First Class to Pity City: Alan Bleasdale's new play is heading for London, trailing clouds of laughter and compassion. He likes to say he has no background. Few writers have more

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The Independent Culture
FIRST THERE is the business with the ticket. We are backstage at Glasgow's Theatre Royal and I have just been introduced to Alan Bleasdale, to whom I say, by way of a nervous first remark, that I spotted him and his wife on the train. Suddenly he is all fingers, fumbling in his mac for his wallet, pulling out the ticket. 'Supersaver]' he says, holding it up triumphantly. 'We were legging it. Supersaver.' He was travelling first-class, but it's clearly important that I should know he was there under false pretences. Why? Anyone in his shoes would have been in his seat. Down the front, in a standard carriage, a woman 'borrowed' my Bleasdale cuttings to improvise a sickbag for her son, while a Scotsman with a strong singing voice gave us the collected Lulu. So why does missing out on this, being comfortable, make Bleasdale uncomfortable? Because some chippy journalist might make something of it; might write that a man who made his name telling the People's story can no longer bring himself to sit with them. Because if you come from a Liverpool council estate, some part of you might always feel second-class even if a first-class talent had let you travel way beyond the station they put on your birth certificate.

We are in Glasgow to see Bleasdale's new play, On the Ledge, a Nottingham Playhouse co-production with the National Theatre, which has been touring the country. Everywhere it goes, the playwright goes too: turning up on each first night, anxious as a new father, taking mental Polaroids of the delivery.

The piece was conceived in 1985 when Bleasdale sent director Robin Lefevre a haphazard pile of notes and monologues. As always with him, the message came first, all he needed was a way to deliver it: 'What I want to write about is the almost total lack of decency and respect for others in our society, and I suspect that the play may well charge about in search of such examples.' Eight years on, characters have come and gone - the abseiling priest, in particular, seems a sad loss - but the semi-derelict block of flats remains, with its ledges where the deranged, the dastardly and the merely anxious shuffle around looking down on a city (Liverpool by any other name would smell as rotten) being devoured by self-loathing. Not everyone's idea of a good night out, but it took Norwich by storm, leaving our foremost chronicler of urban blight gobsmacked: 'It's a strange country we live in when I'm big in Norfolk.' The national critics, who saw the show in Nottingham, were more divided. Some were moved by its howl of desolation, others complained that it wasn't just the flats whose structure was inadequate.

From Tuesday, it will alternate at the Lyttelton with Stoppard's Arcadia. Strange stage-fellows, but the comparison is instructive. Stoppard once said: 'I must stop compromising my plays with this whiff of social application.' Where Bleasdale comes from, that kind of poncey Olympian detachment is an unthinkable luxury. Sod art for art's sake: what about art for pity's sake? His plays are uncompromising in the stench of their social application. They are hymns to people who could hum the tune at a pinch but will never know the words. In 1983, Boys from the Black Stuff established him as perhaps our greatest television dramatist (only Dennis Potter can hold a candle) with its brutal, funny portrait of life on the dole in homes where even the wallpaper looked to be weeping. In 1986, The Monocled Mutineer yanked the tail of the donkeys who led the lions on the Somme. Tory MPs huffed and puffed fit to blow the House down, and Bleasdale was established in the tabloid bestiary as 'the Marxist millionaire who rapes for Russia'. In GBH (1991), he stood up again for right thinking, pitting an old-fashioned socialist against a council leader who had gone so far to the left he fell off and came up the other side wearing a pair of jackboots. This is a writer who even managed to get the threat of nuclear war into a comedy about a vasectomy. Richard Eyre, the National's artistic director, says: 'If ever there's a person who'd like to change the world through his writing, it's Alan.'

Honoured as a prophet in his beloved city, Bleasdale has tripped over stonier hearts outside. There is a special condescension the English reserve for people who, as Mrs Thatcher so memorably put it, 'drool and drivel that they care'. On the Ledge makes Bleasdale doubly vulnerable: it arrives in London at a time when the polite, well-constructed play is packing them in, and, as Eyre says, 'anyone who believes in anything is likely to be mocked'. But Bleasdale was relishing Glasgow ('the one place I wanted to see it done outside Liverpool'), a sister city that has turned a barefaced cheek to every government slap. He hoped to pull in a different audience - people like the woman who came up to him one interval and said she was enjoying it. 'Where are you sitting, love, stalls or circle?' She didn't know. She'd never been to the theatre before.

