Based on stories collected from the local community in Ferrybridge and Knottingley, Blow Down paints an illuminating picture, powered by humour and music, of the highs and lows of a typical post-industrial Yorkshire town.
Award-winning playwright Garry Lyons tells us about his new play.
You moved to the Ferrybridge area a few years ago – how did you feel about the cooling towers as a local resident?
The cooling towers were like sleeping giants, watching over the wide-open terrain around them. Initially, I contemplated writing a kids’ fantasy in which they stirred from their slumbers and came to life. Then, after the power station fire in 2014, I started following the story of its likely closure. It was the latest in a series of highly visible symbols of the demise of the Yorkshire coalfield, and I was curious to know how local people felt about it. Were they sad, like losing an old friend? Indifferent to the onwards march of progress? Or pleased to see the back of an eyesore that had belched out smoke over the town for 50 years?
Is your personal experience of the towers what first prompted your interest in telling this story?
All I had was a hunch that the demolition of the towers would have an impact on the community, although what that impact might be I was yet to find out. I’ve done a lot of these kinds of projects, where I go into a community with a blank page and develop a script from what people tell me, with no preconceptions of what that script might be. If you find good storytellers – and there are always good storytellers – you’ll find material that you couldn’t possibly invent. People and their lives are endlessly fascinating, and there’s always something fresh and exciting to be uncovered. It was interesting, for example, to learn what a colourful social scene Knottingley had in the 1960s and 70s, when jobs were plentiful and there was money around. The pubs were packed every night and there were several local clubs attracting big name acts. All that disappeared, of course, with the closure of the pits and factories, and Knottingley now feels itself to be isolated and abandoned. ‘Forgottenly’ it’s sometimes called. But there’s still an amazing spirit of optimism, and it’s part of my job to document the myriad ways that gets expressed.
Were local people proud of the towers (maybe because they literally put the area on the map)?
I’m not sure pride is the right word, but the power station gave the town an identity. Someone I spoke to remembers going away to university and, when he was asked where he was from, he always mentioned the towers, as if they were the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben.
In what ways were they architecturally significant?
The eight cooling towers were huge, nearly 400 feet high, with two 650ft chimney stacks alongside. When you came across them at night, when they were all lit up, they were a really spectacular sight. In my imagination, the power station was like a cathedral to industry, and the existence of a prehistoric enclosure and burial site beside it only enhanced the sense that you were in the presence of some other-worldly pagan force.
Can you give us an example of a particularly surprising story someone shared?
There were a lot of industrial accidents in the power station, and gallows humour was a way of dealing with it. One day a guy got his hand caught getting a skip on a wagon, and it took four of his finger-ends off. Normally in that situation, they’d put the fingers in ice so they could then be sewn back on in hospital. But this time, the guy’s mate came along to help and stood on two of his fingers, didn’t know what they were and threw them away. They still have a laugh about it to this day.
Life in the shadow of a power station sounds a bit grim, but your show is filled with laughter and music – why is that important?
The show, in part, is a celebration of working-class culture that, in many ways, has been lost along with the industries it depended upon. I’ve mentioned the clubs and pubs. Well, they sustained the careers of comedians, musicians and all-round entertainers, and DIY participation among local talent from within towns like Knottingley and Ferrybridge was huge. The play reflects that natural thirst for popular culture and creative expression, which doesn’t disappear however hard the times. The show ends on an upbeat note, which I hope will surprise people, and highlight that there’s always fun to be had through creativity whatever the circumstances.