Under The Whaleback, Richard Bean’s new play about the swarthy lives of the Deckies aboard the trawlers fishing the North Sea, opened at The Royal Court‘s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs this week. With his tales of flying fish guts and missing fingers, the author took Tom Bowtell to Hull and back when they met up for a beer.
“I’m not convinced the Americans got it all: there are certain nuances of the Hull accent that seem to allude them.” Richard Bean, himself speaking with a Humberside twang, is talking about the first preview of Under The Whaleback, which (apart from befuddling our transatlantic cousins) he thinks went “very well”. Their confusion is understandable: the world of the Hull deckie is extraordinarily idiosyncratic and comes complete with reams of unique jargon and a whole network of deckie legends.
It is these tales of herring, death and derring-do – and the often insane characters who tell them – that drew Richard Bean to the subject, which he has been writing about for around four years: “This one came out of a play I wrote for the Royal Court called Distant Water, which was a big, long three hour odyssey, about a single fishing trip deep into Greenland. They [The Royal Court] said they loved it, but it was all set on the foredeck of a ship with people gutting fish throughout. They said ‘we really want to do this play, but we’d get through six tonnes of fish every night!’” Not wishing to deplete the EU fish stocks, and being unable to find any Inuits to have sex with fishermen on stage, it was suggested to Richard that the play wasn’t really a practical possibility at the Royal Court: “We couldn’t do it. It was madness, so I said I’d go and write another play, setting it in that world, and so I wrote Under The Whaleback.”
Has Bean himself had hands-on (deck) experience on a fishing trawler? “No, no, I’ve never worked on a trawler but if you grow up in Hull, you just can’t avoid it. My first girlfriend’s Dad was a deckie and it was like going out with a girl who was the daughter of a single mum – he was always off Iceland somewhere. Occasionally there’d be this big tattooed hulk on the sofa and I remember thinking that if he catches me getting up to something with his daughter I’d get filleted! They are just other than blokes are now, with tattoos, chests – that sort of thing.” Are such characters still in evidence in the drinking houses of Hull today? “I suppose that’s one of the themes of the play; that that sort of world creates a breed of men that we just don’t have any more. And that’s even made casting extremely difficult. There was one part that needed a 55 year old hard-drinking, rough, big mad, demonic, red-blooded bloke and there just aren’t any actors like that left! – Oliver Reed is dead and now that Irish guy – I’m terrible with names [I think he means Richard Harris] – has gone too.”
“If he catches me getting up to something with his daughter I’d get filleted!”
Having struggled to contain the oceanic proportions of his material in Distant Water, Bean has imposed some control by presenting Under The Whaleback in three self-contained acts: “The three acts are set at different times: the first act is 1965 on one ship, the second act is 1972 on another ship and the third act is 2002 on a museum ship. So it’s got that sort of heritage/museum thing going on. After Distant Waters [the fish-gutting-eskimo-sex-fest] proved impossible, I read seven Eugene O’Neill plays about sea-going. They were short one act plays which managed to create their own tension in very little time. I guess I was trying to do that, make all three acts create their own tension, and have a thread running throughout, linking them together”.
For the uneducated landlubbers out there, the eponymous whaleback is the arched deck on trawlers off which the water breaks. Bean expounds further about his choice of title: “Underneath the whaleback is the crew’s quarters, and such is the design of these trawlers that when the weather is stormy they completely trapped. In the second act of the play the crew get stuck there for three days, without food or water.” Was this evocative combination of protection and confinement why he chose this name? “Yes, to some extent, there’s something poetic about the sound of the word but I think that it’s resonant of serfdom in some way, of economic forces pushing them down – I’m being pretensions now, but you did it to me – I guess it’s a bit like under the cosh, but I don’t want that to be too obvious. I guess it’s got an epic quality to it as well.” He thinks for a minute: “I suppose I could have called it Fish.”
“I suppose I could have called it Fish.”
Bean has previously had work produced at National – The Mentalists was his dark comedy about an unstable fifty-something trying to change the world – but he feels that Under The Whaleback has more in common with his earlier play Toast, which was also performed at the Royal Court. “Under The Whaleback is within a Royal Court tradition of David Storey-type workplace plays,” he confirms.
Hull’s heroic trawlers are are a dying breed Like Toast, Under The Whaleback is directed by Richard Wilson, best known as the über-grumpy (and now dead) Victor Meldrew in One Foot In The Grave, but also a prolific director of new writing. Bean speaks lovingly of their “marriage”: “We’re still talking – he more or less kicked me out of the rehearsal room from the second week onwards.” Does Bean find it hard to abandon his baby to the grubby mitts of another? “I’m fine with it. Especially the way Richard works, working heavily on text for the first two weeks, which is extremely flattering for the writer – although it can be very difficult if the play isn’t working! But after that you should just get out of the room as you’re getting the way.” Wilson was initially attracted to the monolithic Distant Water, and clearly enjoys working with Bean’s material. “It’s his thing,” confirms Bean, “he likes putting people on stage who you wouldn’t normally expect to be there.”
