The award-winning playwright tells us about Blow Down, his gritty, funny new play exploring lives of people living in the shadow of a Yorkshire industrial landmark.
In Blow Down, we find out what it was like for people who lived and worked beneath the iconic cooling towers at Ferrybridge Power Station, as we get to know their stories – powered by humour and music – of life in a post-industrial Yorkshire town.
Tell me about the area and the power station.
Garry: “The adjoining towns of Ferrybridge and Knottingley lie about 15 miles south east of Leeds and have a rich history. In medieval times, the Great North Road crossed the River Aire at the Ferry Bridge, and many traders and armies tramped over it. Until the Industrial Revolution and the growth of the textile mills, Knottingley was larger and busier than Leeds. These days the town is known for its glassmaking, coal mining at the recently-closed Kellingley Pit, and the power station, unmissable to anyone travelling along the A1M or M62. The first coal-fired power station was built there in the 1920s, to be succeeded in the 1960s by the iconic structure with its famous cooling towers that have now been demolished. The landscape around the town is very flat, so the towers dominated the horizon for miles round and their loss is felt keenly.”
Garry moved into the area some years ago and saw the cooling towers of the power station as ‘sleeping giants who oversaw the open landscape around them. He considered writing a fantasy for children, where the towers sprang to life, but after the fire at the station in 2014, he became absorbed with the story of the potential closure of the power station. This to him was a sign of the death of the coalfield in Yorkshire and would inevitably affect local residents. He anticipated that feelings would vary, from sadness to indifference to relief to see the back of an eyesore.
I wondered how Garry approaches his stories, and in particular this one.
Garry: “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.”
Was there a sense of pride in the towers?
“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.”
How did people view the demolition?
“The opening lines of the play are from a guy who worked there for 30 years, watching in tears as the towers were demolished. ‘I spent a lifetime trying to keep that place going. Now it’s gone in seconds,’ he says. The power station was a tough, dangerous place to work in. It was full of toxic dust and asbestos, with men doing hard, physical tasks, often at a great height. But there was a camaraderie among the workforce that’s hard to replace and is fondly remembered. And there was a rich social and community life associated with the power station. There were sports clubs, charity events and Christmas parties for local children. Slowly, over the years, these were all cut.”
What about architectural significance?
Garry: “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.”
Garry explained the benefits of having the power station at Ferrybridge, foremostly that it provided employment, with as many as 900 people working there at the height of its operation. The power generated was enough for two million homes. Whilst there is a strong argument for the end of the coal industry, there is as yet nothing to match the amount of energy the power station produced.
How dramatic was the demolition?
Garry: “The cooling towers were demolished in three phases, and there was a fourth demolition to blow down the chimney stacks and boiler houses. I went over to see the second blow down, and I couldn’t get anywhere near. There were thousands of people standing outside in the cold and rain to watch. They were big explosions, which obviously caught the public’s imagination. Cheers went up as the towers crumpled in on themselves like clay pots. For most people, it was the scale of the show that impressed them. It’s not every day you see 400 foot high buildings collapse to the ground. Obviously some people had a deeper emotional reaction. But the majority saw it as great entertainment, I think. Something to film and put on YouTube, or a day out with the kids. It was only later that people began to reflect on what had gone. The last towers were brought down at night, and you could feel the tremors from miles away. It was like an earthquake.”
Tell me about your research for Blow Down.
“For the research, I worked with Charlie Wells of Edgelands Arts, a community company that’s done various projects in Knottíngley and Ferrybridge. She made a few phone calls and put me in touch with people she thought would be talkative and had good local knowledge. Once I got interviewing, the interest snowballed from there. I was doing this during the pandemic, which meant I had to do the interviews via Zoom. At first I thought this would create a barrier, but, as it turned out, it proved quite helpful. It meant people were in the comfort of their homes, the awkwardness of initial meetings on the doorstep was avoided, and as we were in lockdown people were able to give freely of their time.
It’s fair to say there was intrigue and bewilderment about what I was trying to do. “Why on earth do you want to write a play about Knottingley?” people would ask, “There’s nothing here.” But it’s a good example of the kind of small post-industrial town across the north and the midlands that have gone into decline in the last 40 years, and which now, belatedly, is receiving attention because of the Brexit vote and the levelling-up agenda. Its apparent obscurity is exactly what makes it worth exploring.”
Is there one story in particular that springs to your mind?
Garry: “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.”
Almost straight away, Garry realised that the material he was gathering could end up as part of a theatrical show. He was immediately impressed with the wealth of character and the details in the stories, which would in turn serve to engage an audience. His challenge was to convert the information he’d gathered and produce an evening of entertainment for theatre. 25 hours of recording became 100 minutes which reflect a period of 50 – 60 years, limited to five actors to help the audience on an emotional journey.
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?
Garry: “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.”
After some online readings of Garry’s play and sharing it with the people who told their stories, as well as others close to the project, Garry feels that it’s being received with some excitement. Part of this stems from its potential to draw attention to Ferrybridge and to Knottingley. Strangers to the area may well see similarities with their experiences in other parts of the country. There’s no doubt that many people will be as intrigued as we are to learn how humour and music can be woven into a play about living in the smoky shadows of a coal-fired power station.
Presented by Theatre Royal Wakefield
Written by Garry Lyons
Directed by Tess Seddon
Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse
Book online at leedsplayhouse.org.uk
Call the box office on 0113 213 7700
Taken from an original interview with Garry Lyons, courtesy of Leeds Playhouse.