With ‘one-woman suffragette musical’ Wrong ‘Un set for two nights at the Lowry in Manchester, MALCOLM WYATT caught up with its writer, Lancashire-born and bred ex-Chumbawamba guitarist Boff Whalley
Singer-songwriter Boff Whalley is making something of a name for himself as a dramatist these days, with his latest work part-way through a nationwide tour.
The name will ring bells with a few, with Boff a founder member of Chumbawamba, part of the alternative scene for 30 years, ranging from their anarcho-punk roots to pop, folk and world music crossover.
They were best known for 1997 worldwide anthemic hit Tubthumping, its ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again’ line played to death in sporting venues and regularly used as the soundtrack for inspirational TV moments.
But that’s all in the past for Boff, born Allan Whalley but better known by a name given by his Supasave workmates in Burnley, where he was the ‘college boffin’.
His latest play, Wrong ‘Un, is described as a ‘one-woman suffragette musical’, something he agrees with ‘on the assumption that the word musical doesn’t conjure up Andrew Lloyd-Webber, jazz hands and song and dance routines.’
It’s set in early 1918, with Parliament poised to finally grant votes for all women, after years of direct action, arrest, imprisonment and force-feeding.
Wrong ‘Un follows the adventures of Annie Wilde, a Lancashire mill-girl galvanised by injustice, conviction, self-doubt and fear on her journey from schoolroom to prison cell and beyond.
This musical drama was well received at a handful of festivals before its tour, and is one of many events this year drawing on that First World War era.
“More than ever, 100 years on, there’s that thing of looking back and trying to work out what’s changed and what’s the same, and how similar certain things are.
“I’m currently writing something else in that era. And it’s not going to be ‘Tommies over the top, plucky lads’ and all that, but about the sorrow and pain of it all.”
I argue that you see a lot of the themes Boff took on with Chumbawamba in his plays.
“There’s a never-ending supply of material going back in history.
“Interesting parts of ordinary people’s lives are worth talking about, writing about and singing about.”
Is Annie Wilde based on anyone in particular?
“A woman called Jill Liddington wrote about Northern working class suffragettes, as opposed to the Pankhursts and so on, lasses in the Calder Valley and out towards Halifax and Huddersfield, a thriving movement of young girls, especially mill workers, going to London for these big demonstrations, involved in direct action.
“Annie is an amalgamation of a few of those.”
Were your own family roots in Lancashire at the time of the 1914/18 war?
“I believe they were, although a few came over from, er … (he coughs to hide the word) Yorkshire!
“I read Jeannette Winterson’s autobiography, about growing up in Accrington, and could see similarities.
“When I was growing up, all this industry, work and sense of thriving was coming to an end.
“When I go to the football at Burnley I remember looking across town and seeing a forest of chimneys.
“Now maybe you see two.
“But through my grandparents I’ve seen that history.
“Those roots are really deep.”
Boff’s parents were primary school teachers, and he appears to be moving into education himself these days.
“A lot of my extended family in Burnley are teachers now, their sons and daughters too.
“I somehow managed to escape and thought ‘I’ll never do that’.
“But I’ve just gone a different way around! In the mid-1980s, we recorded English Rebel Songs 1381-1914, and I remember thinking this was getting perilously close to the history lessons I hated at school!”
The idea for Wrong ‘Un came when a friend of Boff’s discovered her grandma – involved with the suffragettes - had left an archive of medals, documents, letters from the Pankhursts, prison admission records, and so on.
“We looked through, and I thought this is something that needs to be written about.
“These women went through all that, but it’s not in the history books.”
It’s not the first time Boff’s worked with the radical Red Ladder theatre company, calling it a ‘collaborative’ process he enjoys, praising Ella Harris – who plays Annie – for her part in helping shape the story, and producer Justin Audibert.
Boff is also working on a play about the 1980s’ miners strike, for the Unite union’s Yorkshire branch, a three-woman play loosely based on Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
“I didn’t want it to be people on stage pretending to be miners on picket lines.
“I thought we could have three sisters going through the strike – involved in those pit villages, looking at how families and communities dealt with it.
“The music will be played by one woman with a harmonium, with a brass band leading it in and out.”
Away from the theatre, Boff has another book on the way, charting Britain’s radical history through various walks.
“He’s a keen fell runner too, having written on the subject for a book, and remains a regular runner this side of the Pennines.
“I really like the Pendle area. Running offers a great chance to keep in touch physically with all that geography. It’s beautiful.
“Then there’s the Forest of Bowland and Trough of Bowland, where you can go running all day and not meet a soul.”
Home is Otley these days, but he’s a Turf Moor regular, watching Burnley FC and catching up with family.
His hometown also played a part in the formation of Chumbawamba, alongside his art school days in Maidstone and at university in Leeds.
“A few of us were in different bands around Burnley, part of an East Lancs’ musicians’ collective.
“There was this feeling that here was a happening.
“From those roots everyone was energised to start bands, play music, and so on.”
Boff already knew Danbert Nobacon, Chumbawamba’s vocalist and keyboard player until 2004, who was a year younger and went to his school.
“We met on a street corner. He was wearing the most outrageous hand-made clothes.
“I thought he looked interesting.
“I found out yesterday he’s now an American citizen, having lived there a few years now.
“He lives in a tiny place – the Hebden Bridge of North-West America – around five hours from Seattle.”
There’s another American link for Boff, his wife - photographer Casey Orr – originally hailing from Philadelphia.
“We spend a lot of time there, although the air fares are astronomical now.
“We have two children – aged 11 and three – so that gives us more impetus to go back.”
Chumbawamba’s early years involved a part in the Manchester and Leeds scenes of that era, alongside emerging bands like The Fall, Joy Division and The Gang of Four.
“I was so lucky, ending up with those connections that really inspired me and made me think about what I could do with my life.”
A lot of that features in Boff’s 2004 autobiography, Footnote, but in late 2012 – after three decades – Chumbawamba split.
“So is the door definitely closed on all that?
“The only reason I would even hesitate and say there’d be a small chance of reforming is because we all still get on.
“But we had lots of meetings where we said, look, it’s been 30 years. Let’s just stop with some dignity and pride intact.”
Yet, while they made several albums, they’ll be best remembered by the generalpublic for Tubthumping.
“That’s especially the case in America.
“At least over here, people have more of an idea that we were involved in all sorts of things. But over there – just one song!
“And the amount you get for things being played at stadiums is just pennies. There was a time when Blackburn Rovers, Leeds United and Burnley were all playing it, for teams to run out to. It’s hilarious really.”
For information about tickets for Wrong ‘Un – including tonight and tomorrow at the Lowry Studio – see www.redladder.co.uk.