During the Great War, 116 young men who had attended Blackburn Orphanage in Lancashire, went to war to fight for their King and their Country. 10 of them never returned.
One of them was only recorded by his name, William North ... the forgotten orphan.
‘The King’s Orphan’ tells the story of the life of an unknown - or rather, creates for him a life, an opportunity to be remembered.
It is not a factual account but gives a glimpse of lives through the cracks in history; an orphan who died for King and Country and who through theatre, is given a chance to take his place in history.
This is one of many stories of how a generation of ordinary men did an extraordinary thing.
But this story illustrates how some men went to war to fight for something bigger – to fight for a family they did not know and for the families of men they could never know. And in this case, with a set of values, self-respect, dignity and desire for a better life and a better world which all came from one couple; a man and wife that popular history fights to forget: the orphanage founder James Dixon and his wife, Jane.
Their Boys may have been orphans.
Their Boys may have given their lives for their King.
But they did so having been given a special gift from special people.
(Graphic from an original artwork by Steve Crowther)
Background ... in other words, where did it all come from?
The one thing a writer is always asked is “Where did the idea come from?”
I’ve always been fascinated in history. That was given a new dimension when I fell into writing; then exploring history as a writer and finding opportunities to create a story within history (which is an approach I enjoy most of all) but being sensitive to protecting the facts and the historic figures, even though the storyline and some of the characters are fiction.
And it was with this approach I can honestly say I stumbled into what became this play.
In 2013, a background in working with charities saw me appointed to the Board of Child Action North West as a Trustee.
Having had a break from being hands-on with a charity, CANW ticked all the boxes of what I was seeking to become involved with but with no idea of its history, its heritage.
I can remember attending my first Board meeting and being told that a book had recently been published about the history of the charity and its origins as Blackburn Orphanage.
I have to be honest that I paid my £10 for a copy purely out of a sense of obligation well believing that I would never crack the cover of it or read a word.
Some months past and the charity had decided that they would create a memorial for the orphans who served during the Great War. It was to be located in the grounds of CANW and comprised two rows of trees representing each of the fallen and a large stone inscribed with their names. A service was held locally, following which the guests walked the short distance back to CANW and I guess it wasn't just me who had a keen sense of history and remembrance with the commemorative garden being within the grounds of the old orphanage.
When it was unveiled, I vividly recall listening to a young vocalist singing ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ during the ceremony whilst men dressed in world war one uniforms formed a guard of honour. It was during the service that the book and the history nagged me to revisit them; there was a fascinating piece of history here, a resonance, but was there a piece of theatre?
All too often, I have found (and this is just me – other writers probably never struggle with it!) that the difficulty is homing in on the tiny bit of history which IS a viable story, that will make for theatrical storytelling. History by its very nature provides an overabundance of material and because of that it can dilute, even drown the aspect which makes a story – and a story which needed to provide fascinating and engaging characters. Could the factual nature of what happened and the lives involved be interesting enough? Looking back on that final sentiment and then going on the journey of discovery about James and Jane Dixon, these heavyweights forgotten by popular history, I realise now how naïve and disingenuous I had been.
I guess I was still trying to convince myself that the project would be worth it when, at the reception following the unveiling, I was by chance introduced to Melanie Warren, the author of the book. Whilst we chatted, it became clear that if there was a piece of theatre to be found in the history of Blackburn Orphanage, it was not in dramatizing someone else’s story, but moreover, it being the catalyst for a new one, a new journey.
We exchanged details and I promised myself I would read the book … but I still didn’t.
It took guilt the following year and a trip to Majorca to confine myself to a chair in the sun and read it.
As I absorbed the book, I made copious notes and cross-referenced local and international history, but I was struggling. After a week of doing more work than I would have done if I had actually been at work, I found I was writing an essay but not progressing a piece of theatre. I figured the problem was finding that fragment of history which would bring the Dixons to life; more importantly, bring what they stood for to life.
