Enter to popular acclaim, a doubting northern dramatist: David Lister talks to John Godber, little known but often performed

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The Independent Online
THE FACE of Britain's second most popular living playwright is virtually unknown; none of his works has been filmed; he belongs to no literary network and he has, until this week, never had a West End opening. His own nomination for such a prominent position would have been Arthur Miller.

Yet according to the 1993 Plays and Players Yearbook, John Godber is the most often produced playwright in the country after Shakespeare and Alan Ayckbourn. Last year BT sponsored 47 amateur productions of his play Happy Families. And even before that he was running fourth in the popularity stakes.

His reaction to this latest news, when I told him at his home outside Hull, was a call to his partner of 12 years, the actress and playwright Jane Thornton: 'Come and look, I've gone up in the charts.'

At 36, Godber's life has been something of a romantic cliche - an 11-plus failure from a mining family who dreamed of going into the theatre once he realised he couldn't keep goal for Leeds United. He trained as a drama teacher, telling friends he was doing a PE degree, then went back to teach at his old secondary modern when funds for his research at Leeds University ran out.

He wrote his first play, Bouncers, about disco life, in his spare time and nine years ago took over the Hull Truck Theatre Company in his hometown. Within six months the play won an Olivier Award, and neither Godber nor the company has looked back.

Similarly-structured, earthy - and often very funny - plays about other working-class pursuits followed. They were observation comedies about judo (Blood, Sweat And Tears), rugby (Up N Under), life in a comprehensive (Teechers), and a moving study of a pit village in decline, Salt Of The Earth.

To Godber's annoyance, this has rarely been staged, especially since part of his aim in writing about working-class leisure pursuits has been to get more working-class people into the theatre.

On Wednesday the Garrick Theatre in London will see Godber's obsession with the physicality of theatre at its most innovative when skiing takes place on stage, apparently for the first time, in his latest work, On The Piste. Godber counters suggestions that northern humour - especially with titles like this - can seem heavy-handed in London by saying: 'I find the acid wit and arm's-length emotion of some London theatre so clinical.'

The cliche of a 17-stone resentful northerner turned literary success, well balanced only because he has a chip on both shoulders, has been played for all it is worth in the few interviews Godber has done. He has obligingly come out with the required quotations: 'I'm not in the Oxbridge mafia. I don't go to the right parties. I don't go to the right first nights. All my family have been down the pit. I'm not one of God's chosen people. I didn't go to Eton.'

But the cliche and the image turn out to be imprecise. First of all he's thinner than expected. A bout of pneumonia brought on by overwork (three new plays in the last year) and a 2,000-mile drive for a skiing holiday (he's scared of flying) caused him to lose a stone and a half in three weeks. He's down to an almost respectable 16.

Secondly, far from throwing any encroaching southerner off the Humber Bridge, he's eager to please and alarmingly self-deprecating. He has to be reminded that in addition to his Olivier Award, he has captured seven LA Critics Circle awards and four Edinburgh Festival Fringe Firsts.

Godber still goes weight training three times a week, something he took up when he was badly beaten by an amateur boxer at the age of 16.

Insecurities started when he declared he wanted to go into the theatre. 'Doing drama in a mining community didn't go down well, though perhaps the problem was more mine than anyone else's. First of all I didn't want to be hit every time I went out. I used humour a lot as a deterrent, belittling myself. Maybe it was a sense of paranoia.

'My parents couldn't get their heads round the idea of me wanting to be an actor. There was a stigma attached to drama. You didn't say it out loud. Most people went down the pit or to a big industrial firm in Wakefield.'

Perhaps it is a need for his academic knowledge to be taken more seriously (he is furious that not a single critic has noticed that his play The Office Party has the same structure as T S Eliot's The Cocktail Party) that leads Godber to advertise his insecurities in the notes of On The Piste.

'For some reason I had always been bored by plays which took place in one solitary location,' he wrote. 'I know the arguments both for and against the fourth wall and Chekhov. I spent five years doing doctoral research into drama at Leeds. So, like it or lump it, plays in a room bore me.'

Godber is unsure about which direction his career should take. A recent play, April in Paris, loosely based on a trip abroad when he was 30, is a more expressionistic work. Set in a white box in England and in a Renoir painting in Paris, it explores the paradox of people with few horizons travelling to a point where they become frustrated with the life to which they return.

'I find that the more I travel now the more I become dissatisfied with England. Look at the bloody weather. There's nothing in Hull. I get these high points of frustration. I'm not the parochial northener I'm often portrayed as.'

Does he think of himself as a political playwright? 'I am a political playwright but I'm not regarded as being one by other left- wing playwrights. David Edgar and David Hare would laugh me out of the room. I don't think I'm perceived in that company. The National Theatre have asked me to write a play and I'm flattered. I don't know what to do and I think, why me? It's just that I still feel I'm just a bloke from Upton whose dad worked at the pit.'

Rejection still angers him as much as the acclaim surprises. Teechers was the most performed play in Britain in 1991, but all Godber's attempts to make a film of it have failed.

'That's what I mean by the Oxbridge mafia, he says. 'I'm not in with the set who decide which films and TV programmes will be made. And there's clearly a theatre scene, people who network, and I'm not very good at that. That may be my insecurity. I always see success in others and not in myself.'

(Photograph omitted)