How We Met: Mark Ravenhill & Bette Bourne

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

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The Independent Online

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