My days with Birds of a Feather

Writer Sue Teddern has an enviable CV: from The Archers and My Family to more than a dozen episodes of Birds of a Feather and a string of radio plays. She tells Steven Russell she’d now love to set a drama in East Anglia

The first series of went out last November on Radio 4 – only then it was called Between then and now it became apparent a company had snaffled that name for their website, so it now is. The two main characters are constant, though: played by Maxine Peake (Twinkle in Victoria Wood’s dinnerladies and Veronica in Channel 4’s Shameless) and Kris Marshall (one of the sons in early series of My Family and the guy marrying an older lady with children in the BT ads).

Tom and Rosie meet on a website for lone parents and an unlikely long-distance friendship develops through chatrooms, emails, forums, texts, answerphone messages and phone calls. They don’t actually meet in series one. Will that change in the second series? ( goes out in 15-minute episodes on BBC Radio 4 from August 23-27: at 10.45am and repeated at 7.45pm.)

“Tom and Rosie have been ‘with me’ forever, and I absolutely know everything about them and how they would speak,” says Sue, who has hopes of a TV version. “Tom is self-deprecating and she bites your head off, in a funny way.”

The writer was thrilled when Peake was cast. The actress is a real trouper. Her train broke down on the way into London for recording and passengers had to climb down a ladder at Chalk Farm and be taken by coach to Euston. “She arrived, went straight into the studio, and off she went. She’d done series one, so knew her character, and was professional and knew her script. She was brilliant.

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“That’s what actors are like. Pauline Quirke last year brought cake in for everyone and was brilliant – chats to the women in the canteen and the doorman.” Last summer, Pauline starred in Sue’s Radio 4 Afternoon Play about a woman from Orpington who sends audio tapes to a pen pal on Death Row. “She’s so personable. That’s why I’ve got her in mind for this East Anglian idea, one of the central roles, because I’d like to work with her again.”

The writer and actress worked on the BBC comedy show Birds of a Feather in the 1990s, too.

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Born in 1954, Sue grew up near Wembley, “Too young to be a hippie, too old to be a punk! I think there’s a song that says that, isn’t there?”

Not artistic as such, but with keen visual awareness, she went to college at 16 to study window-dressing, and then worked for John Lewis and Littlewoods – “by which time I secretly wanted to write. I wanted to be a journalist, but I didn’t want to start on the local papers; they all said I was too old, at 20!”

Instead, she became a secretary and worked for magazines such as New Scientist and Woman’s Own to get a foot in the door, and as a sub-editor on Ideal Home. For several years she was a feature writer and then spent four years in Holland on an in-flight magazine.

“When I lived in Amsterdam I had a TV but it didn’t have many English channels, so I listened to Radio 4 a lot and got addicted to The Archers.” Her editor, who knew about this passion, sent her to Birmingham to write an article on the BBC radio soap. This was in the early 1980s.

“When I got back, I thought ‘I’d like to do this.’ (Write for radio.) So I wrote to the producer and he said ‘Have a go.’ I wrote while in Amsterdam – which was very surreal, sitting in my old, very scruffy, canal-house top-floor flat.” She wrote a week’s episodes.

Back in London, on a new magazine called Mizz and now aiming to write seriously for radio and TV, Sue thought she’d be snapped up to do more Archers . . . and wasn’t. She did get some, but remembers getting a continuity issue seriously wrong. A couple of characters had broken up, but she hadn’t realised. “So they never asked me back!”

On the plus side, there were radio plays. Her first, Sauce, was broadcast in 1991. A second was “rejected practically by return of post . . .”

By then working as a freelance feature writer, she interviewed Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks, creators of Birds of a Feather. They wanted a team to write the second series and Sue quips that her radio credits got her a place virtually as a token woman in a Tottenham-supporting “very boysy sort of world”.

The team would usually meet at a hotel and thrash out story ideas – where main characters Sharon and Tracey were going with their lives and what their latest money-making schemes might be – and then finalise details of the episodes and decide who was going to write each one.

