Sshe was a working class girl from Yorkshire who first took the stage in a kicking dance troupe. The political scene followed when Betty Boothroyd was elected to parliament, becoming the first female Speaker of the House of Commons.
Now, Boothroyd is set to appear on another stage – not in person, but as the central character in a musical drama written by and performed by Maxine Peake.
Betty! A Sort Of Musical was a celebration of “an extraordinary character,” said Peake. “This generation of women fought. She overcame many rejections and then came to the first female Speaker – a working class girl from Dewsbury. “
The “game with songs” will be played next year as a highlight of the 2022 Manchester Royal Exchange program.
Co-written by Peake and Seiriol Davies, and directed by Sarah Frankcom, it was born out of Peake’s idea of writing a musical about a “Northern Guts Dynasty”. “Sarah said very aptly, ‘I’m not sure, but why don’t you take a look at Betty Boothroyd?’” Peake said.
Boothroyd, now 92 and a member of the House of Lords, was the daughter of textile workers from the old West Riding and grew up surrounded by mills. The work was precarious and poorly paid; there was never much money in the Boothroyd house.
After school, Boothroyd became a salesperson and then a typist, then at the age of 17, she successfully auditioned for the Tiller Girls, a dance company. She appeared at the London Palladium and Goldilocks And The Three Bears in Luton before a foot infection ended her short dancing career.
In 1973 she entered Parliament as a Labor MP for West Bromwich, and in 1992 was elected president, a role she played with warmth, pragmatic style and a certain glamor for eight years.
Betty! looks at Boothroyd’s life through the lens of an amateur theater group in a Dewsbury village hall. “It’s their work in progress. He’s going to all kinds of weird and musically wonderful places, but he’s definitely not Andrew Lloyd Webber, ”Frankcom said.
It would, however, include “big belts, big dance numbers, big powerful ballads,” Davies said. Peake has never appeared in a musical before, “but I love a challenge,” she said.
Frankcom said: “This is all about celebrating the talents of the hobbyist. Particularly in the Northwest, there is such a rich tradition of amateur performances, and we really wanted to celebrate that too. “
The members of the group am-dram “feel very passionately about what they feel [Boothroyd] represents – fairness, social justice, listening and speaking your truth. In Dewsbury, Betty is much admired and loved.
While Boothroyd’s spell with the Tiller Girls was short, it was a crucial part of his story, Davies said. “The Tiller Girls episode reflects the experience of so many people: ‘I want to take over the world. Oh, it didn’t work out, OK I have to heal my wounds and do something completely different. It sounds so true and universal.
The show would be fun and entertaining, its authors said. “We don’t want to scare people,” Peake said. “I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh my gosh, Maxine Peake is doing it, it’s going to be really political and agitprop’ – that’s not it at all. It’s about a woman who happens to be political, but it’s more about her humanity. “
Timing was important, Frankcom said. “Working on it over the last year or 18 months, I feel like the discussion and the debate, and people with opposing opinions and views but able to listen and share , are more important than ever. We don’t seem very good at listening, and we certainly don’t seem very good at breaking bread and sharing time and space with those who have different points of view.
“We’re doing a show about a group of people who come from very different places in a collective endeavor that forces them to rethink certain things about themselves and who they relate to each other. And that as a principle seems important.
“What I find so moving about Betty is her passion and her advocacy for the importance of debate in our society. There couldn’t be a better time to celebrate this in any way possible. “
Peake and his collaborators have written to Boothroyd to inform him of their project.