Revelations: Reading, writing and riches
Tuesday 30 September 1997
The place: Phoenix Theatre, Leicester
The woman: Sue Townsend, creator of Adrian Mole, the diarist aged 133/4
From about the age of eight, it was a joyful thing for me to go to the library. Books became the most important thing in my life, to the detriment of friends. I used to cycle for miles into the countryside and take a book with me.
If you read to the extent that I did - in the school holidays I would read two books a day - you collect your thoughts and turn them into prose. I started to write my own stuff. It was fiction right from the start, but thinly disguised autobiography. It was mawkish, adolescent and self- pitying. I didn't show it to anybody. For 20 years nobody knew about it; it came to be like a shameful secret. I know what it's like to be a spy or a criminal. It's no accident that [Adrian] Mole was called Mole.
I wrote for 20 years before I found my own style, my own voice. Just after I had my fourth baby, my second husband, Colin, and I had a serious talk and I confessed. He said, "Well, 20 years is a long time; why don't you do something about it?" And then he saw a cutting in the local paper, about the Phoenix Writers Group, who were meeting in the [Phoenix] theatre, and I did go along. He said, "I'll look after the baby."
After a few weeks the director said, "I've not heard you speak, Mrs Townsend, and we haven't seen anything you've written. I want you to bring something." And I wrote a play in two weeks, Womberang - set in a gynaecological ward. I can't type, and I wrote it out by hand. It was in the days when theatre had a bit more money. Professional actors workshopped my play, and there was a director, and they were laughing themselves sick. That was a wonderful moment, when I heard the laughter and it wasn't mocking laughter, it was because the lines were funny and the characters were engaging and interesting.
The director, Ian Giles, submitted this play, without telling me, to the Thames Television Playwrights Scheme. I was in my thirties. I borrowed my mother's clothes and shoes, and I went to London to be interviewed for the award, dressed up in high heels, gloves and handbag.
I was fascinated by the train journey. I hadn't been on a train, except as a child to the seaside, on ex-working men's club outing. It was so exciting to me to be going to London, and then to walk into this room, with John Mortimer, Sir Hugh Carlton Greene, Michael Billington and other famous people. John Mortimer read from my play and made everybody laugh, and it was just surreal. And they said "We'll let you know."
I teetered back with blisters on to the train, caught the bus back from the station, and when I got home there was a telegram on the mat to say that I'd won. I felt overjoyed. But it did mean a huge change, because the prize was a year as resident writer at that theatre, as well as pounds 2,000 - riches beyond dreams. I had it in quarterly payments, I bought furniture with it - sofas - and we all went out for a meal. It was fantastic.
There was a headline - on page three of the Leicester Mercury - and it said "City mother moves into theatre world". Somebody at the theatre made me one of those laminated badges, which said "City Mother", and I wore it for quite a while.
I over-compensated like mad, as all women do. All I had to do to fulfil my contract was to write one play, and they would put it on if it was any good. I wrote about 11 pieces, and my main play was a musical with 42 speaking and singing parts. It was ludicrous, because I knew nothing about the theatre. It was a baptism of fire. It was called The Ghost of Daniel Lambert - a Leicester man, who was at one time the fattest man in Britain. I wrote about the destruction of cities that went on in the Sixties and Seventies, and their regeneration, and I used this much-loved historical character as the man who was lamenting the change in his city.
It started out at the Phoenix, and they had to find the "House Full" sign because it hadn't been used for years. Then it transferred to the Haymarket, and the Leicester audiences adored it, it brought the house down - all the local jokes.
I was writing that whole year: programme notes, lyrics, a play that toured working men's clubs, a play that toured religious establishments. Anything I was asked to do, I did. I had the baby to think about, and the other children. The baby came to rehearsals, and learnt to keep her mouth shut.
I look back, and think a day of doing that would be impossible. I was also over-compensating in the domestic area, of feeling that I had to make my children cakes. Other mothers would buy Mr Kipling, but oh no, I had to make the cakes, and even bread: that's how mad I was.
I'm an enormously fast writer. I had to be. During this year I was spotted by various people at the Royal Court, because my play Womberang was transferred there. It was put on in London at the Soho Poly, by Verity Bargate. She was dying of breast cancer, and she loved the play because it had a character in it who was also dying, and she supported it and invited lots of people. Carole Hayman [actress and writer] from the Royal Court came to see it and she got me a commission there, and that was another mega break.
I'd already written Mole, during my secret period, and I dragged him out again for Nigel Bennett, an actor who was going to do an audition for Huckleberry Finn - same age, about 14. He didn't get the part, but he sent it to his friend, John Tideman [ex-head of radio drama at the BBC], who's in the Mole book, and is a real person. John Tideman's secretary read it and asked "Have you read it?" - it was on the slush pile - and he instantly loved it. It was broadcast on New Year's Day, and commissioned to be a novel.
So I fell into good hands. I could have fallen into really naff hands and wouldn't have known the difference at that time. I was extremely lucky.
I once had an experience, when I was about 12, on the top deck of a bus going into town on a Saturday afternoon. I can remember feeling as if something quite wonderful was going to happen to me when I was grown-up. It was on a hill and the town was below, and I can remember thinking how amazing it was that the town worked, that people had built the town, other people drove the bus, other people delivered the food and other people grew the food - I was aware of the interconnectedness of things for the first time.
Later, after Mole, there was hardly time for any reflection at all. I was so anxious to keep my old friends and my family and my life. We were always poor. We had no extravagances, but we always spent more than we earned. The money made the huge difference. I bought space for us all - we live in a big house now.
A wonderful thing happened to me about a year and a half ago: I realised I didn't really want - need - to be famous. I've never done things like Celebrity Squares. I do the odd charity thing, but I'd sooner give them money than turn up, because you're always a disappointment. People really want Barbara Taylor Bradford; they want glamour and glitz. I make an effort, but I can certainly live without sequins.
I'm doing another Mole book: Mole at 30 and a bit. After that, I haven't got anything. I have written films that are going to be made, but I'm not committed to any new work - and this is another huge turning-point for me. I suspect I won't do a great deal of writing at all. I may attempt the odd haiku: I'm always looking for perfection.
`Ghost Children', a novel by Sue Townsend, is published on 2 October (Methuen, pounds 12.99).
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