Bury St Edmunds: Renowned playwright John Godber interviewed

Playwright John Godber. Picture: Tony Kelly

Playwright John Godber. Picture: Tony Kelly - Credit: Archant

His plays are the third most performed in the UK, William Shakespeare and Alan Ayckbourn taking the top two spots. Entertainment writer Wayne Savage talks to award-winning writer and director John Godber.

John Godber's On The Piste, continuing its run at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

John Godber's On The Piste, continuing its run at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds - Credit: Archant

Godber was never really happy with 1991’s On The Piste, continuing its run at Bury St Edmunds’ Theatre Royal.

“I don’t think it quite got under the skin of the characters, that’s why I’ve revisited it and revamped it quite a bit... I’m much happier with the characterisation, I think it’s very honest, very true,” he says of the comedy, told from the point of view of a ski instructor on the slopes of Chamonix in France.

Brits abroad fascinate him; how we go away to have fun but end up putting pressure on ourselves. None more so than skiing holidays.

“That competitive streak, the physically taxing nature of skiing, starts to get under your skin a bit, that’s what we look at in the play. We watch people under pressure and think ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. You see holidays falling apart because partners fancy somebody or you’ve not quite performed on the slopes as you expected...”


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Is he a good skier?

“I am now,” he laughs. “I wasn’t when I wrote the play, I was absolutely dreadful; I think that was the starting point for writing it. Now, I’m not anywhere near as good as my kids but I didn’t start until I was 35 so... My knees won’t take it any more.”

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It’s a conscious decision. He prefers to write about closed worlds that have their own boundaries and a subject matter that gives him and audiences a point of view, a way to progress the story. He goes for popular titles to make his work legible for everybody.

“I’ve always wanted as many people to enjoy the evening out as possible. The original title for On The Piste was Parallel Turns, which is all very smart and witty. Unless you were a skier you couldn’t get what that might have been about. (It’s what) Nick Hornby said about novels, try to put some glass between you and the end user, if you like, so people know exactly what’s on the tin.”

A teacher for five years, he’s never been a nightclub bouncer; even though he looks like one, he laughs. Regarded as his most popular play, Godber says there are less well known, less popular plays that mean more to him.

“The sad thing about Bouncers is it’s still relevant today. We don’t seem to have replaced going out getting p****d senseless do we? It doesn’t seem to be the purview of one particular class, everybody seems capable of doing it, it’s across the board,” he says.

Ideas-wise, part and parcel of being a writer is taking what’s happening around you naturally and turning it into something people can share.

“There’s no magic to it,” says Godber, who harboured ambitions of acting a long time ago. “The first play I wrote was about an incident in my life where a close friend killed himself. I wrote about that to get it out of my system and I’ve kind of been writing about getting things out of my system ever since.”

Right now he’s working on a bespoke piece for the Beverley Literature Festival about the home care his aunt received.

“It’s not what you’d call a comedy... That’s not something you’d want to put on in a commercial theatre because that’s a very rarefied watch. You really want to be a theatre aficionado to want to sit through that.”

He says if writing isn’t personal, when you’re out of things to say about human nature, it’s time to pack it in. Any kind of writing has to tell the truth, even though it’s not easy watching sometimes.

“I think theatre, writing, draws our attention to stuff otherwise people would think ‘I never thought of that’. It holds a mirror up to nature which is what Shakespeare was all about.

“In everything you do, you want to try to make people feel as if what they’re watching has got some semblance of honesty about the characters in it really. Again what I wanted to do was get that (his aunt’s care) out of my system; you’re wanting to draw attention to the situation or experience and say ‘look this has been my experience, does anybody else’s experience chime with this’?

“I think it was Henry James (who) said ‘only connect’, that’s all we can ever do. You put a piece of work on and you either get it or you don’t. My plays are performed a lot which is very fortunate, my hobby became my job; but you know, you’re only as good as what you’re turning out on the day. It doesn’t matter how many trophies you’ve got in the cabinet... That’s the irony of theatre, it is a live moveable feast.”

On The Piste, by The John Godber Company and Theatre Royal Wakefield, runs to October 4.

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