Interview with The Second Minute writer Andy Barrett

“These are real people that really existed, and these are their real words.”

With a death toll of more than 16 million, the scale of the First World War seems to defy human comprehension. Its scale and impact would make it seem almost impossible to tell a story which reflects the atrocities of the conflict but Andy Barrett knew he wanted to tell a story to mark the 100 year anniversary of the conflict beginning and so The Second Minute was born.

Here we catch up with writer of The Second Minute, Andy Barrett.

What was the starting point for The Second Minute?

It began with a conversation I had with Giles Croft, the Artistic Director of Nottingham Playhouse, back in 2012 about how the anniversary of the Great War would have a real impact and how it may be worth making a piece of work that connected to the Sherwood Foresters, who have such an emotional connection with Nottinghamshire.

Once we agreed that this would be worth investigating I arranged to go to the archive at Chetwynd Barracks in Chilwell, where there are war diaries, letters and artefacts relating to the Regiment’s involvement in that war. I asked if there were any letters sent to and from Nottingham men. The first letters I received were the ones that form the basis of the play. There were over a hundred of them; it took many visits to read through them all.

What’s the story of The Second Minute?

The Second Minute tells the story of real life soldier Thomas Swann, whose family kept the Crown Inn in Rolleston, near Southwell. Thomas was a member of the region’s own regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, and many of his letters are archived at Chetwynd Barracks which is where I discovered them and decided that I wanted to tell Thomas’s story.

Out of all the letters you must have come across in the archives, what inspired you to tell the story of Thomas Swann?

On a simple level there were far more letters relating to Thomas Swann than any of the other men; far more, reaching through each and every year of the war. What interested me in them was the picture it creates of the day to day experiences of war. Letters were being sent to and from households at incredible speed. The mechanism that was created to make sure that letters got to the men was a colossal achievement. You could put a letter in a post box in a small Nottinghamshire village and two or three days later it could be read at the Front. And then two days after that a letter written in response would find its way through the letterbox of the house from which the original letter had come from. In many letters there’s little to say and in the Swann letters what really comes through is a relationship between two people – a son and a mother – who are trying the navigate their way through the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century.

You have met with his nephew, what was that experience like?

Yes, Frank; the son of Thomas’s brother who just missed out on going to the First World War and then was too old for the Second. Frank is mentioned a lot in the letters so it was very interesting to hear what he was like as he grew up. The helped me to see Thomas not just as a soldier but as a family man as well. I was able to look at pictures of him with his mother and father and siblings as well as others of his mother and the pubs that she ran. One of the pubs she ran is right on the banks of the Trent in Farndon, a pub I know well having written a monologue for BBC Radio Nottingham that was based there some years ago.

What does the ‘second minute’ of the title refer to?

That’s explained in the play so you’ll have to come along to find out. But it’s connected to the material I was reading; stories not just of life on the front but also of life back home from family and friends who are waiting and hoping for their loved ones to return.

What do you hope the audience will take away from The Second Minute?

I’m hoping that it will bring people nearer to the events of the First World War in some way, and to see it from a slightly different perspective than they may have done before. I’m hoping that the sheer endeavour of the postal service – the biggest employer of labour in the world at that point – will also come across. And I hope that the audience feel as caught up in the story as I was when I read the letters.

More Information

The Second Minute is a new play by writer Andy Barrett. It marks our own contribution to the neat14 festival which takes place 23 May – 1 June. The show is an intimate three-hander destined for a wide-ranging tour of village halls and community venues. Our Backstage Pass members were the first to see it at a special preview performance on Wednesday 30 May.

Starring in The Second Minute is Beatrice Comins as archivist Laura. Beatrice has worked with director Giles Croft before, on the 2002 staging of Ethel and Ernest. Rob Goll will play her ex-military assistant, Alan. Completing the cast as Thomas Swann is Adam Horvath, a graduate of our Youth Theatre.

Alongside its regional tour, the show has three performances in Nottingham during neat14: here in the Neville Studio on Monday 26 May at 4pm and 7pm, and at the Chase Neighbourhood Centre in St Ann’s on Tuesday 27 May at 2pm.