Maureen Lipman: Laughter in the dark

Maureen Lipman has completed the memoir by Jack Rosenthal, her husband, a year after his death. She tells Liz Thomson about her self-effacing soulmate
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The Independent Culture

Grief is hard enough to navigate in private. If by virtue of your job you are a public figure, your face instantly recognisable from prime-time TV and a series of ads that provided the nation with laughs and a catch phrase or two, it's well-nigh impossible. Like Pagliacci, Maureen Lipman has, since her husband, the great screenwriter Jack Rosenthal, died last May, played for laughs while her heart was breaking.

Grief is hard enough to navigate in private. If by virtue of your job you are a public figure, your face instantly recognisable from prime-time TV and a series of ads that provided the nation with laughs and a catch phrase or two, it's well-nigh impossible. Like Pagliacci, Maureen Lipman has, since her husband, the great screenwriter Jack Rosenthal, died last May, played for laughs while her heart was breaking.

She returned to work at Christmas, playing Dim Sum opposite Ian McKellen's Widow Twanky in Aladdin. "The first few nights, taking curtain calls at the Old Vic, I was just awash with the lack of him," she recalls, retrospectively questioning the wisdom of taking on the role. "On the other hand, I remember not long after Jack died going to a garden party and sitting with a bunch of people telling them a story. Everyone was screaming with laughter. There I was, still doing what I do, still singing for my supper, still making the crowds roar. And I stood outside myself and watched the scene from someone else's point of view and I thought: oh well, she's all right then."

As she talks about him, and about the memoir that Rosenthal left unfinished at his death, it's clear Lipman is far from all right. Behind her glasses, her eyes look tired and they don't join in the smile that comes to her lips as she recalls the love and laughter of their years together. "My mother died in December [2003] and there's no way I've even begun to grieve for her because Jack was so ill. That was the worst point of the whole thing. I should never have let him come to the funeral - he was too shattered. But he was protecting me, till the very last."

"Jack always had to lend me his hankie," she says, scrabbling for a tissue, pausing to compose herself. "His every thought was 'how will Maureen manage?' Well I'm managing and it's not stopped me from being who I am and I still seem to be able to make people laugh. But what I can't do is go into the grief, which is what I think you have to do, or what Sheila [Hancock] says you have to do. I've been running ever since he died."

Painful though it was, difficult as it was to write, Lipman's completion of By Jack Rosenthal: An Autobiography in Six Acts (Robson, £17.99) has surely been cathartic. The book's arrival on the shelves is a stage in the grieving process, a step towards resolution. Nevertheless, she expects "they'll shit on me from a great height" for having the temerity to complete his story, first in his style - which she couldn't keep up - and then in her own. "I write as I write," she sighs, holding up her hands in supplication.

For years, publisher Jeremy Robson had tried to persuade Rosenthal to write his memoirs. The men had known each other for two decades, ever since Robson began publishing Lipman's autobiographical musings. But while Rosenthal had written some 250 scripts, he had never written prose and was unsure how to approach it.

"He'd written this one sentence about his uncle being a murderer - which he wasn't, of course, just a bit of a cad - not a word much used in Cheetham Hill [the Manchester neighbourhood where he grew up] at the time," Lipman recalls. "But it was quite a funny sentence... We were having a meal with Jeremy and [his wife] Carole and Jeremy was saying he had to write and Jack was saying he couldn't. I hate to take the credit, but it was me who suggested he write it as a screenplay but, as he always did, he said no. Anyway, he ran with the idea quietly and then came up with it as if it were his own, which it may well have been. Reality and truth are completely subjective."

While the book occupied him through much of his illness, Rosenthal had, to both his publisher's and his wife's pleasure, begun writing it before he was diagnosed. "He hadn't stopped writing plays, but the business had changed... You can't any longer go into the office of a television executive, because they're all about 12, and say I've got an idea about a man and a tortoise and be told you're commissioned. Those days are gone: nobody wants a play any more, and that's true for Alan Plater, Alan Bleasdale...

"But Jack was always working. Halfway through his illness he went out and made Ready When You Are, Mr McGill... He was out every day, from seven in the morning to seven at night - this was between the first bout of radiotherapy for the myeloma in his back, when they thought it was indolent myeloma, and the second, when it turned into multiple myeloma. November 2002 was when we realised there was trouble, and he had to have chemo and the stem-cell transplant.

"If he wasn't writing he wasn't living," Lipman continues, "it was his raison d'être." So he wrote his memoirs. "He had a terrible time and his consultant, who was very eccentric, would always say he couldn't believe Jack was still writing. But he'd scribble away in longhand and he wrote seven decades, all in screenplay form. And then, one day, he said he couldn't do it any more.

