Monday 19 March 2018

Obituary: Carla Lane

Comedy scriptwriter and animal rights activist who created sitcoms 'The Liver Birds', 'Butterflies' and 'Bread'

Liver birds: From left, Carla Lane, Nerys Hughes and Polly James Photo: PA
Liver birds: From left, Carla Lane, Nerys Hughes and Polly James Photo: PA
Carla Lane was also an animal rights activist Photo: PA

Carla Lane, who died last Tuesday aged 87, created The Liver Birds, Butterflies and Bread, classic television sitcoms that crowned her the most successful woman writer in British television comedy. She was also a prominent, if eccentric, campaigner for animal rights.

No television writer became more accomplished at lightly rueful reflections on the cliches of English middle-class family life, although it was Carla Lane's excursion into the netherworld of Liverpool scallywags in Bread (1987-91) that marked her out as a true original.

Having flaunted 1960s popular Liverpool culture in The Liver Birds, she became the first woman to mine television comedy from sexual and personal relationships through a gallery of expertly etched contemporary characters, developed against a backdrop of social issues such as divorce, adultery and, in one of her later works, alcoholism.

Unemployment was the underlying theme to Bread, which excited mixed feelings in Carla Lane's native city with its stereotypical depictions of a sprawling family of streetwise, dole-fiddling, scrounging Scousers. Never one to rely on straightforward wisecracks, Carla Lane infused her scripts with the humour created by sharply drawn characters and narratives that were more realistic than the typical bland sitcom of the 1950s and 1960s.

Although not an instant success, within little more than a year Bread had climbed to the top of the ratings. Freighted with humorous observation and nifty phrase-making, Carla Lane's scripts drew an unflinching but affectionate portrait of the Boswells (a smarter and more endearing television clan than the cartoon Simpsons, which they partly resembled), to become "as deeply a part of British TV culture as the denizens of Coronation Street".

What kept the series on the boil was Carla Lane's rich infusion of folksy philosophy and the way the family invariably returned (after often extravagantly aberrant detours) to the values of its redoubtable matriarchal heroine, Nellie Boswell (played by Jean Boht). With more than 11 million viewers, Bread was only trumped in the ratings by EastEnders and Neighbours.

Some, however, considered the bittersweet Butterflies (1978-83), with its subversive theme of unfulfilled, adulterous yearnings, to be Carla Lane's most successful series. She managed to maintain an upbeat mood while exploring overwhelming marital boredom and frustration, as her middle-class heroine Ria (Wendy Craig) contemplates an affair. In 1979, when the format was sold to American television, Carla Lane flew to Los Angeles to work on the script, but was gravely disappointed with the pilot and a series was never made.

In Solo (1981-82), Felicity Kendal was cast against type, after her submissive character in The Good Life, to portray a woman seeking a more assertive role as a successful singleton, a quest that Carla Lane handled with a characteristically light touch.

But amid the triumphs, there were duds. No Strings (1974), starring Rita Tushingham and Keith Barron, commissioned as a series on the strength of a promising pilot for Comedy Playhouse, guttered after six episodes.

The Mistress (1985), again starring Felicity Kendal in the title role, also disappointed, amounting, in the opinion of the Daily Telegraph's Richard Last, to "a waste of two outstanding talents".

In the same year, Carla Lane's excursion into darker comedy territory, in I Woke Up One Morning (1985), depicted a group of recovering alcoholics drying out in hospital, a scenario beyond the ken of a teetotal writer, and the show was pulled after two short series.

In Screaming (1992), a trio of angst-ridden women of a certain age determined to do without men, while each remained secretly in love with the same one. Critics objected to Carla Lane's overt, old-fashioned feminism and after a tabloid mauling, she declined to write a second series.

Since 1965, Carla Lane had been not only a vegetarian but a vociferous campaigner for animal rights. "I can't understand why people kill and eat animals," she insisted.

