How cancer gave me my voice back

When the author and playwright Peter Tinniswood lost the power of speech to oral cancer, the phone stopped ringing. But, as he tells Toby O'Connor Morse, he found a whole new lease of creative life
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The Independent Culture

At first glance, Peter Tinniswood appears to be smoking a pipe. Not a surprising accessory for Tinniswood - prolific author, playwright, and creator of some memorable television and radio sitcoms - who took up the pipe at 16 in the belief that it looked "manly". It is only when the words start to crackle out in an electric buzz that you realise the object clenched between his teeth is a voice synthesiser. Ironically, it was the years of pipe-smoking that gave him the oral cancer which left him with no voice box and nothing but a laborious and often fuzzy mechanical device with which to speak.

At first glance, Peter Tinniswood appears to be smoking a pipe. Not a surprising accessory for Tinniswood - prolific author, playwright, and creator of some memorable television and radio sitcoms - who took up the pipe at 16 in the belief that it looked "manly". It is only when the words start to crackle out in an electric buzz that you realise the object clenched between his teeth is a voice synthesiser. Ironically, it was the years of pipe-smoking that gave him the oral cancer which left him with no voice box and nothing but a laborious and often fuzzy mechanical device with which to speak.

Yet his first remark is: "I feel a great sense of release now." He may require electronic assistance and the interpreting skills of his partner, Lizzie Goulding, to communicate directly with the world, yet he has been writing enthusiastically. A man who has loved the idea of writing for a living since the age of five, when a composition he read out made his classmates roar with laughter, he has found that the loss of his voice has left him free to do the one thing he loves most: write.

He is vitriolic about the life he led before his illness, which he refers to as "those years of Darkness and Bleakness". He bemoans the endless script meetings - "writing by committee, legions of those who can't, trying to tell those who can how to do their job" - and the whole media merry-go-round. "At the end you slink home and churn out yet another draft, despising all those you've worked with and the project you're engaged on. Despising yourself." So why did he do it? "Crock of gold. The rewards for success that they dangle in front of you are so great. You feel, if it comes off then you can sit back and have enough money to write what you really want. It never happens."

And then cancer struck and the phone stopped ringing. And as the spoken voice that had carried Tinniswood from breakfast at the Dorchester to lunch at the Groucho and through all the "ghastly committees" was surgically removed, he found a new voice resounding in his head. Yet it had a familiar ring to it.

"I have a new voice, but it's the old voice. The voice I first started with as a writer." Absurd as it may seem, he truly appears to rejoice in the epiphany induced by a surgical intervention that would have most people permanently immersed in a slough of despair. It is as though the surgeon's knife, in removing the one element so vital to his past life, also cut the chains of his commercial bondage.

"For a long time as a writer I lost my voice. I was writing a load of crap for television, and I lost my voice, my way. I've always been an inventive writer, a brave writer really, trying new techniques. And I lost all that. It was dreadful. I was in this awful dark wilderness. I didn't know where I was going. And then I got ill and couldn't write any more of the crap, and the writer's voice that I had lost suddenly came back, and I was able to write the real me."

Tinniswood does not disown everything he did in the pre-illness days. He enjoyed writing Tales From A Long Room, his cricketing stories. And he enjoyed the Uncle Mort radio series and books, and the TV sitcom I Didn't Know You Cared. "They were a pleasure. And I'm proud of the joy they brought people. When I am writing at my best, it is pure pleasure."

Yet he believes that he had lost the boldness and inventiveness which characterised his first novel, A Touch of Daniel. "My trouble is that I've gone down too many blind alleys. I've been easily led. It's always been: Never turn down a challenge. 'Right, I've shown I can do that - write a novel, write a play, etc, etc - what's next on the list?' What about doing a libretto? Or a slim volume of poetry?"

He believes that he has returned to "Real Me" writing with his new piece, Croak Croak Croak - which Bristol Old Vic is marketing as "a play that won't leave you with a lump in your throat", which must rank as one of the most tasteless straplines ever. It consists of two one-act plays, The Scan and The Voice Boxer, both of which explore the role and power of the voice.

The Scan, which Tinniswood composed in a scanner in order to keep his mind occupied amid the stifling claustrophobia, is the story of a man stricken with a surfeit of words. "They're words he's never heard before, lines he's never heard before. Where have they come from? What voice is he speaking with?"

Meanwhile, The Voice Boxer is a play about the voice being released, as a man discovers his voice has developed a life of its own. Both plays explore Tinniswood's thoughts about the vital role which voices play in shaping our lives and our identity. "We all talk with different voices. Sometimes we're in control of them, and other times we're not. Sometimes a voice appears and you find yourself talking with it, and you wonder 'where the bloody hell did that come from?'."

The plays draw heavily on what Tinniswood describes as "the European tradition of Blackness and the Absurd". Even at the height of his illness, this love of life's bleak humour bore him up: "I don't think I was ever really depressed with my illness. It was the comedy of it that kept me going - the absurdity of the human condition, which has always made me laugh. And there I was playing a star part in it."

Yet for a writer - particularly for a writer like Tinniswood who specialises in extracting cockles from the sands of everyday life - speech is probably the most disposable attribute. If he had lost his hearing or his sight, he would not have been able to feed his incessant curiosity: "I'm a burrower. A sniffer. That's what I do best. I'm very nosy."

And as a writer, the important words are not those produced orally. In most other professions he would have been finished. But the fact that he was already earning a living as a writer "is about the only stroke of luck I've had in this".

Tinniswood has about him not the air of an invalid, but rather of a recently released convict. It is the pleasure of someone who, after many years, has found the freedom to do the one thing he loves, without interruption or the need for excuses. The path may have been traumatic, but Tinniswood seems genuinely delighted with the silver lining on this dark cloud.

"The main thing about me is that I really, really adore writing. Despite everything that's happened to me, I still wake up of a morning and think 'Great. I can write. I'm a writer. I can earn a living out of it. I enjoy it. I feel fulfilled. And I wonder if Liverpool will win on Saturday'."

'Croak Croak Croak', New Vic Studio, Bristol Old Vic to 28 Oct (0117-987 7877)

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