Review of The Ferryhill Philosophers

Michael Chaplin’s radio drama series, The Ferryhill Philosophers, is a staple of BBC Radio 4 schedules. A special live performance came to Ferryhill, where the dramas are set, for Durham Book Festival. Jeramie Barker watched the show.

“Get in, Lad!” says Andy, voiced by Christopher Connel.

A Durham lad himself, Michael Chaplin brings County Durham to the forefront with his wonderfully evocative portrayal of Northeast life. Set between the town of Ferryhill and the city of Durham, Chaplin explores difficult life questions. In this episode entitled “Lies, Damn Lies and Conversational Implicature,” Joe Snowball of Ferryhill (voiced by Alun Armstrong) and the Hon. Hermione Pink of Durham University (voiced by Deborah Findlay) are faced with truths and lies in relationships.

What if a retired Ferryhill miner were to call up a professor of philosophy in nearby Durham?

Michael Chaplin began with a question. He asked who we should turn to for advice when we have dilemmas. In the town of Ferryhill, in the past, Chaplin suggests that there was a hierarchy to lean on—the mining hierarchy as a work-based support system and the church as a faith-based support system. But what about today, when we no longer feel connected to our jobs and are not always involved with religion? This lack of a clear support network sets in motion his creative solution: what if a retired Ferryhill miner were to call up a professor of philosophy in nearby Durham?

The core struggle in this episode is how much of the truth to tell a friend. (For a reader friendly work on lying and the likes of conversational implicature, see Mark Twain’s On The Decay Of The Art Of Lying.) While we can all identify with difficult moments in relationships, the setting and characters for Chaplin’s “The Ferryhill Philosophers” shine a light on the social history and beauty of the Northeast in particular. Joe Snowball’s back story points to the difficult times experienced in the North with the slump of the coal industry. Joe Snowball had to travel far afield to find work, much like young Northerners still feel pressure to do today. Snowball and Hermione Pink take a walk and are struck dumb by the perfection of the countryside. The audience sighs in appreciation as we, too, have often found ourselves silently lost in the beauty of the mist and moonlight or in the joy of busy, cobbled, city centre streets. The language Chaplin uses brings us deeper into this, our Northeast home, as Andy, Polly, and Sadie slip into Northeast accents. My favorite term encountered in the Northeast shows up, as one character refers to another as “pet”. As a transplant to the area, I have already found that I am “home” when someone acknowledges me with a “Hiya, pet.”


Besides language and accents and mining talk, what else makes for a perfect Northern show? The brass band! Music was provided by the fabulous Ferryhill Town Band. This may seem a bit puzzling to non-Northerners, but a brass band is an important part of community gatherings and, in the words of Chaplin, brass bands are “culturally important”. Miners would gather weekly to learn both instruments and songs, and, even after the end of mining, brass bands continue to exist in many former pit communities. I encourage you to seek them out at the Big Meeting each summer (Durham Miners’ Association Gala). At every Big Meeting, brass bands march from the racecourse to the Cathedral to play for the Miners’ Service.

The accents thrill, the story brings humour and challenges, and the band plays on. With an audience begging for more, director Marilyn Imrie suggests that our responses (silence in a room of more than 100, hearty laughs, cheering) indicate how well this radio show would do as a stage production. I think I speak for all of us in attendance that day—

Live, on stage, the BBC4 radio program, “The Ferryhill Philosophers”!

Did you attend this event? If so tell Durham Book Festival what you thought for your chance to win a set of Durham Book Festival books:

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