In 1990, she formed an animal trust, Animal Line, with her friend Linda McCartney and the Liverpool-born actress Rita Tushingham. "Basically, I'm a loony," she declared, "but it's the best way to be with all the horrible things going on in the world."

Carla Lane was born Romana Barrack on August 5, 1928, the daughter of DeVinci Barrack, a 19-year-old Italian engineer in the Merchant Navy.

She started writing as a child, winning her first award for a school poem published in the Liverpool Echo when she was seven. After an unhappy spell at a Liverpool convent, she left school aged 14 and was working as a nurse when she married three years later.

While bringing up her two young sons, she wrote short stories for local newspapers and radio scripts, and joined a writer's workshop in Liverpool, where she met Myra Taylor.

With her new friend, Carla Lane wrote a series of bizarre comic sketches Up, Down, All Around, and sent it to the BBC's head of comedy, Michael Mills.

"Give me something I can understand," he replied. "Or not totally beyond my imagination." Mills had discerned a hidden comic talent.

The two Liverpool housewives came up with The Liver Birds, about two single Liverpudlian girls, Beryl and Sandra, sharing a flat. After a pilot was floated in the Comedy Playhouse strand in April 1969, a series of four (in black and white) debuted the following July, a week after the first Moon landing. Reaction was muted. A disappointed Mills declined a second series and Carla Lane's agents wrote to say that they did not feel she had any potential as a writer.

Her response was to lock herself in her room and write, unaided and unedited, a single episode of The Liver Birds. In it, Beryl (Polly James) wanted to spend the night with a man, and Sandra (Pauline Collins, later to be replaced by Nerys Hughes) was appalled. Carla Lane sent it to Mills, who replied with a handwritten note: "Six more. By yesterday. Love, Michael."

Carla Lane had tapped into the zeitgeist. "This was a breakthrough period for young, single women following centuries of repression," noted the television writer Mark Lewisohn. "They had independence, both sexual and financial, and the opportunity to live life as they wanted it and Carla Lane's scripts reflected this admirably, as well as sketching the uncertainties and philosophies of being single when everyone else seemed to be married."

Already, her ability to conjure "laughs out of pathos" and life's "little tragedies", as she called them, was becoming apparent. From series three, in 1972, Carla Lane and Myra Taylor wrote unencumbered by script editors, but Taylor left the writing partnership shortly afterwards, leaving Carla Lane in sole charge. In all, The Liver Birds ran for 87 episodes, including a revival in 1996.

In 1988, the year in which Bread topped the Christmas ratings, Carla Lane bought the Grade II Zoffany House on the Thames at Strand-on-the-Green, once occupied by the portrait artist John Zoffany, for £675,000.

In 1991, she bought the tiny inhabited island of St Tudwal's East, off Abersoch on the north Wales coast, to rescue its starving wildlife, mainly deer, and built a stone circle there to commemorate the animals which had not survived winter food shortages. At around the same time, she moved from London to establish a menagerie at a 50-room Elizabethan manor house in Sussex.

An unexpected tax demand in 1993 coincided with the launch of Luv, a sitcom she had written about a wealthy, middle-aged Liverpudlian couple whose marriage has failed, but it was a feeble effort for a writer with such an impressive track record. Nor did Searching, her 1995 series for ITV, succeed in restoring her early reputation.

Latterly, she returned to live with her family in Liverpool, wistfully recalling "my rich days" and reflecting on her reversal of fortune.

Although she considered a way with words to be her only gift, she was ashamed to admit that she had never read a book from beginning to end.

Appointed OBE in 1989, she returned the insignia in 2002 in protest at the CBE awarded to Brian Cass, head of Huntingdon Life Sciences, which runs laboratories where drugs are tested on animals. She received a handwritten note from Tony Blair, saying she could have it back at any time she cared to ask. She never did.

Obsessively opaque about her real age, she invariably rolled forward her birth date by as much as nine years.

Carla Lane married Eric Hollins, a naval architect, when she was 17. The couple divorced in 1981 and she is survived by two sons of the marriage.

© Telegraph

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