Act I

Act II

From the Newcastle Playhouse production, 1983. Provided for posterity with agreement of Eric's Estate. Please see homepage for more details.

The story of the show

Tyne Dock born Dame Catherine Cookson was one of the most prolific and loved popular novelists of the 20th century. Her 104 stories are usually set in the region, often in the 19th or earlier 20th century, and typically feature the struggle of a feisty young female of low birth, illegitimacy or other disadvantages against apparently insurmountable situations. Common Cookson themes are extremeties of class divide, awful working conditions, prejudice to outsiders, rapid fortune reversal and especially that even the heroines, like Katie, are never entirely 'good'.

Many of the themes were drawn from Cookson's own long life which included domestic servitude and, like Katie's, spanned nearly a century. Indeed this is one of Cookson's longest novels, as well as being one of the earliest and the one Cookson apparently most hoped to see filmed. It never was (though many of her other novels have been, and some made into straight plays). However this is the only one, as far as we know, to have been adapted into a stage musical, and that adaptation premiered appropriately enough in Newcastle in 1983, music and lyrics by Eric.

Cookson, as well as selling over 100 million copies of her novels in her lifetime making her Britain's most popular novelist, was the most-borrowed author in the country's public libraries until very recently. And it was Eric's wife Lena's borrowing Katie Mulholland from Sunderland Central Library that led to the whole project.

The early 1980s were halcyon times for UK arts subsidy. Tyne & Wear County Council, the Arts Council of Great Britain and Northern Arts together sponsored a cultural Newcastle Festival every autumn (this Festival also being responsible for the 1970s Geordierama shows - see elsewhere on the website). As 1983's Festival was being planned the County Council decided they wanted a theatrical centrepiece and commissioned Eric and BBC producer Roger Burgess to write a locally-themed musical. As Eric pondered what they would write about, Lena mentioned the novel she was reading. It was the first time she'd read a Cookson, having wrongly supposed her a Barbara Cartland-esque sentimentalist, but had been impressed at the clever complexity of 'Katie' and surprised at how dark the story was.

Is she just a girl from a book?

Cookson's 1966 novel is fairly epic, spanning 85 years of multi-generational hatred and revenge between two families, the poor Mulhollands of Jarrow and the aristocratic mine-owning Rosiers, their histories destined to be forever intertwined. Opening in the 1860s as mining declined and shipbuilding thrived along the banks of the Tyne, Katie is an improbably cheerful scullery maid for the Rosiers when the inevitable evil son forcibly deflowers and impregnates her. Themes include stigma of illegitimacy, homoerotic attraction, accidental incest, terrible working conditions and the Chartist movement, religious hypocrisy, prostitution and the hostility towards immigrants, however kindly they may be. Similar to Cookson's own life, Katie Mulholland is the story of a strong woman with lowly prospects breaking free of a patriarchal society to make her fortune. "This might make a good musical," Lena told Eric, "though it's very complicated".

(Photo: Catherine Cookson, apparently returning from another honorary degree ceremony, shares a Metro car with some friends - part of a 1996 mural of local celebrities by Robert Olley at Monument Station, Newcastle)

Eric and Roger made a nerve-wracking visit to the then 77-year-old Cookson's Corbridge home to obtain permission to adapt her story. It wasn't the first time this had happened (her 'Mallen' books had already been televised) but it was the first staging of any type. And the most difficult task was to cut 750 pages down to two hours of stage time. Indeed the relationship structure in the novel is so complicated (adopted babies with new identities, characters with identical names, progeny of incest, that sort of thing) a five-generation family tree had to be painstakingly drawn to try and unravel it all. Indeed one of the first songs Eric wrote was 'The Genealogy Song', to be sung near the end by the newly acquainted female Mulholland and male Rosier descendants as they tried to fathom how exactly they were related to each other. This inevitably Gilbertian patter song was sadly cut even before the Demo Tape recording (see below) and as such is unfortunately probably lost.

Nothing's the same any more

Plenty of artistic licence was inevitably be taken. Numerous characters had to go, including quite major ones, such as Theresa Rosier and the sub-plot of her lifelong homoerotic attraction to Katie. Perhaps this was regarded too progressive for a 1983 musical, though Cookson had not thought it too progressive for her 1966 novel, and one hopes if Katie Mulholland were re-adapted this character would not be excised. In any event, the libretto (in the first version) concentrated on the start and end of the novel, with the ending changed entirely in the interests of simplicity. Roger's script was in the style of the BBC's Sunday teatime classic novel serialisations popular at the time, and Eric had written 17 new songs, including some of his most musically complex work. He'd also expanded his existing song about the Newcastle Hoppings Fair, 'Jenny Was There', into a three-part musical fairground sequence, to open the second act, the names fortuitously having the same number of syllables. From that point the song became 'Katie Was There' even outside of the musical.

However the initial libretto of Katie Mulholland, though earnest and erudite was not particularly entertaining and certainly not very funny. Though it was, in that aspect, true to the novel, what was being created was a hopefully popular stage musical, and it was short of crowd pleasing moments. This was the view of Cookson's agents on being presented with it, and they asked for a rewrite. Though this came much to everyone's surprise and created a great deal of anguish, what they said in hindsight is perfectly understandable - a musical is a different creature from a novel, even if this meant taking the story even further from Cookson's original plot.

