My interview with playwright Lee Hall

George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier wrote this about miners: “In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. All of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to their eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.”

Orwell wrote from the perspective of an upper middle-class man, and to his credit, he never pretended to be anything else. Lee Hall, playwright, is from a Newcastle, working-class background, and much of his work is about celebrating the complexities of what that means today.  “The older I get, the more interested I am in exploring in the richness of working-class culture. It is a culture that is sophisticated, and as varied, as any other culture. In my Play The Pitmen Painters I wanted to show how, between the two world wars, that there was a great hunger for education and betterment. “

Lee grew up in a working-class, but not particularly political, family. His father was a self employed painter and decorator, while his Mum was a housewife. “I was lucky that at my school I had scores of inspirational teachers , who had come through the 60s, and helped politicise me. They introduced me to poetry, drama and art. I am still friends with them today.”

Newcastle has a history as an industrial and trade union heartland. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, Lee was aware of this heritage, as well as of the politics going on around him. “ It was only after University that I put everything together and I take the best of both worlds into my work.”

He went to Cambridge University, a big jump for a young working-class man, where he encountered the upper class for the first time. “They didn’t have a clue about what ordinary people thought or did. The predujice was more subtle but I had been made confident by working in the youth theatre, being politicised by what was going on in Newcastle and I was confident in arguing my case.”

In his work Lee has explored many issues relating to the lives of working-class people. For me, it is his portrayal of working-class men which is particularly outstanding. Compared to most other drama, his male characters are complex , sensitive and heart-warming. “I write about the people I grew up with, my dad, other people’s dads and grandfathers. I think that they were sophisticated emotionally and intellectually, quite well read. Being hard blokes in rough manual jobs didn’t make them one-dimensional.”

In works such as Billy Elliot, The Pitmen Painters and now Close the Coalhouse Door he has told the history of the role that the miners, their union and their community has played in this country. And shown how we are impoverished by its destruction. “The Miners Strike in 1984-5 and the closure programme was an act of political and cultural vandalism in smashing up organised labour in a very deliberate way. What is happening now is from the seeds of 25 years ago.”

His latest production is Close the Coalhouse Door, which he has updated from the original 1960s drama by Alan Plater and Alex Glasgow. Lee sees an important role for drama to educate people about their past. “It is to remind people of that past heritage and history. That people did fight back, that unions do matter. It is very important that people know their own history.”

Close the Coalhouse Door is currently on tour, for more information go here.

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About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
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1 Response to My interview with playwright Lee Hall

  1. Louise Raw says:

    Wow, top-notch interviewee and fascinating interview. Wish we had more like Lee!

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