The phone rang. “Hello,” said a Yorkshire voice. “it’s Alan Bennett.” I was about to say “Stop messing about. Who is it?” when it dawned on me that it could really be him. After all, hadn’t I asked Faber to ask him to give me a call? I wanted an interview for the programme to complement a production of The Lady in the Van at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick.
I apologised to Bennett for disturbing him as he worked – or failed to work – on a new project. “I’m staring out of the window a great deal,’’ he said. “But then a lot of my time is spent like that. If I was up to something, I wouldn’t be ringing you in the middle of the afternoon.”
I’ve been writing programme notes for Theatre by the Lake since baling out of the Guardian 12 years ago (I’d reported on too many murders) but now I’m writing nothing. Theatre by the Lake, which, to the delight of its head of marketing, was once described by the Independent as the friendliest and most beautifully located theatre in Britain, is, like so many others, silent, dark, in hibernation, waiting for the day when it is safe for 500 people to sit together in two auditoriums.
And even when lights dim and curtains rise again all over the country, it may be that I will never write another note. As Susanna Clapp wrote in the Observer recently: “When information about cast and production is easily available… it will soon become apparent that most paper programmes… are ridiculously overpriced and inadequate.”
Ouch. Theatre by the Lake’s programmes can cost up to £3.50 but for that you would be able to read about three of the six plays in the annual summer repertory season. Our aim, if there is one, has been to inform and entertain. I say “our”, but actually there is only me. To give audiences a rest from my name, I invented two other bylines for myself: I am also Emily Rose and William Billings. The writing styles of both Emily and William are remarkably similar to my own.
The reporter’s pursuit of facts turned out to be good training for the stage. Emily, William and I have now produced or commissioned around 80 notes and we were preparing to knock off a few more in March when Covid-19 shut the theatre down.
My personal familiarity with murder proved useful when writing about thrillers
The three of us have also interviewed, in addition to Bennett, playwrights David Hare, Michael Frayn, Alan Ayckbourn, Shillelagh Stephenson, Charlotte Keatley, Graham Linehan and others. We have invited several of my former Guardian colleagues to write for us: Michael Billington obliged twice and my daughter Lucy, once a political correspondent with the paper, described for The Railway Children the thrill of driving the Flying Scotsman. Because we have no budget for words, all these writers were offered in return was a couple of tickets for a show and perhaps a drink. Distinguished academics in Britain and the US produced up to a thousand words for the same meagre reward; so did writer Frank Cottrell Boyce and Lindsey Hilsum, international editor of Channel 4 News.
My personal familiarity with murder proved useful when writing about thrillers and over the years I also became an expert for a very short time on nightingales, incest, Van Gogh, green burials, hermits, the forest of Arden, the Taj Mahal, the rewilding of Ennerdale plus Wordsworth and smoking chimneys (he hated them). And did you know that JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls was first staged in Moscow? I didn’t.
Some notes were special. For Watch It Sailor!, that bonkers farce about a wedding, a Geordie woman then in her eighties described with delight her memories of her courtship and marriage in Wallsend in 1955: Catholic nuptial mass at 8.45am, reception for 150 guests at the local Co-op Hall. “We had ham salad – it was always ham salad in those days – and trifle. My mother was over the moon because after the reception she discovered that she would get her Co-op dividend on it.”
For a production of The Snow Queen, an enthusiastic teacher at a school in Tromsø in northern Norway managed to persuade all his students to write in perfect English about their experience of the dark days of the Arctic winter. “We can,” wrote one, “jump off rooftops and into the snow (which is quite fun).”
I once did a deal with the theatre’s executive director over Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa: if he coughed up no more than £50 for my B&B, I would pay for my own flight to Dublin so that I could research Friel’s papers deposited in the National Library of Ireland. There are more than 3,000 Dancing at Lughnasa items but for a day and a half I pored over just some A5 sheets and a red A4 hardback notebook in which the creative process of Friel’s mind was rivetingly revealed; I felt as if I was inside his head. “What is the play about?” he asked himself and answered: “The play is about dancing in the thirties.”
When Theatre by the Lake wakes, it may be that audiences will once more flick through printed programmes that are neither too overpriced nor too inadequate. But ultimately programmes, whether tactile or digital, are a minor issue. We just want punters to come back, watch stories unfold and then depart into the Cumbrian night.
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