(Photo: A 2011 view of what is now Stage One but is little changed since 1983. During the musical the proscenium was narrowed to allow full width sets to be brought in from the wings on mechanical trucks, often complete with actors. The orchestra was on a high platform roughly where the two top left speakers are hanging. © Tao Pang/Northern Architecture)

It was at this point that Ken Hill, director of the Playhouse's then resident Tyne Wear Theatre Company, was brought in. The Playhouse was already booked as the venue but Hill also had a reputation for making popular theatre. He'd started his career at Joan Littlewood's Brechtian Theatre Royal Stratford East, the archetype working people's theatre, where his 1976 musicalisation of an obscure Victorian short story called The Phantom Of The Opera had been a success (and had, so the story goes, inspired a Mr Andrew Lloyd-Webber watching in the audience to have a go at writing his own version).

The days are coming

Ken and Eric started from scratch and worked together to write a 'book' musical, Eric's songs now being seamlessly integrated into the action with their lyrics advancing the story, rather than the work being a play with songs added, which the first version is better described as. Only five of Eric's songs made the transition to the final work: the superlative 'Wait For Me', Katie's lullaby 'Ah You Ah' (retitled 'Aye You Aye'), 'Katie Was There' (truncated from three sections back to one so that it again resembled 'Jenny Was There' in all but name), 'I've Seen You Somewhere Before' and the finale 'What Became Of Yesterday', though all of them were altered to some degree. Eric also pulled a few lyrics from 'Someone's In Love With Me' into the new 'Katie's In Love' and expanded a barely noticeable incidental motif from the demo into what became the main recurring 'Katie Mulholland's The Name' refrain.

Meanwhile Ken's script lightened characters and events considerably in the interests of entertainment. Both Bunting, the hated keeker (coal measurer) of the colliery and Kennard the butler became more or less comic turns with a vaudevillian song for Bunting 'I've Got To Propose'. Katie's brother and sister-in-law, who have little role in the novel, became a kind of Greek Chorus commenting on the action in song through the generations from the side of the stage. The intros to Eric's songs now began subtly under dialogue so characters began to sing with some semblance of naturalism. Eric also brought in a number where a group of American GIs arrive at Newcastle Central Station (hence the clock, top) and sing a comic song about the attractions of the 'Blushing English Rose', mainly to indicate time has shifted from 1880 to 1944, and a song in which a street evangelist Holy Joe encourages Jarrow's prostitutes to 'Repent'. Needless to say none of these events happen in Cookson's novel (nor for that matter does anyone go to, or even refer to, the Newcastle Fair!)

(Photo: The Playhouse in 1995 and as it was at the time of the production. Newcastle University's King's Gate building now occupies this car park and the theatre foyer now faces the Students' Union instead. © Newcastle City Libraries)

Back at the theatre a complicated mechanical set had been conceived and the carpenters must have looked aghast at the designs. Indeed an entire new stage was built on top of the permanent one, split into five strips, two of which, twice the proscenium width, could be trucked sideways using industrial winches to bring entire sets and actors in from the wings (and in time to the music) facilitating rapid scene transitions. With all this machinery there was no room for the nine musicians on stage, several of whom played several instruments, so a high level platform was constructed for them just out of sight. It seems incredible now that a publicly funded festival could employ not only these musicians but more than twenty actors, including for a month's rehearsal time, and build such an elaborate set, but such was the healthy state of UK arts in 1983. There were one unrealised setpiece however: the intent to open the second act with a representation of Newcastle Fair was replaced by Captain Fraenkel's reminiscing about it on an empty stage with some moody reminiscing lighting. However the exterior of the Rosier's mansion was constructed (in fact twice, as it appears in a state of ruin in the second act) and the problem of representing a colliery solved by borrowing a real pit wagon from Beamish Open Air Museum and bringing it up to Newcastle, somehow. The show was cast mostly with local actors (the dialogue being strong Tyneside all round, apart from the heroic Swedish sea captain) and, as not all of them had sung onstage before, some vigorous vocal coaching took place. An appropriate buzz built in the local media. Despite her increasing ill health Cookson and husband Tom attended the opening night and tickets for the five week residency quickly sold out. Though the run could not be extended due to the Playhouse's planned Autumn season there were prolonged negotiations for a London transfer. In the end these failed but only apparently because "tourists wouldn't understand the Geordie accents"...

Is it all over now?

Eric wrote about 30 songs for the two versions of Katie Mulholland, perhaps a fifth of his work. He is known to have preferred the first which is musically the more complex and lyrically darker - you can find audio of six of his demos further down the page.

The musical as staged is simpler and funnier - no doubt the reason for the rewrite being commercial, but students of music would find more to discuss in the originals. The only barrier to any revival of the production (though it's a major one) is the lack of Ken Hill's 'book' to the show. Neither Ken's Estate or the publishers of other musicals he was involved in have been able to shed any light on its whereabouts - if anyone has a copy or photos, press reviews etc) we'd love to know.

