The Great Television Writers: Part 8 – Carla Lane

By Martin Keady · July 31, 2018

Carla Lane is one of the few writers who changed an original, exotic, given name – Romana Barrack (which sounds like the name of an ancient Roman settlement) – to one that was less original, less exotic and less interesting. And yet that was entirely in keeping with her approach to writing and life. On a succession of spectacularly successful British comedy series, in particular her masterpiece Butterflies, she became the great televisual muse of the mundane and the apparently quotidian, all the time identifying the great humor and pathos that exist in even the most seemingly ordinary life. And even more importantly in our age of #METOO, in which it appears increasingly obvious that the future will, after all, be female, she was one of the funniest female writers who ever lived.

Lane reigns from the same birthplace as The Beatles.

Lane, or rather Barrack, was born in Liverpool in 1928. Liverpool has long been one of the great maritime cities of the world, making its fortune in the 18th century as a major slave-trading port (the last European stop before the Atlantic voyage on which so many millions of abducted Africans perished) but then making its fame as the birthplace of The Beatles. The Beatles themselves profited from Liverpool’s relative proximity to America, at least before international air travel became affordable for the masses, by hearing much African-American music, and specifically rock and roll, earlier than most English musicians and audiences.

Survival: the greatest motivator.

Barrack/Lane’s own father was, like so many Liverpudlian men in the mid-20th century, a member of the Merchant Navy, who would have seen action during World War Two on the Atlantic convoys that literally kept Britain alive, at least until the belated entry into the war of the USA. However, whatever extraordinary tales of travel and adventure the exquisitely-named Gordon De Vince Barrack would have told his young daughter Romana, she remained firmly land-bound for most of her life and the stories that she would ultimately tell would not be of icebergs and Atlantic convoys but of “dolly birds” and frustrated housewives. However, despite their apparent dissimilarity, both types of tales had the same core element, which is of course the core element of all stories – how to survive.

A working-class woman turned housewife.

Barrack/Lane’s early life was a hard one, but one that was typical of many working-class women in Britain and indeed the wider Western world in the mid-20th century. In 1942, when World War Two was at its height and she was still only 14, she left school and began working as a nurse. (At a time when so many professional nurses were deployed with the military, there were opportunities for even under-age girls to enter the profession.) However, she was not a nurse for long, as she was married by 17 and became a full-time housewife, with two children, by 19.

Unlike so many great screenwriters and television writers, Barrack/Lane was not a product of the baby-boom but one of its producers. For the entirety of the 1950s, she was so immersed in home and family life that the early interest she had shown in writing (she had won a prize for writing poetry at the convent school she had attended) lay dormant.

All that changed with the dawn of the 1960s.

The legacy of the 1960s and its so-called “culture wars” are still being fought out nearly sixty years on, especially in America, where it sometimes appears that the Trump era of the early 21st century is an attempt to return to the supposed conservative certainties (which many would call hypocrisies) of the 1950s. But what cannot be doubted is the enormous, liberating impact that all the changes of the 1960s – from the civil rights movement to the introduction of contraception, all of which were sound-tracked by The Beatles – had on millions of people who had hitherto been disenfranchised, both politically and culturally. Foremost among them, of course, were ethnic minorities and women, and Barrack/Lane was one of the most extraordinary of all those success stories, as she transformed herself from a Liverpool housewife with little formal education into one of the most successful British television writers of either gender – in short, from “Romana Barrack” to “Carla Lane”. 

Secret ambitions…

Lane always said later that she had adopted her down-to-earth nom-de-plume because she was so nervous about telling anyone, particularly anyone within her family, about her ambition to write. Such were her nerves that she might never have prospered at all were it not for her meeting a co-writer, Myra Taylor, at a writing workshop. In their own small way, Taylor and Lane would soon become a Lennon and McCartney of British comedy writing, and although their writing relationship would not last nearly as long as that of The Beatles’ twin geniuses, it did launch Lane on her own writing career. 

Lane and Taylor eventually left the other members of the writing workshop behind to concentrate on co-writing together. They met at the famous Adelphi Hotel in the centre of Liverpool, which in the past had hosted such famous guests as Laurel and Hardy. History does not relate whether Laurel and Hardy wrote anything together at the Adelphi (it is extremely unlikely that they did, given that Stan Laurel was, contrary to appearances, the great creative genius and principal writer in the pairing), but Lane and Taylor certainly did. They began by writing short stories, but soon graduated to writing radio scripts (especially comedies), which eventually attracted the attention of the BBC’s then head of comedy, Michael Mills. He encouraged them to write for television, specifically a half-hour script that ultimately became the pilot episode of The Liver Birds, which was broadcast in 1969. 

The Liver Birds

The Liver Birds has often been described as (indeed, it may even have been conceived as) a female equivalent of The Likely Lads, the enormously successful breakthrough series of the great male comedy writing team, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. There were differences, of course, notably that The Likely Lads was set in the traditional male, working-class setting of a north-east factory while The Liver Birds was the story of two young, single women working in a series of different jobs, including in fashion and in hairdressing. Nevertheless, at their heart the two series were extremely similar, in that they essentially told the story of a pair of working-class friends who experience the freedoms that the 1960s suddenly offered but also the pressures and conflicts it generated, not only with members (particularly family members) of the older generation but with each other. 

The Liver Birds was not the instant success that The Likely Lads had been, but nor did it experience the long hiatus that effectively divided The Likely Lads into two separate shows: the original of that name; and then Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?, which, as the title suggests, examined what had become of the young, archetypal sixties dreamers in the 1970s. Instead, The Liver Birds got off to a slow start, partly because of numerous cast changes, before finally hitting its stride in its second series with its “classic” pairing of Nerys Hughes and Polly James as the titular heroines. By the end of the second series, however, the co-writing partnership of Lane and Taylor had broken up, and it was left to Lane alone to become the principal scriptwriter. Doubtless demonstrating some of the self-resilience and survival tactics that her father had learned on the Atlantic convoys, she rose to the task magnificently.

