Mad on animal rights

Comedy writer Carla Lane would listen if you murdered your grandmother - but not if you killed a lamb
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE south coast of England: white clouds fluffed up in a powder blue sky, biting wind and all the paraphernalia of modern protest - placards made of supermarket boxes, pensioners in bobble hats, ribbons in lapels. And on a traffic island with a loudhailer, a short, plump, middle-aged woman with woollen hat pulled down over long honey-blonde hair, saying "Ladies and gentlemen ... please hoot your horns. Thank you, sir."

Carla Lane, creator of The Liver Birds, Bread, The Mistress, Solo and Butterflies, celebrity animal activist, is being immensely polite, as befits a demonstration at which lipsticked blondes carry placards announcing "JPs against live animal exports". But only until the veal trucks arrive. Lane was recently described in a newspaper article running at the drivers and shouting: "Tell your children what you do! Murderers! Hitler did this to the Jews!"

Before we got to Shoreham, when we were still at her Elizabethan manor feeding her 20 cats, I asked whether she didn't think comparisons with the Holocaust were rather intemperate, liable to antagonise? "I've been accused of likening Jews to animals," she answered, confusingly. "How could they think that? What I was saying was that the awful tragedy that happened to people is now happening here to animals.

"And incidentally, if I was likening them to animals, I would be flattering them - or not flattering them, but praising them - because my idea of animals is that they're the only pure things we have left in this world."

Trying to engage Carla Lane in a debate about animals leaves you with a disconcerting sense of two conversations running in parallel and never quite meeting. On the way to Shoreham, wedged into the back of her Range Rover by Igor, her vast, smelly lurcher ("but he's not a hunting lurcher, he's a softie, aren't you? You're a lurcher-poos") I tackle her about worms. The thing she dislikes about gardening, she once said, is accidentally digging into worms. Isn't this a bit sentimental, given that a worm cut in two simply becomes two worms?

"They aerate the soil," she answers. "I mean, if all the worms went our trees wouldn't be able to stand up, and birds plant trees more than men. All these little unglamorous creatures are very important. I wouldn't be highlighting them if I didn't keep walking into shops where they sell butterfly killer, ladybird killer." (One wonders, actually, how much shopping Lane does. She once told an interviewer that her sister had taken her to a supermarket: it was huge.)

So it's difficult to have the heart to persist in asking how she knows that animals are "truthful, not competitive, have a moral code of their own, and don't have hate, resentment or greed" On the subject of animals she seems to lack all perspective - which is perplexing, because you don't become such a successful comedy writer without being able to tap into real and resonant human preoccupations. Michael Grade thinks her writing is so good because "she creates an internal world for her characters with such subtlety, sympathy and delicacy that you share their pain".

Nothing she has written has ever been rejected. Butterflies had a weekly audience of 11 million, Bread 12 million. She is one of the most successful television scriptwriters there have been (she ascribes this to a commitment to dialogue rather than gags) and the manor house she has bought on the proceeds has 50 rooms, four entrances, 18 bathrooms and four lakes. It houses an animal sanctuary with 22 horses, 20 goats, more than 1,000 birds, ducks and geese, various farmyard animals, squirrels, peacocks, rabbits, herons and badgers. Then there are the indoor animals: the room next to the kitchen is entirely devoted to birds. The Aga is littered with bedding for the downstairs cats; as you pass it, you have to take care not to trip over tortoises. Her animals cost her £1,300 a week plus insurance.

She has always lived in large houses - in the West Derby area of Liverpool as a child (her father was a chief engineer in the merchant navy), later with her husband, a naval architect, whom she married at 17 and divorced 25 years later, and with whom she had two sons. (She has also had six grandchildren, one of whom drowned in the Mersey.) Her younger son, Nigel, 41, now owns a wine bar and restaurant in Liverpool; Carl, 42, "runs around making a living, in the way that Liverpudlians do. God knows what - a bit of research for me, and I pay him, but it isn't a living wage."

She persists in being fiercely proud of her Scouse background, although she has lived in the South since her divorce - until two years ago on the banks of the Thames in a Grade I listed house "but I had a lot of feral pigeons coming to visit me and the neighbours didn't like it". Her sister and brother-in-law, Marna and Len, run the house and grounds at Broadhurst Manor.

Carla "does the bird room" at 7.30am, then has the rest of the day to write, producing four pages a day of long-hand. She has a book of memoirs coming out in May, and two series in the pipeline, one for Carlton, the other for the BBC. She has no fear of drying up; nor, at almost 60, any intention of slowing down. "While I'm writing one thing my brain's spewing out another; I seem to have been born with somebody else's imagination as well as my own." Marna finishes at four, retiring to her flat at the other end of the house, and Carla cooks a meal ("not very well") for herself and John, the sanctuary carpenter, who also has a flat in the house. Companionable enough: she has no desire to share her life with a man full-time.

Last week Marna and Len were on holiday, so Carla had to feed the cats herself. She let me trail through the rooms after her, pleased enough to show off the house she loves, although - paradoxically for someone who can be so acute about people - she is incurious about those who lived there before her, hasn't found time in two years to read its history.

The truth is that she prefers the company of animals to that of anyone except her children and family. Nature, for her, is not red in tooth and claw; it is sweet and untainted, pre-lapsarian. It may be that this gives her, as it perhaps gives Linda McCartney and Brigitte Bardot, women who have few conventional worries, a spiritual purpose.

In her case it is certainly accompanied by a fierce puritanism. She cuts her own hair, speaks scathingly of "gastronomic greed", rarely takes holidays, doesn't socialise, has little energy to read books. With her long fringe, heavy eye make-up and pale lips there is something about her reminiscent of Nerys Hughes in The Liver Birds; she doesn't spend a lot of time updating her look.

The refusal to give way to hedonism is coupled with a powerful moral disgust at other human beings - not individuals, for she couldn't be warmer when you're sitting in her kitchen drinking coffee - but in the mass. "I can't bear the things that man is doing," she says. "I just don't think we deserve the planet." Yet she can also say: "I write about things that everybody understands and identifies with, especially this stupid thing called love, which is also such a nice side to life."

The sympathy and loathing are reconciled partly in covert chauvinism. She has written of calves going away "to the desensitised men of other countries, who wait with their screwdrivers and their sledgehammers and who never have and never will obey the human rule". She despairs of Italy, Greece and Spain, "where people are totally without feeling for animals; they're brought up to revere children and nothing else". At one point she starts talking about foreigners "holding geese upside down and pulling their heads off for fun", but by this time I'm not sure which nation she's talking about. Kind and and generous in person, clever and warm in her writing, Carla Lane is barking on the subject of animals. "I know of people in Shoreham who have said they would rather commit suicide than draw their curtains every day and see those trucks going past," she tells me fiercely at one point - to which it is tempting to say: "So what are they doing: living in the dark?"

"If you told me you'd murdered your grandmother," she says, "I'd be able to sit with you and say `what brought this about?' But if you told me you'd murdered a little lamb, five days old, I wouldn't even want to have a cup of tea with you, because you don't have any reason, you don't have any story as far as I'm concerned."

I am glad she's protesting about the veal calves, but I don't feel there's much I can say to this. There is, however, a triumphalist note creeping into her pronouncements now. "I am rejoicing," she says. "I no longer feel alone." And here, of course, she may be right.