Leicester’s famous fictional son turned 50 on 2 April and Leicester University held a party for him.
I didn’t get to the morning and early afternoon sessions – an illustration workshop and a discussion of Sue Townsend’s work as a playwright. I did get there for the later sessions which were billed as talks from John Tydeman, Geoffrey Strachan and Caroline Holden Hotopf plus Simon Schatzberger and the premiere of three new monologues commissioned by Leicester University’s Centre for New Writing and selected by Sue Townsend’s husband, Colin Broadway.
Bridget Blair of BBC Radio Leicester introduced the first session, remarking that it was also BBC Radio Leicester’s 50th birthday. John Tydeman wasn’t able to attend so Leicester University’s Simon Dixon introduced the Sue Townsend archive and explored how Adrian Mole came about. One boring afternoon in the 1970s, so boring “you’d fill in the ‘o’s’ in the News of the World” one of Sue Townsend’s sons asked “Why don’t we go to Safari parks like other families?” It’s not recorded what Sue Townsend answered, but his whiny voice was about to become Adrian Mole’s. She’d been mostly bored at school until a Mr Mole introduced her to reading, even so she was still to leave aged 15. She worked, got married and found herself a divorced mother of three at the age of twenty-three. She met her second husband, Colin Broadway, who discovered her manuscripts and persuaded her to join Phoenix Writers at what was then the Phoenix Theatre (now the Sue Townsend Theatre). She would write on whatever was to hand, even beer mats and shopping lists. When she was losing her sight, her husband and children typed from her dictation. On one occasion, Colin Broadway got a panicked call from their daughter. There’d been a power cut and had lost some work because the power cut kicked in before it could be backed up. Colin’s advice was to give Sue “a vodka and tonic, a fag and ten minutes.” Sure enough, after those three, she recalled everything and the dictation began again. She began writing plays and put together the original script for Nigel Mole aged 14 and three quarters which she sent to the BBC in March 1981. John Tydeman was worried about the name being too similar to Nigel Molesworth and thought 14 and three quarters was too old. Nigel became Adrian and lost a year. The BBC broadcast the script and got five agents phoning them interested in the work.
Geoffrey Strachan of Methuen publishers then took up the story. He was looking for comic novels suitable for illustrations and Adrian Mole seemed a good fit, “splendid, funny, touching and wonderfully evocative… with a playwright’s ear for dialogue and timing”. Sue Townsend felt it important that Adrian grew in real time and the first book stayed with him until his 15th birthday. The contract was signed in December 1981. Methuen felt that it was a tricky sell: a comic novel by an unknown novelist and so kept the cover price below £5. The BBC commissioned five more episodes in January 1982 for broadcast in the autumn. The book was due to be published as they were broadcast. Initially sales reps found it hard to get booksellers to take the book but after the broadcast, they couldn’t get stocks in quick enough. It’s since been translated into 40 languages and became the bestseller of the decade.
Caroline Holden Hotopf took up the story at this point. Geoffrey Strachan introduced her to Sue Townsend at the Royal Court Theatre without telling Sue that he was thinking of commissioning Caroline to design the book cover. He wasn’t aware that Caroline had also grown up in Leicester and, once Leicester was mentioned the two hit it off. Caroline shared Geoffrey’s view that there should not be any images of the main characters themselves – it was down to the reader to imagine them. “The tops of buses are a big place to think of ideas” and this time hit on idea of a bathroom mirror because it gave room for the book’s title and author’s name whilst still being able to capture Adrian at that awkward stage between leaving childhood and not quite being an adult. The bathroom taps on the cover of “The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole” were in her bedsit in Stepney where she was living at the time. She went on to do the illustrations for the deluxe editions and the record cover for the musical. Caroline remembered a long conversation with Sue Townsend about possible locations to use as representing locations in the books. In the question and answer session, Bridget Blair offered to try and locate that list, which is in the Sue Townsend archives, and take BBC Radio Leicester listeners of a tour of the locations later in the year. When Caroline received her copy of the record of the musical, she was baffled because one side played a Rolling Stones album although the other was Adrian Mole. She rang the record company who hurried her a correct pressing. She wondered how much the miss-pressed version would be worth.
Bali Rai brought some students from Moat and Madani Colleges in Leicester on stage. He had introduced them to Adrian Mole and tasked them with writing about their city in a Mole-like fashion. Four of the resulting pieces were read in turn, three by their authors. The first was a typical school diary written at the point of moving to secondary school and discovering that not only did the author have to tolerate her brother hogging the TV remote and glasses but also the indignity of braces. The second was about observations in the school library where the library became a metaphor for Leicester. The third was about the gatehouses on Victoria Park, seemingly an innocent consideration of what the gatehouses might have been for until a final twist where we learn the over-curious writer managed to climb in and now can’t get out and is hoping to throw her letter outside in the hope of being rescued. The final piece was read by Bali Rai, after confessing to being teased for being a Liverpool fan, as it started with a boy doing algebra with one eye on the football, thinking school next day would be full of post match analysis, is dismayed when the classroom is silent. The writer didn’t catch the news that there had been a bomber who called himself a Muslim. The silence was drawn from the classmates struggling to comprehend how someone could use the name of their religion to justify a horrendous act and how they could defend themselves from the anticipated backlash.
