In May the Lyric Theatre in Belfast will stage the newest installment of the ‘Billy’ plays by Belfast playwright Graham Reid. The earlier incarnations of these much-loved stories of Protestant working-class life in Belfast were big draws when they were first aired on BBC television as part of the network’s legendary ‘Play for Today’ series.
According to the Lyric Theatre website
Love, Billy sees Billy Martin returning to Belfast after 25 years away. He left without warning or informing anyone and now all of the Martin family are awaiting Billy’s arrival to celebrate their father Norman’s 74th birthday. They haven’t seen Billy in all that time and still have no inkling of why he left. There are family grudges to be resolved and Billy’s story to be revealed, at the heart of which is a man struggling to adapt to a family and city he knew so well but hardly recognises any more.
In the new play Liverpool actor Joe McGann plays the part of Billy – a part which a young Sir Kenneth Branagh made his own. The actors may have changed, but the story, I imagine, will be as strong as the rest of Reid’s output. I had the pleasure of meeting the man himself in January to discuss another project I am working on and I was pleased to find him personable and very easy to chat to. To be honest, it’s not often on a Thursday afternoon you get the chance to talk to people about the work of Peter McDougall and Ken Loach! The fact that Simon Callow was wandering around the Lyric cafe made the meeting all the more surreal.
In an article of mine which was recently published in the ‘Irish Studies Review’ journal I wrote the following about the Billy plays, in relation to education and civic erosion among Belfast’s Protestant working class communities:
In the early to mid-1980s Graham Reid, a Protestant playwright from the Donegall Road area of South Belfast, had a series of his plays commissioned for television by BBC Northern Ireland. These plays famously became known as the ‘Billy Plays’ and are remembered fondly to this day. The plays were set in a Belfast Protestant working class community and the narrative is based around the relationships of a family and their close friends. It has been argued that for the first time these plays portrayed the Protestant working class in a manner in which they themselves would recognise their own lives on television.[i] Although filmed and set in the period from the Republican Hunger Strikes to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the early-mid 1980s there is a tangible perception that Reid was writing about both the present and the past in the Protestant working class community in which he had grown up.[ii] In a 1984 article for the cultural magazine Fortnight Reid mused upon the filming of the Billy Plays in the tight-knit streets around Belfast’s Donegall Road – “…old neighbours approach me. They smile and congratulate me; they say I’ve put Coolderry Street on the map. Do they know why I’ve put Coolderry Street on the map – do they see what I see, hear what I hear, when I watch my ‘Plays for Today’…that they are all about yesterday?’[iii] In the last of the Billy Plays, A Coming to Terms for Billy which was broadcast in 1984 one of Billy’s young sisters admonishes her Uncle Andy, saying ‘My teacher says that language is a tool that should be properly used.’[iv] A community such as that depicted in the Billy Plays which is set in the Protestant Donegall Road, despite having suffered throughout the Troubles and experiencing a loss of jobs due to the changing nature of the labour market, had at its core a strong network of churches, schools and trade unions. These were all crucial facets which would prove to be vital when a moderating voice was required from within the Protestant working class. Elements of this can be seen in the Billy Plays, and education is central to this. Indeed, interviewed years later about the plays, Kenneth Branagh stated that they symbolised the ‘end of a kind of working class life.’[v]
[i] Walker, ‘The fragmentation of Ulster Unionism’. In Busteed et al. Irish Protestant Identities, 367.
[ii] Reid had moved to London by the time they plays were broadcast.
[iii] Reid, ‘Growing Up in the Cradle of the Cherry-Picker’, 30.
[iv] ‘A Coming to Terms for Billy’. BBC Television. 1984.
[v] BBC Northern Ireland, 19 December 2006.
While the plays allowed the Protestant working class to see an accurate reflection of facets of their life on screen for the first time their airing on a national network allowed working class people across the U.K. to recognise aspects of their own life in a rapidly deindustrialising nation. Despite the paramilitaries, the violence and the political upheaval the Protestant working class weren’t so different to the white working classes in Liverpool, Glasgow or Nottingham. This is commented upon by Branagh and Jimmy Ellis in the video below:
These plays are part of the social fabric and history of the Protestant working class in Belfast. They are also an integral part of the history of Belfast, reflecting as they do the normal lives people lived while chaos reigned around them.
The Lyric Theatre in association with the Belfast Film Festival are showing the original plays back to back in late April. I think tickets, which were free, are completely sold out for them. In lieu of the BBC ever releasing them on DVD, here they all are for you to appreciate in full: