How We Met: Mark Ravenhill & Bette Bourne

'I felt like a vampire; I kept thinking, how do I turn his life into a play?'

Mark Ravenhill, 45

A playwright, Ravenhill is best known for controversial works such as 'Shopping and Fucking' and 'Mother Clap's Molly House', which explore the darker aspects of sexuality. He has just been named writer-in-residence at the RSC for next year. He lives in north London with his husband.

Just over a decade ago I was writing Mother Clap's Molly House at the National and decided to do a workshop looking at the play's background, which was about 18th-century gay meeting places called Molly Houses. A friend suggested that I include Bette, but I was suspicious as I thought Bette Bourne sounded like some old pub drag act. But when he came along, he had these amazing stories about his life – he'd been a leading young, classically trained actor in the West End in the 1960s before he dropped out and joined a drag commune in the 1970s – and it was clear he was a good actor.

I was bit scared of him initially. Here was this burly man in his early sixties, who looked scary with all this lipstick and a leopard-skin coat on. But his journey was fascinating and I wanted to find out more. So we stayed in touch, and over the years the more we talked, the more about Bette's life came out. I felt like a vampire at the time, as I was always thinking, how do I turn this into a play or film?

Eventually, two years ago, we did a show about it, A Life in Three Acts, with me talking to Bette about his life. It made me realise what incredible resilience he's shown in his life. Bette's from a working-class background, in which his father fixed him a job for life at a print works, which he turned his back on and went to drama school to reinvent himself.

There's a lot of anger in him about it all. A lot of it comes from having to defy his dad. And it's part of being with Bette on a day-to-day basis; he has huge outbursts he can't rationalise and sometimes that can be quite scary. But he's also very kind and when I've been ill, he's been the first on the doorstep with cake and flowers.

He left school at 15, but has a peasant cunning about him which I really respect. He's also a shrewd judge of character and situations, so it's me who feels educated by him. I've also become more politicised by him; he's clear about the connection between individuals and the bigger picture, and he's encouraged me not to care about pleasing people, to be stroppier.

Bette Bourne, 72

An award-winning actor, activist and drag queen, Bourne (born Peter) cut short a promising classical career in the 1960s to become a gay-rights activist, living in a drag commune for several years before re-emerging on the arts scene with drag troupe the Bloolips. He lives in west London.

Mark was writing a play 10 years ago called Mother Clap's Molly House – a sort of brothel for queers living together in the 18th century – and I went along to the theatre workshop Mark had organised for a few actors, to help them improvise. During the session I mentioned how it all reminded me of the drag commune I'd lived in during the 1970s. He seemed intrigued and stopped the session, got everyone to sit round me and I told them what had happened: how I was in the Gay Liberation Front while at the LSE, how I started wearing dresses and how 12 of us lived together, in our frocks, 24/7.

I was intimidated by him initially. I never went to university or had formal training as an actor, and I seem to be an idiotic fool to most people, while here was a writer of plays, an educated man. But he'd never met anyone like me: someone who preferred to wear dresses and make-up despite getting all this shit from people in the street. He'd never experienced a whole life given up to this cause [as a member of the Gay Liberation Front], which a lot of people have benefited from. After that workshop we met up again and he started asking me about my life and the seeds of A Life in Three Acts – which we wrote then toured with together – were sown.

As a writer he did most of the editing, which is the sort of thing I find daunting and frightening. And he was a lot more disciplined than me generally. But while some of my old friends are like, "Christ Bette, get organised!", Mark has never said that. Instead I just get a great deal of warmth from him and over the years we've built a trust. Now we talk on the phone most days and go to Fortnum's for tea and cake and I've come to realise he's quite an astonishing person – like the way he handles me when I get angry about the world, when I shout about the arses in Downing Street and the astounding ignorance of some people.

His great gift – as a person and a playwright – is that he knows how to listen. He really hears what people say, how they say it and what they don't say, and I love his plays. But he works much too hard – he hardly has a night when he's not in the theatre – so I'm always nagging him, stop you silly queen, have a break!

Bette Bourne will receive an honorary fellowship from the University of London's Central School of Speech & Drama on Monday, presented by Mark Ravenhill

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home