Nick Darke born Nicholas Temperley Watson Darke (29 August 1948 – 10 June 2005) was an Cornish playwright and writer, poet, lobster fisherman, environmentalist, beachcomber, politician, broadcaster, film-maker and chairman of St Eval Parish Council.
Life and writings
Nick Darke was born in Bodmin in Cornwall and lived most of his life in Porthcothan where his family have lived for four generations after moving there from Padstow. His grandfather was a sea-captain who spent his life at sea and was wrecked twice at the Cape of Good Hope. His father T. O. Darke, was a chicken farmer, fisherman and a distinguished ornithologist . His mother was the actress Betty Cowan. He was educated at St Merryn Primary School and Truro Cathedral School, from where he was expelled for getting drunk on sports day. He then attended Newquay Grammar School and subsequently trained as an actor at the Rose Bruford College in Kent. After making his professional début in repertory at the Lyric, Belfast, he went on to learn his craft at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, England, where he acted in over eighty plays and directed Man Is Man, The Miser, Absurd Person Singular, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and A Cuckoo in the Nest, 1977–79. At Stoke he wrote his first full-length play, Never Say Rabbit in a Boat in 1977. He gave up acting to write full-time in 1978. Over the next twenty-eight years, he wrote twenty-seven plays which have been performed in theatres all over the world (eight for The Royal Shakespeare Company and two for The National Theatre). He also wrote for radio, television and film.
Many of his plays reflect Cornish society and culture such as the tin mining, countryside, fishermen and the quirky nature of country living. During the later part of his career he worked regularly with the theatre company Kneehigh Theatre. One of his last works, the documentary The Wrecking Season (2004) which he wrote and narrated, charts the lives of Cornish beachcombers, of which he himself was one having moved permanently back home to Porthcothan in 1990. He married the painter Jane Spurway in 1993 and is the father of film-maker Henry and stepfather of Jim, a marine scientist. He was made a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1996 taking the Bardic name Scryfer Gwaryow (‘Writer of Plays’).
While recovering from a stroke that he suffered in January 2001, Nick Darke was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died, aged 56, in June 2005. A unique beach funeral ceremony was followed by burial in St Eval churchyard. His son Henry and wife Jane Darke continued his legacy in film. The Art of Catching Lobsters, written and directed by Jane Darke, is a moving account of her husband’s death and the grieving process. Premiered on BBC Four on 27 September 2007 it was subsequently shown at the 2007 Cornwall Film Festival A film version of his first play Never Say Rabbit in a Boat is in pre-production and will be made by APT Films. His son Henry Darke has made a film version of Danger My Ally.
In 2009 the Cornwall Youth Theatre Company began Darke Visions, an eighteen-month festival running from Spring 2009 to Summer 2010 celebrating the life and work of Cornwall’s foremost playwright, with the performance of Hells’ Mouth (directed by Harry and Theresa Forbes-Pearce); The Body (directed by Tom Faulkner); and Ting Tang Mine (directed by Rory Wilton and Emma Spurgin Hussey). These plays went on tour in Cornwall during March/April 2009. In 2011 the theatre group o-region toured small-scale venues with a new show One Darke Night which also celebrated Nick Darke’s rich legacy. Combining specially commissioned film (featuring Nick’s son, Henry) and a small cast of players, the play fused extracts from lesser-known works with firm audience favourites such as The King of Prussia and extracts from Nick’s other writings. Compiled by Simon Harvey who had worked with Nick on the production of his final play Laughing Gas in 2006, the production provided fresh insight into the remarkable range and diversity of Nick’s catalogue of work.
Nick Darke’s literary voice is very distinctive and although many of his characters, plots and settings are rooted in the Cornish past, his themes are often of relevance to the Cornwall of today. As one of his earliest reviews, in The Financial Times stated: “Darke gives shape to a Cornish idenitity that feels vital and real and has nothing to do with clay pipes and clotted cream”. Although he made a vital contribution to the culture of Cornwall in the last quarter of the 20th century, he himself claimed only that his greatest achievement (and that of his wife Jane) was convincing North Cornwall District Council not to mechanically rake the beaches in their area that was damaging the natural eco-structure
The Nick Darke Award
The Nick Darke Award has been developed by Nick Darke’s widow, with the support of Nick Darke’s family and Falmouth University. Funded by the university, the annual award is a financial prize aimed at writers, giving them time to write, and offer some support through the writing process. Submissions can be in any of the genres that Nick Darke himself excelled – stage, screen or radio. See the official Nick Darke website for details.
