Jarrow March leader Red Ellen coming to stage and screen
Red Ellen tells the remarkable story of Ellen Wilkinson, once the town’s MP and a key figure in the Jarrow March.
The play by Caroline Bird comes to Northern Stage in Newcastle between March 25 and April 9. It also visits Nottingham, Edinburgh and York.
Wilkinson campaigned tirelessly for social change and things like free school meals. She was the only female minister in Clement Attlee’s government.
Despite her politics earning the nickname Red Ellen, Conservative wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill put her in sole charge of air raid shelters during the war.
She also campaigned for Britain to help fight Fascists in Spain, battled to save Jewish refugees in Nazi Germany and published some of the UK’s first anti-fascist literature. She was eventually banned from Germany.
She visited Gandhi in an Indian prison and also met the likes of Leon Trotsky, Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway. She had affairs with communist spies and government ministers before dying in 1947 aged just 55.
Wilkinson still looms large in Jarrow; literally. Two town centre tower blocks are called Ellen Court and Wilkinson Court. She even has a beer named after her. But the playwright feels that Wilkinson is otherwise overlooked.
Caroline Bird said: “Ellen was a complex person by anyone’s standards and she never stopped. But despite her herculean efforts, she is largely forgotten by history.
“The irony, of course, about ‘forgotten women of history’ is invariably the facts of their lives turn out to be acutely memorable: they’re not forgotten because they’re forgettable.
“She failed at so many things and yet she was a total, stonking, miraculous, life-affirming, bloody wonderful triumph. A bright and particular star.
“I hope that some of Ellen’s light can still reach us all the way down here and that this play might reignite a spark or two.”
Ellen Wilkinson has also made the small screen recently. Inside Culture With Marty Beard was due to be broadcast on BBC2 at 7.30pm on Friday, February 25 and is available on the BBC iPlayer. The programme features a sneak preview of a production of Red Ellen.
For more details on the play including ticketing, visit the Northern Stage website.