A Tribute to Carla Lane Artsnight

A Tribute to Carla Lane

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to describe her work as "situation tragedy".


I started writing for radio. And that was about 15 years ago. And


then I wrote for magazines, newspapers. And 11 years ago for


television. It was a question of sending a script in, announcing my


genius and thinking nobody would take any notice, and then having to


try to prove something. Carla Lane was a housewife from Liverpool who


became one of the country's most successful sitcom writers. From flat


sharing singletons to board housewives and formidable mothers,


she redefined the role of women on television. And for 25 years she was


at the forefront of British comedy. Well go on, Adam, help it. It was


unusual to have to work with somebody who was so extremely


successful, and part of that period of writing when most of the writers


that were that successful at that point were meant. The conviction


with which she wrote her characters was, I think, about what was in


hair. Everything that was in her, everything that she wanted to say,


all the things that she felt about being a woman was in her writing.


Inside she had a lot of turmoil, she had a lot of sadness, she had quite


a bit of sadness in her life. And that's what she drew on when she


wrote. Carla Lane became famous in the


early 70s with the Liver Birds. A comedy about two young women sharing


a flat in her hometown of Liverpool. Carla's was a fresh voice in the


male dominated world of television. Putting female characters at the


centre of comedy for the first time. Are you ready? Yes. Right. Get a


load of this. The wedding ensemble. The Liver Birds ran for more than


ten years and launched the careers of some of the country's best young


actresses. I think what made Carla quite special was that she wrote


from in her heart. She actually spoke to you through her characters.


What was great about it was that we were the first two girls to play the


leading part. Women up to then had been wise and lovers and friends,


but never to girls actually talking to each other and being the stars of


the show. It was a one-off, really. People often talk about the Liver


Birds as though they were two, it was a huge feminist series. We


didn't feel that at the time. And I still don't. I think it was just


simply of its time. Did you fix the food, Beryl? What food? I did all


the packing, I arranged the removal van, and doing all the young packing


now, I've got 1001 things to think of, gas, electricity, heating, all


you had to do was prepare a snack. We were not burdened down by


political correctness. We did not have to watch every single thing


that we said. Now we had guidelines. I remember there being lots of


discussion as to whether we could mention the subject of possibly


going to... With a man. And I remember it being firmly decided


that you couldn't talk about possibly going to... With a man, not


at all. It could be implied. And of course Carla was very good at


getting the fun out of that. So she was bound in, possibly, in many


ways, but she liked that. She liked the kind of playfulness between men


and women. And do you know what? She was a married woman, she had growing


up children, perhaps she was writing her girl that, the one she never


lived, I don't know. Carla married Eric Collins, a naval architect,


when she was 19. They had two sons, Nigel and Powell. But theirs would


not be a conventional family life. From the beginning it was pretty


observable, at least to me as a young man, ma'am, you know, I'd


always dread her picking me up from school because she just didn't look


like anybody else. I really wanted a mum wearing a Mac and a headscarf.