- Mother Goose (1977; Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent) – pantomime
- Never Say Rabbit in a Boat (1977; Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent) – his first full-length play, set in Cornwall about an ageing rabbit catcher and a beach seine net company. Hellyar Jan is also a fisherman, smuggler and born liar. The action takes place on the beach of a small bay in North Conrwall and in Hellyar’s old house on the cliff above.
- Low tide (1977; Plymouth Theatre Company) – about tourism set on a beach.
- Sinbad the Sailor (1978; Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent) – pantomime
- Summer Trade (1979; Orchard Theatre) – takes place in a pub somewhere on the North Cornish coast the day after the ex-landlord’s last night. The new landlord has plans to modernise.
- Beauty and the Beast (1979; Orchard Theatre) – pantomime
- Landmarks (1979; Chester Gateway Theatre) – set in the thirties in rural England when horse met the tractor for the first and last time.
- A Tickle on the River’s Back (1979; Theatre Royal Stratford East) – set on the Thames about a family of lightermen and the decline of the industry on the river over the last 20 years.
- High Water (1980; Royal Shakespeare Company) – set on a beach early one morning. Two men meet to go wrecking and discover they are father and son.
- Say Your Prayers (1981; Joint Stock Theatre Company) – set in the time of the Roman Empire, and based on an interpretation of the teachings of St Paul. The play takes a wry look at Christianity as the ‘Born Again’ movement develops into a powerful right-wing lobby in the USA, while the established church in Britain is at its lowest ebb yet.
- The Catch (1981; for The Royal Court Theatre Upstairs) – two fishermen bedevilled by the European Economic Community cast their nets for a different kind of catch – cocaine.
- Cider with Rosie (1981) – growing up in the idyllic English countryside between the two world wars (based on the autobiography of Laurie Lee of the same name)
- The Lowestoff Man (1982; Orchard Theatre Company) – sequel to “The Catch”, a mysterious American arrives to claim his cocaine
- The Body (1983; Royal Shakespeare Company) – an eccentric West Country community contend with the presence of an American airforce base. “Under Milk Wood meets Dr Strangelove“, was one critical verdict. It was written during the cold war with the USSR when many were concerned about American nuclear weapons on British soil. Nick had a friend whose farm backed onto the St Mawgan Air Base. Every morning the farmer went to check his sheep while a US Marine followed his movements with a gun. In Nick’s research he learned how Marines were trained, broken down and rebuilt so they’d be effective fighting men. Nick said that The Body was a play about identity.
- The Earth Turned Inside Out (1984; community play for the Borough of Restormel, Cornwall) – the rivalries of two Cornish mining communities set in 1815 at a time when the Cornish copper mining industry was healthy but prone to market forces.
- Bud (1985; Royal Shakespeare Company) – fifty-year-old Bud has spent twenty years without rancour or spite working his wife’s farm but his peaceful existence comes to an abrupt halt when a misjudgement forces him to question his motivation and examine the ‘acid drop scorchin holes in the startched napkin of our marriage’.
- The Oven Glove Murders (1986, The Bush Theatre, London) – described by one critic as “an acerbic response to the British cinema revival led by Chariots of Fire“, the play is a writer’s experience of the film industry. A playwright has a screenplay set in The Greenham Common peace camp given the Hollywood treatment by a young producer; a similar premise is the basis of the film The Strike by The Comic Strip team two years later.
- The Dead Monkey (1986; Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Pit) – a childless Californian couple sit down to a candlelit supper to commemorate the death of their fifteen-year-old pet. The party sours after a series of discomforting revelations. Nick Darke’s best known play, The Dead Monkey has been staged many times around the world, including a major USA revival featuring David Soul and in Germany in translation as Der tote Affe.
- Ting Tang Mine (1987; for The National Theatre) – reworking of the community play “The Earth Turned Inside Out”: the fate of two competing mining communities used as a parable for Thatcher’s Britain.
- A Place Called Mars (1988; community play for Thornbury, South Gloucestershire). The play is set on a haunted marshland.
