Lucy Gannon, TV drama writer, Playwright and former Derby resident
PUBLISHED: 14:04 26 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:16 20 February 2013
Renowned play and TV drama writer Lucy Gannon's first play for 20 years is to be premiered this month at Derby Theatre. Ashley Franklin talks to Lucy, the director and the cast members of 'Broken Hearted'
Soldier Soldier, Peak Practice, Bramwell, Big Cat, Hope & Glory, The Children ... are all TV dramas which have made Lucy Gannon one of this countrys most popular and respected small screen writers. This is a matter of some local pride: the majority of Lucys scripts were written during the 30 years she lived in Derby. Although she moved to South Wales five years ago to be near her daughters family, she still considers herself a Derby woman. Even now, if anyone asks me where I come from, I always say Derby, reveals Lucy. I regard it as my home town because its where I started writing and where I brought up my daughter. Also, I really care about the place. This explains why Lucy is thrilled that Broken Hearted, her first play in 20 years, is being premiered at Derby Theatre this month. Pete Meakin, Artistic Producer for Derby LIVE, who will be directing Broken Hearted, speaks of a great coup for the city as Derby LIVE endeavours to bring audiences back to the former Derby Playhouse after two years in the doldrums.
Coincidentally, three of the main actors in Broken Hearted have also made their name on television, and two of them are local. The central character of Nancy, whose life is thrown into disarray when her fianc dies just days before her wedding, will be played by Kathryn Hunt, who currently resides in Derby and is known for her substantial roles in Coronation Street, Fat Friends and Where The Heart Is. Cast as Nancys friend Will is Chesterfield-based Steven Blakeley, a former Derby Playhouse Community and Youth Theatre player who, over the last five years, has been a constant presence on our screen as PC Geoff Younger in ITVs Heartbeat. Also in the cast as Eddie, Nancys fianc, is Tom Craig who played husband to Kathryn Hunts Coronation Street character Angela Harris.
All three actors speak warmly of Lucy Gannons script for Broken Hearted. Her writing is poetic and her characters are fleshy, remarks Kathryn. Lucy knows all about character and writes sharp, witty and touching dialogue, enthuses Steven. When Lenny Henry came to play the headmaster in Lucy Gannons BBC 1 series Hope & Glory, he spoke admiringly of the fact that Lucy never flinches from life. Its invigorating to work with a writer whos so unafraid. Lucy gets her fingers into the guts of a story. Fellow actress Amanda Redman commented that when it comes to real people, Lucy is one of the best. These eulogies are all the more remarkable considering that it wasnt until 1987, at the age of 39, that Lucy began writing. Living frugally with husband George in a Chaddesden council house with no central heating, Lucy eyed a 2,000 first prize in the Richard Burton Award for New Playwrights. Out of 1,500 entries, her play Keeping Tom Nice won the prize. More remarkable still is that Lucy left school at 17 with no college education and had only been to the theatre once as an adult and that was only because I got free tickets, she points out.
I never expected to win as I knew nothing about plays but it amazed me to discover that I could write, recalls Lucy. After that, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I still didnt know if my writing was good, bad or indifferent but I did know it was exciting. Keeping Tom Nice was staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company who also appointed her Writer in Residence for six months, and eventually the play became her first TV drama starring Linus Roache as a father trying to cope with a disabled son. Theres no doubt that Lucys background as the daughter of a serving soldier based variously in Egypt, Cyprus and the UK and her experience as a military policewoman, residential social worker and nurse, have come through in her writing.
The first of 82 episodes of Soldier, Soldier starring Robson Greene and Jerome Flynn was screened in 1991, followed two years later by Peak Practice, which ran for 152 episodes over 10 years and was based and filmed locally. I have very fond memories of Wirksworth when we started making that series, says Lucy, that was probably my happiest time in Derbyshire. Her other long-lived TV drama Bramwell, starring Jemma Redgrave as a pioneering doctor of the late 19th century, was another popular success, lasting 17 episodes, and is a particular favourite of Lucys. Many awards have come Lucys way including the Susan Blackburn Prize for English Language women playwrights in 1990, the Prix Europe, the Women in Television Award and a BAFTA Cymru plus a coveted MBE. Lucy, however, isnt greatly concerned about awards, remarking frankly that I dont write for critics or accolades. I write about things I know for audiences I know. The people who watch and commission me value me.
Pete Meakin has valued Lucys work from the time he appeared in Wicked Old Nellie, the second play she wrote which was staged at Derby Playhouse Studio over 20 years ago and toured to sell-out audiences. Lucys hallmark qualities were in evidence even then, says Pete, and thats vivid characterisation combined with wholly realistic dialogue. Lucy says she had been following the ups and downs of drama in Derby in recent years and had promised Pete Meakin that she would do whatever I could to help bring theatre back to the city. Lucy sent Pete the first act of an unfinished play which had been sitting neglected on my shelf .
He loved it, says Lucy. Trouble was, I didnt know where this story was going and, when Pete pencilled me in, I spent three months reading and re-reading Act One, worrying and swearing quietly under my breath. In the end, theres nothing quite like a deadline for sharpening the senses, so I sat down, gritted my teeth and got down to it.
