`I almost understood how transsexuals feel'

The time: August Bank Holiday, 1989

The place: Edinburgh

The man: Tony Warren, author and creator of `Coronation Street'

"Like a lot of my generation, the Seventies were lost to drink and drugs. I would consume anything with alcohol in it, while my drug of choice was morphine. However by the end of the decade, I got rid of first the alcohol and then the drugs - but it took much longer to get my head together. I was a monument to self pity; my brain was absolutely fried - and fried is not going too far. In the past when I had written scripts I could hear it all in my head. Other people when they turn barmy start hearing voices; when I went mad I could no longer hear them. It was very frustrating. So I almost wrote nothing.

I had just enough money to live on - Coronation Street was in those days supplying me with a small income, and I limped along on that. It was Melvin Bragg who finally got me out of my shell. He came to Manchester and asked to interview me for a newspaper piece. He wrote a very nice piece about me, and then he asked me to take part in a debate on soap operas at the Edinburgh festival. As Melvyn had succeeded in bringing me out of myself once, I hoped the miracle would happen again.

That evening everybody who was anybody in television was gathered together in the George Hotel. The other participants for my debate began to arrive - Julia Smith (at that time producing EastEnders) and Victoria Wood, who had been making much of satirising television soap opera. I asked Victoria if she would be speaking from notes and she replied: "I will just have a postcard." Julia added that she would have practically a postage stamp. I, who had been in show business since I was a boy actor of 12, believed these wicked women. So I went upstairs and reduced my notes to a postcard. I couldn't quite manage a stamp.

The next morning Victoria Wood came on to the platform carrying a roll of wallpaper and when she unravelled it I saw that it even had dot, dot, dot, for the laughs! On stomped Julia Smith with a folder that was marginally thicker than War and Peace - and I had only my postcard. So when it came to my turn to speak I tore my notes into bits, glared balefully at them and told the audience: `I can only speak from my heart and from my conscience.'

In the train on the way home I found myself sitting opposite Melvyn's wife, Cate Haste. She rounded on me: `Why don't you write any more?' I told her I'd done my head in. She was having none of this: "You stood up in front of the entire television industry and spoke without notes and got clapped heavens hard. Don't tell me that can't string words together - because I don't believe you!" Next she asked what I would like to write, and suddenly I found myself replying: `A great big provincial novel - that says it's okay to come from where you come from.' When we reached her stop, Cate's exit line was: `If you don't write your novel I will never speak to you again.'

Years before, I had had a very good literary agent called Carol Smith. Unfortunately we had parted company acrimoniously. But I decided to call, thinking she could only tell me to do the same thing she had last time. Amazingly, Carol knew I was going to ring. We had always had telepathic communication. She complained that it was a crime that I wasn't writing, so I told her about my idea for a provincial novel. With the most comfortable words you can say to a writer: `when you're ready', she asked for 100 pages.

I did what I always used to do and sharpened my 4B pencils, sat down at my desk and set to. I discovered I could pull the old witches and once again see what I was writing about being projected on to a screen in my head. In one ear was the soundtrack and in the other I could hear my own voice giving me technical instructions: turn that into a paragraph; lengthen this; watch out, you're going on for far too long; cut! It was incredible. I felt very new; at that moment I almost understood how transsexuals feel when they get their new body.

My agent introduced me to an editor, Rosemary Cheatham, who read my hundred pages and was brutally frank. You don't need someone to butter you up and tell you you're marvellous - rather, someone who can ride a cart and horse through your work and stop at exactly the right place. I had been waiting for this woman for 20 years. She told me that as a TV writer I used too much dialogue: "Dialogue is your jewels; be careful how you lay them on your velvet!" So I swallowed that one - she's absolutely right- and I went away to write The Lights of Manchester.

I've spoken to Victoria Wood on several occasions since the Edinburgh Festival and she called my last book the best yet - but I haven't ever told her how much I have to thank her for, and how she is responsible for all the books. Perhaps it's about time ...

Interview by Andrew G Marshall

`Full Steam Ahead' is published by Century, price pounds 16.99.

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