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

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)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat