Miners-Turned-Artists Inspired Billy Elliot Author to Tell Their Tale of Art and Culture against the Odds; He's the Man Responsible for Billy Elliot and Now He's Taken to the Stage the Real-Life Story of an Artistic Group of Miners. Karen Price Finds out More about Lee Hall's Play the Pitmen Painters
Byline: Karen Price
LONG before Lee Hall was born, a group of miners living in the area where he grew up became renowned for their art work.
Decades later, Hall was so inspired by the miners-turned artists, dubbed The Pitmen Painters, he penned a stage play about them.
Premiered at the Live Theatre in Newcastle, the city where Hall was born in 1966, before moving to the National Theatre in London, the play is now touring.
Hall wrote the drama after coming across a book by William Feaver which told the story of the miners from Ashington in Northumberland. In 1934, they hired a professor to teach an art appreciation evening class. Rapidly abandoning theory in favour of practice, they began to paint.
Within a few years the most avant-garde artists became their friends and their work was acquired by prestigious collections - but every day they worked, as before, down the mine.
Today some of their paintings are housed at the Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland. Oscar-nominated Hall says everything in the play, which this week visits Wales, is true.
"I didn't really make it up, except for the dialogue," he says. "It was a really hard play to write because I was trying to maintain what I knew about the actual guys and the historical events, but also trying to make it a fictional form so that I could say what I wanted to say in it, and so it has really evolved quite slowly over a process of time."
The Pitmen Painters started life in a 200-seat theatre before moving to the 1,000-seater National Theatre, something Hall says is "quite scary for a playwright".
"You write your play and imagine it in a very specific place," he says. "If anything I think it's got much better the bigger it's got, and it really inhabits a big space. It has been a really organic process. What's been great for me is I've been able to respond to audiences."
The play has generated a great deal of warmth and affection among audiences, although there's some historical irony which rather curdles it.
"I suppose all the plays that I like are happy and sad, and optimistic and pessimistic," says Hall, who amassed critical acclaim for Billy Elliot.
"And one of the great things about theatre is that it doesn't need to be one thing. And I think if you make people laugh, make people cry, make them think, make them feel sad, make them feel happy that it also makes it a very broad church and it invites people to come into a dramatic experience. …