Sadly, the people filing into the cherub-encrusted auditorium look much like theatre audiences anywhere: all sincerity and spectacles, they are agog at William Dudley's set. It has the effect you would get if you dropped a multi-storey car-park into Blenheim Palace. In the foyer, a notice warns: 'Tonight's performance contains strong language.' No kidding. In the first 38 lines there is one fuckin' and 29 bastards. The audience titters nervously, but is soon roaring its approval at the dazzling demotic. Across the dress circle, I can see Bleasdale trying to shrink his bulk in the shadows: beard cupped pensively in one hand, pen scratching furiously in the other. He allows himself the odd laugh - at Man on Ledge reading crazy newspaper clips like a morose Cyril Fletcher, and Moey the fed-up fireman who comes up in his hoist to discover no one wants rescuing and opines that pushers, muggers, perverts, half of Northern Ireland (choose your own half) should be thrown into ovens. The less controversial idea that the same fate should befall 'Lamont and Major fuckin' minor' has the place cheering. Here is Bleasdale's didactic one-two: 'Make 'em laugh, then kick 'em in the balls with your message.' The lady next to me opines in best Jean Brodie: 'He puts his finger on everything you feel, I don't mind a bit about the fuckin'.' Just as well. In one scene, two Scouse lads (high spirits, low esteem) are planning how to spend a stolen heap of money. One has no doubts: 'I wanna go in a train, go first-class, go past the buffet car for once in my life.' So that's what the Supersaver was about.

ALAN GEORGE Mark 'Annual General Meeting' Bleasdale was born in Liverpool on 23 March 1946. His mother, Peggy, had a long labour with her only child. 'You were a big baby?' 'Yes, and I've been one ever since.' He wasn't meant to be born at all. Peggy was in a cycle race when her wheel got caught in the track behind a tram and she was catapulted through the window. They said she would never have children. When she married George it was on the understanding it would be just the two of them. Four months after he got back from the war, she took her swollen belly to the doctor who said it was a phantom pregnancy. Five months later she walked back into the surgery and held up the squawling Alan: 'Here's yer soddin' phantom]' From the start, he was a miracle and an aberration.

Bleasdale describes the marriage as 'one of the great love affairs' but they doted on him too: 'I could be the things they could never be.' From Peggy he got his bookishness and his hypochondria: 'Me Dad tore out the medical pages in the encyclopaedia because she was working her way through the fatal diseases.' George worked in a margarine factory, Peggy in a cake-shop. Their house in Lansbury Road, Huyton, had a vast backyard where Alan took his imagination out to play: 'I was at Wembley every day when I got home from school. I was Roy of the Rovers and Ian St John.' The 'cleverest boy in junior school', he concedes that five girls could knock spots off him. It was only when he passed the 11-plus that it occurred to him he might be deprived. Huyton kids were bussed to Widnes Grammar to sit with boys whose 'dads had professions. If we were lucky, ours had jobs. We were white negroes in that school.'

But when he was 14, into the class walked that pivotal figure in writers' lives, The Great English Teacher. Trevor Williams was a 22-year-old scallywag from Everton with a degree. He talked Bleasdale's language, which gave the boy confidence to try others - Orwell, Hemingway, Eliot. He started writing 'horribly derivative poetry - all chrysanthemums and bulls'.

There is a key story from this period. Alan played football with Tommy - 'a wonderful lad and great goalkeeper' - who was always purple from parental thrashings. Their team had to beat Speed Boys to win the league. On the big day, Tommy's dad had put him in hospital. 'We were two-nil down when a bus stopped by the pitch. This limping wreck of a kid got off and ran into the goal.' The ending has the definitive Bleasdale sting: they pulled back two goals, but Bleasdale failed to put away the crucial corner. He cut his compassion on splintered lives like Tommy's. In the years to come, each major work would contain a variation on the line 'All for one, and one for all.'

