British working-class painters: Jimmy's blob

The successful Broadway run of The Pitmen Painters, Lee Hall’s drama set in a north-east mining community, has introduced US audiences to a remarkable chapter in British working-class life, writes  Robert Colls.

When Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters moved to Broadway in the autumn, following a successful run at the National Theatre, it brought a taste of a north-east mining village to the most famous showbiz street in the world. Following in the wake of Hall’s blockbuster musical and film, Billy Elliott (with music by Elton John), the drama tells the story of a group of miners from Ashington, Northumberland who from 1934 to 1983 met every week in a wooden hut to paint what they saw and discuss what they painted.

It is a chapter in the now half-forgotten history of working-class adult education. A British school of working-class painters is a rare enough event in itself, but in a town that had no library, with a population more used to handling a shovel than a paintbrush, it was remarkable.  Yet Hall’s play is no pious story of working-class endeavour. It is too argumentative for that. Nor is it a pat on the head for lifelong learners. Hall’s subjects are not the men who did the painting as much as the paintings themselves, of which he asks the only question worth asking of of art: is it any good and, if so, why? In answering his question Hall asks many others: about education, about social class, about moral worth, about money, about technique and finally about who gets to ask these delicate questions in the first place?

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