Sunday 23 October 2016

From epic theatrical passions to second act as a class writer

An early scribbler before she became a well-known actress, Carol Drinkwater recalls how she turned her love of words into a successful second career

Published 17/10/2016 | 02:30

Carol Drinkwater is an award-winning actress turned novelist and film-maker. Photo: Tony Gavin
Carol Drinkwater is an award-winning actress turned novelist and film-maker. Photo: Tony Gavin

From the age of four, I yearned to be an actress. I dreamed of the stage, of bright lights, applause. Before I was born, during WWII, my father was a member of the RAF Gang Show.

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On his side of the family, there were relatives who had performed in variety shows and light entertainment for generations.

My mother hoped I would follow her into medicine. She had travelled from Co Laois to be trained as a nurse and, later, ward sister during London's Blitz. But I couldn't stand the sight of blood, and I wanted epic passions, theatrical emotions rather than light entertainment.

I was regularly in trouble, in hot water, for some tiny misdemeanour or other and my parents took to banishing me to the spare bedroom. Within the room was a decent-sized wooden platform which I used as 'my stage'.

It also contained rails of second-hand clothes my father had acquired for his theatrical agency, which included a fancy dress department. These mothball-ridden garments became my costumes.

At some point, around the age of six or seven, I was given a huge circular jigsaw puzzle with a picture of Shakespeare's head at its centre and an image of each of the plays encircling it. To accompany this, I was gifted a complete works of Shakespeare. (That tired old copy still sits in my library).

At that point, in my solitary room of banishment, I had all I needed to read, to enact the works, playing every role myself. All I still required was a foolscap notebook and pens to write down all the words I didn't recognise or understand. Thus began lists of words.

A natural progression was to jot down lines and sentences that pleased me, that fired me with their power and poetry. From then it was only one step to composing my own rather sorry sonnets.

By the age of 10 I had written my first play. Sherwood Forest. Maid Marian was the leading character. Robin Hood a supporting role.

I mounted a production of it, casting girls from my class at the convent where I was being educated, borrowing and begging props and costumes.

I played Marian, of course, and directed it. We performed it to the entire school and it seemed to be well received.

From there, I took it 'on tour' to a few local retirement and convalescent homes. I am not sure that any of the patients had a clue what it was all about.

I remember their bemused faces as I pranced about, declaiming text, arms flung wide.

After that I scribbled constantly. Short stories; poetry riddled with teenage angst; early chapters for fiction books. I also began to keep diaries, many of which I still have.

I studied acting at Drama Centre, London. It offered a tremendous range of subjects from Greek drama to modern day.

The professors, several of whom had trained in New York at Lee Strasberg's Studio for Method Acting, encouraged us fledglings to create the back stories for the characters we were to portray.

This really resonated with me; I delivered reams on the lives of the women I was cast as. It was a terrific opportunity to research the details of any period of history I was working on: Elizabethan England, Jacobean tragedies.

I loved the research and, in those years before internet, spent hours in libraries.

Once out of drama school in the professional world of TV, film and theatre, I never lost the habit of writing the lives of my characters. Fiction, stories from my imagination, were bound to follow. It's been a thrilling journey so far.

Carol Drinkwater is an actress and film maker. She is best known for her portrayal of Helen Herriot in the television adaptation of the James Herriot books All Creatures Great and Small. She is also the author of 21 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and has achieved bestselling status - over a million copies sold worldwide - with her quartet of memoirs set on her olive farm in the south of France.

The resulting travel books, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree, were best-sellers and inspired a five-part documentary film series. Carol Drinkwater's three short stories released as Kindle Singles have reached the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Forgotten Summer by Carol Drinkwater is published by Penguin €10.99.

Exclusive extract: Villagers looked heavenwards with sombre eyes

'Jane lifted her eyes skywards, shielding them with her hand against the rays, rubbing the back of her wrist across her brow, sticky with perspiration and dust.  No storm or temperamental atmospheric conditions had been forecast. Luc and Clarisse would have postponed the launch of the vendange until it had blown itself out, if it had been reported on the méteo. They would have been checking for this and checking again.

Several of the foreign pickers were giggling. They were losing concentration. Wine and fatigue. A weather drama promised a bit of excitement to break up the punishing drudge of the day. The villagers looked heavenwards with sombre eyes, lifting off their hats, unfurling their cotton scarves, dabbing at their foreheads. This did not bode well, the wind swirling, like rushing water, in the crowns of the high trees bordering the vineyards. The harvest could be at risk, fruit damaged, if the signs in the sky delivered on their louring threat. And a ruined harvest meant trouble for the estate's already struggling economy, for its profile, for the contracted wine deliveries. Not good for the region's terroir. Its reputation. It was already a challenge to pick when the days had grown so hot, temperatures soaring: 30ºC to 32ºC in the fields, meant 35ºC on the vines. It shocked the grapes when they arrived at the winery to be crushed and their juice was plunged into vats regulated at 14ºC.

Clarisse should have ordered the picking to be done at night, as these hired men on their own smallholdings might have done in the old days. But Clarisse Cambon was not a Provençal. She was a different breed. A woman with a face full of make up living on the periphery of their lives. Not God-fearing, like their own tidy wives. Full of self-importance. And loose morals, it used to be whispered in the villages. Madame didn't have their feel for the land. Her sister-in-law, though, the spinster, Isabelle, God rest her soul, she had known better. She had learned the business the hard way: out on the land, digging with her own hands.

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