A Tribute to Carla Lane Artsnight


A Tribute to Carla Lane

This special edition of Artsnight delves into the BBC's archive and brings together rarely seen interviews in which writer Carla Lane discusses her life and work.


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to describe her work as "situation tragedy".

:00:00.:00:11.

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

:00:12.:00:18.

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

:00:19.:00:24.

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

:00:25.:00:31.

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

:00:32.:00:34.

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

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

:00:40.:00:43.

sharing singletons to board housewives and formidable mothers,

:00:44.:00:48.

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

:00:49.:00:56.

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

:00:57.:01:04.

unusual to have to work with somebody who was so extremely

:01:05.:01:07.

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

:01:08.:01:11.

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

:01:12.:01:17.

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

:01:18.:01:22.

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

:01:23.:01:26.

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

:01:27.:01:32.

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

:01:33.:01:37.

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

:01:38.:01:38.

wrote. Carla Lane became famous in the

:01:39.:01:53.

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

:01:54.:02:01.

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

:02:02.:02:05.

male dominated world of television. Putting female characters at the

:02:06.:02:10.

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

:02:11.:02:23.

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

:02:24.:02:26.

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

:02:27.:02:31.

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

:02:32.:02:36.

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

:02:37.:02:43.

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

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

:02:49.:02:55.

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

:02:56.:03:04.

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

:03:05.:03:09.

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

:03:10.:03:13.

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

:03:14.:03:19.

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

:03:20.:03:25.

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

:03:26.:03:30.

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

:03:31.:03:34.

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

:03:35.:03:41.

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

:03:42.:03:47.

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

:03:48.:03:50.

discussion as to whether we could mention the subject of possibly

:03:51.:04:01.

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

:04:02.:04:03.

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

:04:04.:04:11.

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

:04:12.:04:17.

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

:04:18.:04:20.

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

:04:21.:04:26.

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

:04:27.:04:31.

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

:04:32.:04:37.

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

:04:38.:04:43.

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

:04:44.:04:47.

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

:04:48.:04:50.

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

:04:51.:04:56.

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

:04:57.:05:01.

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

:05:02.:05:04.

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

:05:05.:05:16.

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

:05:17.:05:19.

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

:05:20.:05:26.

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

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

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

:05:38.:05:42.

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

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

:05:47.:05:51.

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

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

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

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

:06:07.:06:09.

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

:06:10.:06:14.

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

:06:15.:06:17.

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

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

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

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

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

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

:06:49.:06:53.

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

:06:54.:06:57.

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

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

:07:02.:07:07.

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

:07:08.:07:11.

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

:07:12.:07:16.

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

:07:17.:07:22.

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

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

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

:07:32.:07:34.

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

:07:35.:07:39.

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

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

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

:07:49.:07:52.

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

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

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

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

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

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

:08:22.:08:27.

Ria, disenchanted middle-aged housewife dreaming of a different

:08:28.:08:34.

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

:08:35.:08:38.

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

:08:39.:08:41.

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

:08:42.:08:51.

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

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

:08:57.:09:03.

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

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

:09:09.:09:15.

very attractive and she was physically a very attractive woman.

:09:16.:09:22.

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

:09:23.:09:27.

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

:09:28.:09:30.

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

:09:31.:09:35.

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

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

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

:09:46.:09:49.

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

:09:50.:09:53.

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

:09:54.:09:57.

write a comedy about how an attractive woman copes with these

:09:58.:10:02.

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

:10:03.:10:08.

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

:10:09.:10:14.

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

:10:15.:10:19.

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

:10:20.:10:26.

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

:10:27.:10:34.

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

:10:35.:10:40.

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

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

:10:50.:10:54.

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

:10:55.:10:59.

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

:11:00.:11:04.

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

:11:05.:11:07.

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

:11:08.:11:14.

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

:11:15.:11:17.

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

:11:18.:11:23.

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

:11:24.:11:36.

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

:11:37.:11:41.

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

:11:42.:11:50.

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

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

:11:55.:12:05.

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

:12:06.:12:08.

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

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

:12:17.:12:22.

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

:12:23.:12:26.

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

:12:27.:12:32.

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

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

:12:39.:12:42.

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

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

:12:48.:12:53.

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

:12:54.:12:59.

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

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

:13:06.:13:08.

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

:13:09.:13:13.

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

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

:13:19.:13:23.

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

:13:24.:13:31.

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

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

:13:40.:13:44.

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

:13:45.:13:49.

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

:13:50.:13:54.

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

:13:55.:14:05.

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

:14:06.:14:08.

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

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

:14:14.:14:17.

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

:14:18.:14:23.

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

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

:14:32.:14:35.

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

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

:14:43.:14:50.

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

:14:51.:14:56.

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

:14:57.:15:04.

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

:15:05.:15:07.