After school, Bleasdale went to Liverpool FC for two years. When he was 17, Bob Paisley called him in and said 'We're gonna let you go, son.' He was too slow over the first five yards. It seemed unbearable, 'but it was the best thing that ever happened. I'd be running a pub in Runcorn now with a couple of medals on the wall.' He trained as a teacher and returned to Huyton, where he married Julie before starting work at a school for disturbed kids. Finding that Janet and John did not go a bomb with lads 'built like two dockers welded together', Bleasdale invented stories for them about Scully, a terror who wants to play for Liverpool and is coached in his daydreams by Kenny Dalglish. 'Too slow over the first five yards,' Dalglish yells at him. It was the first of a million magpie raids on memory.

In 1971, Bleasdale took a teaching job in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in the Pacific. It was the first and last time he would leave Liverpool for more than a few weeks. Before going, he gave some Scully scripts to the local radio station, and got a call from a publisher asking him to turn them into a novel. Back in Huyton, it was time to choose between teaching and writing: 'I was afraid that with my lack of background I couldn't make a career of it.' Fear was the spur: between 1975 and 1978 he wrote seven stage plays, two novels, five television plays and 150 radio scripts. 'It was my apprenticeship, I didn't know what a proscenium arch was until one of my plays was under one.'

A theatre group was then touring Liverpool pubs in a van - novices by the name of Julie Walters, David Ross, Bernard Hill and Bill Nighy. Nighy played Scully, Walters played his Granny. She remembers Bleasdale as shy - 'But we were all working-class so he soon warmed up.' They were the first actors he ever met: 'I was so lucky, it could have been . . . Christ, it could have been Jeremy Irons.'

Reading Bleasdale's early work - heartfelt, hilarious and lyrical (Are You Lonesome Tonight?, his tribute to Elvis, won a best musical award) - it's easy to see a link with fellow Liverpudlian Willy Russell. But if Bleasdale had written Educating Rita, the jealous husband would have brained her with a Penguin Classic: 'Willy was interested in escape and survival, I was interested in staying behind and going mad.'

IF YOU didn't know what Alan Bleasdale looked like, his work would suggest the haunted, feral face of Jack Shepherd in one of those intense Seventies plays on BBC2: a man jittered to the bone by all the pain in the world. The figure sitting next to me in the coffee lounge of Glasgow's Central Hotel, the morning after a very good dinner out with the cast the night before, looks like a shaggy, benign pirate. He has brown eyes which glitter easily with mockery or tears and a slow, daft smile. He didn't smoke till he was 28 - 'saving me body for England' - but has made up the ground since. The wheezing laugh comes courtesy of Marlboro, the shambling gait from football. He offers to show me his 'pomegranate' knees. 'What's the matter with them?' 'They're just fokked.' 'So where did you get those eyebrows?' 'Ah, well, my cousin went to Somerset House and in 1822 a John Bleasdale married an Isabella Martinez something. Me dad got a terrible shock, bloody Spanish blood, till I said, 'think of Seve Ballesteros,' and he said, 'oh well then'.'

It figures, the Latin root - he is soft on children (mention Tim, Tamana or Jamie Bleasdale and the mournful face is on full beam), passionate about his family, and the bigger family beyond - society. He calls On the Ledge 'the most pessimistic work of a gloomy man' but what you sense in him is the embodiment of Gramsci's maxim: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. He is a romantic who, for all his despair, believes in the perfectibility of humankind: 'It is not predestined that the peasants stay the peasants. People in positions of power consider the majority of us to be peasants. But it's not predestined: I'm here as living proof. Given facilities and education we can all be better than what we're told we are.'

From this conviction comes the force and the foibles of the work: it gets you in the guts, but sometimes you feel Bleasdale is passion's slave not its master. He writes deeply moral dramas whose arguments don't always undergo the transmutation of art, because the teacher in him can't resist shouting: 'You there at the back, have you got that? I'll spell it out for you again.'

