There is never a specific start to the writing of a play – especially not for my plays, set in Stoke-on-Trent. An image, a snatch of conversation, or a detail of life in the city, sets seed and stays dormant for a while – until something else triggers germination. I potter about the city, letting the ideas percolate, picking up other oddments that seem to fit with it. Writing a story is as much like solving a puzzle as anything else.
Long before I ever conceived the story of Hot Lane, it was planted in my imagination. My great friend the local historian Fred Hughes took myself and Conrad down there one day just to show us around. I can’t remember why this trip happened now, but it was doubtless a consequence of a fascinating conversation over a coffee with Fred.
Hot Lane is my second play set in Burslem in the 1950s. It’s a story that spun out of the previous play, Dirty Laundry, and as such they are a duet. However, my research process for each of these plays was quite different. For Dirty Laundry I was most interested in the experience of industrial disease in the city. In addition to my one-on-one interviews all around the city, Claybody Theatre hosted three events called ‘Post War Potteries’ at which we were joined by locals who shared their experience of working in industry and their memories of the 1950s.
As always, the response was amazing, and the detail we gathered informed the writing of Dirty Laundry, and also the post show talks on the environment today. Following performances of this play many audience members came up to me and shared their own experience of family members, whom they recalled suffering from industrial diseases of the potteries and the mines in particular.
Hot Lane was different. The research for this play centred around the dance halls of the Six Towns, and the real Hot Lane itself. I also needed some help on the impact of the Clean Air Act on the pottery industry in this decade of enormous change in both technology and taste.
Amongst my research into the dance halls was an interview with a lady who had been born in Burslem, and who went dancing in the 50s at the Queen’s Dance Hall, and at Trentham Ballroom. She told me about the etiquette of the evening, and how the lads would spend the first half of the evening sizing up which girls they liked, and then went out at the midway break to have a drink – returning with enough dutch courage to ask one of those girls to dance.
Claybody Theatre has such good links into communities in North Staffordshire now, and a big social network reach, that we decided we should make a couple of films to kick start a general conversation about the Potteries and Hot Lane in particular. I interviewed local potteries archivist and historian Kathy Niblett about the momentous changes in the manufacture of pottery through that decade – both in process and design. The filmed interview, and many private conversations with Kathy, informed the detail of the play and the specific trials and tribulations of one of the characters – Pottery owner, Richard Warham. This film and another, in conversation with local man Graham Gorton, were incredibly popular.
Graham Gorton, who is now in his 80s, was manager of the Sneyd Brickworks in the 1950s. The brickworks was located at the bottom of Hot Lane, and we walked the road together for the film, talking about what Graham remembered of the time he was working there. His memory for detail was excellent – from the red ash spoil of Sneyd Pit at the top of the road, to the loop line railway bridge that crossed Hot Lane by the school, pub and chapel. However, Graham remembered that in the 1950s all the houses on Hot Lane had gone, but I was subsequently contacted by people who lived there after that time. Local poet, Barry Ashley, sent me a photograph of his family in their back yard on Hot Lane in 1960. Another lady emailed us to say that she remembered houses on Hot lane right through the 50s. Graham’s recollection was only half a dozen years out, but it was interesting to broaden the conversation, and gather an even more accurate picture of the road at that time.
I interviewed Mrs Barbara Tideswell who attended Sunday School at Hot Lane Chapel in the 1950s. She gave me a picture of her as a child taking part in something called The Queen’s Pageant that took place in the early summer. Barbara also recalled the Sunday School anniversary, walking round the streets in new dresses, and stopping at different places to sing chapel songs.
As part of the publicity for the show, and to find new people for research, I gave an interview to the Sentinel, and also appeared more than once on BBC Radio Stoke. An elderly local man got in touch via Radio Stoke and I subsequently went to his house in Norton to interview him. Derrick Hulme has a fantastic memory and many connections to Hot Lane. His own father was born there in the early 1900s and his family were very poor. Derrick said his father spoke of walking barefoot up to the bakery on Nile Street for a slice of bread. His brother was instrumental in permanently commemorating the miners who died in the Sneyd Pit disaster of 1942 in Hot Lane Chapel. That terrible event is a huge story in itself…
I sometimes feel like the only kid in a sweet shop. The city is constantly whispering its stories to me, and whenever I’m over in Burslem (I was there only this morning) I can’t help taking a detour to drive through that very old and evocative part of the town, where the road climbs from the Dog and Partridge pub, with its humble war memorial stone, past the remains of the school, and the footbridge where the loop line once thundered overhead, to the remains of the great Sneyd Pit. A corner of Burslem you might pass by without a second glance, but only pause for a moment and you can hear the distant echoes of history and human lives. In 2019 I’m planning to write a contemporary drama for Claybody Theatre, inspired as always by the unique city of Stoke-on-Trent, but I am certain that I haven’t finished with that haunting and haunted little road – Hot Lane.