Deborah McAndrew‘s latest play, An August Bank Holiday Lark, comes to Watford Palace Theatre from May 6. Here the writer talks about the inspiration behind the drama.
It was a very loose brief. Barrie Rutter, Northern Broadsides’ artistic director, wanted a play called An August Bank Holiday Lark.
It was a title that had been with him for a long time and he simply gave me the title, taken from the Larkin poem and the context was that he wanted a play set around the First World War and he wanted folk dancing.
So while it was a loose brief, with all three of those things – the title, 1914 and clog dancing – it was quite a brief.
I went away did my research and it came together really well.
I found three spheres of research starting with folk dancing.
When I started looking at it I found about Wakes Week, which happened around the August Bank Holiday.
Around the turn of the century it was the start of working class leisure time and people started going off for the week to places like Blackpool, but before that people would stay in their villages and fayres and markets would come to town for the week.
It was also the start of harvest time and the tradition of bringing in rushes to lay on the floors of the churches over the winter to keep them warm and dry.
It was a job that used to be done by the women, but in more hilly areas, like around Lancashire and some parts of Yorkshire the men started doing it and using carts and, well, once you get men and machinery involved it became like Top Gear.
The women’s attitude was ‘let’s get the rushes down on the floor and get the tea on’. The men? ‘Right, we’ll have a cart and we’ll stick a thatch on it and put a jockey on it and have a banner’. It was such a peacock thing.
I thought ‘that’s my tradition let’s look at it’. They also danced behind the carts, real morris dancing with sticks and clogs – which is surprisingly masculine.
But then there is the story of the tradition of morris and clog dancing that died because there were whole troupes of dancers who went to war and never came back.
I set the play in a town in the North halfway up a hill and when the war comes along a number of young men have to go.
Given that the play is set in 1914 and we’re doing it in the centenary of the war, obviously it has to recognise that, but The Accrington Pals is the go-to play for the First World War and how it affected communities up here.
I wanted to stay clear of that, but while I was doing my research I found there was an untold story about The Lancashire regiments that were on the Eastern Front and there were quite a lot of them at Gallipoli and this fitted perfectly.
I didn’t want to write a play that went right the way through the war for a start.
I wanted to say that for lots of people the war was over very quickly because they were dead or they had lost all their family – and if that was the case, they were just carry on to the grave.
It didn’t really matter to them by that point. If you’ve lost your sons brothers or husbands, then the war’s over for you.
I wanted to keep it tight within a year and the Gallipoli campaign fit in very well because it only began in April, 1915 with the landings and everyone associates that with the Anzacs who were massacred on the landing there, but there were also Lancashire Fusiliers there and there were heavily losses on that day.
So there was this untold story about these Lancashire men and the August offensive in 1915 was just a year after the war started and there was this one last push, it failed and they pulled out.
So the Gallipoli campaign covered not even that first year of the war, so I looked at that more carefully. I had a fictional narrative that I wanted to use.
I start with the first August, 1914 and the rush cart being built, family feuds, love affairs, all that sort of thing, then moving forward to Christmas, when everyone assumed the war would be over.
We then move to the following August in 1915 and the village is dealing with having suffered those losses.
The Lancashire Loyals, the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, weren’t deployed until June the following year, so they travelled out then and were engaged in what was called the August offensive, when many men died.
I have two August Bank Holidays that fit in perfectly the second is much darker and very different.
I also felt that it was a corner of the war that maybe people didn’t know about so well.
There’s nothing new to say about the war – it was futile and terrible and this loss of young life was just so awful, but the political plays have all been done and said.
Every generation needs to know about it, but as a writer I thought what am I going to do, what am I going to say, so I thought I will tell a story that might not have been told before with characters who people want to spend the evening with.
I don’t want something that says it’s all grim up North then everyone went to war and they died.
There’s something very joyful as well about the people and the women in particular. They keep going.