Katie Was There & Wait For Me

Richard Owens as Swedish sea captain Fraenkel who rescues Katie. In combination with the twelve tracks on Soundcloud all of the 1983 audio is now online apart from the brief overture, based on the song Never Like This, of which there seems to be no recording.

The novel

Catherine Cookson's 'Katie Mulholland' is published by Corgi (Amazon UK/US). It's neither a quick nor passive read due to the large number of characters (far more than in the musical) and frequent time jumps but is totally recommended. There are plenty of references to real locations in Jarrow, Westoe and Shields and a way of life which despite being relatively recently seems astonishingly alien now. There's been very little academic study of Cookson as yet which seems sad as her works seem as important to the north east as say Thomas Hardy's to the west country. While it's true Cookson has her share of stock characters and stock situations this is part of the fun. When will the mysterious foreigner arrive? When will the reading of the will reveal a nasty U-turn to the family's fortunes? When will the heroine be drawn back to the north east as if by elastic despite her struggle to get away in the first place? Cookson has no competition in conveying the social history of the north in the 19th and early 20th century and it's a shame that outside of the odd Metro station mural with her in a silly hat and the rather bland 'Cookson Way' in South Shields there's very little online about someone who sold such a huge number of books.

                                                              "I got nothing, nothing is what I have got
                                                              I got nothing, nothing, that's about my lot
                                                              Just a little nobody, but just you wait and see
                                                              For nothing's good enough, good enough, good enough
                                                              Good enough, for me!

                                                              (Katie, I Got Nothing)

Musical numbers - original score/demo tapes


Overture (I've Arrived)

Katie - Company
I Got Nothing - Katie

Not For The Likes Of You - Company
You And Me Now - Bernard
The Days Are Coming - Chorus of Miners

You Can't Help Liking Me - Bunting
Wait For Me - Fraenkel
Ah You Ah - Katie

We Need The Money - Chorus of Prostitutes
Someone's In Love With Me - Katie

I've Arrived (Finale Act One) - Katie/Bernard


Come Along Roll Up/Katie Was There - Fairground Callers/Fraenkel
Nothing's The Same Anymore - Katie/Kennard/Bernard
Hang Him High - Company
I've Seen You Somewhere Before - Daniel
I Want Katie - Daniel
Take Her - Company
What Became of Yesterday - Fraenkel/Company

Musical numbers - as staged


Overture (Never Like This)
What's A Woman For** - Katie
I've Got To Propose** - Bunting
Katie Mulholland** - Agnes/George
Aye You Aye** - Katie
We've Got Everything** - Company
Take It Easy/The Ballad of Holy Joe** - Chorus of Prostitutes/Holy Joe
Katie's In Love** - Katie/Fraenkel
Katie Mulholland (Reprise) - Agnes/George
Wait For Me* - Fraenkel/Katie
I Will Not Lose You Now** - Bernard/Company

*Available on DMLD YouTube
**Available on DMLD Soundcloud


Katie Was There - Fraenkel
Never Like This - Bernard/Katie
Katie's In Love (Reprise) - Katie
A Blushing English Rose - Chorus of GIs
I've Seen You Somewhere Before - Daniel/Bridget
What Became Of Yesterday/Katie Mulholland (Reprise) - Fraenkel/Company

Notes: 'Wait For Me' and 'Ah You Ah'/'Aye You Aye' appear in both versions but have different lyrics. 'What Became Of Yesterday' has melodic differences between versions. The songs 'Katie' and 'Take Her' in Version I share a melody.

Original cast, Newcastle Playhouse 29 Sep - 29 Oct 1983

All the cast doubled up, Katie and Bernard Rosier being their own great-grand-niece and great-grandson (or thereabouts).

Katie Mulholland/Bridget Conway - Prue Clarke
Bernard Rosier/Daniel Rosier The Third - Stephan Chase
Captain Fraenkel - Richard Owens
Old Mulholland/Barrister/Police Officer/etc - Rod Culbertson
Bunting/Prison Governor/Old Tom/etc - Gavin Muir
Folksinger/Nils/Father/etc - Brendan Healey
Agnes Rosier/Mrs Robson/Innkeeper's Wife/WAAF/etc - Wendy Pollock
George Rosier/Holy Joe/Porter/Man on Bike/etc - Alan Hockey
Housekeeper/Ann Chapman/Sally/Rosie - Tracie Elizabeth Gilman
Bagley/Attendant/Dealer - Eddie Angel
Joe/etc - Billy Fellows
Talford/Innkeeper/etc - Ron Emslie
Innkeeper/etc - David Eynon
& supporting company

Settings by Robert Jones
Lighting by Gerry Jenkinson
Directed by Ken Hill

Cast information from 'British Musical Theatre Volume 2', Ed. Kurt Ganzl © Oxford University Press 1986
Lyrics to 'I Got Nothing' © Estate of Eric Boswell 1983
Poster image © TyneWear Theatre Company 1983
Backstage at Northern Stage (top) - the clock used in the Newcastle railway station set (and perhaps in other shows over the years) © Tao Pang/Northern Architecture 2011