Thursday, 12 July 2018

QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE - ‘Nor, a cross word!’

Maxine Peake

LAST week Anne Scargill told the director of the play ‘Queens of the Coal Age’, Maxine Peake, now showing at the Manchester Royal Exchange, that the women who occupied Parkside Pit in 1993 as part of the campaign ‘Women Against Pit Closures’ endured their experience cheerfully.  During a public interview at the Salford Art Gallery, Anne told Ms. Peake:  ‘Nor, a cross word passed between us!’

Singing on the Tannoy to the miners down the pit, playing I-Spy, shuffling packs of cards, even sharing talcum powder and chocolates sent in by the miner’s wives.  

The pit bosses were less amused, but when the lasses threatened to take them to the Court of Human Rights, a supply of mineral water was sent down.  

Yet the play, written by Maxine Peake and based on the former radio drama for BBC Radio Four, soon demonstrated the there was much more friction between the participants in pit floor direct action than Anne Scargill had previously claimed in her Salford interview.  

At one stage one of the women was mocked for not having kids.  Anne herself was later challenged for doing the protest only to promote herself and satisfy her own ego.  She admitted this claiming that she was sick of always living in Arthur’s shadow.  

Dot Kelly, one of the participants, has said elsewhere in an interview in the show’s program:  ‘They portrayed us as someone at the kitchen sink all the time – I mean, I went through three strikes. ‘72, ‘74 and ‘84.  Even if there weren’t a strike, that was me;...’

But there was a feistiness about the play which I feel was brought about by the dialogue introduced by Maxine Peake.  One of the women is presented as being ultra-randy in the sense that she was actually turned-on by the erotic concept of the sweaty grubby miner as a phenomena.  It has been suggested to me that Ms. Peake herself may have a taste for the down-to-earth spirit.  

This lack of the Mrs. Grundy syndrome is refreshing and now seems to belong to another age, yet it was not just in the dialogue produced by Madam Peake, that set me thinking about this.  The story doesn’t have the muckiness of Zola’s ‘Germinal’ yet it does seem to snub the snottiness of the fashionable vogue for political correctness.  We get a flavour of this in the show’s program, which indulges us with with an account of the journalist Triana Holden’s book ‘QUEEN COAL: WOMEN OF THE MINERS’ STRIKE’, in which she gives an account of the scene at Orgreave Colliery in 1984:


‘I was standing to the side in between the volatile miners and the equally aggressive police …  The pickets started shouting “get yer tits out for the lads”.  I was horrified and began to run away from the chanting or face a lifetime of embarrassment about having a famous bosom.  I must have resembled a scared rabbit as some of the men chased me; suddenly I was grabbed from behind and carried off.  I was furious when I was plonked down in a muddy field, denting my pride, ruining my broadcast but worse still destroying my lovely boots.  It turned out that my abductor was a sergeant from the Metropolitan police who was putting me out of harm’s way.  I shouted blue fury at him but he just laughed and said, “Is that the thanks I get for saving your neck?  Typical woman!”’

How very English!  

What we get here at Orgreave Colliery, is an English Bobbie, a few cheeky pickets, some muddy boots and dented female pride; tame-stuff! compared to Zola’s uncompromisingly harsh and realistic story of a coalminers' strike in northern France in the 1860s, in which a local money-lender had one woman tear his testicles off.

This play itself dwells upon the curious clostrophobia of everday life in a setting in which the ordinary is made extraordinary by introducing the disrupive element of four women.  Maxine Peake herself has just spent the best part of a month performing as Winnie by sitting on top Willie in a heap on sand in Samuel Beckett's play 'Happy Days' at Manchester's Royal Exchange, and in 2016, she played the role of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ masterwork, 'A Streetcar Named Desire', who invades her sister’s marriage and ignites a dark and violent conflict finishing-up in tears.  There's something rather earthy about Maxine Peake which she seems to get away with, while all the time she's snapping at the heels of all those dreadful modern day Mrs Grundy's and half-baked puritans.

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