With rollers in, you know. But she'd arrived with stilettos and a tight


skirt and her hair done up in a bun with a Spanish co-or something, and


be waving to me as I would be coming out of school. And all the other


mums would be there. I just thought, why have I got a mum like that? And


of course I'd get the Mickey taken out of me by all my school friends


about my mum, and the things that they'd say about her, and I hated


it. But I realise that there was something different right from the


beginning. She would write poetry. She often would recite the things


that she had in her mind over the kitchen table while we were having a


cup of tea, piece of cake, and she'd ask me what I thought about it. I


won competition. I remember we had the Lady Mayoress coming to the


school, and everybody had to contribute something, and I locked


myself in the cloakroom and wrote a little poem. And it was really


tragic. It was called do not despair. And it was really to my


grandmother, whose son had been killed. And I pinned it in the


corner of the board, only because I knew I'd get into trouble if I


hadn't put something in. I couldn't believe it, I won the half crown. I


think it was then that I felt maybe I was going to write. I'd be about


13. She of course had poetry in her intrinsically, that was just what


she had in her. She would be watching all the time for the rhythm


of lines. Something I myself am quite passionate about, the poetic


rhythm of things. And I will know myself, so I know that she was


watching for a line that had too many words in it, or a line that


didn't have enough, quite. And she would know that that would be the


process to get that line absolutely right so that you'd get a laugh, or


that it would be the right feed for another line. He asked me if I was


getting enough sleep, I said I didn't know, I hadn't been able to


keep awake long enough to find out. Then he asked me how my love life


was going. What did you say? I said it wasn't going, it had gone. What


did the doctors say to that with blue he ranted on about romance


being exciting little parcels of life and sometimes when we open then


we have to be prepared for disappointment. He's quite right,


there, Beryl. Well all my little parcels get clobbered in the post.


She had a knife of the whole thing. Of course as it grew that bit was


her world, she was creating that world -- she had and I for the whole


thing. # As soft and gentle as a side. By


the late 70s Carla was spending most of her time away from her family in


Liverpool, writing at BBC Television Centre to produce her most timeless


work. Butterflies drew from her own experience. It told the story of


Ria, disenchanted middle-aged housewife dreaming of a different


life. The time I did Butterflies Carla was kind of at the height of


her powers, really. She was the toast of the BBC, they wanted to


keep hold of her because she was hugely successful. She was aware of


her success. And she was aware of, I think, how attractive she was. She


was a very, very attractive woman. She didn't flaunt it but you could


see her poise and how she behaved. I visualise her wafting about.


Throwing her head back and bit. She was very charming. Personality was


very attractive and she was physically a very attractive woman.


