In this blog post, Lucy Bell talks about BHS and the pension problem of 2016 and how that influenced the development of Hot Flushes.
In 2016 high street chain British Home Stores was closing down. The pensions of 22,000 BHS employees were in jeopardy because the pension fund had been allowed to go into debt during the chain’s ownership by Sir Phil Green, a man described by some as “the unacceptable face of capitalism”.
This seemed to me an appalling state of affairs. People pay into pensions, they are loyal to jobs they might hate because of pensions, so to not pay out what is promised is nothing short of theft. At the time my own mother in law was taking on numerous jobs in her sixties because her pension expectations had been disappointed…partly because the pension age of 1950’s-born women was suddenly pushed back to 66. George Osborne called it the easiest money he ever made.
For some reason, the decline of a store I’d visited most weekends of my childhood really hit me emotionally. As kids, we don’t have much control of what our home or school environments are like, and the public spaces of supermarkets, department stores and fast food outlets offer respite: they are a liberating home-from-home, where you are safe and warm but off the rein.
To me BHS was the natural habitat of Victoria Wood characters…a peculiarly British institution.
In a world of size 0 models and Botox, it was a place where fascinators, comfortable court shoes and elasticated waistbands were okay. There was something weirdly feminist about a brand that acknowledged the way a woman’s body changes as she gets older and looks after other people. To see a male billionaire run BHS into the ground for cash, felt like an obscenity: a Porsche hit-and-run on a much-loved aunt.
I did research with women who were terrified and skint through pension changes and increasingly that billionaire seemed like a cattle baron driving people off their homestead. Then I read about the US-wide chapters of “The Well-Armed Woman”, an organisation where feminists conflate marksmanship with independence and power. The idea of a gunslinging Western took hold.
Of course Hot Flushes the Musical doesn’t dwell on this financial context – it’s a rollicking domestic drama performed by four super-talented actor musicians with live instrumentation on guitar drums and sax. It’s about a man and woman hitting sixty, drifting from each other and their daughter just as BHS closes and pension poverty hits them in the face.
For the main character, fantasies about her long lost American father and the Deep South he came from, increasingly take hold, and this is where Thomas Johnson and Charlie Coldfield’s beautiful songs come in. I won’t give away any more, but audiences in Clevedon and Bristol have described the show as “amazing” and “compelling” so we really hope you’ll take a look.
Since my first draft in 2017, there has been a spate of Country and Western themed stories: Thunder Road by Redcape Theatre, the film Wild Rose, Southwestern by Wardrobe Theatre. I think the precarious mandate of the government has a left a lot of us dreaming of saddling up and sticking it to the man!