Bean dismisses any possibility of ever making the shift into directing himself: “Wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t want to host a party for four weeks and worry about whether everyone’s happy.” Directing may not tickle Bean’s pickle but he is no stranger to performing, he began his career in the mid-nineties as a stand-up comedian. He gets a little bashful when I bring it up “Well, it was a long time ago, nearly ten years. I was doing stuff around about the start of alternative comedy. But it got me writing, the first thing I ever wrote was a joke.” Why did he make the relatively uncommon move from stand-up to playwrighting? “I didn’t stick at stand up because I just wasn’t good enough. I was always comedy B-team” He stops, and lest I think he was unfunny in a ‘your dad when he’s drunk’ kind of way, adds “I’m not saying I wasn’t any good, I had an agent and I was touring universities and I was making a living – so I can’t have been BAD, but it’s still extremely unsatisfying work. You want to be an A-team comedian and you can only be A-team if you’re extremely mad and extremely brilliant and I was neither of those.”
Bean’s transition into playwright came about through his appearance in the sketch show Control Room Six on Radio Four, for which he was also a writer: “I started writing comedy sketches for BBC Radio and then began writing longer pieces with narrative.” Has this experience of interacting with an audience, and producing jokes under pressure influenced his plays? “It helps in some ways in structuring comedy, you can’t get away from that, but it doesn’t help greatly in the theatrical process, as they are two different things, it doesn’t help telling a story, the story-telling didn’t come from the comedy side of things. I don’t know where that came from.”
This isn’t strictly true, as it seems that Richard knows exactly where his stories come from: they come from Hull. “Coming from a town that’s got this wealth of tragedy, stories and whatever, it’s inevitable that I’m going to write about it. If I was born in Basingstoke or somewhere, things would be different.” I take this opportunity to point out that I come from Reading. “Well, it’s an extremely fortunate thing to come from an interesting place.” He says, chuckling. “Which isn’t to say that loads of great writers don’t come from Reading or Basingstoke, but they’ll write contemporary stories about London living or something, which doesn’t interest me one f***ing jot. That’s actually a problem for me, as I’m always drawn to go back to Hull, it’s such an esoteric place. The town itself, it’s like it’s endlessly at war, we lose about 40 men a year to the sea and every Saturday has a funeral. The stories, the characters they’re just extraordinary. You can’t help being seduced by them. I mean just the small things: you know how people have love and hate tattooed onto their knuckles? Well that’s pretty common among the deckies, but because most of them have got a finger or two missing, you met people whose clenched knuckles read ‘Love Hat’. All that stuff, ah, the richness of that, the industry has just made people that way.” Rarely, if ever, can anyone have spoken with such passion about the gritty hub of Humberside.
Insanity can strike at any time while at sea However, being in love with a northern seaport also has its disadvantages “it’s definitely a danger: I could spend my whole life writing about Hull, there are that many stories to tell, but I’m not sure everyone else would be as interested as I am!” Bean is also very aware of the fact that by basing so many of his plays in the north and writing using northern dialects and archetypal northern characters, he leaves himself open to what he calls “snide comments about cultural tourism which are true” – he laughs – “because it is cultural tourism, but are also a bit redundant as all plays are cultural tourism; Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf is cultural tourism about the academic classes in America.”
Despite this awareness that certain parties may criticise him for his subject matter, the tide of enthusiasm that regularly surges to the surface washes away any misgivings he may have. He gets particularly excited about one of the extraordinary characters that his research into Hull’s trawling culture uncovered: a legendary deckie called Dillinger who was a combination of Dick Turpin, Robin Hood, Batman and Captain Pugwash. “A friend of mine’s dad used to be a deckie and so I asked him what people used to talk about on deck, and he said ‘Dillinger’. I said ‘what? The American bank robber?’ ‘Nah’, he said, ‘it’s Walter Denton.’ It turned out that they called this guy Dillinger because he was this heroic deckie who was a manic depressive – nowadays we’d call him mentally ill – but he was like a Robin Hood figure in Hull. He was just MAD. Crazy. He’d ride horses into pubs, he’d dress horses up in fishing gear and stick fireworks up his arse. People just talked about him all the time. He was also a genuine hero: he ran ball bearings from Norway to Hull in open top gunboats in the war and got sunk three or four times. Once, they were in the raft when the ship was sinking and DIllinger said ‘I’ve left my wedding ring in me bunk’ so he jumped out of the raft and swam to the ship, got the ring and swam back. He was awarded the equivalent of the Victoria Cross, but as I said, he was basically mentally ill. All the deckies would just stand on deck, swapping Dillinger stories, and so I had to write a play about Dillinger, so the patriarch who links the three sections of Under The Whaleback together is a character based on him called Cassidy.”