He still shies away from the 'political writer' tag - 'I didn't even vote till I was 38' - fearing that if They (this seems to be a dread noun for Daily Mail readers) can tie him to a soapbox, his message won't wash with the People. He is certainly harder to pigeonhole than, say, Trevor Griffiths or Howard Brenton: a creature of emotion not intellect, he will never put ideology before humanity. In No More Sitting on the Old School Bench (1977), a teacher says 'As an NUT representative, I find it singularly unfunny.' 'But what do you find it as a human being?' another replies. In GBH, Jim Nelson (Michael Palin) addressed his Labour group thus: 'I'm here tonight for all those people who refuse to learn about life from manifestos.'

Critics identified Nelson with his creator, but it is a mark of Bleasdale's grasp of human complexity that he gave Michael Murray, Mersey's Arturo Ui, some of the best of himself too. When Murray is asked why he has such good relations with black people, he says 'Because I was one meself. I knew what it was to feel like dirt.' Like the boy who once felt like a white negro at his grammar school.

By rights Bleasdale's works, having such a freight of message in the hold, shouldn't be able to take off. What lifts them is lunacy and laughter. Julie Walters says: 'Other writers defend the underdog, but it's very boring. You never feel that with Alan: his stuff has the chaos, the madness of life.' Bleasdale maintains '14 years of Tory rule is enough to drive anybody barmy', but the madness runs deeper than that. On Radio 4's Desert Island Discs he told Sue Lawley 'I'm sure it (madness) is within me, I dread the prospect of not being in control.'

The fear seems to come from a sense of being dealt a hand of cards that wasn't meant for him, that might yet be taken away. The man whose favourite play is King Lear has brought us lunacy in storms and potting-sheds (Nelson crashing around naked, a forked animal among the forks), Murray consumed with more tics than Herbert Lom at the end of a Pink Panther, Man on the Ledge jumping to avoid death taking him by surprise, and of course, the greatest nutter and butter of them all, Yosser Hughes. Yosser, who looked on a world where the Social Security employed people to spy on those without jobs, and reshaped his mind in its cracked image: 'I could do that]'

Did Bleasdale know a Yosser? 'Well, there was this fella Arthur McGuinness who went to a transport cafe, and asked for 'Six poached eggs on toast please, love. Separate plates.' The girl brought them, and he gets the first one and goes smassh into his face, then the second smassh . . . he butted the lot. Then he shouted 'I'm Arthur McGuinness' and walked out.' And this is the playwright who worries about his 'lack of background'.

He won a Bafta for Black Stuff, but more important was the evidence the People were listening. One Saturday, while the serial was on, Sammy Lee was getting ready to take a corner at Anfield when out of the silence piped a boy's voice: 'I could do that.' The Kop went wild. Jonathan Powell, head of drama at Carlton, says: 'Alan has expanded the medium, punched a hole in the screen. So much TV drama makes the human spirit too small, but he has that sense of the bigness of things.' Bleasdale admits he is 'better at telly', where editing avoids the awkward problem posed in the theatre of 'how to get the buggers off'. Meanwhile, he has come full circle, back to teaching, producing a series of films for Channel 4 by new writers 'who haven't got the chances I had'.

Revered elder status, awards, a lovely house in Mossley Hill, have not brought Bleasdale ease. Perhaps because what he fears most is distance from his roots. After GBH, he said, 'I've got to have a long break before I go back to the well' as if the source might run dry. He talks to me of 'coming to the end of it'. 'The writing?' 'Mmmm.' I pass this on to Walters who shrieks, 'The day Alan's got nothing to say he'll be buried]' A journalist told me that Bleasdale 'like a lot of self-doubting people is very arrogant'. He is hiding it well as he shows me his Guardian quick crossword, jabbing at the clotted workings in the margin: 'Look, I'm a complete thicko.' Norman, our photographer, who has been peering intently at Bleasdale through his lens, says: 'You were looking very vulnerable there for a moment.' Bleasdale's whole body quakes with mirth. 'It's not a moment, lad, I can assure you. It's a bloody lifetime.'

'On the Ledge' opens at the National on Tuesday (071-928 2252).

(Photographs omitted)

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