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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent