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Theatre Q&A: John Godber

Playwright John Godber talks to Clive Stack about the latest tour of Bouncers, which arrives at the Grand Theatre next week, his love of Northern Soul and the strong influence Blackpool has had on him.

Known for his successful and award-winning observational comedies, John Godber is one of the country’s most widely performed playwrights. A 1993 survey for Plays and Players magazine cited Godber as the third most performed playwright in the UK, after Shakespeare and Alan Ayckbourn.

As well as his work for the theatre, Godber has also directed and written a number of plays for television and worked on series including the BBC’s Grange Hill and Channel 4’s Brookside. He has been creative director of the Theatre Royal Wakefield since 2011. His latest play, Do I Love You, about the Northern Soul scene, was well-received when the tour came to Blackpool back in September. His first and most famous play, Bouncers, premiered at the Edinburgh Festival back in 1977. Having been named as one of the National Theatre’s Plays of the Century, it’s now being revived for a 2024 tour and is coming to Blackpool later this month.

Bouncers arrives at the Grand Theatre on 21st February
You wrote September in the Rain, a touching and amusing story of your grandparents’ last holiday in Blackpool. What significance does Blackpool have for you?

I didn’t know you could go anywhere else on holiday for the first 19 years of my life. We went to the same boarding house on Woodfield Road for 19 years. Blackpool has played a big part in my upbringing, and I still quite often take my dad – he’s 93 – and I push him along the front in his wheelchair. The first show I saw at Blackpool was in the Winter Gardens. Watching my mum and dad dance at the Tower Ballroom, laughing at Charlie Cairoli, the water fountains at the end of the circus, fish and chips, the Fun House, the Pleasure Beach, The Manchester, The Bierkeller – they are all a part of the grid that make me who I am. It has played a big part in my history.

Bouncers is probably the most well-known and loved of your plays, but it was written back in 1977. What is it about it that still appeals to an audience in 2024?

The first performance we ever did of Bouncers was a two-hander. It had a very inauspicious start because of the two people who saw it, one was a critic, and the other was a drunk who went on the stage. It couldn’t have gone much worse! This version is quite nostalgic being set in the ‘80s, but it really asks the question: what’s changed? Nightclubs have closed but bars and clubs are becoming discos. Bouncers are on the doors of supermarkets now. We have much more of a sense of surveillance. And drugs weren’t on the scene back in the ‘80s. But men trying to get off with women, and the women not liking the men – that conflict is still around. I don’t think people are going out quite as much as they did because of the lack of money, but there’s still that herd mentality and when they go out, they want to have a great time. So, the Bouncers experience is still alive and that’s what is probably keeping the play current.

This recent tour of Bouncers is going to a series of Northern towns (with one exception). Is this simply for logistical reasons or do Northerners appreciate your humour more?

I don’t have a problem playing northern towns because I’ve lived in the north for 68 years. Perhaps there is more of a response from the north because they find it more relatable. If they want to put Bouncers on down in Brighton, great, give us a bell. I’m sure the experience isn’t that different. But there’s definitely a kind of simpatico with a night out in Bolton, Wakefield, Scarborough or Blackpool. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions.

Tell me what to expect from this new production which Jane Thornton, your wife, has directed.

The problem we have with plays like Bouncers, is they were written at a time when philosophy was quite different, and now in the age of MeToo there are things in the play which you really shouldn’t be saying today. Does that mean we shouldn’t say it, or should we present the work and say, look, this is what it was like then? How much have we changed? Make your own mind up as to whether these attitudes are still around. Notwithstanding how the sensitivities and sensibilities of our approach to various things have changed, for a lot of people it’s still pretty brutal out there. This is a kind of reality that is very much alive and aspects of this still needs addressing. There is still a very visceral tension between the sexes and that theme is very strong in Bouncers.

Would I take my plays into the Westminster bubble? Would they recognise the man on the street if they saw one? I’m not sure they would.

Your new play, Do I Love You, was well-received at the Studio at the Grand back in September. You’ve written about the Northern Soul scene before in On a Night Like This. What made you decide to return to the theme?

I’ve been interested in Northern Soul music from about 1972 when I heard Dobie Gray’s Out on the Floor. Do I Love You finished it’s tour last Saturday in Scarborough and it’s been an absolute phenomenal hit. The reason I wanted to do it in Blackpool was because I wanted to do it in the heart of the Northern Soul scene. I wanted to look at the social conditions that the scene grew up in in the 1970s which are similar to the social conditions we’ve got now. There’s something honest about it and something very community based about the scene. And, of course, I’m really connected to the music which is why I decided to write a play about it. It’s also about the purity of the dancing and the pride which comes with the dancing. We need young people to respond to that music or the scene will evaporate. I guess Bouncers is similar. I’m drawn to subjects which are just off the street. That’s where real life is for me.

Do I Love You is essentially a celebration of Northern Soul but in typical Godber fashion you make some astute political digs. What do you make of the current political situation and the state of the nation?

I think we’re broken. And I think how are we going to get out of it and who’s going to get us out of it? We’ve got to draw a line between what the Conservatives mean and what life means for ordinary people. Who knows what Labour would have done during Covid, but they couldn’t possibly have done worse than the current government. It seems to me that the gap between those going to comprehensive schools and those going to private schools is getting wider and wider and the lack of understanding on both sides of the coin seems to be deepening. You asked me earlier if I would take my plays south. Would you take your plays into the Westminster bubble? Would they recognise the man on the street if they saw one? I’m not sure they would. I think the situation is bleak and even if Labour gets into power, there’s no money left in the bank which results in diluting the arts and education and that can only be a bad thing.

You’ve written over 70 plays over a period of 50 odd years now. Do you still enjoying the writing process, and do you have any more projects on the go?

I don’t count them. I was with Alan Ayckbourn last week and he’s on number 90. He’s in his early 80s now, but he’s an absolute athlete when it comes to writing plays. Whether or not I’ll make 90 I don’t know. There’s certainly enough that annoys me and creates an interest in me to keep me writing and I do still enjoy the writing process. It can be so exhausting and tiring but then I think “do you know what?” there’s still plenty to go at. Dissatisfaction, and privilege and unfairness are the things that draw me to write and sit down and write another play and there’s quite a lot of that about, so I won’t be giving up the pen just yet.

Bouncers is at the Grand Theatre 21st-24th February. Buy tickets here.

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