Friday, 3 June 2016

Carla Lane: TV writer and landlady



Carla Lane 1
Carla Lane

Liver Birds
The original Liver Birds


I am no good at being a friend of the rich and famous.

Carla Lane, the iconic TV comedy writer who died this week, was once my landlady. A friend went to interview her a few years after my stay in her house, and mentioned me as a mutual acquaintance. She looked blank at the name, but did eventually say ‘one of those girls who were camped out like gypsies at the top of the stairs?’ – which was how she liked to refer to me and my flatmate.

She owned a huge house in the suburb of West Derby in Liverpool, a former shipowner’s house, and had installed her highly extended family in one half, while the other half was divided up into flats. We had much the nicest one, with big rooms, high ceilings and tall windows. Carla herself was in London a lot of the time, but would sweep up to Liverpool in a queenly manner to visit the house and her family.

Carla Lane was a trailblazer in TV comedy writing in her day, amazingly successful, in a way that my American readers will find hard to imagine – her programmes didn’t translate to other countries. She wrote about women, about working class characters, and about the sadness and the comedy of people’s lives. Her series The Liver Birds (about flat-sharing young women) meant a whole generation of local females would smile weakly when men thought it was funny to call us that. Her writing was clever and witty and resonated with people – although I, like many people, had reservations about her most successful series, Bread. But you could have nothing but admiration for her and her achievements – she came from nowhere to be a successful writer, without contacts or the ‘right’ background, at a time when women just didn’t do that, and certainly not provincial women with no real qualifications.

Hearing of her death made me think about my time in her house, and I was struck by the idea that it was all somewhat like Love, Nina – the book and now TV series based on a real-life collection of letters by Nina Stibbe, who worked as a nanny for an intellectual family in London in the early 80s. Perhaps all of us have our Love, Nina years, and these were mine. If only I’d written letters at the time.

The family in the other half of the house was the subject of speculation among the tenants – we never knew who exactly was in there (and why should we?), but there were her two sons, partners, sometimes children, there were cars coming and going, and a variety of dogs. Carla’s mother lived there – she was always known as Hive. She rocked glitter heels and a gold turban at all hours of the day, and had a stately manner about her. She’d wander to the end of the road when the nearby school was coming out, be guided across the main road by the lollipop man, and would then try to give him a tip. She must have been in her 70s at least – quite possibly older, but everyone in the household was deliberately vague about ages: Carla seems to have done some creative accounting, and the birthdate and age given now are at variance with what was current then. Questions that pinned ages down were not welcome.

There were businesses being started – hairdressers, a Mexican restaurant (very adventurous for the time), something to do with cars. This was Liverpool in the 1980s, the Thatcher years, a city that was down but still cheerful, and many families had people who were around the house a lot, not out at conventional jobs, though not usually as affluent as Carla’s family. It was – and I know this seems banal – like the family from Bread, though much more upmarket and richer.

We all went about our lives in a friendly enough way most of the time, but there were moments…

Carla Lane has always been famed as an animal rights activist, a subject she took very seriously. On one occasion, she wrote a note to all the tenants, which was  pinned up in our communal entrance hall. In it she said that a family of baby animals (I can’t remember what - owls? frogs? rabbits?) was living in the extensive grounds of the house, and that these were such precious little things that it would be nice if we could all be quiet as we went past their home, and perhaps park cars elsewhere so as not to disturb them or run over them, and she knew that we would all share her concern.

There were probably 6 or 8 tenants at the time, and one of them – braver than the rest of us – wrote an open letter back suggesting that Carla’s great concern for the welfare of the animals could do with being extended to the welfare of the tenants, who could never get anything fixed and had no hot water. I remember this as being a terrifically volcanic and controversial event, endlessly discussed on the stairs, but absolutely nothing coming of it: no-one was evicted or victimized, and nothing was fixed, and even the baby animals were unaffected.

