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Interview with Alan Bleasdale: July 2008

Alan Bleasdale image 2008Alan Bleasdale is rightly held up as a national theatre and television treasure. Born and raised in Liverpool, Bleasdale is a shy, retiring man who quite simply lets his work do the talking – or shouting – for him. Work such as The Monicled Mutineer, Are You Lonesome Tonight, GBH and, of course, the iconic Boys From The Black Stuff are only a part of the vast pantheon of scripts the man has written for stage and television to much critical acclaim and his love of the art remains undiminished.

Now aged 62, tracking him down for an interview is hard work, so it has to be something pretty special to him personally to agree to chat about his latest project; the return to the 1993 play, On The Ledge, which is currently running at The Liverpool Royal Court, with Bob Eaton directing and featuring a fine Liverpool cast including Neil Fitzmaurice, Andrew Schofield, Gillian Hardie, Louis Emmerick and Neil Caple.


‘I’ve done a lot of work on the play with Bob Eaton over the past two or three months, but the first thing I did was to go back and reread it, which was quite a shock,’ Alan said. ‘I don’t do that as a rule and I haven’t seen GBH or Boys From The Blackstuff since the day an audience first saw them. I often get reminded of things that have happened in productions that I’ve completely forgotten about, because I’ve moved on to work on something else. I think it’s a case of each to his own, but I always try to look forward and I always remember the response a piece received from those working on it and the audiences who saw it and, after that, there’s not much else to think about in all honesty. The beauty of writing for theatre, though, is that you can go back and rewrite certain parts. You can’t do that with TV. Once its been shown, that’s it. With On The Ledge I knew I hadn’t got a few things right in the first production at The National and I knew in my heart of hearts one or two of the characters weren’t quite there. You always know because you instinctively want to go to the bar when those lines are due in the performance, just to hide away from them. This is a totally new production with a totally different cast and design. Billy Mears’s set for this is going to be fantastic and I remember the first time I worked with him, when the curtain went up and the audience applauded what he’d done with the stage and I think that should happen here, too, so working with him again is brilliant.’

Since the play was originally performed, things have changed quite a bit in theatre – and life in general – with regards to health and safety issues. A problem Bleasdale had to surmount in staging the show, with the action supposedly taking place high above the Liverpool skyline, hundreds of feet above the constant buzz of chatter and traffic. With health and safety now being such a concern, one of the cast members had to be sent on a course to earn a license to operate a Cherry Picker crane in order to play the role. ‘It’s not so much the size of the theatre but the rules that govern putting a production of this scale together you have to consider. I originally had a ledge on the fifth and sixth floors but I’ve had to lose one because of the height restrictions and due to what you can and cannot see in the Circle and Upper Circle parts of the auditorium. I got the design from Billy then did the rewrites I really wanted to do, then worked with Bob Eaton again and got the clean version done and dusted two days before we began rehearsal. The original only played one week in Liverpool and I never saw it here because I was filming in the Caribbean at the time, so I’m really looking forward to seeing it now.’

It may be fifteen years since it first appeared, but the writer insists that the message remains the same. ‘Our society hasn’t changed in all that time with regards to the flowered wallpaper that covers the cracks of society. I did think before I reread it that I would have to go back and revamp it, but Bob insisted it wasn’t necessary and I agree with him. Some people seem to think I contributed in some way to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher through my work, but I didn’t. All I did was tell it how I saw it and what frightens me most is that if you told those in their late thirties to early forties today they were Thatcher’s children they’d be furious, but they are. It was the indoctrination that went with the Loads Of Money attitudes of the day that are still alive everywhere you look. That, and the fact that the Labour party have failed to produce what I would consider to be a fair and decent society, makes the play as relevant now as it was in 1993. We’ve managed to put as many laughs into the script as we possibly can and the audience will have a great, fun night out. But the message of the play remains very much the same and is as relevant now as it was, if not more so in some respects.’

Born in 1946, Alan Bleasdale was educated at Wade Deacon Grammar School in Widnes then obtained a teaching certificate from the Padgate College of Education. He had long harboured thoughts of being a writer and found initial success through his local newspaper. ‘ When I was eleven, I wrote two poems for the Liverpool Echo’s Kiddie Corner section and got half a guinnea for them each, which was fabulous. Then, when I was eighteen, I really tried to write and wanted to be T S Eliot. I actually found a poem I’d written to a girl from back then, called a Lampost Is An Inanimate Object And Can’t Be Hurt. It’s on a piece of A4, in my best handwriting but, in the bottom right hand corner of the page, there’s a shopping list written out by my Mum. Need I say more?’  

Alan then became a teacher. ‘The school was in Huyton where I was born and brought up and the kids I was hired to teach were literally defined in my contract as being Educationally Sub-normal, which is just a horrible phrase in its own right, but especially when the description is so wrong as well. These were kids who could buy and sell anybody on the street and were really, really bright with an articulate voice and a wit that was totally unique and certainly not what was described in my contract. I loved those kids and I remember one playtime one of them came in and told me a story and that story later became the basis of the first Scully story. I went back to my Mum and Dad’s place, sat on their black nylon suite and wrote it freehand in an exercise book. It was then that I knew I had my own voice, after years of trying to mimic the likes of Hemmingway and Steinbeck and all those others whose work I loved.’

His first success came as a writer of radio drama for the BBC, with several plays following Scully being broadcast on his local station, in 1971. Scully was a young man from Liverpool, and Bleasdale's plays represented a more realistic, contemporary depiction of life there than was usually seen in the media.

