What was life like for the people who lived and worked beneath the iconic cooling towers at Ferrybridge Power Station?
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.
Leeds Playhouse's Jo Haywood sat down recently with the award-winning playwright ahead of the production's opening on 3 February.
So, Garry, can you set the scene by telling us a bit about the Ferrybridge area?
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 the1920s, 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.
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.
Do they miss them now they’re gone?
A lot do, especially people who worked at the power station. 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.
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.
The output of the towers obviously resulted insignificant environmental concerns, but what positive effect did they have on the surrounding community?
The power station provided work. At its peak, it provided 900 jobs. And it generated enough energy to keep two million homes going. While very few people mourn the end of the coal industry, the amount of energy pumped out by Ferrybridge and similar facilities has not yet been matched by modern technology, hence the crisis we’re now facing in the UK. Of course, if the problem had been anticipated and investment in renewable alternatives been made sooner, we wouldn’t have an energy problem and we’d have a green revolution with lots of new sustainable jobs. But that’s another story.
What was it like when they were demolished – did local residents celebrate or was there a degree of mourning?
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.
Were you surprised by how willing people were to talk to you about their lives and experiences?
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.
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.
When did you know that the stories you had collected were the skeleton of a theatre show?
Almost immediately. The first set of interviews were so rich in character and detail that I knew I had something that would engage an audience. The challenge was finding a way to edit the stuff and shape it into an evening’s entertainment. I ended up with about 25 hours’ worth of recording and had to whittle it down to 100 minutes that takes the audience on an emotional journey, while telling the community’s story over the last 50 or 60 years – and with a limited company of five actors. It’s more about what you cut out than leave in.
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.
What conversations do you hope the show will prompt?
We’ve done a couple of online readings of the play and shared it with our interviewees and those close to the project. Among that core group, I think there’s quite a lot of quiet excitement about the show and what it could do for Knottingley and Ferrybridge in bringing the place some much-needed publicity and attention at last. I wouldn’t want to predict what the wider public might make of it, particularly those who don’t know the area at all. I hope people see connections between what’s happened in Knottingley and Ferrybridge and the experiences of other similar places right across the country. It’s a very local story but one that contains a lot of general truths.
BLOW DOWN is Presented by Theatre Royal Wakefield and is at Leeds Playhouse 3 to 11 February.