John Boyd: Teacher, Playwright, Radio Producer
Profile of a key player in NI's theatre and literary scenes
John Boyd, BBC talks producer, playwright and cornerstone of the Lyric Theatre, was one of those working class boys who got their chance in life through a Scholarship to the grammar School.
Born in 1912, John was the son of a railway engine driver, living in a ‘parlour house’ with a privy in the back yard. It was in a typical red-brick Victorian terrace with a corner pub and neighbours gossiping on the doorsteps. It later provided the setting for his play The Street.
At Mountpottinger School only the brightest pupils were allowed to sit for the ‘Scholarship’. John got down to his studies there and gained entrance to ‘Inst’ (The Royal Belfast Academical Institution).
‘Inst’ had many fine teachers and introduced John to new subjects. He loved languages and History but most of all he loved Literature and the stage. He was no actor, but he survived the teasing when he played Portia in a school play, with his rugby socks stuffed up his vest. Stage struck at sixteen, he was an extra in a play at the Opera House.
John’s opinions were being shaped by school; by books, and the people in his family who read. He was taken to see Sybil Thorndike in St Joan, and the Abbey Players from Dublin in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. John’s Uncle Willy and Aunt Ida had socialist leanings, and encouraged him to read the works of Marx, Engels and literature on the Labour movement. Later in life John was a delegate on a cultural exchange to the USSR with other writers, journalists and artists. The visit clarified his ideas. He was a socialist but not a communist.
At Inst, John was taught by the novelist Forrest Reid. Though Reid was from a very different background he and John shared a love of Irish literature. They struck up a friendship that lasted until Reid’s death.
John felt he floundered a little at Inst but he worked hard, enjoyed languages and he always regretted that he didn’t know more of Gaelic to read Irish literature in its original form. He loved everything to do with the stage, not only acting. He was fascinated by the theatre world.
John went on to Queen’s University, Belfast, gaining a BA and then an MA. Later he took an external degree at Trinity College Dublin. The subject of his thesis was Forrest Reid.
Davy McClean, one of his friends, was a quiet ex-shipyard worker. He ran a small radical bookshop where John found Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and other banned books by Tolstoy, Gorki, Zola and Marx. This formed his alternative education.
Following university, John went into teaching. He was a born teacher. He married, found a modest house, and settled down to be a writer; contributing anonymous articles to the Irish Democrat. After some years teaching in a primary school outside Lisburn, John was offered a post at Belfast Royal Academy. In subsequent years he also taught an Extra Mural class at Queen’s University.
John had also been busy contributing anonymous articles to the Irish Democrat. Sam Hanna Bell later persuaded him to edit a magazine called The Lagan. It only ran to four issues but it got John noticed and brought him into contact with new writers, including W.R. Rogers, Denis Johnson, John Hewitt, Michael McLaverty, Joseph Tomelty, Brian Friel, Louis McNiece and Tyrone Guthrie Many of them became life-long friends.
In 1946, Sam Hanna Bell was working at the BBC as a features writer and producer. He needed someone to organise a ‘talks’ section and he offered John the job. John felt constrained by the narrow parochialism of a purely Northern Ireland format. He often got into trouble for trying to break free of censorship and to liberalise the content of the talks. Boyd went to work at BBC London for a short time, but chose to return to Belfast. He left the BBC in 1972, to concentrate on his writing. The Lyric Theatre played host to a number of notable plays by John Boyd, including The Flats (1971), The Farm (1972), Guests (1974), The Street (1976), which starred Liam Neeson, and Facing North 1978. John edited the Lyric’s magazine, The Threshold and he later became Honorary Artistic Director at the theatre. The ‘stage-struck’ boy had found his place at last. In his later years, Boyd wrote two autobiographical books entitled Out of My Class and The Middle of My Journey.
By Shirley Bork