Although Broken Hearted is about a woman in turmoil following her fiancs death, the play is, according to Lucy, a comedy. Well, I hope it is, remarks Lucy. Pete Meakin says it is, so if it isnt, blame him.
Yes, its incredibly funny but also very poignant, says Pete. Whats more, characters are the heartbeat of good theatre and these characters leap off the page.
As for her own character, Kathryn Hunt cant wait to start working on the part: Nancy is full of life and passion and will trample over anyone to get what she wants. The more I read her, the richer she gets.
Although a comedy, Broken Hearted takes time to explore the nature of grief. As Kathryn Hunt explains: Theres a dichotomy in the drama in that Nancy prefers the memory of her fianc rather than the real person. This is an aspect of life that intrigues Lucy: When somebody dies and youre missing them terribly, you start painting them as something perfect and actually youre doing them a disservice because the great value of humanity is its flaws. We should love our little traits and ludicrous bits. Take my three granddaughters. What I love about them the most is their weirdness. I treasure them for that. If they were perfect, they would be boring.
Lucy touches on the death of her own husband which she had to cope with while embarking on the writing of Peak Practice: I spent years not being able to talk about George without crying it drove me mad. It was like an automotive response. But there comes a time when you have to say come on, get on with life. You have to conquer those tears.
Listening to Lucy, one gets the feeling that her central character, ever ready to speak her mind, is mirrored in the author. Theres no shortage of forthright opinion when it comes to Lucys feelings about the importance of theatre and her growing disillusion with television which has brought her back to writing plays. People talk about theatre dying, says Lucy. Look at the West End its not dying at all. Its television thats dying. Drama is the only thing that can make you step outside yourself and explore somebody elses life. TV is doing that only rarely these days. New writers are going through hell with TV and a lot of good drama isnt being made. Ive just done a single drama for the BBC which was liked and accepted by one producer and two executives. It then went to the head of the channel who wasnt sure she wanted it. That drama consumed six months of my life and it will probably never get on TV all because of one person. OK, Ive been paid for writing it but thats not the point. You write drama to have it made. Its like cooking the perfect meal that nobody eats.
Lucy has clearly enjoyed writing a stage play free of the shackles imposed by television. What youll get from Broken Hearted is the authors voice, warts and all, speaking to you, an audience she knows, she affirms. This is not a slick formatted drama created for some anonymous focus group; and there are no advertisers demanding that the drama must appeal to the lowest common denominator. Its about an ordinary woman and especially about the tenacity of humour which demands that even in the slough of despond, something will make us laugh and remind us that life is worth living.
Lucy admits that she watches little home-produced TV, preferring American dramas. I love House especially, she says. Medically, its a load of tosh but its got fantastic characters, great production values and it carries you along without also treating its audience like idiots. Yet, for all that, House would never have got made in this country. Lucy hopes that people who normally prefer to sit at home watching TV will come to Derby Theatre. For Lucy, however good her play proves to be, it will flop if only a few see it: If people dont come, they could lose this theatre; and if we allow theatre to languish, itll be so sad for our generation. Itll be tragic for kids because there are children out there who want to act, write, tell big stories and explore emotions. A healthy theatre creates controversy, provokes thought and feeds ideas. And if theres no theatre for that, were lost.
As for Lucy, she will continue to write her big stories. She cant help it its become addictive. Im always working on something, she declares. Even when Im not sitting at the keyboard, Im reading the papers, thinking about things, getting worked up about something. People ask me why I dont take holidays. You cant have holidays because you take your office with you. Its in your head the whole time, and theres so much to say. The world is full of stories.
And if Broken Hearted is a success, will she write another story for Derby Theatre? It means an awful lot bringing this play to Derby, says Lucy, so if asked, I would love to write another one.
Broken Hearted opens at the Derby Theatre on Friday 7th May and runs until 29th May. Box office:
t: 01332 255800 www.derbylive.co.uk
The best thing about living in the county: The people and their humour.
Favourite place: I would walk my bulldog around Carsington Water in the winter, and in the summer wed plod happily along the trail at Black Rocks, or along the old railway track above Wirksworth, along the Hopton Incline, where the views are wonderful or maybe wed go to Darley Park and sometimes wed well, spoilt for choice.
Favourite building: I really like the sweep of The Council House. I know its not an obvious choice but I like its unashamed grandeur, its self importance. It reminds me of the bloke who moved to Derby from some less well-endowed place. He was being given a tour of the city by a friend who pointed to the imposing building ahead of them. That, he said proudly, Is the Council House. Bloody hell, said the newcomer. Ive got my name down for one of those.
Favourite shops: I did love the antique shops in Ashbourne especially Spurrier Smiths, where there are always interesting and authentic things to look at and drool over and the person behind the counter is always knowledgeable and good humoured.
Favourite actor/actress: TV, stage or film where do I start? Kevin Whately, David Morrissey, Lenny Henry, Lesley Sharp, Richard Briers...
Favourite playwright or TV drama writer: A short list would include John Mortimer, because of his language and his heart, Michael Frayn because hes so witty, and Frank McGuinness who is for my money the greatest living playwright. TV writers? Alan Bleasdale, Jimmy McGovern.
Favourite stage play: Voyage Around My Father by John Mortimer
Favourite TV drama of the last decade The Sopranos.