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24 September 2014
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John Godber (picture by Adrian Gatie)
John Godber

John Godber - Real life dramas

John Godber's name is synonymous with Hull - he's one of the city's most famous adopted sons, whose experiences in the city have inspired his work for over 20 years.


John Godber's Factfile

  • Born in 1956, in Upton, West Yorkshire, the son and grandson of miners.
  • Trained as a drama teacher at Bretton Hall College.
  • Became head of drama at Minsthorpe High School, where he had been a student.
  • Won every major award at the National Student Drama Festival between 1981-1983.
  • Appointed Artistic Director of Hull Truck Theatre Company in 1984.
  • Plays include 'Teechers', 'Blood, Sweat and Tears', 'On the Piste', and 'April in Paris'.
  • 'Bouncers' won seven Los Angeles Critics Circle Awards in 1993.
  • Godber has won five Edinburgh Fringe First Awards for his plays.
  • Won the Laurence Olivier Comedy of the Year Award for his play 'Up 'n' Under' in 1984. The play was subsequently made into a film.
  • Godber has directed many plays other than his own including 'Twelfth Night', 'The Glass Menagerie' and 'Woyzeck'.
  • TV work includes 'Brookside', 'Crown Court' and 'Grange Hill'. 
  • Godber devised the BBC series 'Chalkface' about teachers.
  • Successfully auditioned for a part in 'The Full Monty' but Godber turned it down to work on his first film, 'Up 'n' Under'.
  • Reckoned to be the third most frequently performed British playwright after Shakespeare and Ayckbourn.

Godber is best known as the brains behind the Hull Truck Theatre Company which he joined as Artistic Director in 1984. He's also produced some of the most popular stage plays of the last 20 years including 'Bouncers', 'Teechers' and 'Up 'n' Under', all of which draw on his Yorkshire roots.

A new TV programme called 'A Picture of Hull' explores John Godber's relationship with the city where he lives and works, and looks at how it has inspired his work over the last 20 years.

Real lives

Godber's strongest link with Hull is through Hull Truck Theatre Company which he joined as Artistic Director in 1984.

John Godber writing outdoors in Hull
John Godber writing outdoors in Hull

John came to the theatre at a time when it was struggling financially, and it was on the brink of closure. "I suppose I came with a mission which was to make theatre viable in traditionally what was a city that perhaps hadn't been able to make theatre work," he says. "My mission was to write plays that would attract people who perhaps weren't traditional theatre goers. I wanted to have as wide an audience as possible."

Godber transformed the traditional company into a local community theatre, performing plays which reflected ordinary people's lives, from bouncers and teachers to waitresses and coal-board workers. Since then the company has established itself as one of the best contemporary theatre groups in Britain, often performing Godber's own plays.

Voice of Hull

In some ways John Godber is 'the voice of Hull', and, although it sounds strange, many people in the city only go to see his plays. If Godber puts on a production of 'Julius Caesar' or 'Moby Dick' at Hull Truck Theatre, there are empty seats. But if he produces one of his own plays, there is guaranteed to be a packed house.

It's a sign that his work really connects with local audiences. Godber's work appeals across the board - he's loved by a very diverse audience, from bus drivers and barristers to dinner ladies and dockers. "The impulse to make theatre that speaks right across the board to all kinds of people in the city is as strong today as it when I came to Hull in 1984," says Godber.

"On a good night you want laughter and tears at the same time… and that piece of art has to have guts - it's muscular and abrasive and stands up in that environment."

Bouncers

John Godber has always sought inspiration from the people and places of Yorkshire and Humberside. Godber's plays have a strong sense of place, and are well known for their use of northern accents and dialect.

John Godber making notes in Hull
John Godber making notes in Hull

'Bouncers', John Godber's most popular play, is set in and around a northern nightclub called Mr Cinders, with the action focusing on the exploits of the four doormen and their customers. The play creates a vivid picture of the relentless hedonism of northern night life with its raw energy, flashing disco lights, and raucous lads and lasses out on the town.

Most people think the play was written about Hull, partly because it has played in the city an amazing 17 times. In fact 'Bouncers' was originally inspired by Kiko's in Pontefract, a Polynesian style night club with fake palm trees. "It's a celebration of the fantastic Bacchanalian aspects of urban night life.  Forget 'Look Back in Anger', let's get out there - let's get pissed up," says Godber. As it says in the opening of the play, "all human life is here" - it's "a midnight circus".

People watching

Hull has been a rich source for many of Godber's characters and stories. Godber openly admits to the huge influence that the city has had on his work, saying that, "I'd be a different writer if I hadn't come to Hull". 

John likes to do much of his creative thinking in waterside locations such as the city's riverside, marina, and docks. He is particularly keen on Hull Docks, "There's lots of space, involving a lot of sky and it's a great place for me to think here".

