There are several ways in which Joe Caffrey feels connected to The Pitmen Painters, the play about a group of art-loving Northumberland miners in the 1930s, which comes to the Lyceum Theatre next week.
Not only does the actor come from a family of miners in the North East but he has known Lee Hall, writer of the multi award-winning play which has been a hit at the National Theatre, on Broadway and in London’s West End, since they were teenagers.
Caffrey is from the ship-building town of Wallsend on the Tyne and his father worked at Swan Hunter’s Shipyards.
“But both my grand-dads were miners,” he points out, “and my father says his dad took him and a schoolmate down the pit when they were 14 to scare them. And it worked, he said there was no way he was going back down there.
“My dad has done the family history and it’s mining all the way. My mother’s dad was an NUM official in Northumberland and a Labour councillor.”
IThe miner’s strike of 1984 was a significant time for Caffrey. “I was in the youth theatre in Newcastle during the miner’s strike and along with a few others, including Robson Greene and Libby Davison, we formed an a capella group called The Workey Tickets and performed fund raising benefit concerts for the striking miners and their families.
“We ended up performing in the Albert Hall. I remember coming to Sheffield too and getting stopped by the police on the way back. I guess they were looking for flying pickets - whearas we were more like The Flying Pickets.
“Lee was in the youth theatre at the same time and it’s a reminder of how we all benefit from subsidies to the theatre and the arts in general which Newcastle was prepared to cut by 100%. Without public libraries Lee would not have got to Cambridge and become a writer and given us Billy Elliot. His mam was a librarian and he spent a lot of time there. .
“It’s similar for these working-class men who were helped by the WEA support for the arts. Ownership of the arts is one of the themes of the play. At one time it was for the upper classes because everyone else had to work all the time. These men were mostly Methodists and mainly teetotal and were able to use their spare time creatively.”
Caffrey first appeared in The Pitmen Painters in the West End in a different role. “I now play Harry Wilson, one of the more technically accomplished of the painters. He was gassed in the First World War and so couldn’t work down the pit. He was a dental technician - they were a mixed group, not all of them were miners.
“William Feaver, who wrote the book, said he was the most intelligent man he had ever met. Coming from an academic that’s quite an accolade. They were all self-educated. Harry joined a book club and had to wait for the books to be posted to him, there was no bookshop to go to.”
As a further link to Lee Hall, Caffrey was in the original production of Billy Elliot in the West End playing the brother and went back after three years to play the dad.
He still lives in Newcastle and is involved with the city’s Live Theatre where The Pitman Painters was developed. “My first job was with Max Roberts who is now artistic director,” he recalls.
“Back then there was a lot of work in the North East including TV work with things like Byker Grove and Spender.”
Caffrey was in Byker Grove in the days of PJ and Duncan, alias Ant and Dec, until his character Paul got married to Nicola (Jill Halfpenny) and they went off to live in Scotland.
The pair were later in Lee Hall’s first hit, Cooking with Elvis, being revived to mark the 40th anniversary of Live Theatre, which Caffrey will move on to after the current tour ends in August,
The Pitman Painters is at the Lyceum from Monday to Saturday.