With ‘one-woman suffragette musical’ Wrong ‘Un about to embark on a 21-day national run, starting at The Lowry Studio, Salford Quays, writewyattuk caught up with the play’s author on the phone from his home in West Yorkshire.
Lancashire-born and bred singer-songwriter turned author and dramatist Boff Whalley has been busy of late, not least with the Red Ladder theatre company’s tour preparations.
The name should ring a few bells from his past role with Chumbawamba, having served the band throughout their 30-year reign, from their anarcho-punk roots through to a dabble with pop fame and beyond.
The band will be best remembered to most punters for 1997 worldwide anthemic hit Tubthumping, its inspirational ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again’ line lending itself to be used on so many sporting venue PAs and as TV incidental music these past 15 years, played to death across the continents yet somehow surviving all that.
But there was so much more to Chumbawamba, and indeed to guitarist Boff and the rest of his band-mates.
Chumbawamba finally called it a day in late 2012, and you may have seen Alice Nutter’s name on your screens since, not least for her TV scripts working with Jimmy McGovern on hard-hitting drama like The Street and The Accused.
Word has it that Phil Moody’s been working on a Dadaist arts project, while Dunstan Bruce has been making films, Neil Ferguson’s working as a sound engineer, Harry Hamer works with Interplay Theatre as an actor/musician, Jude Abbott is with the West Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, and Danbert Nobacon is an occasional author, blogger and radio host in Washington State, USA.
But what about Boff, the Burnley lad who was born plain Allan Whalley, whose nickname was coined by colleagues in the Supasave supermarket he worked at in his teens, where he was the ‘college boffin’? And incidentally, does anyone still call him Allan?
“No. Allan disappeared a long time ago. It was Allan with my grandad and grandma for a while, but when they left us, that was it really.”
Right, now I’ve got that out of the way, let’s move on to Wrong ‘Un. First of all, what about that description as a ‘one-woman suffragette musical’ – is that a fair description?
“Yes, on the assumption that the word musical doesn’t conjure up Andrew Lloyd-Webber, jazz hands and song and dance routines.”
The play’s set in February 1918, and after several decades of protest and four years of war, Parliament is poised to grant what the suffragettes have demanded and fought for – votes for all women.
After years of direct action, arrest, imprisonment and force-feeding, it seems their time has come, and Wrong ‘Un tells of the adventures of Annie Wilde, a Lancashire mill-girl galvanised by a rousing mixture of injustice, conviction, self-doubt and fear, powerfully played by Ella Harris.
The story follows her journey from schoolroom to prison cell and beyond, in a musical drama drawing on class, privilege, hope and disappointment in wartime England.
Wrong ‘Un opened to a great reception at the Leeds Big Bookend festival last June, then went on to Hebden Bridge Arts Festival and Unite’s Women’s Week in Eastbourne, before this major tour.
So, with a fair few First World War centenary commemorations ahead of us, I guess this is a period that’s always interested you?
“Absolutely. I think now more than ever, because it’s 100 years ago and there’s that thing of looking back and trying to work out what’s changed and what’s the same, and how similar certain things are.”
There seems to be a slight shift nationally towards re-branding that whole period, with fears that it will be marked as this glorious struggle rather than the reality and horror of it all – the word ‘celebration’ already being used in some Government quarters.
“Yes, (Michael) Gove was talking about it last week. Really disappointing. I’m currently writing something else for theatre, happening in Saltaire, to do with the First World War and I was determined it wasn’t going to be ‘Tommies going over the top, plucky lads’ and all that, but more about the sorrow and pain of it all. That’s not what people want to hear about a lot of the time, but it’s the truth.”
Between that project and Wrong ‘Un, I can see a lot of the themes you took on with Chumbawamba – not least feminism, direct action, injustice, class and privilege.
“Absolutely … and there’s a never-ending supply of material once you start going back in history, even just 10 years. Interesting parts of ordinary people’s lives are worth talking about, writing about and singing about.”
Is your character in Wrong’Un, Annie Wilde, based on anyone in particular?
“She’s a mix, really. A woman called Jill Liddington wrote books about Northern working class suffragettes, as opposed to the ones we all know about – the Pankhursts and so on. She wrote about these Lancashire lasses in the Calder Valley, heading towards Halifax and Huddersfield, and this thriving movement of young girls, especially of mill workers, going down to London for these big demonstrations and getting involved in direct action. Annie is an amalgamation of a few of those girls.”
