Stage musical puts spotlight on race riots in Burnley

 Ian Herbert


Paul Abbott's tough upbringing on a sink estate in Burnley, Lancashire, equipped him with a talent for transmuting real life into engaging drama. But his home town has never spawned a project quite like his latest.

Abbott, the Manchester-based writer celebrated for the Channel 4 comedy Shameless, is planning a musical about the rise of racial tensions in his home town, which culminated in race riots four years ago.

BNP: The Musical contributes to a wave of unusual productions in the past year which have delivered to the stage versions of the lives of David Blunkett, the footballer Roy Keane and the 1980s rock band The
Smiths.

Burnley's descent into chaos and rioting in 2001 was a stark contrast to his childhood experience in which "people got on", Abbott said. "I want to have a good look at the arguments. I'm not more qualified
than anyone else apart from the fact that I lived there. The assimilation was so much better than it is now. I still don't understand why the riots happened."

The title of the musical offers an idea of Abbott's views about the reasons for Burnley's descent into chaos: the malign influence of the British National Party.

"Being a writer and addressing the problem is a personal synthesis," he said. "From growing up in a mixture of cultures where nothing seemed to be a problem to inflammatory race riots is a big leap. They [the BNP] are well organised, and capitalise on any minor incidents. The riots started after a small disagreement was escalated."

There will be no shortage of realism in the finished product from Abbott, whose work has always been flavoured with his upbringing as the seventh of eight children.

When he was aged nine, his mother left to live with another man, and Abbott rarely went to school. But he is now one of the most celebrated and prolific television writers of his generation, renowned for Linda Green and Clocking Off as well as Shameless, about the realities of working life. The film rights to his television drama State of Play were bought by Universal.

Abbott is not the first writer to draw inspiration from the 2001 race riots which also affected Oldham and Bradford. David Edgar's recent Playing With Fire at the National Theatre explored race relations in an Old Labour northern city. After reform of Edgar's mythical Wyverdale Council, hoped-for harmony degenerates into race riots, and Asian youths rampage through the city-centre attacking white businesses. Edgar backtracks a judicial inquiry into the riots, to explore the real explanation.

Abbott's version of the race riots may demonstrate his conviction that the BNP's manipulation of the media contributes to its increased popularity in the Lancashire town. (The party has seven councillors.)

Although it is still early days for the project, Abbott said it will be a big-budget extravaganza.

"It will be like The Producers, big and outlandish. It's going to be absolutely bonkers to make people come and watch."