Cresting the feminist wave.

The Liver Birds ran for most of the 1970s, cresting the feminist wave of the period by putting two smart, even sassy, young Scouse women at the heart of a successful television comedy for the first time. In its brilliant blending of comedy and drama, poignancy and piss-taking, it was one of the most successful British comedies of the decade, making stars of its leads, particularly Hughes. However, what was truly astonishing about it was that it actually provided Lane with the professional training and professional income to write her true masterpiece, which was about as different from The Liver Birds as Liverpool, the great maritime city, is from the leafy suburbs that surround London, in which Butterflies was set.

Retrospectively, Lane herself provided the single best analysis of Butterflies and why it became such a comic, indeed cultural, phenomenon, when she said in a 2002 interview, “I wanted to write a comedy about a woman contemplating adultery”. This was Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina re-told, with added laughs but with only a little less tragedy. The would-be adulteress was Ria, played by Wendy Craig, who was a British film and TV veteran but for whom Butterflies would become her career-defining role. As Lane herself had been in the 1950s, Ria was a full-time housewife, but, mirroring Lane’s own rise up the career and class ladder, she was not a young, working-class Liverpudlian woman struggling with two small boys but a middle-aged, middle-class, even Middle-English, woman whose two sons are now seemingly fully grown but in reality are no less dependent on their parents (particularly for financial assistance). She is married to a dentist (equally brilliantly played by Geoffrey Palmer), whose real passion is lepidopterology, or the study of butterflies. The butterfly in the ointment, so to speak, is that now her children are grown Ria feels as “stuck” as one of the butterflies her husband has pinned up in his study. Consequently, when she meets, by chance, Leonard, a wealthy lothario who is now actively looking for love, her head (as was said at the time) is turned. 

Download the screenplay for ANNA KARENINA here for free.

The Liver Birds was good but essentially broad comedy about the misadventures (romantic and otherwise) of two young working-class women at the end of the 1960s and during the 1970s, when so much of the freedom that was sought during that period still seemed, theoretically at least, attainable. Butterflies, by complete contrast, was meticulously observed character comedy about a woman who, like so many women at the time (the show ran from 1978 to 1983), seems not to have attained that freedom and cannot understand why. Britain may have had its first ever female Prime Minister in Margaret Thatcher, but for so many other women (not just working-class women, but women of all classes) the old gender rigidities seemed, if anything, to have hardened. “Maggie” Thatcher may have run the country, but Ria (the name itself is inspired, like a slightly posher, upper-class version of “Rita”) felt like a prisoner in her own home.

Sitcoms (at least the best of them) may just be the greatest of all television programs…

…or at least the most purely televisual; after all, there are no “sit-films” or “sit-plays”, and even though there are radio sitcoms the most successful of them are invariably turned into television series. There is something about the ritual of a weekly, thirty-minute show, which ideally the whole family can watch, that is uniquely “televisual”. And without doubt, Butterflies is one of the very best sitcoms, deserving of comparison with the giants of the genre such as Fawlty Towers and Frasier. Its basic “sit” (or situation) was brilliant; Lane’s writing (and she was the only writer of Butterflies) is routinely brilliant, not least in the running gags about Ria trying to copy the recipes of TV chefs and getting them disastrously wrong; and the acting was uniformly outstanding, from Craig’s nervous, high-strung demeanour to Palmer’s flinty incomprehension. 

Nor should one underestimate the importance of a great theme tune.

Arguably, only the theme tune to CheersWhere Everybody Knows Your Name – matches that of Love Is Like A Butterfly for its sheer importance to a great sitcom, instantly establishing not only the scene but the tone and even the subject matter of the show before a word of dialogue has even been spoken. The song had been written by Dolly Parton in 1974, but the gentler, far more restrained and – dare one say it? – quintessentially British version used on the TV show was actually sung by Clare Torry, who had sang backing (if wordless) vocals on Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon before absolutely nailing what became the Butterflies theme tune. 

Download the pilot script for CHEERS here for free.

The genius of Butterflies was followed by the anti-genius, as it were, of Bread, Lane’s third and (in ratings terms) most successful sitcom, which ran from 1986 to 1991. Quite simply, the less said about Bread, the better. Although at its peak it was the third most watched television programme in Britain (behind only two soap operas), it was still, frankly, awful: almost a parody of the Lane Liver Birds/Butterflies themes and treatment in its stereotypical, if not downright regionalist, depiction of a large and largely feckless Liverpool working-class family. At a time when another soap opera, Brookside, and a brilliant drama about unemployment, The Boys From The Black Stuff, were forensically exposing and then brilliantly inverting all the old, tired and untrue Liverpool stereotypes of worklessness, ignorance and criminality, Bread was hugely popular in the rest of the country but often downright despised in Liverpool itself.

After Bread, Carla Lane continued to write but as she entered her own sixties she increasingly became a British Brigitte Bardot, in that she eventually abandoned the creative profession that had made her famous to focus on her other love, animal welfare, until her death in 2016. Given the artistic debacle that was Bread, that was probably ultimately a good thing. But nothing, not even Bread, should ever detract from the era-defining genius of Butterflies. It is, of course, ironic that the great lover of animals should have secured her artistic reputation with a show about butterfly collecting, and how it was such a perfect metaphor for the imprisonment of our own existence. However, that is exactly the kind of brilliant, lacerating irony that Carla Lane, at her best, traded in so effortlessly. 

Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.”

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