Noah and the Bushfires

It began in Australia in 2020. We were in Victoria, and air B n B on the plains. We had travelled from NSW, where the bushfires were raging. Down in Sydney, you could barely see the Harbour Bridge for the smoke; you could hardly breathe. The Sydney Morning Herald was using the phrase “mega blaze” The Blue Mountains had become ash; at least 35 people were killed, including 12 firefighters. Hundreds more would die later from smoke-related conditions. Grass fires on the plains of Victoria were moving at 30 miles an hour. Heatwave, drought and winds. The Book of Revelations wasn’t even close. Our little B n B was remote, outside hundreds of miles of haze. I was invited to a pool party at the in-laws, with shade, cool water, and children’s laughter, but bowed out. Then, I regretted it. Then, an hour later, I wrote one word in my notebook. ‘Nathaniel.’

Nathaniel was a chartist in England, the West Riding of Yorkshire. It’s August 1842—the movement’s high point. More than 3 million working people have signed a petition demanding the vote. Parliament has dismissed it, and he and thousands of other mill workers are part of a general strike sweeping the north. This much I knew, but Nathaniel refused to say a word to me for at least a week or more. I made his life harder for him. A son who had died of typhus, a wife who blamed him, an employer who cuts his wages, sacks him, and a magistrate who imprisons him—still not a peep. At least I knew he was stubborn.

We flew back to Sydney. It smelt as if the entire population was having a barbecue. Shops in the mall were asking for donations for firefighters. We got a train up to the Blue Mountains to see our friends Russ and Cathy, their house on the margins of the fires. They have been volunteer firefighters for a number of years. A surprising number of firefighters are residents in danger zones. Russ took us out for a walk along a road built by convict labour in the 19th century. He had been campaigning to have it protected and its heritage marked. He is descended from a machine breaker, a Berkshire Luddite transported in the 1830s. Aussie royalty. It was it turns out the Luddites inspired Nathaniel.

We took a drive through the mountains. There is a particular kind of ash. Every tree was black but many still had leaves. The fire starts inside the tree. They were still rooted to the ground, as if they didn’t know they’d been burned. The red earth gone grey. The landscape stripped of its pastel shades. Eucalyptus trees are immediately all the same and all unique but the light can’t help the charred hills. It’s death. A swamp of ash.

The King James Bible has always been with me. Teachers planted it there. The Boys Brigade, my mother, too, was a Northern Irish protestant. It’s poetry, history and non-history, prophecies and lessons. As such, all catastrophes are about some event in the Old Testament, but nothing comparable came to mind.

In the mid-nineteenth century, religion and politics were inseparable. Nathaniel, I knew, was no Anglican and had, in all probability, estranged himself from the nearest non-conformist chapel but not the Bible. And then suddenly, there was Sarah, his wife, wooed by a Methodist preacher and invited to teach at a Wesleyan school. She chose Noah.

“And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth. Destroy both man and beast and the creeping thing and the fowls of the air, for it repenteth me that I have made them. But Noah, found grace in the eyes of the Lord. Noah was just a man and perfect in his generations and Noah walked with God. The earth was corrupt before God. The earth was filled with violence. And God said to Noah, The end of all flesh has come before me. And behold I do bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life from under heaven, and everything that is in the earth shall die.”

As soon as Nathaniel heard this, I couldn’t shut him up. A first draft was done before we were on the plane home. Four years later, last night was the opening night of a four-show run at Halifax Playhouse. It went well, the cast is terrific, the audience was substantial enough, and there’ll be a hundred or so in tonight. Britain’s chartists were far-sighted and prophetic; it was our civil rights movement, a century ahead of elsewhere, just like our revolution of the 1640s. They are the cornerstone of my patriotism, which has nothing to do with the Union Jack, the Proms or Nigel Farage and everything to do with Blake, Orwell, Ben Ruhston and Mary Woolstencroft. I spoke to many of the audience yesterday evening; they had plenty to say, the common thread being, ‘Why isn’t there more working-class history at the theatre?’

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My Character and I

By Anthony Costello ‘Thornfield’

In October 2018, Michael Crowley asked me to meet him for a coffee and a chat in Hebden Bridge. He said he had written a play and there was a character, a Royalist Squire, who was quite menacing, sarcastic, manipulative, supercilious and entitled. Michael said: “I thought of you for the part”! This offer of an acting role, my first, was not the most charming invitation I have ever received, but I instinctively said “Yes”. I have always been an individualist, introspective, an outsider (even, at times, a loner), someone who has voiced doubts about what ‘community’ actually means, but now I find myself part of a ‘community play’, working with others – strangers, locals, actors – to bring to the stage a state of the nation play. The Battle of Heponstsall is about the whole country in the 17th century, and about today. It is the work of a number of individuals working together as part of a greater whole. I am enjoying it: the part, the play, the community. 

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The Challenge of Becoming Someone Else

‘Hey Diddley Dee’ by cast member Jan Radovic

What does the advice from a GP, ex-UK Special Forces chaps, and a strong belief in pagan practices have in common? All have drummed their message into my head: if I want things in my life to change, then I need to change. Easier said than done for someone with PTSD, complex PTSD, and numerous medical issues. But despite my lone wolf melancholia and intense anxiety, I took the plunge and attended Michael Crowley’s public meeting for individuals interested in learning more about his play – The Battle of Heptonstall.

What a revelation. From that first meeting, Michael fired my imagination with his vision of what this play could achieve, (not in terms of his own career), but how it could benefit the village, engender an interest in local history, bring like-minded people together to produce something really worthwhile and worth seeing and, most importantly from my point of view, to close the door on my self-imposed hermit status and try and prise open those shutters on my personality which had so long been in lock-down.

Over recent months I’ve despaired over my ability to learn my lines, perform as a credible character, and stand/sit for long periods of time in freezing conditions (fibromyalgia takes no prisoners), but eventually I did learn the lines, and a hot water bottle, combined with multiple layers has ensured my colleagues haven’t had to sweep my frozen remains into a corner. I chatted and shared ideas with people I didn’t know; became engrossed in the process of putting together a production; made friends; brought old skills out for a dusting, while adding new skills to the mix. To say that being involved with this play has made a monumental difference to my life and recurrent depression is British understatement at its best. I’ve always loved play acting but was wary of ridicule and of letting myself or others down. While I may not be the next Elizabeth Taylor, my fears have been groundless, and I love the challenge of becoming someone else – not only do I play a man, I play a Royalist – both concepts rather alien to my nature. The hope of the Brutish Multitude is that we can produce annual plays which feature local people and local events, while illustrating our rich and varied history. A year ago, I’d have said good luck with that. Now my feeling is bring it on; I’m up for anything, and between us, we can pull it off.


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Why Do This?

Blog post by Brutish Multitude member Dawn France, written September 2108.

1643. The English civil war. And people in Heptonstall were torn… to fight? Who for? To flee? To stay put? Who to trust? Who to believe?.. We are hill farmers and weavers of cloth…

And now it’s 2018, 375 years later. We, the Brutish Multitude, a small group of people who love living in this hilltop village, would like to introduce you to the people who walked these fields, moors and woods before us. To tell the human story.

Our vision is to dive into the rich history, to tell, sometimes for the first time, the story of the folk who lived and worked here, who called this place home, like we do now. We’d love for you to get a greater sense of connection with the village though our stories.

I live in one of the oldest weavers cottages, it dates back to the 1600s, probably earlier… is it haunted? Yes for sure. If you listen in carefully… shhhh… you can still here the sound of the shuttle going back and forth, weaving its magic. It’s all here. We are just hoping to throw a bit of light into some dark old corners. To give the spirits a voice, through our re-telling of the tale.

Listening to the first read through this week with the cast… it’s starting to come to life… The first threads of the cloth that is our play have been spun…

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Women Actors, Male Characters

Blog post by cast member Mary Ellen.

There are only two characters in the play based on real people who experienced the English Civil war first hand: the Parliamentarian leader, Colonel Robert Bradshaw and the Royalist leader, Sir Francis Mackworth.

Historical Fact

In September 1642 Robert Bradshaw led the successful rout of Royalists under Lord Strange from the centre of Manchester. This was thought to be the first battle of what was to be called the first Civil War. The weather was atrocious and Strange finally lifted the siege, still in the rain, on 1 October. ‘You came with fire, but God gave us water’, the Parliamentarians wrote. Soon after, the whole of Lancashire became a Roundhead stronghold but only just! In October 1643, Bradshaw marched across the moors from Rochdale to garrison the village of Heptonstall and on November 23 the Parliamentarians gained a successful victory over the approaching Royalists led by Sir Francis Mackworth. This was not the first time these two commanders had fought: in October 1643 Bradshaw successfully routed Hollins House in Warley, under occupation by Royalist soldiers. But Bradshaw died in December 1643 from injuries sustained at the Battle of Heptonstall whilst Mackworth retained Royalist occupation of Halifax until January 1644. It is not know when he died.

Dramatic Interpretation

Michael Crowley made the decision to cast both leaders as female: I play Bradshaw and Jan Radovic plays Mackworth. This has proved very interesting. Gender-swapping on stage is not new. Shakespeare is well known for casting men as women and some directors/companies choose to continue this tradition, but recent productions suggest a new wave of women playing such male characters as Hamlet (Maxine Peake), King Lear (Glenda Jackson) and Malvolio (Tamsin Grieg). See the following articles here, and here, for more details.

Together, Jan and I also represent another of drama’s great themes, that of pairing characters in order to focus the audience’s embrace of social-historical ideas via characters’ thoughts and feelings. Whilst it is true that both Bradshaw and Mackworth are keen to give voice to strongly opposing political ideologies, they are also contrasted with all the other characters, apart from The Commoners. We are the functional trumpeteers of the Civil War, spouting our rather black and white ideas. We are not rounded characters like the Cockcrofts or spinners. And yet, Michael allows Bradshaw to get down from his podium to expand as a character: his interrogation of John Cockcroft, for example, reveals a human side to the flatter 2D double-headed coin of Roundhead versus Royalist. The question remains however: what will the audience make of our gender swap? I can only emphasise how enjoyable it is to both learn the history and Michael’s dramatic interpretation of one of Heptonstall’s past heroes.

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First Reading of Early Scenes

Writer’s Diary: Michael Crowley

A company is emerging. Actors, a costume designer, people interested in taking on stage management, props, marketing, front of house. This from a launch event at Heptonstall bowling club on August 18th, then people messaging me on social media, phoning me, asking how they can be involved. I have, as I thought I would have, more women coming forward to perform than men. But I have tailored the script to include what I believe is a credible female narrative, one that earns its keep dramatically. I am still one or two male actors short but I am confident they will come.

Last week Sky Arts emailed to say they were planning to run a festival at the Barbican Centre in London as a showcase of the projects they were funding, enquiring if we could perform some scenes and how many actors I would be bringing. It is an exciting opportunity but the greater opportunity I believe lies in the six months ahead of a community company working collaboratively to forge a piece of theatre, set in the place in which we live during the greatest upheaval in England since the Norman Conquest.

The Lord hath done such things amongst us as have not been known in the world these thousand years. Oliver Cromwell, 27th January 1654


On Thursday evening this week the emerging cast and myself sat down in the bowling club to read the early scenes from my first draft. It was for me an enjoyable and useful couple of hours. We got to know each other, I heard their voices, they met the characters and the story. We’ll continue in the same vein for the next few weeks as the script comes off the printer and then off the page, shaped by the voices around the table. Cast member Adrian Lord kindly removed the definite and indefinite articles before nouns in his dialogue to create a vernacular sound to the script. i.e. he made it sound Yorkshire, which wasn’t always how I had written it. Another cast member asked the fundamental question, ‘why are we making this play?’Adrian’s answer was that his ancestors were in the village at the time of the battle and he has been looking for them for many years. I hope he finds some part of them in the play. He has also kindly written the piece below for the blog page.

Why Join the Brutish Multitude?

A few years ago, I started researching my family history. My links to Heptonstall stretch back over 400 years on all sides of the family. I now live a few hundred yards from Slack Top where my natural father’s name Robertshaw is thought to have originated in the 1400s.

At the start of my research I had always assumed that prior to soldiers participating in The First World War the village was largely a self-contained rural idyll and would not have been significantly affected by national or global events. As I became more involved in family history it became obvious that the woollen industry has long operated across international boundaries, with wool traded across the whole of England and cloth exported to the Low Countries. Inevitably the everyday lives of ordinary citizens have thus been bound to events beyond their control, family fortunes made and lost due to bad weather, ill health, politics or warfare. One thing that is evident even from the bare evidence of Parish and Census records is the kindness and protection of the village community as an extended family in times of need, and the strong tradition of clubs and societies for entertainment and education which continues to the present day.

Michael Crowley’s script has a strong resonance with modern politics and warfare across the world, where ordinary people trying to cope with the everyday hardships of life suddenly find themselves forced to participate in an escalating situation beyond their control and understanding, radicalised by religion and politics, or bound by personal loyalties.

Cast member Adrian Lord, September, 2018

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Writer’s Diary

I have been undertaking research for this play for many years. Long before I knew I was going to write it. The English Civil War has always interested me. As a subject it is insufficiently taught and dramatized for its importance, not because of its bloodshed which was immense but because of its unfinished business. As soon as we applied for funding, I went back to the books starting with Christopher Hill’s highly influential The World Turned Upside Down first published in 1972. Its contentions are still popular though no longer mainstream, that the Civil War was essentially a revolution inspired by political ideas and economic forces.

Hill’s book and his essays on Puritanism and Revolution are indispensable but they are not the whole story and since his heyday the barometer among historians has swung towards the conflict interpreted much more as a religious war, the final act of the Reformation. The important question, particularly for a playwright is what were the belligerents saying at the time? Enter stage right Tristram Hunt wielding The English Civil War At First Hand. Hunt populates the chronology with testimonies from people of either side. For a wide-angle big picture there is Peter Ackroyd’s Civil War which puts Scotland in the frame for the causes and conduct of the conflict. If I had another six-months I might get to finish Michael Braddick’s God’s Fury, England’s Fire which is remarkable for its intellectual breadth. For the local impact of the war I have visited Halifax library’s archive and was handed the Antiquarian Society Records from 1909 to 1911. These were I think also sourced by David Shires for his book The Halifax Cavaliers and the Heptonstall Roundheads.

Above, Julie Turner spinning yarn.

But text alone is not sufficient research, particularly if one is working in imagery as well. Heptonstall in 1643 was a place where cloth makers lived, spinning and weaving in their homes. My central characters take fleeces and make them into unfinished cloth to be sold at the cloth hall. The best way to begin to understand what this means is to ask those that currently spin and weave by hand, that know how to work with wool and know its qualities. To hold the raw material in my own hand, tug at it and ask questions. I’d like to express my gratitude to Nic Corrigan, Jane Sutherland and Julie Turner who have enlightened me on the complexities of something I have always taken for granted. I am also indebted to Murray Secombe and Diana Monahan of Hebden Bridge Historical Society who are a well of knowledge. Murray has even offered to read a draft of the script for the purposes of historical authenticity. John Spencer from Bankfield Museum who has a particular interest in the Battle of Heptonstall is also putting his shoulder to the wheel. There is thus far, community support for the community play. Back to the desk.

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Launch announced.

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