- Kissing The Pope (1989; Royal Shakespeare Company) – originally known as Campesinos, this is Nick Darke’s play for Nicaragua. Set in revolutionary South America, its main themes are about becoming a man in a violent world and about having to decide why to kill before you know why to live. As part of his research, Nick travelled to Nicaragua during the war and wrote a moving diary of his experiences that was published with the play text by Nick Hearn Books – see Published Works.
- Fears and Miseries of the Third Term – part contributor (1989, Young Vic Studio).
- Hell’s Mouth (1992; Royal Shakespeare Company) – story after Sophocles, set in post-apocalyptic dystopia with Cornish nationalists fighting for independence from England.
- Danger My Ally (1993; Kneehigh Theatre) – is about what happens to two eco-warriors when they are caught trying to blow up an open-cast mine. (The title is taken from the autobiography of F.A. “Mike” Mitchell-Hedges, the English adventurer and traveller who was the real Indiana Jones of his day.)
- The Bogus (also known as Quoit) (1994; Kneehigh Theatre) – billed as a pan-Atlantic tragi-comedy of murder, corruption and nuptials. When an assassin’s bullet lands Arthur May, President-Elect of the USA, six feet under, John Sty dons his persona and leaves Springville, Utah, on a one-way ticket to the village of Quoit in Cornwall.
- Knock Out The Pin (1994; Cornwall Youth Theatre Company) – about Newquay
- The King of Prussia (1996; for Plymouth Theatre Royal/Kneehigh Theatre) – based on the life and times of 18th century Cornish smuggler, John Carter of Prussia Cove, West Cornwall. Nick saw this as a play about looking after your community – the opposite of what he felt was happening in Cornwall and the rest of Britain in the 1990s. He felt the Thatcherite Free Market economy expoused in the 1980s was breaking up industry everywhere and leaving communities vulnerable.
- The Man with Green Hair (1997; Bristol Old Vic) – drew its inspiration from the Camelford water pollution incident of 1988. A water company somewhere in Cornwall has had a slight mix-up with its chemicals and poisoned the water supply. The mustard-keen pollution control officers want to expose the dirty dealings, the water company and the government want to cover it up. The local community side with the water company, for fear of destroying the lucrative tourist trade.
- The Riot (2000; for Kneehigh production at the National Theatre) – set in the fishing village of Newlyn in 1896, about the so-called “Sabbath riots”, when the devout Cornish fisherman whose Methodist beliefs forbade them to fish on Sundays demonstrated violently against the Sunday fishing fleet from Lowestoft.
- Laughing Gas (2005; o-region) a comedy about the life of Sir Humphry Davy unfinished at the time of Nick Darke’s death; completed posthumously by Cornish actor and playwright Carl Grose and produced by the Truro-based production company o-region.
- One Darke Night (2011; o-region) – a compendium of extracts from Nick Darke’s plays spanning nearly thirty years of his writing career, together with film commentary and extracts from his other writings; intended for simple staging with a small number of performers, emphasis on the words.
Television and films
- Dancers (a dance therapy programme, TV, 1982)
- Farmers Arms (BBC1 ‘Play for Today’, 1983)
- The Bench (TV, 1999)
- Breaking the Chains (film, 2000) Writer: John Angarrack, Director/producer: Nick Darke. Cornish historian John Angarrack talks to Nick Darke about Cornish cultural suppression and the way forward.
- The Cornish Farmer (film, 2004) Writer: Nick Darke, Directors: Nick Darke/Mark Jenkin, Producer: Jane Darke. Nick Darke talks to his old friend, Warwick Cowling, about threshing and other farm practices. The film uses 8 mm archive film shot by Nick’s father in the 1960s in St Eval.
- The Wrecking Season (film, 2004; commissioned by the Arts Council and directed by his wife, Jane Darke, first broadcast on BBC4 22 July 2005) a film about beachcombing on the Cornish coast – available on DVD from Boatshed Films.
- The Art of Catching Lobsters (film, 2005; first broadcast on BBC4 27 September 2007), Nick and Jane’s second film was initially conceived as a film about Nick’s recovery from a stroke through such activities as beachcombing and lobster fishing. Nick was then diagnosed with terminal cancer and the film became a record of his attempts to pass on his knowledge and experience of lobster fishing and the ways of the sea to his son Henry, as well as a poignant documentary about love, loss and the grieving process—also available on DVD from Boatshed Films.
