Ghost Of Our Fathers: Beyond The Miners’ Strike – Beth Steel Interviewed

Jessie Thompson speaks to playwright Beth Steel about moving beyond the collapse of the welfare state, representations of masculinity and moving beyond the usual themes of the Miners' Strike in her latest work, Wonderland, showing now at Hampstead Theatre. Pictures by Manuel Harlan

Beth Steel’s new play, Wonderland, is a devastating and potently political piece about what we lost in the 1980s when the mining industry was steadily dismantled. A Nottinghamshire mine, thousands of feet beneath the ground, will arrive in the Hampstead Theatre in June to be clamoured over by a cast of twelve: young mining apprentices thrown into a way of life that is dirty, dangerous, and hundreds of years old and the quiet policy-makers who are conspiring to take away everything they’ve worked to have.

I know – you’re inwardly groaning even to think of the wine-quaffing theatre-goers louching about in the Hampstead bar, casually musing over the plight of the poor. You’re picturing the inevitable privately educated, ambivalent, middle-aged playwright, who sees the lives he explores as intriguing but detachable thematic fodder. But, no, Beth Steel is something of a rarity. Born and raised in a pit village in Nottinghamshire – where her father continues to work as a miner – she left school at sixteen. She didn’t go to university, moved to Greece with her sister for five years where they opened – and subsequently sold – a clothes shop, before moving to London at twenty-one to work as a waitress. At which time she began writing.

I’m willing put my head on the block from the off: Wonderland is extraordinary. And the excitement I feel about it is ramped up a notch further still by talking its writer. Beth Steel radiates a passion for the work that is nothing if not completely engaging and dangerously infectious. It’s this energy that makes it easy to understand how Steel was able to spend four years writing this play – only her second, after Ditch in 2010 – completely un-commissioned, beginning again after various aborted attempts, before spending another year and a half finding a producer.

Fortuitously, however, 2014 is the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike, but Steel jokes, “If you’d told me when I started in 2010, ‘oh, this could time with the 30thanniversary, I’d say, ‘get lost, I’m not waiting four years!’ Why then? Why have a play on in 2014 about the miners? I confess that I have my own theories, so Steel wants to know what they are – she’ll show me hers if I show her mine, if you like.

To me, the miners’ strike is an obvious starting point for a trajectory that ends with a complete loss of worker’s rights, where zero hour contracts and unpaid internships are an accepted part of our culture, and employment contracts become riddled with instabilities as jobs are routinely outsourced to private companies. If the miners are ever romanticised, perhaps that’s right, because they appear to us in this play as the last of the class warriors – that is, the last of the ‘commoners’, the ‘proles’, to really scare the establishment.

“And I totally agree with you, it’s just that I disagreed with you for a long time!” Steel laughs. “ When I start to write a play, I don’t know what it’s going to be. I start with a place, not with characters, so I don’t even know who’s going to appear in it really. But the mine always fascinated me – that was my first character. But I was adamant that I wasn’t going to write about the strike.”

But why?

“I knew very little about it. I grew up in Nottinghamshire, a pit village, and my dad is a miner still – so it’s not like I’m detached from it. But it just wasn’t talked about. I left home when I was sixteen, so it’s not like I had my adult years there where it came up. And to be perfectly honest, I thought it was about pits closing, a lot of violence, upset, men being called scabs and men not, Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher. I didn’t understand it’s wider resonance.

“I think if you’re going to write a play about the past – even the recent past – you need to make it feel like it needs to be staged NOW. It has to be pertinent, it has to have something to make you say, ‘why now?’ And I didn’t know why, I didn’t understand it. So it was only after various failed attempts at writing this mining play that wasn’t working, that after a year I accepted defeat and stopped ignoring the strike. And went, ‘OK, I’m going to go back to the research’. And when I started reading about it, I thought, ‘actually, there’s a whole world about the strike that people don’t know about’.

“And then I thought, just exactly what you’ve said – if you think about 2008 and beyond, and next year’s re-election, this is the first time there’s been a collapse in the belief of neo-liberalism. And, actually, if you want a starting point for that, you could start with the miners’ strike and go forward. If you want to have a dialogue about austerity, who pays, who doesn’t, actually, that’s here.”

Wonderland’s freshness comes in its approach to the events: it’s different to previous depictions of miners, because it doesn’t simply pit the working class miners against the working class policemen, with the looming voice of Thatcher somewhere in the background. It shows us the back-room discussions on breaking strikes and closing mines by men who are often able to hide in the shadows of these more familiar tropes.

“Yes, because the convenient narrative about the miners’ strike is to talk about it in terms of key personalities – Thatcher and Scargill. And the minute you do that, it de-politicises it. It just becomes about personality: ‘ooh, they both had an iron will’. I wanted to look at what they were doing, how they were doing it – because then you start to see something that’s much more consistent, no matter who is in power. I felt compelled to not just have the powerful and the powerless, but put them together. I think a lot of the time politics is just one or the other, and to really understand it, you need to see both.”

