Promised Land, the book, outlined with style Anthony Clavane’s eureka idea that included in the canon of northern sixties art – Keith Waterhouse, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, David Storey – should be Don Revie and his Super Leeds team. It’s one of those ideas that, explained once, becomes self-evident. Revie drew on the same resources as Waterhouse, and his team eerily paralleled, in 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975 and on countless other occasions, Billy Liar’s story of dreams that, just when they could be fulfilled, aren’t. Billy never got on the train to London, but he marched home triumphant anyway. Leeds never won the European cup, but we’re the Champions of Europe anyway.
If the book isn’t enough, there could be a film made to make the same point, and it’d be a good one. Intercut archive footage of Leeds’ ascendancy with key scenes from the new wave films and television of the era, weave the two into a narrative, from Frank Machin in This Sporting Life, bursting into the establishment, to Rising Damp’s Rigsby yelling at Bayern Munich on the telly; from Mick Jones, his elbow broken, wincing as he shakes hands with Her Majesty The Queen, to the grainy footage of riots in the Parcs de Princes. A film like that could stand on its own as a new work of art. But a play?
It has been odd to mark the progress of Promised Land, from its first appearance as a slightly tweedy monologue in hardback, to a ‘Northern Love Story’ in paperback, and now to a piece of musical theatre, West Side Story on the sixties Gelderd. To move from highlighting in the book the relationship between the ‘long sixties’ Leeds United and the Leeds drama, and the Leeds city, of the same period, to combining all that in a drama of its own, seemed like a shot at the stars by Clavane and Red Letter Theatre. And like all shots at the stars that are fired from a LS postcode, Promised Land the play does fall short, but in falling short – like Billy Liar, like Leeds United – it becomes a star all of its own.
Promised Land moves beyond its kitchen sink influences to a broader, expansive tale – seventy years of Irish, Jewish and Leodensian history set across the clothing factories, market stalls and football stands of the twentieth century. Nathan and Caitlin provide the northern love story of the sub-title, neither one “typical Leeds”: Nathan is the Jewish writer-dreamer struggling to assert himself in his home town, if the people of his home town will let him call it that; Caitlin is the anti-fascist songwriter who wants to be a Woody Guthrie for the Top of the Pops generation. Meeting when they’re both rejected by the crowds outside Elland Road, their chemistry is pure Billy Fisher and Liz, two outsider idealists torn between home, where the heart is, and away, where the hope is.
We’re denied much of the chemistry, though, as the play swoops back to the tail end of Victorian Leeds and the parallel love story of Myer – an immigrant violinist, straight off the boat and onto the factory floor – and Rosa, a socialist rabble rouser whose father owns that same factory. These great leaps across history show the ambition of what Clavane and co-writer Nick Stimson have attempted with the script: not just to tell a love story, but to tell two love stories, and to tell alongside them as much as possible about the experiences of Irish and Jewish immigrants in late 19th and early 20th century Leeds; of the civic developments of the 20th century, from the Black Prince statue to Albert Cohen and the ‘Motorway City of The Seventies’; of the growth of Marks and Spencer, of Hepworth’s, of Montague Burton’s (never just Burton’s); of migration from the Leylands, to Chapeltown, to Beeston, from slums to flats; it’s all here, and that’s before you even mention Don Revie and Leeds United.
It’s the sort of script that only people with a deep love for the city of Leeds could write, the sort of script only devotees of Waterhouse and Storey and other Loiners who ‘made it’ could attempt, and it’s the sort of script that could never do itself justice in one night at the theatre. The air becomes thick with flying cultural reference points – Caitlin’s family name is Brodrick! – and the two love stories duck for cover under the onslaught. Some of the neatest scenes in the show build Caitlin and Nathan’s relationship – particularly the sofa summit meeting between their parents, a welcome insertion of personality and humour – but too much is buried beneath the heritage. On a couple of occasions, Caitlin beseeches Nathan to escape with her to London using directs quotes from Billy Liar, a sure sign that this play put rather too much faith in its influences. It also put a lot of faith in its cast, who in the performance I saw at The Carriageworks were absolutely flawless. None of the actors in this production were professionals, but none of them looked like amateurs, either, and they deserve nothing but praise for carrying off a high profile play with such aplomb.
