That is the number of young men who were mown down on the first day of the Somme in 1916. To mark the centenary of The Great War, Northern Broadsides is touring Deborah McAndrew’s new play An Autumn Bank Holiday Lark.
As an actor, McAndrew will always be remembered as the feisty Corrie legend Angie Freeman, but since departing the Weatherfield cobbles she has developed a reputation as one of the North’s best playwrights, often in tandem with Halifax-based Broadsides.
Her new work, partly inspired by Philip Larkin’s poem MCMXIV, is focused around the annual rush-bearing festivals which began when churches had earth floors and the rushes were brought into soak up the mud tramped in by worshippers.
“It is a big deal and happens during the Wakes Week when the mills closed and, in some areas today, they still call a week in the August holidays The Wakes,” explains McAndrew. “They were staggered across the area so not all the mills were closed at any one time.
“Instead of the women just going ‘let’s get rushes off floor’, the men thought ‘we’ll have a cart, bells and dancing’ so it becomes a much bigger thing altogether. It was originally the young women who took the rushes out, but it then become scandalous for the women to pull a rush cart and dance.”
McAndrew has created a fictional Lancashire mill town called Greenmills which is preparing its huge rushcart in August 1914. For three young men, their lives are about to change forever.
She says: “The Government immediately began a recruitment campaign when the First World War started but if the conflict was going to be over by Christmas as they said then why they did they need hundreds and thousands of men? You have to question that. The difference in this war was that, after we lost the press gangs in the navy, people who wanted to be soldiers became soldiers. But this was a mass recruitment of civilians on a massive scale.”
Northern Broadsides has built a reputation as a company that reflects working class life through the arts. So it’s not surprising that this play looks at the ‘war to end all wars’ from the perspective of the ordinary soldiers and the community they left behind.
“One of the things I feel strongly about in my play is that these fallen soldiers of the First World War are identified as soldiers and claimed by the army as their men, but they weren’t really,” says McAndrew. “The men and women who die now are professional soldiers who have made that career choice and they are highly trained. It’s in their blood in the way theatre is in mine, so when I look at them they are doing what comes right to them.
“My characters sign up for many reasons but one of the questions I asked myself, and of them, was why are you going? I didn’t want to make it a general thing and they all go because they have different personalities and perceptions of what will asked of them when they get there.”
The seemingly endless routine of men going over the top to their deaths led to the description ‘lions led by donkeys’. But, according to McAndrew, we see them as naïve because we are 100 years away from the social norms of the time.
“We look at the trenches and the war from the very privileged 21st century perspective where we get up and have a hot shower and a latte before we start work,” notes McAndrew.
“We don’t lay a fire and crack the ice in the bowl for a wash. These were tough people where women died in childbirth and from ordinary illnesses like measles or flu. The three characters who go have lived a hard life, and they are not the babes we would be in the same situation.
“There a key speech in the play where one of the young men tells his dad why he is going and he says: ‘I’m sure the diseases in the army aren’t any worse than the coughs and cancer that carry mill workers to the graveyard.’ I wanted to contextualise them and not just patronise the volunteers as being so innocent which wouldn’t be right.”
Unlike high profile West End hits like War Horse, the action never leaves Lancashire.
“I had a lot of little rules for myself when writing this play after Broadsides artistic director Barrie Rutter asked me for it, and one note to self was don’t go to the war. We never leave Greenmills because there have been lots of plays that have gone very effectively to the Western Front.
“I’m not giving anything away when I say we don’t go to Europe – the conflict I focus on is the engagement at Gallipoli where Lancashire and Yorkshire regiments played a significant role. It is always associated with Australian and New Zealand troops. It gets lost that more British troops died there than Anzacs.”
The other challenge was how to construct the elaborate rushcart.
“We thought about how we were going to build it so I said the designer will solve it. They’ve come up with a theatrical version which can be assembled quickly and taken down easily,” says McAndrew. “It has to be built on stage and taken down because you can’t bring it on and off as it is so huge. We even get a man on top.
“The structure of the play helps because in the first half it is being built and in the interval the audience can stay around before they get their gin and tonic to see it being taken down. The cart is colourful, full of life as the villagers were, but they were at war so it will turn at some point. It’s more about the people left behind.”
The Great War cost the lives of 995,939 British men but for McAndrew it is the words of individuals that have the most resonance a century after the slaughter.
“The personal stories are the ones you engage with. I did a lot of research and the casualty statistics are astonishing but quite difficult to retain. I can remember a line from a Tommy’s letter home more than I can the number of men who died in a certain action on a particular day. But if you focus on people you find a way in because that is the way we are as human beings.”
Images by Nobby Clark
An August Bank Holiday Lark is on at York Theatre Royal (1-5 April), West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (8-19 April), Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (22-26 April) and Liverpool Playhouse (April 20-May 3) and Oldham Coliseum (10-14 June )
More info: http://www.northern-broadsides.co.uk/