She was a working-class Yorkshire girl who first took to the stage in a high-kicking dance troupe. The political stage followed when Betty Boothroyd was elected to parliament, rising to become the first female Speaker of the House of Commons.
Now Boothroyd is to appear on another stage – not in person, but as the central character in a musical drama written by and starring Maxine Peake.
Betty! A Sort Of Musical was a celebration of “an extraordinary character”, said Peake. “That generation of women battled through. She worked away through many rejections, and then she made it to the first female Speaker – a working-class lass from Dewsbury.”
The “play with songs” will be performed next year as the culmination of the Manchester Royal Exchange’s 2022 programme.
Co-authored by Peake and Seiriol Davies, and directed by Sarah Frankcom, it came out of an idea of Peake’s to write a musical about a “northern tripe dynasty”. “Sarah very sensibly said: ‘I’m not sure about that but why don’t you have a look at Betty Boothroyd?’” said Peake.
Boothroyd, now 92 and a member of the House of Lords, was the daughter of textile workers in the former West Riding and grew up surrounded by mills. Work was insecure and badly paid; there was never much money in the Boothroyd house.
After school, Boothroyd became a shop assistant and then a typist, and then at the age of 17 she successfully auditioned for the Tiller Girls, a dance troupe. She appeared at the London Palladium and in Goldilocks And The Three Bears in Luton before a foot infection ended her short dancing career.
In 1973, she entered parliament as Labour MP for West Bromwich, and in 1992 was elected Speaker, a role she performed with warmth, a no-nonsense style and a certain glamour for eight years.
Betty! views Boothroyd’s life through the lens of an amateur dramatics group in a Dewsbury village hall. “It’s their work in progress. It goes into all sorts of weird and wonderful places musically, but it’s certainly not Andrew Lloyd Webber,” said Frankcom.
It would, however, include “big belters, big dance numbers, big power ballads”, said Davies. Peake has never appeared in a musical before, “but I like a challenge”, she said.
Frankcom said: “This is as much about celebrating the talents of the amateur. Particularly in the north-west, there’s such a rich tradition of amateur performance, and we really wanted to celebrate that as well.”
The members of the am-dram group “feel very passionately about what they feel [Boothroyd] stands for – fairness, social justice, listening and speaking your truth. In Dewsbury, Betty’s very much admired and loved.”
Although Boothroyd’s spell with the Tiller Girls was short, it was a crucial part of her story, said Davies. “The Tiller Girls episode mirrors so many people’s experience: ‘I want to conquer the world. Oh, it didn’t work out, OK, I need to lick my wounds and do something completely different.’ It seems so truthful and universal.”
The show would be fun and entertaining, its authors said. “We don’t want to frighten people off,” Peake said. “I don’t want people to go, ‘Oh God, Maxine Peake’s doing it, it’s going to be really political and agitprop’ – it’s not that at all. It’s about a woman who happens to be political, but it’s more about her humanity.”
The timing was significant, said Frankcom. “Working on it over the past year or 18 months, it feels that discussion and debate, and people having opposing opinions and views but being able to listen and share, is more important now than ever. We don’t seem to be very good at listening, and we certainly don’t seem to be very good at breaking bread and sharing time and space with those who have differing views.
“We’re making a show about a group of people who come from very different places into a collective endeavour that involves them having to rethink some things about themselves and about who they are in relationship to each other. And that as a principle feels important.
“The thing I find so moving about Betty is her passion and advocacy for the importance of debate within our society. There couldn’t be a better time to be celebrating that in whatever way we can.”
Peake and her collaborators have written to Boothroyd to inform her of their project.