In Blackberry Time – June 2020

Page from annotated typescript for theatre production 'In Blackberry Time'
Page from annotated typescript for theatre production ‘In Blackberry Time, 1985 (Chaplin (Michael) Archive, MC/4/1/1/3/1)

In Blackberry Time was produced collaboratively by Alan Plater and Michael Chaplin.  The play is based on Sid Chaplin’s book of short stories that go by the same name.  Sid started to write the autobiographical book before his death in January 1986.  His son, Michael Chaplin, and wife, Rene Chaplin, edited and published the book on his behalf posthumously with Bloodaxe Books in 1987.

As we can see from this first page draft of the play, the narrator establishes himself as a son of a coal miner who ‘writes what I please, always writing out of daily contact with people’. Sid was highly regarded for his depictions of North East mining and working-class communities drawing upon his experiences growing up in the coal mining community of County Durham and of work in the pit. Sid began working in the mines from the age of sixteen before moving away to be a writer for the National Coal Board’s publication Coal.

With his vivid portrayals of life in region Sid was an inspiration to many North East writers.  In the 1960s he became a mentor figure to the playwright Alan Plater.  When Plater was approached by Max Roberts, the Creative Director of Live Theatre, to write a North-East play, Plater was drawn to Sid’s work. In a meeting with Michael it was decided that they would together adapt the latest of Sid’s work into a play. This extract from a typescript of In Blackberry Time was written in 1987, the same year that Sid’s final and posthumous book was published.  

The play was staged at Live Theatre in 1987 and starred actors Val MacLane and David Whitaker.

In these audio interviews you can hear Michael Chaplin’s account of his collaboration with Alan Plater.  In the interview Michael claims that In Blackberry Time began his career as a writer. He has written some 30 plays for Radio 4 including the series ‘Two Pipe Problems’ and ‘The Ferryhill Philosophers’ and various single plays like ‘The Song Thief’. His work for television includes the series ‘Grafters’, ‘Dalziel and Pascoe’ and ‘Monarch of the Glen’ and films like ‘Just Henry’.

The production of In Blackberry Time was also the beginning of a long relationship with Live Theatre.  Michael wrote another two plays for the theatre, ‘You Couldn’t Make It Up’ (with Tom Chaplin) about the travails of being a Newcastle United fan, and ‘A Walk-On Part’, based on the diaries of ex-Labour MP Chris Mullin.

You can find the Archives of Michael Chaplin and Sid Chaplin here at Newcastle University Special Collections and Archives. You can also find material in our Live Theatre Archive including Max Robert’s copies of draft script for In Blackberry Time and production photographs.

Cornish and Chaplin’s Spennymoor Settlement – August 2014

Christmas card with message "A happy xmas Sid, Rene, and family from Norman, Sarah and family" which includes a reproduction of painting 'Church Street, Low Spennymoor' by Norman Cornish
Christmas card with message “A happy xmas Sid, Rene, and family from Norman, Sarah and family” which includes a reproduction of painting ‘Church Street, Low Spennymoor’ by Norman Cornish (Chaplin (Sid) Archive, SC/RC/3/7)

The last of the famous “Pitman Painters”, Norman Cornish, died on the 1st August aged 94. Hailing from Spennymoor, County Durham, he worked as a miner at the Dean and Chapter Colliery in Ferryhill until 1966 when he pursued a career as an artist full-time. He is best known for painting the mining village culture found in the North East, expertly capturing the characters and essence of the area.

Cornish was also a long standing member of the Spennymoor Settlement, a community centre serving the South Durham coalfield area. Established in 1930 as a reaction to the effects of the economic depression, it’s declared objectives were “To encourage tolerant neighbourliness and voluntary social services and give its members opportunities for increasing their knowledge, widening their interests, and cultivating their creative powers in a friendly atmosphere”. This was achieved partly through the provision of classes and talks on varied subjects, including cobbling, painting and sketching, sewing, woodwork, and drama.

The Spennymoor Settlement was also known as the Pitman Academy as it nurtured the talents of many prominent North-East art individuals whose roots were in mining, including those of writer Sid Chaplin. Chaplin from Shildon, Co. Durham, also worked at the Dean and Chapter Colliery and was involved with the Spennymoor Settlement, meaning his path invariably crossed with that of Norman Cornish. Various records within the Chaplin (Sid) Archive held at the Newcastle University Special Collections and Archives, relate to the Spennymoor settlement. These include correspondence during Sid’s time as the honorary secretary, a programme for the Festival of Art 1949, and the 21st Birthday Commemorative magazine from 1951 that includes short story “The Bicycle against the wall” by Sid Chaplin, and an image of a portrait of Sid Chaplin by Norman Cornish.