It was fun, Sue says. They were rewarding characters to write for, the cast was skilled, “and you knew they’d pick your scripts up and run with them”.

Looking back at her episodes, she recognises that while there are things she’d do differently, she’s also pleased to see much stands the test of time.

Favourite line?

“There’s one where Dorien (played by Lesley Joseph) talks about having children and says ‘You can either have children or beige carpets; I opted for beige carpets.’ Dorien was always a bit of a sad character, I thought.

“I had a line – ‘He’s the sort of bloke that wears an anorak over his suit’ – that I always thought was hilarious, and a nice observation, but it’s not going to get a studio audience laughing. Studio audiences like physical stuff – people falling over.

“People always remember an episode that a guy called Geoff Deane wrote, of Dorien singing I Will Survive on karaoke, because that was very physical and funny. I had one with Sharon losing weight, and jogging, and running past a boy eating chips and going hwmmmmmwwhh (she breathes in deeply). That’s what they liked. If we think about Only Fools and Horses, it’s the physical stuff we remember, like the chandelier episode.”

Birds of a Feather occupied Sue for much of the 1990s. She was thrilled to be involved with such a successful sitcom and it opened lots of doors, including landing an agent. After 13 episodes she opted to concentrate on other projects.

One had been bubbling for much of the ’90s – either parked on the back-burner or apparently about to be picked up by a network. A pilot of Happy Together, starring Sue Johnston and Lynda Bellingham, was broadcast on ITV in 2001 and was quite well-received, but didn’t lead to a series. “This is the stuff of one’s writing career: things that almost happen and don’t!” smiles Sue, wryly. “I had a good decade, though!”

Another possible that didn’t make it past infancy was a Jo Brand-inspired sitcom called Sister Frances that saw the comedian play a nun. “I did all the structure and slow-burn jokes; she did all the quick-fire stuff. So we were quite a good team.” It was made but not broadcast. Again, Sue thought there was some promise.

“When her character was talking to God, God had the voice of (gravelly-voiced comedian) Arthur Smith. When a rather straitlaced nun was talking to God, he had the voice of (clipped TV art critic) Brian Sewell. I thought that was hilarious, but audiences didn’t quite see it.”

Sue had a decent line going with script-editing and reading. She also spent much of the time between 2002 and 2007 at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Creative Writing & Arts as screenwriter-in-residence and teaching the “Developing a Screenplay” MA module.

“I had to learn a lot myself. I hadn’t been to university; didn’t even know what a seminar was! So I put an awful lot of effort into that, and I think in retrospect I let my writing career fall by the wayside a little.”

Along the way she started writing again for radio: from a six-part comedy about a woman obsessed with Western movies to a series of stories about three women staying in a mobile home, and a comedy about five friends and family on a walking holiday along the Welsh borders.

In 2006 there were a few weeks on My Family. The showrunner was Tom Anderson, “the funniest man I’ve come across”, who had worked on Cheers. “It was like dancing with the person who’d danced with the president!”

The method of working was a bit different. “They’d have a hardcore of writers for the whole thing. Then they’d bring in ‘hired guns’ (like her) for the weeks of recording, to rewrite and add jokes if things needed doing – round a table with lots of pizza! You were all there to contribute. There would be this guy sitting with a laptop and a big screen above, so you could see what he was typing, and you’d chip in and say ‘No, it shouldn’t be a snowman but a snowball.’ You’d be writing it together on this big screen. So it was an amazing experience; but it required really quick wit.”

Sue admired the approach, even if having to come up with instant quips didn’t suit her style.

“Men are far more competitive, and want to out-gag each other. I am competitive, but I just couldn’t do it fast enough. Then it made me self-conscious, and I’d think ‘Come on! I’ve been quiet for 20 minutes now!’