But while Promised Land might take on too much, what emerges is about as good a modern history of the city of Leeds as you’ll get on a stage in ninety minutes. Clavane and Stimson are surely too wise about their town to think that so much patchwork material could ever have been sewn neatly together like a well-made Montague Burton’s suit: Leeds’ history has never been linear, and it can’t be told in a linear way. Think of the Lumiere site on Wellington Street, where two dream-like fifty storey glass towers were begun and stalled; 200 years ago, over the road in Park Square, a Georgian town was planned, until the enormous Bean Ing Mills opened downwind and its choked occupants escaped up the hill to Woodhouse; Bean Ing Mills eventually made way for the Yorkshire Post’s imposing headquarters, with its enormous, technologically advanced press hall, soon now to be emptied too as the Post decamps to sleeker, but smaller, offices south of the river. Or think of Leeds United, dominant under Revie without winning their due reward, the descent after Paris swift and irreversible; returned as Champions by Wilkinson only to finish 17th the next season; Ridsdale building a glittering high rise with O’Leary, another dream tower toppled when the money ran out. Leeds’ history – the club and the city – is of spurts and retreats, of attempts and defeats: we’ve never done steady ascent.
Promised Land’s confusion, it’s dresser drawers full of anecdotes and references, is in many ways a perfect reflection of the city it presents. And this is why I sincerely think Promised Land should live on beyond it single run in Leeds this summer. If I were head of education in Leeds, I would make a live performance of Promised Land required viewing for every secondary school child in the city. It has everything for a teenage audience – football, love, laughter, healthy swearing and songs that the audience at the performance I went to burst out into Millennium Square singing, and that I woke up next morning still humming to myself. Most of all, it takes a healthy fistful of what makes Leeds Leeds and bombards you with it. Alright, so a cynical old bastard like me might here echoes of Billy Liar in here and complain that I’ve seen it all before. Who cares what I think. What would I think if I hadn’t seen it all before? What if all the Leeds history singing and dancing and swearing and chanting on that stage before me, was all new to me? Get this on the curriculum – every fifteen year old in Leeds, every year. Give them an education in their own city, their own people, and all that goes into them. Make it a benchmark of growing up in Leeds? “Have you been to see Promised Land yet?” “Nah, we don’t get taken til next year.” “Oh we saw it this year, it’s brilliant. It’s got Don Revie in it, and even though it’s theatre, somebody says cu-”
Which brings us back to the opening question: a work of art? A play? This play? It depends who you ask, and what they think a work of art is. If Clavane feels a need, in his book and his play, to tell Loiners what great artists Keith Waterhouse and David Storey were, it’s because, to tell the truth, we’ve never really cared. They were both artists, exceptional artists, writers of real excellence, and they were feted as such in the sixties, in London, as their books became plays and their plays became films and their stars became part of the London arts firmament. In Leeds, meanwhile, they were shrugged off: they weren’t the lads they once were. Not like, say, Jimmy Savile, who it would be a long stretch to call an artist but who you could still bump into and have a laugh around town with; and who it was, in the end, who laid in state in The Queen’s Hotel in a gold coffin, while Waterhouse did not. It’s an eternal quandary for a Loiner. Billy Liar was caught in it. Don Revie couldn’t get around it. Nathan and Caitlin, in Promised Land, fall into it. In making Promised Land Anthony Clavane, Nick Stimson and Red Letter Theatre take a brave tilt at it. You can be a great artist in the eyes of the world, join the elite, have your talents praised by leading cultural lights – be Liverpool FC. Or you can be a great artist in the eyes of the people of Leeds, become something ingrained in the culture of one great city, your best work a word forever in the dialect – be Super Leeds. But can you do both? If you know your history – if you’ve seen Promised Land – you’ll know the answer to that question. And if you know your history, you’ll know it’s an answer best left unspoken; it’s an answer that doesn’t matter. You will always think you can do both, and that’s what’s important. That’s why you’ll keep building, keep singing, keep writing, and, most of all, keep fighting.
From The Square Ball magazine 2012/13 issue one.