The Promised Land: A Theatrical Exploration Of Racism, Love and Leeds United

The adaption of the popular 'Promised Land' book explores Leeds and Leeds United, and is a touching depiction of the passion that surrounds football and the lives of those that follow it.
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The adaption of the popular 'Promised Land' book explores Leeds and Leeds United, and is a touching depiction of the passion that surrounds football and the lives of those that follow it.

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Many football fans think the ‘Dirty Leeds’ tag stemmed from the cynical and ultra-professional approach adopted by Don Revie’s great Leeds United side of the sixties and seventies. The same people still like to stigmatise the club with the name today; based on a history of unsavoury characters both on and off the pitch, and the reputation of the clubs fans which disappeared as long ago as the clubs last league title win.

But the ‘Dirty Leeds’ phrase technically derives from the unrecognisable decay of the late 19th century, and the dark, satanic mills of the city, the slum area called the ‘Leylands’ where immigrants lived in squalor. Industrial Leeds; their Leeds. The Leeds that provoked George Bernard Shaw to claim it should be ‘burnt down’ and the Leeds that Charles Dickens labelled a ‘beastly place’. Fast forward to the mid-1970s and such talk was very similar.

That is the crux of ‘Promised Land’, the book written by Anthony Clavane and adapted into a poignant and perceptive stage play with the help of Nick Stimson and the Red Ladder production team. Immigrants, and specifically the Jewish community, had spent the twentieth century building lives in Leeds, becoming accepted and feeling a sense of belonging. Jewish visionaries such as Michael Marks (M&S) and Montague Burton (Burton Group) had not only settled and prospered in Leeds but had made a telling contribution to the local economy and the landscape of the modern city. The financial health of Leeds was infused by Jewish enterprise and the industrial society that pre-dated this was initiated by immigrants; Leeds was built on the ‘sweat of strangers’. According to Clavane, and the central theme to the Promised Land book and play, this all changed in 1975, and the Leeds that Clavane and the Jewish community had loved and thrived upon somehow changed.

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Heading into Leeds city station on the train, for many years you would pass a sign stating ‘Leeds: The Promised Land Delivered’. The council’s lavish self-proclamation at what they had created; a panorama of rewarding opportunities and a sense of ‘belonging’. Some time in the 1970s the sign disappeared, and for convenience sake, the story goes that this happened in 1975. At the same time Leeds United were about to play the 1975 European Cup Final against Bayern Munich in Paris. Don Revie, the man who had single-handedly transformed the club from parochial under-achievers to one of the most feared teams in Europe, had left for the England manager’s job and the club was unknowingly in mortal decline.

What happened in Paris is well-documented, as the rightful crowning of Revie’s team crumbled into an inglorious heap of conspiracy theories, mystifying decisions and rank bad fortune. Leeds United’s fortunes plummeted dramatically and, symbolically, the city of Leeds seemed to lose its’ outward vision and would alienate anything that wasn’t deemed its’ own. Elland Road became a hotbed for National Front activity and visiting Black players were taunted mercilessly. That Leeds United had been one of the first English teams to field Black players when South Africans Gerry Francis and Albert Johanesson played for the club in the late 1950s and 1960s, is often forgotten. Also, Terry Connor, a Black striker from Chapletown in Leeds, was an important and unaffected figure in the late 1970s when the clubs racist element was at its most prominent. But Leeds United were nevertheless held in shame, and the city was dishonoured by association. Leeds became famous for the 3 R’s ‘Racism, Riots and the Ripper’. The Promised Land no more.

The original book of the ‘Promised Land’ by Anthony Clavane was an autobiographical study of this story, and the play has benefitted from Clavane’s conspicuous intimacy with the project. Where the film of the ‘Damned Utd’ became a clumsy pastiche without the involvement of the glorious novel’s author David Peace, here the ‘Promised Land’ play becomes as equally an alluring concept as the bestselling book.