‘The experinece of listening to this kid in my class is what gave me the confidence to go on and develop as a writer and I remember one New Year’s Eve, shortly after I’d got married, I went to Radio Merseyside with a collection of twelve of these short story’s and simply handed them in to be read by anybody. Now, what chance is there of that happening, in all honesty, on New Year’s Eve of all times, when everyone’s out getting drunk or planning to get drunk at least? Anyway, Tony Smith, who later went on to Direct Tutti-Frutti, was Assistant Station Master then and he’d been given the job of doing something for new writers. He went through the scripts, contacted me soon after and asked if I could read them aloud for him, but I was working at the time in Farnborough and needed the money I was earning to live on. So, he went to his boss and they both agreed to give me the petrol money and enough extra for the hire of a car. I did the journey in four hours, went into the studio, read all twelve scripts, saw Mum and Dad and then drove back. Next thing I knew, Scully was a reality. Now that wouldn’t happen today, I don’t think, and without the help and encouragement of people like Tony Smith and Jim Walker, the Executive Producer of World In Action, and Barbara McDonald of BBC Radio Manchester, who heard those stories and liked them so much, they insisted doors be opened to me that would otherwise have stayed closed, I would have probably stayed huddled beneath my mosquito net and struggled to finish my first novel. Every writer needs that break and needs someone to have faith in you and your ability.’

Which, in part, is why Alan Bleasdale has so much admiration for what The Liverpool Royal Court are trying to establish in the city. ‘I think the extraordinary thing they’ve done over the past two or three years is to make theatre accessible again. To be absolutely honest with you, before I came to see it for myself, I was scared of the thought of Cabaret Theatre in which the audience can eat a meal and have a drink in their seats before the show. I didn’t think the people of Liverpool would take to it, but I have been proved oh so wrong and it’s providing a great introduction to the theatre for people who wouldn’t otherwise have set foot inside the door and hopefully inspiring not only new actors to go on the stage, but also new writers to get involved. There really is nothing like the sound of appaluse from an audience who appreciates what’s going on in front of them and I was inspired by people like Julie Walters, Pete Postelthwaite and Bernard Hill over at The Everyman, so I know it does happen because, like  here, you’d get to mingle with these people in the bar afterwards. There’s nothing else that offers what The Royal Court offers in the city on a regular basis and it just so exciting. Another thing is that if a Liverpool audience gets you, they get you. If they don’t, they’ll soon let you know. I’m not that bothered if  my work dies a death on stage in Middlesbrough, but if it died a death on stage in Liverpool, I’d be heartbroken.’

Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1985 Bleasdale scripted Are You Lonesome Tonight?, which starred Martin Shaw in the role of Elvis to great critical acclaim, and which was the writer’s way of redressing what he saw as being a great injustice. ‘I put my heart and soul into that show because I was just so angry with Alfred Grossman’s book, and others, which crucified the man before he died with all that stuff about him being in nappies and what have you. I just wanted to redress the balance, but when you’re alone with a typewriter at four in the morning you do sometimes wonder if you are, actually, on the side of the doves or not. It was still something I had to write despite the fears I had of it maybe turning me into a laughing stock. Martin Shaw and Simon Boardman, especially as young Elvis, were just sensational though and it was a very special time. Extraordinary.’

So are the same opportunities as available today that were afforded to him when he started off? ‘I think Kevin Fearon, the Royal Court’s manager, would be in a better position to answer that but I don’t think so, no. There are some great writer’s around who have been nurtured and looked after, it’s true, but not in the same way as I was. My wife gave me two years to make a go of it, which is two years more than a lot of people have been given, so I would write anything I possibly could, including five stage plays in one year and all of which were put on in the same year they were written. That wouldn’t be possible today. Caroline Smith of the University Theatre in Manchester taught me my theatre manners and was in charge of a great place for new work, which again was such great good fortune for me. What she did for me as a writer was unparalled, with the most imporatnt thing being how to write for a theatre audience. When you’ve got three young children and a mortgage to pay, and still have someone of her ability and patience onside, then you certainly count your blessings every day.’

And it is great to hear that there is some new work on the way.

‘I’ve been comissioned by the BBC and its German equivalent to write a piece about The Laconia Incident which took place in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II. In September 1942, when RMS Laconia, carrying some 80 civilians, 268 British Army soldiers, about 1,800 Italian prisoners of war and 160 Polish soldiers, was struck and sunk by a torpedo from Kriegsmarine U-156off the coast of West Africa. The U-boat’s commander, Kapitänleutnant Werner Hartenstein, and his crew, heard Italian voices coming from those struggling in the water and realized their error. The Germans immediately commenced rescue operations and were joined by the crews of other U-boats in the area. Heading to rendezvous with Vichy French ships under Red Cross banners, the U-boats were attacked by a U.S. Army B-24 Liberator bomber and this event profoundly affected the operations of the German fleet, which abandoned the practice of attempting the rescue of civilian survivors under the “Laconia Order” of Admiral Karl Dönitz. It’s a great tale of human spirit and flys in the face of the propaganda that all Germans in the war were totally heartless bastards. It’s something I’ve been passionate about for a long time now and I hope – if we can get all the ongoing difficulties of actually getting it made out of the way – that it will be on screen sometime next year. I’ve had to cut the script from four hours to three, and there’s a few financial problems that need to be sorted out first, so I just hope I’m not the last victim of the Sinking of The Laconia, because it is a great story that needs to be told.’


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“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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