Were your own family history roots in Burnley at the time of the 1914/18 war?
“I believe they were, although a few of them came over from … err, (he coughs to stifle the word) Yorkshire!”
Did you hear stories while growing up about Burnley’s part in the Pals movement and so on?
“Yes, and I recently read Jeannette Winterson’s autobiography, talking about growing up in Accrington, and couldn’t believe the similarities. When I was growing up, it was right at the bridge of all this industry, work and sense of things thriving, just about coming to an end.
“I go to football matches at Burnley and remember looking across town and seeing a forest of chimneys, whereas now maybe you see two that are left. It’s really strange. It used to be a working town. Through my grandparents I’ve seen that history. Those roots are really deep, and that’s important.
I believe your parents were primary school teachers. With that in mind, I guess it was written in the stars that you were going down the education line eventually!
“A lot of people in my extended family back in Burnley are teachers now, married, with their sons and daughters teachers too. I somehow managed to escape and always thought ‘I’ll never do that’. But I’ve just gone a different way around it! In the mid-1980s, the band made a record called English Rebel Songs 1381-1984, and I remember thinking, this is getting perilously close to the history lessons I always hated at school!”
When did you do most of the writing for Wrong ‘Un?
“The idea came around a year ago, and I wrote it over the first three or four months of last year. A friend of mine called Ginny, from Leeds, discovered that her grandma, Freda Graham – who she knew roughly was involved with the suffragettes – had left a box at her home, and it was this incredible archive of medals, documents, letters from the Pankhursts, prison admission records, and so on.
“We looked through all this and some photographs, and I thought this is something that needs to be written about. These women went through all that, but it’s not in the history books. And a couple of times, Ginny’s been along to performances and shown this box.”
Did the play change much when it went to the Red Ladder theatre company?
“Not really. I’ve found with the things I’ve done with Red Ladder that they’re really collaborative, and I like that. I’ll write something and work on the songs, then there’s a period between rehearsal and writing where things change, people chip in with ideas, and Ella Harris, who plays Annie, has taken it and made it her own, changing certain things and how they work.”
Even just watching the trailers, I can see how strong Ella is in the role.
“She is. And incidentally, I think she lives in Mytholmroyd, where Jill Liddington lives too.”
Justin Audibert, the producer, is also a big influence, isn’t he?
“Definitely, I’ve worked with Justin before. He’s a young, up and coming director and he’s great, one of those people who walks into a room and he’s so full of life. You can feel the energy going on around him.”
And if that and the war project aren’t enough, I believe you’re working on a play about the 1980s’ miners strike now, a three-woman play loosely based on Chekhov’s Three Sisters?
“When the idea came up from Unite, and the union’s Yorkshire branch, they wanted something to commemorate the strike. I thought that would be great, but didn’t want it to be people on stage pretending to be miners on picket lines. I wanted a different way of doing it, and thought we could have the story of three sisters going through the strike, with completely different experiences – how they’re involved, living in those pit villages, looking at how families and communities had to deal with it. That’s a great story.
“I’m quite a way in at the moment, writing the music, and it’s going to be on for a week during the Durham miners gala, in their beautiful old union building. The music will be played by one woman with a harmonium, with a brass band leading the play in and out.”
Moving away from the theatre work, I believe there’s another book on the way too – a part-travelogue, part-guide, charting Britain’s radical history.
“Yes. I’ve written part of it, and I’m waiting to find an interested publisher before I crack on. It will include a piece on a coiners’ walk near Hebden Bridge, over the hills. That’s a fascinating story. It’s great to be able to walk around there and find where these people lived and worked and escaped arrest.”
I’m guessing Tolpuddle in Dorset is on the list too?
“Yes. It will range from a three to four day walk in the Lakes, marking when Coleridge and Wordsworth were going through their radical phase and went over the mountains on a walk no one had ever done, and the other extreme, when Charles Darwin was writing his defining evolution work, he had a 10-minute walk around his house. Whenever he was stuck on something, he’d get up and walk around this path three or four times. So I want all these extremes of different walks.”
“Definitely – all the hills over there, I’ve run them all! I really like the Pendle area, and running it is just fantastic and offers me a great chance to keep in touch physically with all that geography over there, because it’s beautiful. Then there’s the Forest of Bowland and Trough of Bowland, it’s all lovely over there. And you can go running all day and not meet a soul.”
So where is home these days?