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The play is based around two concurrently-running stories, each with the same central theme of seeking a sense of belonging in Leeds. The main narrative, set in 1975, is a love story between Nathan, a Jewish Leeds United fan who dreams of becoming a writer, and Caitlin, a free-spirited musician and anti-facist, beating a drum against the Elland Road crowd her own antiquated Father is a fanatical part of. This is the ‘Billy Liar meets Billy Bremner’ story where dreams of escaping Leeds for a better life in London (where else?) are confused with a blunt refusal to give up the life that has been created, regardless of the spite and venom that currently surrounds it. It has always been ‘Rabbi in the morning and Revie in the afternoon’, and so it shall continue.

In the second story we are transported to a Sweatshop in the Leylands Ghetto in the early 1900’s, as mill owner Avrom Ber argues relentlessly with his daughter Rosa over integration of Jews and how to deal with anti-semitism. Avrom believes in the ‘keep on keeping on – keep shtum’ philosophy of segregation, but Rosa’s vision of open integration has subsequently been shared by the prominent Jewish characters in Leeds. These include former Leeds United chairman Manny Cussins and council leader Karl Cohen, the ‘Demolition Man’ who was responsible for finally destroying the slums in the 1950s and building the rejuvenated ‘Promised Land’.

Within the two stories are a wonderful mix of satire and music. The original songs written by the production team and performed by the impressive 35-strong cast of local actors are beautifully affecting. The ‘King of the Kop’ song, lead by Nathan as Leeds United win the title in 1974, was strangely stirring and I found myself hoping there would be commemorative soundtrack CD’s on sale outside afterwards. But on the flipside there were traditional, Wo-ya-ya harmonies and the atmospherics of the ‘Sweat of Strangers’ song that filled the room perfectly with the tormented anguish of overcoming divisions.

The quality of the writing was particularly prominent throughout the performance, and never wavered from compelling. The ‘robbed, cursed, cheated’ mantra that Leeds United fans snarl at the referee in Paris is cleverly mimicked when the anti-semites turn on the Jews in Avrom’s Sweatshop, as the reality of the immigrants taking local jobs starts to hit home. When Nathan, brilliantly portrayed by Paul Fox, is identified as a potential Jew on the Kop at Elland Road he is asked, as a test, to relay Revie’s great side one to eleven. Though he reels it off perfectly he is viciously set upon because he forgets ‘Madeley from Beeston’. Not because Madeley was the famous Mr.Versatility that was routinely left out of the fabled ‘classic team’ as he had no specialist position, but because he was the most locally-born player.

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A skilfully-written scene saw Sarah and Martha, the respective mothers of the love-struck Nathan and Caitlin, open up an awkward first meeting with an exchange over whether Jews are ‘allowed to drink tea’ but slowly dissolve into a mutual respect across cultural divides. Finally, the pivotal scene where, stood on the Queen’s Hotel roof, Caitlin tries to persuade Nathan to flee Leeds the city. Nathan can only think of the fourth R; ‘Relegation’ whereas Caitlin is spiteful of what Leeds has become, standing on the Queen’s Hotel; the ‘edifice of Northern smugness’.

For a Leeds United fan, the ‘Promised Land’ is a history lesson in the effect a football club can have on a community. Clavane has always seen football as an antidote to contemporary division and despair, despite the sometimes uncomfortable side-effects he has experienced following the club. The play is littered with historical references; if only the ‘na, na, na’s’ in Marching On Together could still be heard on the Kop today instead of the antiseptic clapping that has replaced them. And any project that can seamlessly and shamelessly shoehorn the ‘Leeds United Calypso’ song into its production is worthy of high acclaim.

But what if Leeds City had never succeeded in winning over the staunchly Rugby League public in 1904? And what if Don Revie had failed to notice that Leeds United were struggling to survive in a Rugby League city in 1961? These are questions asked by the production along with the moral dilemma posed of Nathan and Caitlin. Do you flee the Promised Land or, in the words of Revie himself, do you ‘Keep Fighting’ and refuse to run away?

So ‘Dirty Leeds’ may be deemed an insult by outsiders, but within the insular world of the city it has been reclaimed as a form of identity and pride, an acceptance of the city and the football club for what they are, and they are each stronger for it. Clavane, Stimson and the Red Ladder production team tell this story with knowledge, compassion and positivity; truly the ‘Promised Land’ delivered.


‘Promised Land: A Northern Love Story’ is being staged at the Carriageworks theatre in Leeds, from June 22nd to June 30th 2012


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