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

:15:08.:15:13.

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

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

:15:20.:15:25.

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

:15:26.:15:28.

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

:15:29.:15:38.

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

:15:39.:15:42.

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

:15:43.:15:47.

of women were going through. Especially during that period when

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

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

:15:56.:16:01.

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

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

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

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

:16:20.:16:23.

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

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

:16:32.:16:35.

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

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

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

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

:16:57.:17:03.

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

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

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

:17:19.:17:26.

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

:17:27.:17:34.

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

:17:35.:17:39.

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

:17:40.:17:48.

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

:17:49.:17:54.

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

:17:55.:18:02.

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

:18:03.:18:11.

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

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

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

:18:21.:18:29.

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

:18:30.:18:35.

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

:18:36.:18:41.

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

:18:42.:18:53.

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

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

:18:57.:19:12.

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

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

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

:19:22.:19:26.

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

:19:27.:19:31.

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

:19:32.:19:36.

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

:19:37.:19:41.

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

:19:42.:19:47.

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

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

:19:53.:19:58.

pretty easy and pretty intense, you know.

:19:59.:20:01.

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

:20:02.:20:09.

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

:20:10.:20:17.

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

:20:18.:20:21.

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

:20:22.:20:25.

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

:20:26.:20:37.

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

:20:38.:20:42.

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

:20:43.:20:48.

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

:20:49.:20:54.

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

:20:55.:20:59.

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

:21:00.:21:06.

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

:21:07.:21:10.

love of animals when she formed a close friendship with Linda

:21:11.:21:11.

McCartney. Mum and Linda were very good

:21:12.:21:27.

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

:21:28.:21:32.

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

:21:33.:21:38.

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

:21:39.:21:43.

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

:21:44.:21:50.

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

:21:51.:21:59.

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

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

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sang together. In 1985, Carla pushed her writing

:22:09.:22:29.

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

:22:30.:22:32.

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

:22:33.:22:40.

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

:22:41.:22:47.

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

:22:48.:22:52.

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

:22:53.:22:59.

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

:23:00.:23:06.

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

:23:07.:23:12.

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

:23:13.:23:16.

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

:23:17.:23:21.

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

:23:22.:23:24.

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

:23:25.:23:33.

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

:23:34.:23:43.

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

:23:44.:23:45.

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

:23:46.:23:57.

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

:23:58.:24:08.

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

:24:09.:24:13.

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

:24:14.:24:23.

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

:24:24.:24:29.

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

:24:30.:24:33.

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

:24:34.:24:38.

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

:24:39.:24:43.

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

:24:44.:24:48.

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

:24:49.:24:53.

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

:24:54.:24:58.

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

:24:59.:25:04.

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

:25:05.:25:09.

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

:25:10.:25:13.

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

:25:14.:25:21.

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

:25:22.:25:27.

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

:25:28.:25:31.

hands clasped and an enigmatic smile. I thought somebody had

:25:32.:25:37.

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

:25:38.:25:40.

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

:25:41.:25:46.

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

:25:47.:25:51.

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

:25:52.:25:57.

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

:25:58.:26:05.

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

:26:06.:26:12.

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

:26:13.:26:16.

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

:26:17.:26:22.

Office and some single camera comedies we see now where the

:26:23.:26:26.

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

:26:27.:26:33.

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

:26:34.:26:40.

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

:26:41.:26:48.

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

:26:49.:26:53.

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

:26:54.:26:59.

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

:27:00.:27:02.

unique perspective, through their own particular glasses that they

:27:03.:27:09.

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

:27:10.:27:14.

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

:27:15.:27:18.

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

:27:19.:27:22.

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

:27:23.:27:28.

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

:27:29.:27:37.

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

:27:38.:27:44.

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

:27:45.:27:48.

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

:27:49.:27:58.

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

:27:59.:28:03.

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

:28:04.:28:08.

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

:28:09.:28:13.

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

:28:14.:28:21.

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

:28:22.:28:30.

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

:28:31.:28:37.

say gratitude because Butterflies was a very important show in my

:28:38.:28:40.

so-called career. Thank you, Carla.

:28:41.:28:44.

Carla Lane redefined British comedy drama in the 1960s with her unique brand of 'situation tragedy'. At a time when television writing was the preserve of middle-class men, she brought a convincing cast of working-class female characters to British screens. The daring honesty with which she told the stories of ordinary women revolutionised the roles available to actresses on TV and blazed a trail for the screenwriters following in her footsteps.

This special edition of Artsnight delves into the BBC's archive and brings together rarely seen interviews in which writer Carla Lane discusses her life and work, while Carla's son Carl offers personal insights into his mother's career and legacy. With contributions from the Liver Birds - Polly James and Nerys Hughes - and Geoffrey Palmer, the long-suffering husband to Ria in Butterflies.


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