Of all the things I've written Ria is more me than anyone, she does


have two children, she does hate the kitchen, she did fall in love with


someone else, it's true. And obviously we all do that at some


time or other. Being married doesn't stop us from being flirted with. And


this is how it began. I thought that I'd write about the lady who was


flirted with. And it was all going to stem from there. It wasn't going


to be a serious as it turned out to be because she did very much fallen


in love with him and he certainly fell in love with her. I thought I'd


write a comedy about how an attractive woman copes with these


little offers that come when in fact she is married. I'll always remember


today. You won't have to remember it, we'll do it all over again on my


birthday. Funny isn't it, how old-fashioned we are? I watched the


boys being free, doing everything, breaking all the rules, stuffing


themselves with life. Sleeping here, sleeping there, no hang-ups, no


guilt. We were born too early, you and I. Not me. If I had my way we'd


go straight back to that hotel. Come back to the hotel. I remember at the


read-through before we started rehearsing, halfway through, Wendy


Craig said suddenly, she said, I think this woman is appalling, I


don't know how I can play her, she spoilt, privileged, she's got a


reasonable husband, wonderful standard of living, and all she does


is whinge about what else there could be. So Carla explained that


she thought it would work. Of course as soon as the first episode was


played in front of an audience, Wendy knew that her doubts were


absolutely of no concern and Carla was right. Ria was 95% Carla. So


Wendy's realisation of the character was joy to Carla, I think. She could


think, I'm getting those laughs, not only as a writer, but as me. They


were great friends. Ria! I made less noise than that when I was in


labour! Would you explain this to me? What. This, this stuff on my


plate. It's your dinner. I know it's my dinner but could you identify the


various heaps. Those are potatoes and that's a chop. I forget what


those green things are. She appeared to comply with the norms of young


married life, it didn't last very long, though. She couldn't cook, she


couldn't clean, she could undo the garden, they were not her thing. She


looked after my dad. She listened to him and talked, and she did


everything else. But domestic issues, they weren't on the cards


for her. She very quickly realised that that just wasn't the way


forward for her. She went on another track. I think she identified very,


very much with the feminine side of society, and the world, as she saw


it. And underneath that was a very, very strong woman. But she didn't


think that you had to appear to be strong, to be strong, or to appear


to be an intellectual to have a good mind. And I think that was also part


of what was happening at the time in the 70s. We were understanding as


where we've got to now is that you can wear very high stiletto heels


and actually still be quite powerful. What do you want? Tell me


and I'll get it for you. I want... I want exciting, mind staring,


unpredictable things. I want a fire engine to rush through the flat. I


want a helicopter to land on my bed. I wonder phone to ring and got to be


on the other end. I was now alone, I was divorced, and apart from my


wolfhound, my sons were grown, and I was alone. Hence we had Solo. Solo


was about Gemma who just wanted to try to be alone and how difficult it


is because even though you are surrounded by all the things you


want, there comes a moment when you think, I've got the band, where's


the music? That's all I was writing about. Everything I was writing


about can be said in a sentence. And that's all that was about. Her quote


about Solo and Gemma, I've got the band but where's the music? That is


a cry for women down the ages, it is. And it's a lot to do with fairy


prince, I'm a princess, and suddenly real life kicks in. She wrote about


these things that were serious, and apparently quite light. But


underneath was a layer of pain and understanding. Is that all you think


about, climbing the mountain, hitting the sky, are we going into


the Olympics or something? Isn't that what women want, to be wanted?


That's how it comes over. Well yes, but one once other things, too. You


mean love? I asked you to marry me. Money? I asked you to stop working.


Loyalty? There is no one else. So what the hell more? Well, a woman


needs... Magic. Playing those parts was important to


me and I still remember it is not just as a comedy series but


something that was very real and reflected in a comic way, what a lot


of women were going through. Especially during that period when


it wasn't an unspoken love so much, we were still in a time when you


were supposed to get married and have children. I think what comes


across, especially that period, is not a strident feminist voice, but


somebody who really loves people, loves swimming, understands women,


understands pain and life, and her view of things was much more that


everything is bound together, and that if you are mistress or someone


wanting to go solo, you were still the same. We are still women going


through... You know, if you are wife or are mistress, you are still going


through the same stuff. She wanted to share what she felt and bring


everyone together. There is probably no greater way of doing that than


getting people to laugh. With The Liver Birds, Butterflies and Solo,


her reputation as a writer was sealed. Her response was to write


The Last Song, the story of a man involved in a disintegrating


marriage. Carla is essentially thought of as a writer about women,


which she did brilliantly, but my own experience, I thought she wrote


my character also very brilliantly, and I suppose, dare I say, I think


she wrote The Last Song for me, so she had moved considerably to write


for a man very perceptively. It was a kind of gritty, very funny but


very bitter and true relationship, as Carla thought she had progressed


I think, and she called a situation tragedy. She had just discarded the


broad comedy of Butterflies with the gooey puddings, and I think was a


superior writer. Did you... Did you want the house


keys? How many times have we been over this business of the house


keys, you give them to me, I give them back to you. Well, do you?


Thank you. Asks Jane to come and see me tomorrow, I don't want to be


disturbed tonight. I understand, yes. And perhaps you would ring in


future, just to make sure I'm in. Of course. I may go away somewhere,


abroad. Not that it concerns you, but I thought I would tell you. Have


a nice time. I think Carla, like a lot who work


in comedy, are rather upset that they think it is a lesser field,


people who try to get laughs, it is not high tragedy, it is not Hamlet.


One of the most difficult things to do on God 's earth that I have ever


done this play a situation comedy where you know the writer, the


director, you and the rest of the cast expect you to get a laugh on


this line, which you do once in front of a studio audience, then it


will be seen by millions. If you don't get it right, Babyface, that's


your only chance. If you think there is a laugh in Hamlet and you don't


get it, nobody is going to notice. You just play the drama, which is


pretty easy and pretty intense, you know.


I see she still doesn't iron your shirts properly. There is such a


thing as to properly, Alice. Like me? Yes, this house is more aseptic


than the theatre I operate in. You use to descend on the dishes while


we were still eating from them, unfinished puddings whisked away in


their prime, it was like living with a magpie. I'm sorry. It's all right.


I know she talked about writing a stage play for me which never


happened, which was going to be a play, not comedy, it never happened.


