Playwright John Godber talks to Yorkshire Life
PUBLISHED: 00:13 12 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:07 20 February 2013
Vast numbers of hit plays, countless awards, a new building on the way, and the return of Our House, one of his most audience pleasing productions. We go looking for Mr Godber. INTERVIEW BY TONY GREENWAY PHOTOGRAPHS BY ADRIAN GATIE
Exciting times in Hull, exciting times indeed. Yes, that's what we said, Kirstie Allsopp: exciting times - in Hull. In less than a year, the new Hull Truck Theatre building will open, and its artistic director, John Godber, who also happens to be the most popular playwright in the country, is thrilled. 'The new theatre has been about eight years of serious waiting and 24 years of my life in Hull,' he says.
That Godber is talking to us at all is remarkable because, in the next hour, he's off with his wife and family to the French Alps for a skiing break. Still. Always time for Yorkshire Life, eh? He's a good man, John Godber. He's also prolific.
This West Yorkshire-born, Leeds educated, Hull-based former schoolteacher is - it's official - the most performed playwright in the English language: Bouncers, Teechers, Perfect Pitch, Up 'n' Under, On the Piste...We could go on - and on - because Godber has written more than 50 plays.
He's also won five Edinburgh Fringe First Awards, a Laurence Olivier Comedy of the Year Award, and seven Los Angeles Critics Circles Awards. There are more gongs on his mantelpiece, but we can't name them all because we're running out of space. And next month, Our House, one of Godber's most acclaimed comedy dramas, called 'shrewd but soft-hearted' by The Observer, reappears at Hull Truck after a national tour.
Q: How do you decide which of your plays to revive?
A: It's not simply my decision. It's a group decision. Some we can't do because the cast sizes are too large; others we don't do because they didn't go down as well as we thought when we premiered them. Our House has been well-reviewed and audiences like it... and it hadn't been seen on a tour before.
Q: Hull Truck will be getting a new headquarters soon. When does the building open?
A: Officially, it's supposed to open on March 19th, 2009. I have to pinch myself. There's been a lot of talk about the new theatre but now I pass it every day and can see it being built, which is nice. But it's also quite frightening.
Q: Why frightening?
A: Well, there are still issues about arts funding all over the place. Currently we're working out of a tin shed. It's a great space and we love it and it'll be really sad when it gets knocked down. But the new theatre will be absolutely fantastic, as easily as good as the West Yorkshire Playhouse was when it opened. And it'll be eight times bigger than our current venue. But then it's costing nearly 15 million quid.
Q: What do you read about yourself that infuriates you?
A: 'Seventeen stone John Godber'. They never say '12st 9lb Tom Stoppard', do they? Or '5ft 6ins William Shakespeare'. You can't be 17 stone and be a playwright, apparently, which is extraordinary. Actually, I have to tell you now I'm under 17 stone for the first time in 35 years.
Q: We'll make sure we print that bit in red, John. You're always dubbed 'the most popular playwright in the country'. That description must go to your head, surely?
A: I never believe what I read! Also, there's a bloke in Scarborough who's written more than me. There used to be a bloke in Stratford who went to London who wrote more than me. My plays are popular, but I never think about how many trophies I've got in the trophy cupboard. I'm more likely to think about what I'm going to do tomorrow. It's a bit like sport. I'm only as good as what I do today.
Q: Have you any clue as to how many of your plays are being produced around the world at any one time?
A: No. To be honest, I'm a bit of a saddo and I go on the internet and see what's happening, because there have been productions of my plays which I know nothing about. There was a production of Bouncers in a pub in Greece which I didn't get any money from, for example. I've become a bit of a hit in Bulgaria, where they're doing Up 'n' Under and Gin and Tonic. And, for some bizarre reason, there's another theatre in Czechoslovakia doing On a Night Like This, which is about Northern soul.
Q: Is there anywhere else you could live other than Hull?
A: Yeah. I live in a nice village near the Humber Bridge, but I'd be just as happy back in West Yorkshire, which is where I'm from originally.We've contemplated moving to York, because I'm a massive fan of the place. I'm a massive fan of Scarborough, too: that coastline is secondto- none, and I could happily live there.
Q: Could you ever consider moving out of the county?
A: No, not now.We have property abroad, so we spend a lot of time in the French Alps. I've had opportunities to work in America and the National Theatre, and I turned them down for family reasons. I am a fiercely proud Yorkshireman. I was born and educated here, and I live and work here. But I'm not pro-Yorkshire and antieverywhere else. There are other places that I like.
Q: What annoys you about Yorkshire?
A: We're quite often categorised as bluff Yorkshireman. To me, that's '17-stone John Godber' syndrome again. You know: 'I'm not very intelligent, but I can pick up heavy weights.' The flat cap and whippet thing gets to me. I don't like those kind of 'Professional Yorkshiremen.'
Q: So what is Yorkshire to you?
A: It's many countries. I used to say to my girlfriend, who's now my wife: 'You're not from proper Yorkshire - you're from Skipton!'Which is nearer Lancashire. To me, proper Yorkshire was about mining in the West Riding. Then I moved to Hull and found that proper Yorkshire was fishing. Up in the north, proper Yorkshire is agriculture. If you went to Leeds it would be about business. It's a many-faceted place, and I think that's its strength.
Q: Why does Hull get such a bad deal in the press?
A: I'm sat here overlooking the Humber Bridge. It's boiling, and I can just see into Immingham. If you squint, you could be in Cannes. It's a beautiful day. Yes, Hull has problems, but I don't know any major city in the country that doesn't. Hull is at a tipping point of real major changes with regards to image and self-confidence. It's evolving. There are great things happening here and it'll only be a matter of time before people's perceptions do a complete about face. I've been to most cities in the country with my plays, but I get back, look at Hull and think: 'I'll tell you summat. This in't a bad place to live.'
Q: I haven't heard anyone from Hull say a bad thing about the place.
A: But they do, and I'll give you an example. Hull famously voted itself 'Crappiest Town'. Now, I took some exception to that, because Hull is a city - so at the very least it should have been 'Crappiest City'. People in Yorkshire are self-deprecating, and I think there's a substantial coterie of people in Hull who think: 'It's only Hull.' And that's selfperpetuating. They play to the image as it's presented.
Q: What's your favourite place in Yorkshire?
A: I have many. The Humber Bridge is an astonishing place. I can sit under the bridge and write or just sit and think.
Q: Does it inspire you?
A: I wouldn't say 'inspires me'. That's a big phrase. But I'll tell you what this part of the world does for me. There's a real sense of freedom living here. It's flat, the skies are big and there's a lot of space. It gives me the opportunity to wander around and think. Now, bear in mind that I don't have a proper job. I'm just a 17-stone bloke who's walking about thinking.