From pitmen to painters

In a sense it’s Billy Elliot territory; but if anything, it’s a prequel, laughs Lee Hall.

“We’re talking about Billy Elliot’s grandfather! But really, what makes it so compelling is the fact that it is true.”

The play - the latest from Billy creator Lee - is The Pitmen Painters (Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, Monday, June 20–Saturday, June 25; and Theatre Royal Brighton, Monday, August 29–Saturday, September 3).

Once again, it’s a piece which suggests that art should be accessible to all - be you 1930s miner or modern-day schoolboy.

In 1934, a group of Ashington miners hired a professor to teach an art appreciation evening class. Rapidly abandoning theory in favour of practice, the pitmen began to paint. Within a few years the most avant-garde artists became their friends and their work was acquired by prestigious collections; but every day they worked, as before, down the mine.

“I was in a second-hand-bookshop,” Lee recalls. “I saw a book called The Pitmen Painters and I just thought ‘That’s ridiculous! You couldn’t make it up!’ But by the time I had read the first chapter, I was thinking that this has to be a play. I started with a slightly heavy heart, thinking that it was Billy Elliot with art and mining. But then I realised that it was a prequel if anything.”

Lee investigated further. The book had been about the art; Lee wanted to get to the lives of the men behind it.

“They worked underground and a lot of them at the coalface. A lot of them had left school at 11. None of them had had an education beyond 12. But they had a real hunger. They wrote to the University of Newcastle which was about an hour away, saying ‘Could you send us a professor to teach us (about art) because there are no libraries and we want to know about it?’

“They went on an incredible journey. The teacher showed them slides of great Renaissance pieces of art. It was another world. He came up with the idea of getting them to do work themselves, not to produce great art, but just to get an idea of how art works. They did, and their art was so extraordinary that within a year he had organised exhibitions. They were really taken into the bosom of the art world, particularly the more avant garde.”

Whereas Lee’s Billy turned to art (dance) to escape his world, these pitmen wanted to bring art into their community: “It was an inversion of the Billy Elliot idea,” as Lee says.

“One of the things that you get in the play is that they certainly had a chance to stop working in the mines. They could have had a go at making a career in art, but ideologically they were completely opposed to that. They just thought ‘Why on earth should we separate from our world? Why on earth should we slope off and become bohemians?”

But for the pitmen, just as for Billy, the point is that art is a normal human instinct, a natural activity: “They just wanted to express themselves. It’s a fundamental human urge. It’s something that has been taken away from us because it has been so mystified, this idea that you couldn’t possibly be an artist if you worked in a mine. I am attracted to this story as being a real rebuke to that mystification. This is a story that takes that mystification apart.”