Peake reaches sporting heights by going for a Burton

RANDALL NORTHAM traded in his sports writer’s sheepskin for a pair of critics’ theatre glasses to see a leading actress’s tribute drama to one of this country’s finest sportswomen

My adopted county of Yorkshire is awash with yellow ahead of today’s Grand Depart of the Tour de France.

There are yellow bikes everywhere and the statue of the Black Prince in Leeds’s City Square is wearing a yellow jersey, as are the nymphs which surround him, which caused the city council some consternation as they didn’t realise they were… well, quite so well endowed.

The life - and love - story of Beryl Burton inspired Maxine Peake to adapt it for radio and the stage
The life – and love – story of Beryl Burton inspired Maxine Peake to adapt it for radio and the stage

One of the farmers in the Dales has painted some of his sheep yellow, some with red polka dots and some green. Bicycle fever is everywhere.

And part of that is a production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds of Maxine Peake’s Beryl, which celebrates the life of Yorkshire’s, and arguably Britain’s, greatest sportswoman, Morley-born cyclist Beryl Burton.

I’m not fond of sport being translated into film, theatre or literature. I know Camus was a goalkeeper but he didn’t write about football and for all the good, such as This Sporting Life, there’s 10 terrible adaptations, like Escape to Victory – which was very funny but wasn’t supposed to be – and The Games, in which Michael Crawford and Charles Aznavour stretched the audience’s credulity beyond breaking point by playing the roles of marathon runners who appeared to be somewhat like, respectively, Jim Peters and Emile Zatopek.

So I was wondering whether I would sit in the WYP’s Courtyard Theatre and cringe. I didn’t, even though it sometimes became very simplistic as the four actors explained patiently some cycling terms.

And, not being a theatre critic, I decided to approach the play as a sportswriter. By the end I was immensely impressed by Penny Layden, the actress who played the pasrt of the adult Beryl. She’s slim, so she’s the right shape to play an international cyclist, but she’s in her forties and she has to a great deal of fast-paced pedalling on a stationery bike. She must be knackered by the end of the performance.

Burton’s life is well known to most people with an interest in sport. She suffered from rheumatic fever as a child which gave her an irregular heartbeat and she was told to avoid strenuous exercise. When she was pregnant with daughter Denise (played by Chelsea Halfpenny, now there’s a sporting name if ever there was one), she was told that if she had to cycle, then she should walk up hills.

There’s a lot of “‘Ee bah gum” Yorkshireness in the production – it’s tough up here tha’ knows – but it’s not entirely sentimental. Burton had to work on a rhubarb farm to earn enough money to cycle to events – they had no car then; and as Denise points out ruefully, they had no TV or phone either. Must have been difficult to get quotes.

When Beryl is beaten by the then teenaged Denise in the British road race championship in the mid-1970s, she refuses to shake her outstretched hand. The reason? Denise had not done her share of work in a breakaway. Beryl wouldn’t let Denise ride back in the car, and made her cycle home.

The play includes the famous offer of a liquorice all-sort when she passed Mike McNamara in a 12-hour time-trial. McNamara set a British men’s record that day in 1967. Beryl beat his time with a record that still stands. Mike took the sweet.

Beryl Burton in typically race-winning form in 1967, the year she was named as the SWA Sportswoman of the Year
Beryl Burton in typically race-winning form in 1967, the year she was named as the SWA Sportswoman of the Year

And there is a moment which points out the huge distance women’s cycling has come – it didn’t get into the Olympics until 1984 – since those pre-Dave Brailsford days when Beryl had to hitch a lift with a lorry driver in Leeds after arriving back from winning a world championship gold medal. “Never heard of you, I’m more an athletics man myself,” says the lorry driver.

But when Beryl and husband Charlie are looking for somewhere to stay in Berlin after missing the evening train to the world championships in Leipzig, they go to a police station and the officer on duty asks “Are you Beryl Burton, the Yorkshire Housefrau?”

These days Victoria Pendleton is on Strictly Come Dancing and the whole nation knows who she is.

Beryl died in 1996, while out on her bike delivering invitations for her 59th birthday party.

At the end of the play – and I don’t think I’m giving anything away – the actors recite the awards she won. The SJA gets a mention, or rather the Sports Writers’ Association as it was then, because she was voted our Sportswoman of the Year in 1967.

Then, they lay out on stage all the trophies and cups that Burton won, and you are left to wonder why the SWA didn’t recognise her more often. There were five world track titles, three silvers and three bronzes; she was twice world road race champion, also winning a silver. She was the British all-round champion 25 years in a row, winning 72 British national time trials. Astonishing.


Tue Jul 22: SJA/BT Sport Glasgow media reception: booking details here

Mon Sep 15: SJA Autumn Golf Day, Muswell Hill GC – Book your place now. Non-members very welcome

Thu Dec 11: SJA British Sports Awards, sponsored by The National Lottery, at the Grand Connaught Rooms