the songs were exquisite.

I was taught a very simple lesson, one that fixed my own attitude to how theatre might work, when he and his great friend and mentor Henry Livings (and radio producers Alfred Bradley and Tony Cliff) turned up for the press night of a play called Listen for the Trains Love at Sheffield Playhouse in the 60s. Also there were Stan Barstow (script) and Alex Glasgow (songs). In my chippy youth this looked like a kind of club, a closed circle of mates hogging the jobs. What Alan Plater made me see was that, yes, it was a kind of club, but one anybody could join. If you cared enough.

When I heard him recommending Mark Herman’s wonderful film Brassed Off  I knew it was something I wanted to adapt for the stage. Sure enough, when we transferred the result to the National Theatre, he was there at a rough and ready preview. As we passed in the vast Olivier Theatre, he said: “Hello Paul. Away win!” I could have hugged him, but he wasn’t the demonstrative kind. I miss him.

Paul Allen is a playwright, journalist and broadcaster who presented Kaleidoscope on BBC Radio 4 and Night Waves on BBC Radio 3. He is the biographer of Alan Ayckbourn and a former trustee of the Stephen Joseph Theatre