The hot water was always a matter of concern. It was included in the rent, and the supply was always dicey. But then, one of Carla’s sons had a hot tub installed – and I cannot tell you how unlikely an event that was in a posh Liverpool suburb in the early 80s – and all our water was diverted to the hot tub. Though the hot tub wasn’t used when Carla was home, so she didn’t know, allegedly…

She absolutely adored being a famous writer, happy to tell us she had her own parking place at the BBC, that she was friends with the McCartneys, and with Richard Adams, author of Watership Down. She loved the big house we all lived in – she said she used to walk past it as a young mother, pushing a pram, thinking ‘I’d like to live there one day’ – and now she owned it, and she loved the fact that it was filled with her family, including the grownup boy she had pushed in the pram. And perhaps she even liked giving a home to the tenants, though you wouldn’t be convinced.

One detail in an obituary caught my attention: that she had wanted to be a gypsy as a child, with a silk scarf and a tambourine. I stared – did this change everything? Was ‘those gypsy girls’ a compliment? Did she like me more than she seemed to?

No, probably not. But living in her house was never less than an entertainment.












14 comments:

  1. Thanks for that Moira - the series that I will always remember her best for is BUTTERFLIES, which I first saw as a pre-teen and which still struck a chord, which I think is a real testament to her skill and talent.

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    1. I used to love Butterflies: I don't know how it would stand up now, but it was ground-breaking then, and combined sadness and comedy very well.

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  2. What a lovely post, Moira. It certainly sounds as though she was a very interesting person, even aside from her TV work. And those stories you tell of life there are really rich. It must have been quite an experience. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks Margot, I really enjoyed going over my memories of a time when I was a lot younger!

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  3. That was a fascinating post! When I heard about her age I was a little shocked, but on reflection it does seem right (one of the on-line obituaries referred to her obsessive vagueness about birth dates). THE LIVER BIRDS and BLESS THIS HOUSE were way back in the '70s, but you don't think of her stuff as being quite that long ago.

    Both me and my sister used to love BUTTERFLIES. It was one of those comedy shows that was allowed to deal in slightly painful emotions whilst still being able to get belly laughs. Although BREAD seems to have been mentioned a lot on line and in the newspapers, I do feel that BUTTEFLIES was her finest hour. Nothing that she did afterwards ever quite lived up to it in my opinion (I can still remember something that a comedian or critic said about the Felicity Kendall vehicle SOLO...."Laughter, tears and a funny line in episode three.") That said, BREAD was a huge ratings hit, and I can still remember how the various characters and catchphrases entered into popular culture. It sounds like she overstretched herself financially a bit, creating various wildlife sanctuaries, but in the end why else have money if you're not going to use if for things that mean something to you?

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    1. I wonder if Butterflies is the one that will live of her work...
      She definitely had a thing about her age, and it was funny that even quite harmless questions would produce a silence, the whole family was encouraged to create a mist over the subject.
      I think she did what she believed in, and considered the money well spent - and, as you say, we can all respect that.

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  4. Utterly fascinating memories of a remarkable woman.One of the most interesting blog posts I've read in quite a while.

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    1. Thank you Martin, you have made my day. I hoped this would be of interest to others, and am glad it was. And I enjoyed thinking about the old days in Liverpool, which I know we have discussed before.

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  5. Lovely post. I used to like the Liver Birds when I was a kid, and even then sort of realised this was something different.

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    1. I'm not sure how well they would stand up now, but I think we can always give her enormous credit for how different those programmes were at the time.

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  6. The flat you had sounds lovely and it sounds like a great experience. I love those anecdotes. I don't know anything about Carla Lane or her writing, but she sounds like a character.

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    1. Very much a British success, and yes, very much a character. I enjoyed going over my memories....

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  7. Great story. Surprise, surprise (quoting another Scouser) I absolutely loathed Butterflies. Wendy Craig was uber-irritating. If you're gonna do it, do it....sh*t or get off the pot! Bread was better and Nerys Hughes was a bit of eye candy for a pre-pubescent boy in The Liver Birds. The other one was annoying.

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    1. When I was living in her house, some of my male friends would ask if there was any chance the lovely female actresses would be visiting for auditions or rehearsals... not very likely of course.

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