Sully, The Housemartins, et moi

In early summer 2005, following the unexpected minor success of a first full-length play, I was invited to a place called Peaberries that specialised in selling big messy sandwiches that you ended up wearing, to discuss whether I had any other Hull-related ideas* for Hull Truck to produce, or if that was that.

I think I ordered a lemon pepper chicken in a bloomer the size of a planet, and probably a bottle of Corona to wash it down. Over the course of attempting to get some of this hefty, elaborate sarnie in my mouth, and between spitting mouthfuls over Truck’s then Associate Artistic Director Gareth Tudor Price, and him spitting whatever he’d ordered over me, I banged on, and on, about an idea for something called Happy Hour.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, it was slightly Housemartins related. As a recently discovered scrap of A4 reveals, the play would not be “reliant on the use of the [Housemartins] music, nor will any of the characters be based on band members.” Rather, he writes looking down at this piece of paper, it would be, ahem, “a fast-paced psychological comedy packed with the bleak humour prevalent at the time [1986]. Think Dog Day Afternoon set in a Hull pub [The Grafton].”

The overly simplistic outline suggests that untalented psycho Gus wants a piece of the fame, celebrity and fortune that he sees the band having and, to that end, intends to invite himself into the band. He holds four lads hostage in The Grafton, but they’re not the band – they’re just dressed in similar woolly jumpers and sportswear to that donned by Pd Heaton, Stan Cullimore et al (there were, of course, a lot of these groups of four wandering around Hull’s Avenues area at the time). Gus is also faced with bar staff who are even more disturbed than he is, which throws his plan off, somewhat, as the tables are turned and the hostage-taker becomes the hostage.

Anyway, I didn’t get round to suggesting how this hostage situation would pan out, although it would probably have involved sleeve note writer and Marxist poet Swift Nick bringing things to a shouty left-wing conclusion. Each scene would be named after the tracks on London 0 Hull 4, which I thought lent themselves nicely to me not really having to think too much for myself – Anxious, Get Up Off Our Knees, Think For A Minute, Freedom, etc etc. Swift Nick, or the actor playing him if Nick himself proved too expensive, would provide a little precis/review of each song ahead of the relevant scene to keep those deceived into buying tickets because they thought it would be a jukebox musical about their favourite, pre-Beautiful South band, happy.

With half of my sandwich in my lap and probably some of Gareth’s having made its way into my open, jabbering mouth during the course of this ‘pitch’, I looked at him for a response. Then started up again.

“I had a dream last night. Might be worth mentioning…”

As he mopped some sandwich/salad dressing out of the corner of his mouth, I assumed he was indicating I should go on.

“…it was a poster for a play. Clive Sullivan. Dressed half in Hull FC kit and half in Rovers kit, holding a rugby ball, about to run down the wing. Above his head, there’s the title, Sully. I guess it’s a biographical drama about a sporting legend.”

“Ok,” says Gareth, “We’ll do that.”

And we never spoke about The Housemartins idea ever again.

Which was the right move (Gareth, who settled the bill at Peaberries, went on to do the most amazing job of directing and casting, with Fidel Nanton excelling as Sully, and incredible multi-role support from Lee Green and Natalie Blades (and subsequently Amy Thompson in the revival)).

Anyway, I was only reminded of all this because I recently got the opportunity to re-visit the magnificent career of Clive Sullivan via co-writing the story, for a Humber Mouth commission, of the supporting role that Ros Sullivan played in her husband’s rugby league life. And the co-writer was Ros herself.

In 2005, sandwich digested and ahead of tackling the script for Sully, the brilliantly named Hull Daily Mail sports reporter Dick Tingle put me in touch with Ros (thankfully, given I didn’t know what I was doing) and, from the moment I met her, she was incredibly generous, sharing loads and loads of stories of their life together (and also giving me permission to do whatever I wanted with what she shared with me).

And Ros has done the same again so, together, we could tell this well-known story from her different perspective. The result is a short story that has been broadcast on the radio called Sidelines (it’s only 10 minutes long, so we barely scratch the surface). Ros was also brave enough to read the words, which are available on BBC Sounds, at least for a few more days. You can listen to it here (about 3 hours, 15 mins in).

*when I walked in to Truck for the first time as a ‘writer’ – to attend a new writing session – I remember explicitly stating that I didn’t want to write about Hull, most certainly didn’t want to write about rugby league and had no desire, by association, to become a professional Northerner. Ah, the confidence, swagger and naivety of the younger me.

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