Godber has written three plays inspired by the coming and going of ferries to the docks. "I find it inspiring being on the coast and near the water," he says. He also gets inspiration from people-watching in Hull's many city centre cafés including Lucianos in Hessle.

His ability to eaves-drop on conversations from a distance is seen in the witty, crisp dialogue which characterises his plays, and his sharp observations of language and behaviour.

Living on the edge

Godber is fascinated by Hull's geographical position on the edge of Britain. John has always felt like a bit of an outsider himself, and being in Hull has reinforced those feelings. "I've always felt like an outsider, since failing my 11-plus," he says.

"Everybody feels like an outside deep down. I see this when people relate to my plays. I write to know that I'm not alone. There are three routes into Hull - the motorway comes from the west, over the bridge from the south and there's a rail link from Doncaster - and they all end here. Whichever way you look at it, Hull is the end of the line." 

But Godber sees this as a positive thing, "I suppose geographically Hull is a city on the edge but I like to think Hull is a city on the edge of greatness". Godber also does much of his thinking outdoors at nearby Spurn Point, one of the most easterly places in Britain. "It doesn't feel like the edge," says Godber. "It feels like the beginning. "You get a sense of the sky and the space… an unfenced existence… I like it here because there's a lot of space to think.  This is a great place to compose things."

Odd Squad

A still from Godber's Oddsquad - Shot in Hull
A still from Godber's Oddsquad

Being an outsider is a strong theme in his Godber's latest TV drama, 'Oddsquad', shot in the city using a largely Hull cast. 'Oddsquad' is about a young man, Zack, arriving in Hull with his dad who has just got a new job in the city. It's about coming to terms with being in a new place and how Zack copes with making friends in his new school.

John thought that Hull with its 'edge' location was the ideal place to shoot the drama, part of which is set in a caravan on the Humberside coast, as he explains. "It's a womb, a place away from the world, a closed world, and I write a lot about closed worlds."

Perfect Pitch

Godber is also fascinated by what happens when people get thrown together, whether it's in a rugby team, a night club or in a school. His recent play 'Perfect Pitch' is about people coming together through the world of caravanning, and it uses this world to explore other themes including the class divide and disintegrating relationships.

It was inspired by Humberside's many caravan parks and neglected seaside towns.   For the location Godber chose a precarious cliffside pitch to convey "life in jeopardy, constantly under threat". For the play Godber drew on his childhood experiences of caravan holidays including his memories of the soggy British summer, complete with thermos flasks and blankets.

"My first introduction to caravanning was family holidays in Whitley Bay in the mid 1970s.  Most of my memories are sat in the caravan … playing Happy Families whilst the rain rattled on the roof," recalls Godber.

Wrestling Mad

For his forthcoming play, 'Wrestling Mad', John Godber is drawing his inspiration from the town of Bridlington. The town was the first place where he saw a wrestling match - now he's back there researching his latest play.

John speaking to a wrestler for 'Wrestling Mad'
John speaking to a wrestler

Godber aims to use "the themes of struggle, performance, celebrity, physicality, alter egos to investigate other stories," he explains. "I'm trying to shine some light and illumination on some people's fascination and, at the same time, with a little bit of luck, say something about being alive."

The play focuses on American style wrestling with an added Northern flavour, and premieres at Hull Truck Theatre later this year. For this play Godber has eavesdropped on the wrestling scene in Yorkshire, soaking up the atmosphere and snippets of conversations between the sporting protagonists.

Expect a production which captures the excitement of the wrestling scene and its colourful characters.

Picturing Humberside

John Godber has been a huge ambassador for Hull, putting the city on the map with his many plays inspired by the place where he lives. Hull is all too often been maligned in the national press, and was recently voted one of the worst places to live in Britain. But John Godber has done something to counter this negative perception of the city - he's helped to make it cool.

And he's not stopping there - Hull Truck has even bigger plans for the future with an expanded theatre at the heart of the local community. John continues to draw inspiration from Humberside in his work, even though he wasn't born and bred in the area. "Hull is an industrial city that has lost its industry. I'm from West Yorkshire, but there's not much difference between being the son of a miner and the son of a fisherman. Maybe that's why people respond to my plays."

Godber is adamant that his plays should not be elitist and should reflect ordinary lives. "If you put on a play that speaks to people, then they'll search it out. You have to connect, you have to feel, you have to engage the sympathy of the audience. They have to believe what's happening at the very least."

He hates plays about the dull and dire life of the working class written by middle class people for middle class people, especially "their sense of voyeurism".

Last stop - Hull

John Godber has put Hull on the map for drama, but his plays aren't inward looking - they have universal themes. "It's quite a different pair of eyes looking at this part of the world," concludes Godber.

John Godber is undoubtedly one of Hull's most famous adopted sons, and it's great for Humberside that he feels so passionate about the area and its people.

Watch John Godber's 'A Picture of Hull' on Monday 18th July, at 11.30pm on BBC 3.

last updated: 09/06/05
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