"We all thought it was the illness taking its toll but I think it's because all his life he's been giving plays to directors and producers who can't really understand how to read a play. In the same way that people read novels and skip the description, people who read screenplays skip the directions and the voice-overs. The bridges between the words very often get missed and I think Jack suddenly thought: I'm written out and I don't know that the general public can cope with the format. And I don't know either."

In fact, within a few pages the reader is swept along, as Rosenthal's life is inter-cut with extracts from the TV plays which chronicled much of it - The Evacuees, Bye, Bye Baby, Eskimo Day, among them. Family and friends - from his childhood, from his days as a student, his years of National Service and from the exciting early years of Granada, where he got his break writing episodes of Coronation Street - walk through the pages of By Jack Rosenthal.

By its nature, it is the most self-effacing of memoirs. "I can fill in a bit about the side of Jack that he couldn't talk about. He would never say what a good bloke he was. He was very entertaining but he was very shy and he'd let me take the limelight... He never got grand or spoiled."

As a writer, he helped change perceptions of whole groups of people: the Jews (notably in Bar Mitzvah Boy), cabbies (The Knowledge), fire-fighters (London's Burning, for which he wrote the first episode, inspired by the Rosenthal family au pair's boyfriend), refuse collectors (The Dustbinmen) and the pools winner Vivian Nicholson. She was seen as simply "a stupid woman who lost all her money until Jack got behind the headlines (Spend, Spend, Spend)... He had real empathy with the underdog and that's to do with being working-class but also to do with the kind of bloke he was. It's the genes." Lipman's own favourite Rosenthal play is Ptang, Yang, Kipperbang, about adolescent dreams. "It's such a romantic thing that he won't kiss her because he realises a kiss is so important." The tears come. "There's an element of Jack in that; he was quite cautious but then he'd do something so gregarious."

In her grief, Lipman frets that "Jack would have written a lot more if I'd been a housewife... On the other hand, I did bring him a lot of the chaos which made plays... He loved the colour that the family and I brought to his life. He'd never have changed a thing ...well, maybe a few things but not much."

What inspired Rosenthal was the domestic and everyday. But, for too long, Lipman feels, his career was handled by an agent who had no time for all that: the legendary Peggy Ramsey, brought to life by Vanessa Redgrave in Prick Up Your Ears, Alan Bennett's screen realisation of John Lahr's biography of Joe Orton, and by Lipman in Alan Plater's play Peggy for You. "She was completely duplicitous. Jack was never going to be her kind of writer because he had a life and a wife and he didn't fall down the steps of the Groucho Club. Peggy liked gay men in Morocco, which is why she loved Joe Orton. She found it very hard to deal with normal people.

"That's why it's ironic that I got to play her, because she didn't like me. She called me 'Jack Rosenthal's impossibly ambitious wife' because I rang her up after Jack had sent her his first stage play, Smash. Weeks passed and she didn't reply, so I rang her up and asked if she wouldn't mind telling Jack what she thought of his play, because he was on tenterhooks. She was completely outraged and never forgave me. Alan was much more affectionate than Jack would have been."

The Lancashire man and the Yorkshire woman: a union of the two counties which have, arguably, produced more creative talent than any others, and certainly more laughs. "We should have been the white Rosenthal and the red Rosenthal," Lipman puns. "We were a good couple, soulmates. There were crises over the years but we never stopped making each other laugh and we never stopped wanting to be the person the other went home with. There'll never be another Jack in my life... Whatever happens to a soul, his has gone to a good place."

Biography: Maureen Lipman

Maureen Lipman was born in Hull, in 1946 and studied at Lamda. She has been a member of the National Theatre, the Old Vic and the RSC. Her TV work includes the sitcom Agony and plays such as Absurd Person Singular and Outside Edge; screen roles include Educating Rita and The Pianist. Among her stage credits are The Sisters Rosensweig and Re: Joyce, her homage to the late Joyce Grenfell, as well as the musicals Candide and Oklahoma!. The author of six bestselling books, Lipman is also an award-winning columnist. She met the screenwriter Jack Rosenthal in Manchester, where he was working for Granada TV and she with the Stables Theatre. They married in 1973, and she has appeared in a number of his plays, including The Evacuees. They have two children, Adam and Amy, who is also a playwright. She was made a CBE in 1999. By Jack Rosenthal: an autobiography in six acts, a memoir completed by her, is published by Robson Books.

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