The end of the holiday was approaching and I persevered and in chapter twelve of this thirteen chapter book, it suddenly stood out, glaringly obvious. 116 ‘old boys’ had gone to war and 10 had not come back, one of whom was a young man only known by his name William North. And the second to the last paragraph sealed the purpose of the piece with the last line: “Poignantly, the archives give us no further detail about his death, but like the rest, he would never be forgotten.” But the point was, he had been. His story never got a chance to be told, to be heard.I then scribbled on the empty space beneath it “…then why not give him a voice.”
And that was the purpose of the story, of a piece of theatre: to give a life to the orphan and solider that history had forgotten; to give him, through theatre, the opportunity to be remembered.
Like all writers, what felt like an eternity of no progress just took off as the theme of remembrance became the focus.
I should add at this stage that my style of writing is that I seem incapable of following a plan! Creating a storyboard and character descriptions bore me senseless. I want to hear them speak, not plan their lives on paper. My approach is that the characters and the story evolve; the characters tell their own story and (hopefully) the dialogue and events feel natural, spontaneous, like they did happen and are unfolding for the first time before each subsequent audience. It is random, haphazard, totally inefficient, horrendously time consuming, but I get there in the end.
And my work is not measured by how long an act is, how many pages are written. It is done when the characters have finished telling their own story.
I also need to know within my self-created confusion how a story starts and how it ends before I really know the story. I then figure out a halfway mark to provide a destination and launchpad for the final sequences. And amidst all that, random ideas, facts, quotes, arguments, relationships are all noted, illustrations of the people, the characters which might be relevant, but again, might not are all noted down. It evolves.
And so was the case with this play, but still within it all I was acutely sensitive to the fact that I wanted the words of the Dixons and their values, ideals to be untouched - especially the clear sense of love, devotion and respect that their 'children' had for them both and shouted out from the orphanage records. So I created for William a life, a back story that history had not cared to record and a relationship which I hoped would feel real, credible and add value to him and the narrative. He was real, but the journey I created for him was not. But it had to be true to the journey that a countless number of men had been on and that this story should represent.
It easily became, without effort, a 'four-hander' play and I was desperate for it not to require any formal set. This was about people and relationships. It didn’t need a fancy setting or physical structures on stage to dress it. It just needed an honest representation of honest people, a platform to, not so much retell history, but look through the cracks in history to see what could have, what should have been set against what did happen. But no matter what, being true to the time and true to the facts where they were known - and true to the Dixons.
The hardest thing for a writer to produce is a synopsis. In a couple of paragraphs, you need to capture, not just the essence of the piece, but the essence of the people, the time. At the end of the day, a synopsis is a pitch, a hook to make the reader think “Really? Tell me more, convince me. Make me want to perform this, to see this on stage”
Having started and got the bones of it down, I got the chance early on to meet with Melanie again and let her read my synopsis and the (very early draft) first scene. She was very quiet as she read it but her feedback and enthusiasm convinced me that the approach was the right one. The story had touched her and that was the test it needed to pass.
I was adamant that this was not a piece to be rushed, so I scrutinised and at times, moralised over every single word and suggestion for two years before I finally felt it was ready for a stage and an audience. Moreover, that the characters had written their story, their history.
Have I done the Dixons and their legacy justice? I hope so. But as I have said so many times, when you buy a theatre ticket, you buy the right to an opinion, so the audience will be the final adjudicators.
The last thing was the title and it could only ever be ‘The King’s Orphan.’ That is who and what William was and how I felt he and so many others, might respectfully be remembered.
The last bit of the ‘fate puzzle’ was deciding that I wanted an original piece of art producing which would capture the essence of the story and be the principle graphic for the production publicity. I went back to a good friend, the artist Steve Crowther and simply gave him the synopsis and nothing more. What he eventually came up with was inspired. With nothing more than the synopsis and my ramblings in a 'phone call, he captured the spirit of the piece and all that it represented and completed the journey of the story; put simply, he gave it a soul.
I hope those who watch it will feel the same as I do about it. I hope that they will be touched by James and Jane Dixon and that they will appreciate the essence of the piece, the essence of William and his contemporaries: that everybody is somebody and deserves to be remembered.
Martin Paul Roche (2018)