I think there was a hankering there for more serious recognition in a


way. The shift in Carla's writing reflected a more serious tone in her


wider life. The childhood passion for nature was now blossoming into a


more public role as an activist. Carla found a kindred spirit in her


love of animals when she formed a close friendship with Linda


McCartney. Mum and Linda were very good


friends, they were best friends. They would talk to each other on the


phone on a regular, if not daily basis. Both vegetarians, lifelong


vegetarians, and they loved their animals. They never stopped talking


about them, and the work they can and did do to support the welfare of


animals. I'm so proud of you. Mum did it through Animal Line, which


was a charity, and her animal sanctuary. And Linda supported all


that work and did whatever she was called to do really. They wrote and


sang together. In 1985, Carla pushed her writing


even further towards drama with I Woke Up One Morning, the story of


alcoholics who meet while undergoing therapy. Take it easy. I have done


the deed, said the word, she is waiting now for respectability. We


have all been caught in the trap, life is like a minefield, an awesome


space dotted about with women. It is impossible to get from the cradle to


the coughing -- coffin without treading on one of them.


It wasn't well received, and many thought Carla had lost her touch.


Throughout her life, Carla was compelled to write. Every time she


picked up the pen, she couldn't wait to see what came out. Her response


to the criticism was to go back to her hometown and write about what


she knew best, the people of Liverpool. My childhood in Liverpool


was streets, the sound of the big ships, the Scouse accent, the sheer


magic of Liverpool. Within a year, Carla had written the most


successful comedy of her career. Read became her biggest hit with


nearly half the nation tuning in to watch the escapades of the Boswell


family. -- Bread. Won't be long now. Must she always be filing her nails?


She spends her whole life doing herself up. I'm a model, aren't I?


If it's not that, it's shaving legs, dabbing spots, nothing is allowed to


grow on her! When you got the call to say Carla Lane has written a new


series and you are going to audition for it, it was as big a deal as it


got. I walked in with this blonde hair and obviously did something


that she saw that had essences. She worked very much with the essence of


people, what is the essence of that person, what makes them tick, what


makes them go that extra mile, what are their weaknesses and strengths.


Even Joey, who was the protector of the family and the most confident


and the most assured member of the family, he had his Achilles heel


too. She gave everybody things they had to deal with, things they


couldn't quite reach out and grab. Why don't we talk about life instead


of nightmares, why don't we dream? One day, I'm going to go into an


attic and in the corner there will be a Leonardo, a pale maiden with


hands clasped and an enigmatic smile. I thought somebody had


already found that one. I will say, that's a nice little print, I will


give you a tenner to take it off your hands, then off I will be to


Sotheby's, Christie 's and the Bahamas. I'm going to open my own


business in London. Why London, they are all show-offs. They are all


funny down Saddam's, they have a bath every day. We haven't heard


what our Joey dreams about yet. I dream about keeping the art of


dreaming. Isn't he deep! I think she allowed drama to have a place at the


comedy table and vice versa and I think that has helped shows like The


Office and some single camera comedies we see now where the


writers don't feel the need to be funny all the time. We are just


human, we make mistakes and mess up, humans are oddballs, and Carla just


wrote about that. This is Mrs Boswell, I would like to know why my


gas bill is ?206, it's ridiculous. Are you sure I'm not connected up to


the Olympic torch? I would like a detailed account please, in English,


not abbreviations. Any good writers see the world through their own


unique perspective, through their own particular glasses that they


wear, and Carla had unique and individual classes. They weren't


Rosie or dark, they were multifaceted and she wrote down what


she saw. Good writers have got to write, there is nothing they can do


about it, and she had to get these people out, their lives and troubles


and sort them out. She felt duty bound to sort Ria, out, Joey out,


and the girls from The Liver Birds. Her legacy now is that she got us


involved with people, she got us to care about them. All I can say is


that it was very rare that I had to do a scene or speak any lines that


didn't ring true. She had this ability to be actually quite


impressive in her writing, in that I think it was mirror imaging


something that was going on in society very, very accurately. Carla


was a very big presence always in my life because that series... You


know, I had 42 years in theatre and none of it had the impact that The


Liver Birds had. I always remember her with huge affection and may I


say gratitude because Butterflies was a very important show in my


so-called career. Thank you, Carla.


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