“I’m in Otley, but still come over every few weeks to see family around Burnley, and to watch the football.”
Chumbawamba’s roots go back to art school in Maidstone and university in Leeds, but also Burnley, I believe.
“A few of us were in different bands around Burnley. We were part of something called the East Lancs’ musicians’ collective, which came from Theatre Mobile in Hammerton Street, at a theatre there. A call went out to musicians, and people turned up from all over. There was this feeling that here was something interesting – a happening. Some went on to organise gigs, to run a fanzine, a disco … From those roots everyone was energised to start bands, play music, and so on.”
You’d already met Danbert (Nobacon, who left the band in 2004), hadn’t you?
“Yes, he was a year younger than me at school, and I met him on a street corner through a mutual friend. He was wearing the most outrageous hand-made clothes, and I thought he looked interesting. In fact, I found out yesterday he’s now an American citizen, having lived there a few years now. He lives in a tiny place, like the Hebden Bridge of North-West America, around five hours from Seattle.”
There’s an American link with your other half too, I believe (photographer Casey Orr)?
Yes, she’s from near Philadelphia, so we tend to spend a lot of time there, although the air fares are pretty astronomical at the moment. We have two children – aged 11 and three – so that gives us more impetus to go back and forth too.”
Chumbawamba’s early years were part of that Thatcher era that so inspired you, politically and socially, initially as part of the anarcho-punk scene.
“Indeed. When I was in the Burnley musicians’ collective, I’d go across to Manchester to their collective, which included The Fall and Joy Division, setting up their own gigs before they became famous. I was part of that, then moved to Leeds, after a few months in Maidstone, and it was The Gang of Four, The Mekons, and all happening. Looking back, I think I was so lucky, ending up with those connections that obviously really inspired me and made me think about what I can do with my life and how to go about it.”
A lot of that story features in Boff’s 2004 autobiography, Footnote, and since then – after three decades – Chumbawamba have split, with their last gigs in October 2012. So is the door definitely closed on all that?
“The only reason I would even hesitate and say there’d be a small chance of reforming is because we all still get on. But we had lots of meetings where we said, look, it’s been 30 years. Let’s just stop with some dignity and pride and love of it intact.”
In the meantime, Tubthumping has proved to be something of a pension plan for the band, hasn’t it?
“Yes … unwittingly … one song in 30 years!”
You must think, ‘hang on, we did actually do quite a lot of material that we’re proud of’?
“True, but that’s especially the case in America. At least over here, people have a bit more of an idea that we were involved in all sorts of things. But over there, there’s just one song.”
You’ve probably done very well out of royalties from sport – be it football or rugby.
“I think so, but I’m not sure. I think the amount of money you get for things being played at stadiums is just pennies. There was a time when Blackburn Rovers, Leeds United and Burnley were all playing it, for teams to run out to. It’s quite hilarious really.”
Do you still play and sing a bit outside of the theatre work?
“I still do the odd things here and there, because I just can’t stop.”
You used to say you had done well despite a limited ability as a guitarist. Is that still the case?
“Still the same. I like the idea of saying to people learning that your technical ability shouldn’t hinder you being able to do something creative and interesting. I discovered early on that the art of songwriting was much more important to me than the art of playing the guitar well. I think it’s great that some people are fantastic musicians, but I’ll never be one of those!”
Finally, I understand you have a great affinity for Pantheism, something you’re looking to write songs about as a soundtrack for walks and runs across forests and mountains, accordin gto your website! Can you sum up that philosophy in 20 words or less?
“I probably can, although it may not be a very good explanation. It’s basically … by taking a supreme being out of the equation, what we’re left with is this responsibility for us, and the earth and everything in it. It’s that connection – to nature and everything from sunlight to geo-politics and starvation.
“If I’m going to have a faith or belief in something, I’d rather it be something where I can feel a connection to the earth. But I think that’s more than 20 words, right?”
* For a sneak preview of Wrong ‘Un, follow this link here
* And for information about tickets for the show – which started its 2014 run with January 16 and 17 dates at the Lowry Studio – and more about Red Ladder Theatre Company productions, head to http://www.redladder.co.uk/
* To learn more about Boff Whalley, try his website at http://www.boffwhalley.com/
* An earlier version of this interview was first published in the Lancashire Evening Post, with a link here
* With thanks to Jane Verity at the Red Ladder Theatre company, and Hannah Hiett at The Lowry