Dillinger is exactly the sort of figure to appeal to Bean, who’s penchant for heroic men is legendary (in a strictly playwrighting sense, of course.) “I’ve always been interested in heroic men. That’s always there in my work, and I’m criticized for it, and people say why don’t you write plays for women? And I do that as well, but I always come back to the men. And that’s unfashionable at the moment. Incredibly unfashionable. Everybody’s into irony at the moment and I loathe irony with… well, I just loathe it. It’s just killing theatre. And I’ll be criticized for being too literal and interested in literal stories but f*** ‘em, I don’t care.”
So can people going to see Under The Whaleback expect a totally irony free experience? “Well, irony creeps into the third act because it’s modern. You can’t keep irony out of the modern world. It’s everywhere nothing’s real, natural or full-on any more and that’s what, in my opinion, makes modern living awful.” For Richard, one of the attractions of the trawlers’ world is that the tendrils of 21st-century irony and evasion are yet to reach it: “one of the guys I was talking to doing the research said to me ‘ah the best skipper I ever sailed with, we called him fascinating Phil’ and I said ‘why did you call him that?’ and he replied ‘Cos he was a really interesting man.’”
‘The best skipper I ever sailed with, we called him fascinating Phil’
‘Why did you call him that?’
‘Cos he was a really interesting man.’
There is clearly a political edge to what Bean is trying to say with Under The Whaleback, he is celebrating a fading group of straight-talking heroes who called a cod a cod and lost fingers for fun. He is however, adamant that his main aim, whatever he writes is “to make’ em laugh and to make ‘em cry.” Inevitably though, things are more complicated than that: “Also, bluntness, but to go beyond that, the only the thing that really interests me is the human condition. I’m not interested in polemic. I think it’s terrible – well, that’s a bit strong – let’s say very dangerous, that The Guardian is pushing playwrights to write political theatre. I think that is just going to result in a lot of bad plays. That type of play doesn’t interest me. I’m not saying I’m not interested in anything political. You could analyse Under The Whaleback in terms of its serfdom issues, its industrial aspects, its economic aspects, even things like the numbers of asylum seekers in Hull, it’s all there, but the human condition should be the central focus. If you set out to write a political play, you’ll just write a bad one. Either it will be glib and juvenile or just end up with people delivering didactic diatribes on stage. The great political writers manage to get around that – you could watch the whole of Edward Bond’s Saved and not realize it’s political if you didn’t do the analysis or read his 4,000 word essay about it!”
Sam Kelly: “The best 55-year-old character actor in the country.” So immersed is Bean in the world of theatre and playwrighting, it comes as little surprise that he has no particular interest in writing for other media such as TV: “I find the world of TV very disappointing. If you give someone something that is good, they won’t do it because it’s good. You get script edited so much. You get a load of people who want to change your story – you just think ‘why don’t you write it yourself?’ If a theatre contacts me to write something, I know they’ll do it. They’ll deliver. That’s the difference with TV.” One such reliable theatre, according to Bean, is the Royal Court, and he speaks in glowing terms about its oppositional stance and the encouragement it gives to regional [basically northern] playwrights. What does he think about the recent influx of stars from television and film into the Royal Court, with Bond Girl Rosamund Pike, Eastender Tasmin Outhwaite and Birds Of A Feather star Linda Robson all appearing at the theatre over the next three months? “I find it hard to comment on celebrity stuff: I don’t recognize any of those names you mentioned. But if they can act, fine. I don’t have a problem with stars, as long as they’re good. I’ve got Sam Kelly in the play, not because he’s been on telly but because he’s possibly the best 55-year old character actor in the country! But there is a danger that these soap stars won’t be able to act on stage.” He pauses. “If I were having my plays performed in 600-seater theatres I’d probably be saying something different!”
Which brings Bean onto what he sees as the great challenge for this generation of English playwrights: “We are all expected to write plays to be performed in black boxes. That’s a real problem for this industry. People are very rarely asked to write epic social theatre. And something has to be done about that. Thousandd-seater places like the Sheffield Crucible should be commissioning big new plays – though I shouldn’t complain, cos I’ve had one on there. Otherwise we’ll have a whole generation of British writers passing by without ever writing outside of a black box. That would be a shame because the new writing scene is incredibly healthy. We are producing hundreds more writers than the continent – this country just produces writers. I guess what we’re lacking at the moment is one of those movements: in the nineties we had Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill with their In Yer Face, Blood And Spunk theatre.” So what type of movement, and with what name, would he like to see emerging over the next ten years of British theatre? “Monsterism, big plays: but only if we can get out of the box.” By casting his net wide to include fifty years history as well as thousands of miles of fish-filled sea, it seems that with Under The Whaleback, Richard Bean is making a bid to do just that.