Although it captures events that took place only thirty years ago, the world that Steel creates in Wonderland feels older than that. You get the impression that time stands still in the mine, that these men walk amongst their fathers, with the ghosts of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. It certainly doesn’t seem like Morrissey is outside waving around some daffodils or that Footloose and Ghostbusters are on at the cinema.

There’s an interesting tension between the traditions that were sustaining the families of pit villages, and an obsessive desire for progress by politicians and economists. It’s clear that the government’s push for progress completely ignored the people who were being affected by it, but this was also an industry that couldn’t continue to escape modernisation.

“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that us entirely holding on to tradition isn’t also complicated,” Steel says. “We don’t want to say that this stricture, this tradition, is not without complication. One of the characters, Spud, he thinks, ‘actually, I wouldn’t mind doing something else – but we never even think that round here, that’s another world to even have that opportunity.’ But to me, showing complication doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of value in it as well. And it’s about where you end up too. I go home quite a lot – my family live there still. And it’s exactly what you say: you can’t get full-time work. You’re a working man and you’ve got three kids, and you can only get a job as driver for Wilkos three days a week and they won’t employ you for five.

“If that’s the greatness that this Labour reform offered, then it’s not entirely living up to what it’s meant to be. But then again, it depends on who you are. Because wages for real working men have just not increased since 1979. But then I read in Forbes that the disparity between what a boss and the average worker earns has multiplied 350 times. So there’s been change and progress, but it depends on who you are.”

The play throws up some intriguing ideas about the way that masculinity has changed as industry in this country has deteriorated. The working men can be coarse, they can be a bit sexist – but there’s also an intimacy and a closeness between them, because, in this claustrophobic, confined space, both their work and their survival in the pit is dependent upon each other.

But nevertheless, it’s still startling to see a cast list of twelve made up of entirely male faces stare back at you.

“And it did trouble me that there were no women – I mean they are present, you’re aware of them, and they are referred to a lot, but I was very aware of the fact there were no female characters and that’s a very conscious choice. I had to interrogate myself a lot to make sure I absolutely believed in my choice to do it because it’s not something you can afford to just do.

“But I suppose I felt very strongly early on,” she continues, “that what I didn’t want to do was have one mining family, one man, underground with his mates, but then we go above ground and see him with his wife. I wanted it to be everyman. All of them. And I wanted to start in 1983, before the strike, with the two apprentices, because I wanted the audience to feel what was going to be lost. We have to go on that journey with them, because you can only rip something’s guts out if you felt so much of what was there. So I wanted to create this underground, purely male world, and also really thrash out the politics, not have it as wallpaper. And I thought, if I have women on a picket line, or in a miners’ support group – there just gonna be ciphers.”

There is another trajectory that Wonderland seems to hint at – one equally as uncomfortable as our arrival at a widespread acceptance of gross economic disparity: a world where people like Nigel Farage can tout themselves as genuine contenders. Because Thatcher’s disdain for the miners was dripping all over her language: to her, they were a ‘mob’, or ‘the enemy within’, so naturally, men who have risked their lives doing dangerous physical work for most of their lives don’t react to this favourably. As resentment towards mainstream politicians builds up, the working class look to the fringes.

“It totally does that. UKIP and the BNP had the most votes in South Yorkshire, all in ex-mining communities.”

But could you have a Thatcherite miner? Could that ever even exist? Was it a culture that was inherently socialist?

“I think yeah, if you ask yourself, when do I have to co-operate? In my everyday life, I actually don’t. But mining is a job where you have to co-operate with a lot of other people, all the time. And it’s a village that you live in where you have to co-operate all the time, because everybody knows each other, everybody goes to the same working men’s club, everybody goes to the same butcher – you’re forced to think of the other. And you don’t have to do that as much any more. We don’t think of other people, we can become like that – we are like that. It’s much easier to become isolated personally.”

And who could blame us, Steel continues, “because increasingly, everything’s being taken away. There’s more and more pressure. I can’t even believe the university fees utter utter scandal. In five years time, it will be exactly like America, and will be utterly exclusive – or parents will have to work their entire lives, three jobs, to get their kids to be able to go. You just think, how have we got to here? But it’s fear. It’s an intense amount of pressure – money, insecurity.”

I wonder if Ed Miliband might show his face – and Steel tells me about the time she found herself sitting next to David Miliband whilst watching The Pitman Painters. “But that’s safe territory,” she says, “before 1939, so there’s no real conflict there. The good time of Labour and the welfare state is yet to come. This is a dismantling of it, and really, Labour doing absolutely nothing. They weren’t prepared to put their full weight behind the miners. “

And yet, people still vote for them as a plausible left-wing option. “Yeah – it’s the ex-boyfriend syndrome. We just can’t let it go – it’s like, he didn’t love you! Move on! Get over it!”

