1993. 12 pits are closed following years of pit closures, years of unfed mouths, years of women seething by the kitchen sink, years of the fight against Thatcher. Four women band together and occupy the Parkside colliery as a call to arms. One clear message: take a stand.
I went into Queens Of The Coal Age knowing that Maxine Peake wrote the play, and vaguely knowing it had something to do with coal pits. The programme told me the rest: Peake spoke to the women against pit closures in a 2016 interview she conducted for her 45 minute radio play: Queens of The Coal Age.
After failed attempts from Dot (Jane Hazelgrove), Elaine (Eve Robertson), Lesley (Danielle Henry), and Anne (Kate Anthony) to protest the pit closures (which began in 1984) the woman banded together and occupied the Parkside colliery.
The women, disguised as teachers, are taken on a tour of the pit by the manager Des (played by John Elkington).
Elaine: ‘We actually did an official tour. To be honest, once we got down, we had no idea what to do next. And oh we were tired. I’d not slept all the night before.”
Des instructs the woman to get into the lift. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered how the director (Bryony Shanahan) would pull it off. Wracked with nerves, and Dot with claustrophobia, the women step onto the lift platform.
Gravitas should be given to Elliot Griggs (lighting designer), Pete Malkin (sound designer), and Jennifer Jackson (movement director) who managed to transport the women from centre stage at The Royal exchange to the bottom of a coal pit within seconds. If I had just stepped into the theatre and watched the scene unfold, I would have known what was happening.
Finally down in the pit, the women rejoice.
Annie: ‘I put my pit gear on and then we got to the cage, and as soon as it set off down I got hold of your hand and I said, “Elaine, we’ve cracked it.”‘
As it becomes clear the women will not be moved, Des disappears evaporating around the women’s laughter.
Justifiably, Anne is the leader. Wife to Arthur Scargill (President of the National Union of Mineworkers 1982-2002) she has the most to lose by rebelling publicly. For their first act of rebellion, the women tidy up the office they have taken as their home. After the paper flower is put into the vase there is not much else to do, except pick at each other.
What follows is four days of sleeping on the ground, fighting with the pit boss Ramsey (also played by John Elkington), and general exhaustion. Dot, Elaine, Anne, and Lesley go hours without food and water. The onlooker might wonder, why did they do it? Hidden in the depths of the mine, they do not know whether their rebellion has peaked public interest.
Peake’s interview gives us some answers.
The women’s motivation was as feminist as it was political.
Betty: ‘My ex had always told me that I was thick, and I was stupid, and it were no use explaining things to me because I wouldn’t understand. All of a sudden because of the strike- and we’d gone speaking all over – I suddenly realised I know as much as some of these people at university; in fact, I know a bit more I’m sure.’
Dot: ‘ […] if there’s something wrong, you try to fix it. It changed a lot of women – there were writers come out of it, poems, songs, there were all sorts come out of that strike – so we achieved something, even if we didn’t stop them closing the pits. Something was evolving, women were changing.’
Peake’s humour sparks like fire crackers in the darkness, illuminating the women and their stories. Elaine is often the butt of the joke, the other women finding fun in her knicker contraband and her lust for the coal darkened pit men…
She is the only childless rebel in the pit. She is apart from the others, and knows it. Peake frames the coal pit closure strikes as an assertion of women’s power, a renouncement of the ties that bind the ladies to their homes, and an assertion of it. Family and duty to the cause is linked so closely that they have to be separated, one has to come first. Dot found her family on the rally lines, and so she left her kids at home to rebel against the system. She is the first to want to leave. A bout of guilt overwhelms her, and she admits that she sometimes wishes she never had kids. The divide is too much.
Anne: ‘Dot said to me, “I’m tired, Anne, I’ve had enough.” And she says, “I’ll go out on my own,” and I says, “No you’re not. We’ve come down as four, we’re all going out as four.”‘
Peake’s writing for Queens of The Coal Age reminds me of a passage from The Ruins in which the main character lowers a lantern down a pit and watches as it illuminates the walls it passes, and then gets smaller and smaller until it hits the bottom and everything around it is flooded with light.