Suffolk writer Jan Etherington pens Radio 4 comedy for Joanna Lumley

Jan Etherington, pictured with Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam. Picture: MATT STRONGE

Jan Etherington, pictured with Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam recording the first series of Conversations From A Long Marriage in 2019 - Credit: Matt Stronge

For Suffolk writer Jan Etherington, lockdown has been something of a mixed blessing. She has experienced the same ‘trapped’ feeling that we all have but it has also provided material for the second series of her Radio 4 comedy Conversations From A Long Marriage which returns for a new series on December 30.

Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam pictured on a fire escape

Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam who star in the Radio 4 comedy Conversations From A Long Marriage which returns on December 30 at 6.30pm - Credit: Tricia Yourkevich

Starring Joanna Lumley and RSC and National Theatre actor Roger Allam, the series takes a lively look at how a couple communicates after 30 years of marriage, how they continue to enjoy each other’s company and yet still have the capacity to drive each other insane.

Speaking from her home in Walberswick, Jan says that the inspiration for the series came from her own life experiences and, although it is not autobiographical, there are scenes and elements which have been drawn from her own long relationship with husband and writing partner Gavin Petrie.

“It’s an affectionate look at how relationships work over a long period of time and how people drive each other mad and then make up and rediscover why they first fell for one another all those years ago.”

Jan Etherington with her dog Jagger on Walberswick beach Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Jan Etherington with her dog Jagger on Walberswick beach - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

The second series of Conversations From A Long Marriage, which was recorded by Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam in separate studios during lockdown, acknowledges Covid as the elephant in the room while not allowing it to dominate the narrative.

“At first we thought that a vaccine would be quickly found or it would die off during the summer but as that clearly didn’t happen, the BBC felt that we should at least acknowledge that the pandemic was happening so we changed the sort of things that they were able to as the year unfolds.”

Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam in a recording studio

Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam recording the first series of Conversations From A Long Marriage written by Suffolk writer Jan Etherington - Credit: Jan Etherington

This latest series, bolstered by glowing reviews from the first series that went out last January, has been promoted to Radio 4’s prime-time 6.30pm spot which Jan is delighted about. “It’s the recognized comedy slot so we should pick up even more listeners. Before it went out at 11.30am which meant you either to be at home or out driving in the car to hear it. Now, more people can catch up with the lives of our nameless couple.”

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Jan explains that it was an intentional move on her part not to name the characters brought to life so memorably by Lumley and Allam. “Firstly, I really don’t like that radio convention where the names of characters are casually dropped into the dialogue – “Hello Kate, come in. Phil darling, it’s Kate at the door” it sounds contrived and awful, so I deliberately wanted to steer away from that

“But, I also wanted to make my couple ‘universal’ – I wanted people to listen in and recognize themselves, relive situations that they had been in or hear conversations that they had had being repeated back to them on the radio. So, if my couple had names it would prevent listeners from fully accepting that the pair in the drama could be them.”

multiple camera shots on recording studios

A zoom capture showing Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam in separate recording studios for the second socially distanced series of Conversations From A Long Marriage - Credit: Jan Etherington

It turns out that this process of identification isn’t restricted to older listeners either. “When we were recording a 21 year old production assistant, told me after we had finished one scene: ‘I had exactly that conversation with my girlfriend this morning,’ which pleased me no end.”

The series was born out of Jan’s desire to write for older characters that still embraced life and was written with Joanna Lumley in mind. “When Jo said she would do it, it was perfect. All along I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing that role, saying those lines, so it was fantastic.

“When we asked her who she would like to play opposite, she suggested Roger Allam and I thought that was perfect because he has that seductive, world-weary voice that commands your attention. When he agreed to do it, we had the perfect cast. They are the perfect partnership and you can imagine they have been together for 30 years. They are very capable delivering both laughter and tears.”

Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam on a sofa

Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam, stars of Jan Etherington's Radio 4 comedy Conversations From A Long Marriage, pictured before the age of Covid - Credit: Matt Stronge

She’s hopeful that a third series will be commissioned early in the New Year. “I think it is so important to present a positive, active image of older people. I’ve no time for portraying people in their 60s and 70s as being dowdy, drab, being one step away from a hospital bed.

“Joanna is in her 70s and no-one would accuse her of being a doddery OAP, she’s bold, out there, engaging with the world. She’s my generation. We came of age during the Summer of Love, our lives came together at music festivals. We were born to a pop music soundtrack and we are still out there, living a life.”

As Conversations From A Long Marriage gets underway on Radio 4, Jan will be busying herself finding a way to bring her new stage play, All 4 One, to a new audience. It was written for Theatre on the Coast, the summer theatre in Southwold, in August.

Jan Etherington and Joanna Lumley sitting outside reading scripts

Jan Etherington and Joanna Lumley conducting an open air read through of the scripts for the new series of Conversations From A Long Marriage - Credit: Jan Etherington

The story brings together The Queen, Prince Phillip, Prince Charles, William and Harry for an ‘emergency conference’ at Sandringham as The Queen fears that her family is drifting apart.

“Harry is forced to explain why he’s not spending Christmas at Sandringham. It’s not a Queen demanding answers but rather a grandmother wanting to know why the family is going its separate ways on what should be an important family occasion.

“Harry says: ‘There will be other Christmases,’ and the Queen fixes him with a look and says: ‘Maybe not for me.’ It’s a play which shows the Royal Family as human. A real family with its own dynamics away from the glare of public life.”

There is the possibility of a UK tour and Jan is also exploring the possibility of turning it into a radio play. 

Jan has always written comedy, having started young contributing to her school magazine. Her early career, as a journalist, began on music magazines and continued through features, humorous columns and star interviews for major newspapers and magazines. She is still works as a freelance newspaper writer, contributing travel, features and comment articles to many national newspapers and magazines, including a monthly column to the EADT’s Suffolk magazine.

Jan Etherington and husband Gavin Petrie turned from journalism to scriptwriting in 1987 when they won the Radio Times Comedy award and  launched their first situation comedy Second Thoughts on BBC Radio 4 with James Bolam, Lynda Bellingham, Julia Sawalha.

Over the next 30 years the pair have penned a number of popular TV sitcoms and radio plays including: Next of Kin (starring Penelope Keith), The Change, Duck Patrol (Richard Wilson and David Tennant), and Faith in the Future with Lynda Bellingham, Julia Sawalha and Jeff Rawle. Jan has also written for Ayres on the Air (Pam Ayres).

In addition Jan is also working with the Ink Festival, Halesworth’s new writing festival which returns in April.

Conversations From A Long Marriage, starring Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam, returns to Radio 4 with six new episodes from Wednesday December 30 at 6.30pm.