The Billy Plays Continue
Writer Graham Reid on penning Love, Billy for the Lyric Theatre, the absence of Sir Kenneth and the future for the Martin family
30 years ago, a trilogy of plays was broadcast by the BBC as part of its late, lamented Play for Today series. Featuring a then unknown young actor named Kenneth Branagh in the title role, and James ‘Z-Cars’ Ellis as his bullying, alcoholic father, the so-called ‘Billy plays’, set in Protestant, working-class Belfast, had a major impact on both critics and audiences at the time.
They have since assumed near-legendary status, something their Belfast-born author, Graham Reid, would never have predicted. ‘My concern initially was just how the people in my own neighbourhood would react to them,’ he remembers. ‘Because the plays were very autobiographical, and set in the Coolderry Street area. They were the people I grew up with.’
The plays, in fact, went down ‘extremely well’ among the local people on whom Reid based them. ‘They loved them,’ he says. ‘They felt that they were genuine, authentic pieces, that portrayed them in a light they felt was right. They didn’t just deal with the big issues of bullets and bombs, they showed that they were ordinary people, with all the social needs and problems that working-class people have everywhere.’
The Billy plays were undoubtedly game-changers in their day, radically altering how both cultural commentators and the television-viewing public ‘across the water’ viewed Northern Ireland, both socially and artistically. Reid is aware of this.
‘The critics used to say in England, you know, when you hear “And now, a play from Northern Ireland”, people would race across the room for the off switch. And I think the Billy plays resonated because they represented ordinary people trying to live ordinary, dignified lives in the midst of chaos.’
Reid, who’s lived for many years in England himself, is back in Belfast for the Lyric Theatre’s premiere staging of Love, Billy, his new play about the Martin family, examining what happens when Billy returns to Belfast after an unexplained 25-year absence.
It’s the fifth instalment in the Billy series, and the first time Reid has revisited the Martin clan since Lorna, his 1987 play about the eldest daughter, a piece less widely remembered nowadays than its storied predecessors. ‘I think I should have had a different title for it,’ quips Reid ruefully.
Reid has often had the Martin family in mind, though, in the quarter of a century since he last put pen to paper writing about them. ‘For a relatively long time I thought about revisiting the two younger characters, and looking at how they coped with life, having been taken away from Belfast and their roots, and brought up in England with a stepmother and their father. But I just never got around to it.’
The seed for Love, Billy, Reid explains, was actually planted when he read an interview with Kenneth Branagh in a Northern Ireland newspaper. ‘He said he’d love to do another Billy play, if I would write it. So we got together and talked about it.’
The only problem, it transpired, was Branagh’s own availability to reprise the role that launched him on the path to international stardom. ‘Sir Kenneth doesn’t have many windows in his life at the moment,’ Reid comments wryly. ‘In the meantime I decided to go ahead and write the play, because I’d begun to think about the story and where the characters were at this stage.’
Well as Reid ‘knows’ the Martin family characters he is talking about, penning the next chapter of their story did not come easy to him. ‘The writing was difficult, because the stage is a different medium to television. You have to contain things, you can’t just suddenly have somebody get on to an aeroplane and end up in another country, or take a bus journey across the country.
‘So you have to sustain the action within a limited space and a limited time-frame. But once I got started I found myself thinking in the characters’ voices again, which was great.’
With those old, familiar voices came old memories, of days gone by in Coolderry Street, and the Belfast of the playwright’s youth and young manhood. ‘As a writer I think your writing is being fed all the time by the reservoir of memory, of your past,’ Reid comments.
‘The plays are so autobiographical. Another factor, sadly for me, is that my mother died just before the first one went out, and she would have adored it, I think. I’ve always said that Lorna, the daughter in the plays, has many of the virtues my mother had.
‘I have a little quote in the programme from William Trevor, who says that Ireland is what an Irishman carries in his suitcase. And I think it’s true of Ulstermen as well. It’s one of those things you carry about with you all the time.’
The Belfast which both Reid and his fictional creation Billy have returned to is, says the author, ‘very different’ to the one depicted in the original Billy trilogy. ‘The fabric of the city has changed dramatically. I know modern buildings have lots to recommend them, but I miss some of those wonderful old red-brick Victorian warehouses which we had. A lot of them were blown to smithereens during the Troubles.’
Reid also sees major differences in how communities co-exist together in the modern city. ‘I grew up in a street where everybody knew everybody else,’ he explains, ‘and everybody looked out for everybody else. The neighbours would chastise you, but you wouldn’t go crying to your mother and then have a blazing row about it. People cared about each other, there was a great community spirit. And I think that’s all gone.’
Where did it go to? Why has the spirit of social interdependency apparently evaporated into the ether? Reid has clear views on the subject. ‘Redevelopment is part of it,’ he argues. ‘Houses with gardens. Television, I think, made a hell of a difference too. Nowadays you go into a house and the television’s not even turned down, let alone turned off. It’s sort of created a barrier between people.’
So too, with the advent of social media and round-the-clock entertainment at the flick of a switch, has the need for children to ‘amuse themselves’, as Reid puts it, to create their own forms of entertainment.
‘We spent our early years at the corner of the street, talking, laughing,’ he recalls. ‘And I remember going down to the docks as a child, and you’d see boats for Ardrossan, Ayr, Glasgow, Liverpool, Heysham. All of that’s changed as well. Some of it’s for the good, but I still have a sort of nostalgic feeling for the past.’
That well of memory for his native city, its faces and voices, the unforgettable images and impressions, still runs deep in the imagination of Graham Reid. Could it eventually spawn a sixth instalment in the ongoing Martin family story? ‘I think it could run into hundreds,’ he replies drolly. ‘Why not? If Harry Potter can do it, why can’t I?’
Love, Billy runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until May 25, 2013.