Playing the Joker by Anthony Clavane


Photo courtesy of Yorkshire Post Newspapers

Leeds author, Anthony Clavane  examines Eddie Waring, Rugby League, Yorkshireness, revenge, revolution, betrayal and why trilby hats went out of fashion in his latest play, Playing the Joker, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, 19th-23rd November.

At the end of 1977, whilst doing my A-Levels at Roundhay School, I was working at the Leeds Playhouse as an usher, saving up money to buy my first ever music centre. Remember music centres? They were huge machines which integrated a cassette player, AM/FM tuner and a turntable. And they were fab. But that’s besides the point. The point is that I was allowed to sit in on great new plays by Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell, Arnold Wesker and Alan Ayckbourn. And they blew me away.

I was also, at the time, an active member of the Anti-Nazi League, into punk and quite interested in changing the world. And I loved Eddie Waring.

Eddie who? To those of a certain age he is a legend. At one point the most impersonated man in England, the BBC’s jocular rugby league commentator was renowned for catch phrases like “up and under” and “early bath”. He virtually ran the game from his unofficial headquarters at the Queen’s Hotel. In 1968 his wonderful two-word-reaction to one of sport’s worst ever misses – Wakefield’s Don Fox failing to convert an easy kick in front of the posts to lose the Challenge Cup final to Leeds in possibly the wettest match ever played – immediately entered rugby folklore and established him as a national treasure.

“Poor Lad”.

Or, as Eddie intoned: “Poo-er lad.”

It was rugby’s They Think It’s All Over moment and it propelled The Talking Trilby into the national consciousness. Eddie soon became a staple of many light entertainment programmes – from It’s A Knockout and The Goodies to Monty Python and Songs of Praise – and capped off a remarkable 1977 with an appearance, in front of 28 million viewers, on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special.

Not bad for a working-class lad from Dewsbury.

But Eddie was also one of the most reviled figures of the era. To many “down South” he was a joke, a gormless northerner with an unintelligible accent commentating on a barbaric game played only on the M62 corridor. Python’s public schoolboys frequently took the pee, often reimagining him in arts programmes (how hilarious) and ironic “Eddie Waring Appreciation Societies” sprung up in student unions across the land. In his (and God’s) own county he was accused of selling his soul to the devil by the 1895 Club – formed to keep rugby league attached to its northern, working-class roots (82 years earlier it had broken away from the “southern toffs” who set up union) and thousands of people signed a petition calling on the Beeb to sack him. Some, apparently, wrote their names in blood.

Which is why I decided to write a short play examining Eddie Waring, Rugby League, Yorkshireness, revenge, revolution, betrayal and why trilby hats went out of fashion. I have called it Playing The Joker and it is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from November 19th to 23rd.

It is part of the Play, Pint and a Pie season introduced by new artistic director James Brining. This season does exactly what it says on the tin. You pay your tenner, sup your ale, eat your pie and watch a new play by a new (ish) local writer. Recently I went to see two shows at the WYP – Sweeney Todd and My Generation – and enjoyed them both. Having sold ice creams and programmes at the Leeds Playhouse before it was reincarnated at the bottom of Quarry Hill as a state-of-the-art, all-singing-all-dancing, regional, post-modernist superstructure, I was interested to see how James was turning the building, in his own words, into “a place where brilliant art happens as well as a place which is warm, open and engaging, for audiences and artists as well as community participants of all ages.” I fully support his desire to “want Leeds to be proud of its theatre and for the theatre to reflect the people and stories of Leeds”. True, I no longer live in the city but I often come up to see my parents, relatives and failing football team and pine, nostalgically, for that golden age when the Playhouse was a pioneer of exciting new provincial writing.

I’m not a great fan of the blander end of musical theatre, but I thought Sweeney was hilarious, gritty and exhilaratingly political. It is a gruesome story but we are living in gruesome times. Which brings me to My Generation. Written by Alice Nutter, it movingly, and joyously, evoked a political family’s experience of Leeds from the mid-Seventies to the present day.

So, two very different shows, with different kinds of audience – but, despite the serious, and often dark, subjects they were dealing with, there was a celebratory feel to them both. And coincidentally, like my own play, they are partly set in the late Seventies. Last Saturday, on Sweeney’s last night before it transferred to the round at Manchester, I enjoyed being in the foyer as the two audiences flowed out of the auditoria. There was a great buzz about the place; lots of arguing, laughter and drinking and a sense, as James wrote in the programme, “of possibility and promise.” I felt the Playhouse was, at last, beginning to reflect the diversity and cosmopolitan nature of this great, sometimes under-achieving, city. “We need to open ourselves out,” he declares, “become even more porous and encourage cross-fertilisation so that the building is seething with different energies.”

I very much hope that Playing The Joker attracts a different kind of energy to the place. A Rugby League energy, reflecting the vibrant people’s game of the North, a sport bristling with flair, dynamism and physicality. Chess with muscles, as one of my characters calls it. The play’s protagonist, who is not Eddie Waring, is certainly seething with a Sweeney-esque desire for revenge, convinced – like Todd – that society has been corrupted and he has been betrayed. And, like Nutter’s wonderful collection of alternative activists, he wants a revolution: a Yorkshire-inspired, burn-it-all-down rebellion against an establishment he is convinced has sold out the working classes.

It isn’t really about Rugby League. I don’t want to give away too much, so I think I will end by listing my inspirations for this piece. Rupert Pupkin in the film King of Comedy. Gethin Price in Trevor Griffiths’ masterpiece Comedians and the funniest comedy act I have ever seen – Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise (from Morley you know). And finally, of course, a combination of the punk spirit of 77 and of northern iconoclasts like Bleasdale, Russell, Ayckbourn and the late, great, much-maligned Eddie Waring.

Playing the Joker by Anthony Clavane | 19th-23rd November | West Yorkshire Playhouse

Performances begin at 6pm and tickets cost £10. Food will be served from 5pm. Directed by James Blakey. Tickets can be booked here or by calling box office 0113 213 7700 .

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

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