But amidst the strength of this political feeling, isn’t there also a sense of anxiety in knowing that whilst the theatre can be extremely political and radical in its thinking, it can also be a very privileged and exclusive place?

“Exactly – and we do have to question it. What is it, to be going to a theatre – and ultimately, it’s people with more privilege. But I don’t have an answer to that. I suppose one aspect tied up in that is the question of, what is the value of art? I mean, it’s hard – how do we judge how people are affected by it? I think about the things that have affected me – it was reading books, going to galleries. Because I didn’t go to uni, left school at 16, it was utterly self-education. I know everyone’s a self-educator – just because you went to uni for three years doesn’t necessarily mean you come out going, ‘Ha! I know the world! I have the answers!’ but do you know what I mean? I don’t think I’m the only person that’s actually formed a lot of my opinions about the world through theatre, through art, through seeing stuff – I can’t be.”

And it was the experience of “seeing stuff” that led Steel to become who she is now – a writer. She says that when she came to London at twenty-one, “I’d never seen anything, never been to a gallery or a museum.”

“So I was so happy to work in a pie shop in Covent Garden – it meant I had days free to go and see everything. So I just literally snorted art! For two years. I had seen some theatre – Chekhov and Edward Albee – and I adored it, but it still felt very removed, part of an educational canon. It doesn’t make you leave going, I fancy that, I want to have a go at that.”

“And so I saw this play, David Harrower’s Blackbird, and it just, yeah – it was the most exciting night of my life. Definitely. And you could say, that’s just one play – but one play really resonates, actually changes your life. And of course, the writer doesn’t know that – maybe he doesn’t think he ever affected anybody, somebody might say to him, ‘what’s the point of your plays then?’ Actually, it made me a writer.”

A privileged space though it can so often be, the theatre is also the place where people talk about the things that don’t get reported in the papers. Would I have known, if I hadn’t read Steel’s play, that heroin use is 27% above the national average in ex-mining communities? Absolutely not – newspapers aren’t telling us about that.

Steel agrees: “I think we need more political plays, I have to say. Most playwrights will say every play is political. Setting a play in Mansfield, in Kent, just with your family or my family is political. And I disagree. I mean, of course it is. But it’s like saying every play’s about the human condition. The question is, how is it political?

“I have a real desire for theatre to be much stronger on that. There are few plays that I go and see and think, ‘This needs to be live-streamed everywhere! This could potentially change people’s perspective! This has to be compulsory! Let’s put it on in Westminster!’ But you don’t have to have that for every play, because that’s not every play’s intention.”

She’s currently working on a play about the debt crisis in Latin America in the 1970s – “Basically, think about the Eurozone, Iceland collapsing, Ireland collapsing, Portugal collapsing, Spain collapsing, all to do with the banks, and then think about the IMF, growing austerity, and how it’s all paid off, the banks getting their interest payments for loans they knew weren’t going to get re-paid in the first place, but they’ve made a profit on them. And then apply that to Latin America. And it happened, thirty years ago.”

I am thinking about that, I say, and having it all in my head at once feels slightly terrifying. I marvel at the fact that Steel can take on these vast, extremely dense topics, and it doesn’t seem to scare her at all.

“Oh but I am!” she laughs. “If I wasn’t scared I wouldn’t wanna do it. I think you’ve got to be scared, because if you’re not scared, an audience isn’t scared. I want the audience to go, ‘I don’t know what this is’. And if I don’t feel that, then they definitely won’t.

“I’ve just done so many shit jobs – I kind of just want something that takes every fibre of you. I want something where I go, I’m not good enough to write this – that’s exciting. If you can go, ‘hmm, I don’t know how this character will feel, not quite sure on that bit, but OK, I feel I can write this’ – then don’t! Write the one that makes you go, ‘I’m gonna have to up my game’. You have to embrace failure. You have to accept the fact that you might not be able to do it – but you’ll have to try for three years before you’ll get let off the hook.”

So my final question for Steel – because I’ve been thinking about the collapse of the mining industry for two days straight, and what it all means, and why we’re in the place that we are now, and how we’ll ever get back from here, and that of all the losses her play embodies, the most devastating and hard to retrieve is the entire way in which we think – does she believe that the crushing of the miners was actually, in fact, the greatest tragedy of our time?

Steel’s face lights up and she bursts out laughing. “Can I just say, I love you!?! I’m gonna go and see Ed Hall and say, ‘I’ve just met a fucking chick who thinks this is the greatest tragedy of our time! Does everybody feel that in the room – because that’s what you’re embodying! And I’ve not said it – she’s said it!’”

And then she reflects for a bit, goes quiet, and says, “No, I do think it’s one of the great tragedies. The play is a tragedy. It’s a very British tragedy.

Wonderland is showing at Hampstead Theatre from 20th June – 26th July

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