- Nick Darke also appeared in the Exmouth to Bristol episode of the TV series “Coast”
- Foggy Anniversary (1979)
- Summer Trade (1980)
- Landmarks (1981)
- Lifeboat (1981)
- The Catch (1983)
- So Long as Lobsters Swim the Sea (1997; Another Strand feature) – described as “An occasional series where those well-known in one field talk about another consuming interest in their lives. Nick Darke, author of many plays for radio, the National Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, is also a keen fisherman. He talks about his lobster pots and nets off Padstow.”
- Cider with Rosie (radio adaptation of Laurie Lee’s autobiography) (1998), in two episodes broadcast by BBC as “The Classic Serial”.
- Gone Fishing (1998)
- Bawcock’s Eve (1999) – a mystery story set in Mousehole, Cornwall.
- Flotsam & Jetsam (1999) – a family tale based in Porthnant Bay, Cornwall.
- The King of Prussia (1999) – set off the Cornish coast in 1789. A mad king, heavy taxes, and smugglers…and in the other direction, a country on the brink of revolution. Based on his play of the same name.
- Underground (feature on Cornish tin mining) (2000) – voices of miners and their families are woven into a text by Nick Darke and music by Jim Carey.
- In quest of Joseph Emidy (2000) – the amazing story of Joseph Antonio Emidy an African slave who eventually became a violinist in the Lisbon Orchestra, fought in the Napoleonic Wars, then settled in Falmouth and became a successful teacher and composer. Produced by Juliam May, with contributions from Richard McGrady (musical historian), Tunde Jegede (composer), Nancy Naro (slavery expert) and Emidy’s descendants.
- The Fisherman’s Tale (2000) – a group of travellers take shelter in a motorway service station from appalling weather. There is no radio or TV, so to keep each other entertained they each tell a story. Darke’s contribution to the “2000 tales” series “, written on the 600th anniversary of Chaucer’s death. The (verse) text was first performed as a play as part of the Darke Night Out production – see Plays above. Aunt Feen, part-time caretaker of a house on Bobby’s Bay, St Merryn, decides to supplement her income by letting the property to a young man, Jim, without the knowledge of the house’s absentee owner Hugo Bryson Spelles – see the official Nick Darke website for the full text http://nickdarke.net/archives.
- Atlantic Drifting (BBC Radio 4 documentary produced by Simon Elmes, 30 November 2001 – the forerunner of The Wrecking season film)
- Dumbstruck (2003; first broadcast on BBC R4) – documentary using an audio diary Nick kept during his rehabilitation after a stroke.
- Hooked (2005; first broadcast 18 July 2005 BBC R4) – a comedy drama-documentary telling the story of a Cornish couple who are asked for their advice by a Londoner on how to fish for sea-bass, who subsequently cashes in on his new knowledge. Recorded on Porthcothan Beach.
Nick Darke also appeared on the Radio 4 programme “Nature” (broadcast 16 February 2004).
- The Lobster (1998) for speaker and chamber group (‘Thoughts of a crustacean upon entering a trap’, text by Nick Darke). Performed at the QEH in 1998 by Nicole Tibbels (speaker) with the Mephisto Ensemble conducted by the composer, Christopher Gunning (born 1944). Recorded by them on the Meridian label (CDE 84498).
- The Body (RSC playtext: Methuen Publishing, pbk 1983); ISBN 0-413-53340-9
- Ting Tang Mine & Other Plays (New Theatrescripts: Methuen Publishing, pbk 1987); ISBN 0-413-17930-3
- Kissing The Pope – play text and Nicaraguan travel diary (Nick Hern Books, pbk 1990); ISBN 1-85459-047-2
- Cider with Rosie (Heinemann Plays: new edition, hrdbk, 1993); ISBN 0-435-23295-9
- The Riot (Methuen Modern Plays: Methuen Drama, pbk 1999); ISBN 0-413-73730-6
- Nick Darke Plays (Methuen Contemporary Dramatists: Vol 1, pbk 1999) – incls “The Dead Monkey”, “The King of Prussia”, “The Body” and “Ting Tang Mine”; ISBN 0-413-73720-9