“You had to be funny. That was hard and continues to be hard. I can do it, obviously, but I sometimes have to think a bit. I’m not someone who comes up with snappy one-liners straight away. I do think it’s a gender thing. When I briefly worked on My Family, there were only two of us who were women. In the room, I could look at structural holes and at the logic of it, but if I needed to add gags I had to go away and do that. I just can’t think of a joke off the cuff.”

Nowadays, as well as writing for radio, Sue is pushing ahead with a number of possible TV projects, including a notion for a sitcom. Perhaps might make the leap from radio to screen.

That idea about something with an East Anglian flavour is also inching forward. (Sue’s written outlines for the first episode and a whole series, and has presented her suggestion to a producer. Fingers crossed.)

Radio still has the power to thrill her as a wordsmith, however. With the stories mapped out, and with the bit between her teeth, Sue managed to complete an episode of a day, for instance.

“A radio play has the sort of cerebral element you get from a novel but it’s also got the cinematic qualities you get from a film, and it’s got the theatrical element as well. I think radio is the bastard child of all those media, which is why it overlaps more than anything else does. They say radio paints the best scenery, so you won’t find anyone more enthusiastic about it than me.”

For a writer, it’s thrilling knowing the audience is in the dark about the twists and turns, revelations and surprises, you have up your sleeve.

“The week I wrote for The Archers . . . no, I probably shouldn’t tell that story . . .” Oh, go on. “The producer encouraged me to make one of the characters have a very bad dose of pneumonia, just to give the actor . . .” What – a bit of a scare? To remind him he shouldn’t take anything for granted? “I didn’t know the politics of it. I think that was the motive. It was an actor who wasn’t in it for very long, years ago. He suddenly recovered in the last episode!”

A learning experience

TEACHING has become a major part of Sue Teddern’s world. Not only is it financially helpful, it also plucks one from the comfort zone and presents new challenges – which is healthy for creative types. She’s tutored on writing courses run by the Arvon Foundation, taught at the University of Exeter and done bits and bobs at other colleges. Currently she’s teaching radio drama to MA students at the Central School of Speech and Drama – hence the 18 radio plays she has to mark this summer!

A big coup was becoming a Royal Literary Fund fellow. Sue’s just spent the past academic year at the University of Essex, working two days a week with students seeking help with written work. It was hugely fulfilling, if a little scary at first.

“My first student was trying to write the third draft of a thesis about an obscure subject. Her English was poor and I didn’t really know how to help or what to say, because it felt I was rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Then I realised that a lot of what students don’t know is the stuff of planning, of reading, of structuring. So I taught them a script-writing technique where you put all your scenes on index cards and then move them around. So they now had a technique for structuring their essays.”

Sometimes she’d find herself teaching the kind of English grammar most of us don’t know by heart . . . after quickly brushing up on definitions of things like definite articles! “Prepositions are hard for foreign students particularly. How do you choose the right word for sit on, walk under, come to? It’s hard.

“Once I realised what I could offer them, that was different than what an academic could offer, it was great. I wasn’t there to discuss content; it was more ‘You could express this differently’; ‘You’ve got a really interesting point here’; ‘Don’t you think that ought to be your opening paragraph?’”

With any student free to make an appointment, Sue could find herself considering anything from the novels of Anita Desai and medical terminology she never thought she’d hear herself reading out loud to a dissertation on the ill-fated US mortgage companies Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. “I didn’t understand a word of it, but he got a distinction!” she says of the latter. “I learned that I can go through essays with students, and help them, without having to understand it!”

This autumn Sue moves to the University of East Anglia in Norwich in the same role. Those locations were and are handily placed (ish) to the home in the Waveney Valley where she lives with husband Edward, who works in housing. They had their first date on one of the anti-Iraq war demonstrations, and married just over two years ago. Sue still has a flat in Finsbury Park – useful when she needs to be in London.

She’s very happy with the balance of life. “I thought I was a writer who teachers – I didn’t want to be a teacher who writes – but I think at the moment it’s exactly 50/50, and that’s fine.”

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