Q&A with Playwright Gavin Collinson

As an original new stage play on the dramatic life of Samson Fox premieres this September at the Royal Hall, playwright Gavin Collinson sheds light on his discoveries of Harrogate’s remarkable forebear.

What most inspired you about Samson whilst you wrote the play?

I love a good underdog story! Samson hauled himself and his family from poverty to be become one of the most successful and famous men of his day. And don’t forget that was all at a time when ‘social mobility’ hovered at around zero. He wouldn’t give in. I love that.

And his projects were all big and bold and at the heart of them was his desire to make life better for everyone. He was all about safer transport, better public lighting, cheaper rail travel. To be honest, we could do with a Samson Fox in the UK right now!

What is one of the most extraordinary facts you discovered?

It’s hard to pick out one. I guess when we think about Victorian industrialists we envisage monolithic men, captured unsmiling in sepia photographs. But Samson was this big, brash bear of a bloke. Good humoured, and well-liked by his employees. He contributed a huge amount to the arts and gave back to the community… It feels a bit of a cop-out, but in our cynical age I found it extraordinary that he was such a good guy.

Aside from the man himself, I was amazed how dangerous ocean voyages had been before Samson’s inventions made engines more reliable. The number of deaths at sea was horrific. I had no idea of the scale of maritime tragedies faced in the Victorian era.

Samson Fox by the artist Bukovac

What do you admire about Samson?

His facial hair. That was awesome… But seriously, his warmth, kindness, doggedness and sheer determination not to be beaten. Those are all qualities I admire, and they’re attributes he had in abundance.

I also admire the fact he kept moving forward. Wanting more. Wanting better. Towards the end of his life, he went into politics. It’s fascinating to contemplate what this Northern dynamo of a man could have achieved if he’d lived long enough to reach Number 10. So, after everything he contributed to society, there remains a tantalising ‘what if?’ hanging over Samson Fox’s legacy.

How have you woven the contemporary Fox family into the narrative of the play?

Towards the end of the play, we acknowledge the Foxes were already moving in acting circles and Samson contemplates what this could mean to the family… But he was smitten by the arts from a very young age, and that’s something we do go into. It’s just another shade in his colourful life.

But links with the current Fox family… there’s a couple of cheeky references I hope people will enjoy! To be honest, I had some fun with that! And actually, I should stress there’s plenty of humour and heart in the play. If you’re hoping for a documentary-style story about the nuts and bolts of Samson’s engineering prowess, you’re going to be disappointed!

So, What Did Samson Fox Ever Do for Us? Gavin Collinson explains…

Putting Transport on the Right Track

Samson realised what looks to be a blindingly obvious truth – that the lighter you could make a train, whilst keeping it safe, then the more economically it will travel. In other words, make something with a lighter construction and it will be cheaper to run. Implementing the implications of this – he invented lightweight structures and components for rail transportation – made him a fortune and influenced the way the train design industry (and arguably other similar industries) progressed. From the sleepy sleeper to Edinburgh and the overcrowded train you take into London, to the fastest trains in the world that blur along the rails in China, their design is all predicated on Samson’s realisation and early inventions.

Incidentally, at the time his pioneering work on railways helped to ensure that train transport remained affordable to the average woman and man wanting to travel. Imagine a world where your great-great-great grandparents never left their hometown. Where might you have been born?

Taking the Pressure

Sure. No-one cares about the corrugated boiler flue as such, even though it’s arguably his greatest invention. What did it do? It made engines more powerful and much safer. Boring? Maybe, but prior to his invention literally thousands of people had perished at sea when engines blew up and their vessels sank. His invention basically allowed greater pressure within an engine and therefore maritime transport for the public become faster and safer and industrial plants became more productive.

But the bottom line here is thousands of lives were saved and engine construction was revolutionized. Check out the engine of any car fuelled by petrol and you’ll find pressure distribution systems – Samson invented their antecedent. Every time your car engine doesn’t blow up when you’re overtaking at 75mph on the M25, you might want to thank him.

The glittering palace of gold Harrogates Royal Hall

Thank You for the Music

Fox didn’t invent the Royal College of Music but his money made it possible. The place is still going strong today and every year a diverse intake further their art and their trade at the RCM, later to entertain audiences around the world.

Notable alumni include Joo Yeon Sir, Joan Sutherland, Shama Rahman and the celebrated Siphiwo Ntshebe.  On the more populist side of things, the College’s students also include Alfie Boe, Rick Wakeman, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, who in 1965 abandoned his History degree at Magdalen College to study at the Royal College of Music and pursue his interest in musical theatre. So, in a roundabout way, Samson Fox is responsible for Cats the Movie and that show where the BBC spent weeks trying to find someone to play Nancy in Oliver. But hey, no-one’s perfect.

The Man Who Captured Sunlight: 2.30pm and 7pm, Friday September 23 at Harrogate’s Royal Hall. https://www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/The-Man-Who-Captured-Sunlight