For reviewing purposes it makes more sense to bring Simon Schatzberger in now although, having to combine travel with other commitments, he arrived after the first monologue. Simon had done some children’s TV work in Nottingham so already had a Children’s Equity Card when he saw the advert for Adrian Mole at the Phoenix (now Sue Townsend) Theatre. It was purely happenstance that he’d rehearsed the section in the diaries about the Royal Wedding and that turned out to be the section he was asked to do in audition and few days later he heard he got the part. His experience so far had been in TV so he didn’t think it unusual to have Sue Townsend sitting in on rehearsals, doing required rewrites on the spot in her Berol Handwriting pen. Initially there was a canoeing scene and the actor playing Adrian’s mother wanted to go canoeing to prepare. Simon wasn’t a good enough swimmer then to join in and, after the scene got dropped, decided method acting wasn’t for him. Sue Townsend was hugely pleased to hear that some of the audience had come along because they knew the book and it was their first trip to a theatre. The play moved to London. Sue Townsend insisted on bringing the same actors to the West End rather than changing to more famous names. This was to her detriment because some critics snobbishly queried why she wouldn’t use “names”. Simon remembered breaking his arm in an accident on set and Sue Townsend make sure he’d phoned his own mother to reassure her and ensured he’d been able to eat dinner. On another occasion, they’d been given use of the producer’s chauffeured car, only to discover later that the use of the car had been charged to expenses, which meant the pot available to pay actors’ wages was reduced. Sue repaid the cost of the car so the actors wouldn’t lose out. One night she showed the cast a leather jacket she’d bought that day, dithered over whether to return it. She’d felt guilty about spending “so much” money on herself. The cast persuaded her it was really OK to keep the jacket. Later, at the end of the 1980s, Simon was asked to do an Adrian Mole monologue at Leicester’s Haymarket Theatre. He phoned Sue Townsend to ask her to write it. She told him that he knew Adrian so well, he should write it. He wrote a draft and phoned her again to read it to her and was surprised when she OK’d it. She said he shouldn’t be surprised, “I chose you to be Adrian Mole.”
From the reminsciences, Sue Townsend came across as very down to earth, motherly and committed. Once her husband, Colin Broadway, had shown support for her writing, there was no stopping her. However, she remembered her roots, as the guilt over the leather jacket showed, loved a good gossip, loved listening to people and getting involved in new experiences. Exactly the sort of person you’d love to meet in a theatre bar, knowing instantly you’d lucked out and hadn’t been lumbered with the pub bore.
The first of the three commissioned monologues was Maria Taylor’s “The Age of Convenience,” where Adrian Mole asks his mum what its’ like to have a son turn 50. “Her face fell the way Theresa May’s does whenever someone on the news mentions Nicola Sturgeon.” Later he notes, “Mum is a great-grandma now, but she has taken up social protest as a hobby. Other seventy-two year old women would’ve taken up crochet.” He rails against Giles, Pandora’s current squeeze, “who went to Oxford and drives a Porsche. What’s a wealthy, hunky, twenty-seven year old gym enthusiast got that I haven’t?” However, she is first to wish him a happy birthday.
Marilyn Ricci’s “Rocking On” sees Adrian the successful ghost writer, although still anxious about selling-out, on a birthday weekend in Skegness, potting to stop his mother making a birthday speech, still sighing over Pandora but able, after an incident involving a coastguard rescue to wonder if someone else’s salty, passionate kiss might lead him astray after all.
The final monologue from Heide Goody and Iain Grant, “Let Them Eat Custard Creams” is a letter from Adrian to the Arts Council who have turned the application for funds for his reading group down on the grounds “the amount we requested for refreshments was unrealistically high.” Who knew that the selection of biscuits for a book group would be an exact indication of the types of books under discussion? Adrian does and has graphs to back him up.
At this point it was time to collect our goody bags and break for tea. A buffet was laid on, decorated with moon-shaped balloons (the moon might have missed Adrian’s 4th birthday but it was represented at his 50th), with sandwiches, canapes, cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks stuck in a foiled dome to look like hedgehogs, fairy cakes, mini-doughnuts and the cake, made by Frances Quinn, a winner of Great British Bake Off, and accompanied by a mix of disco music included Rick Astley, Scissor Sisters and Andre 3000, the sort that’s easy to dance too but you feel slightly embarrassed to admit to knowing the tunes: a perfect choice.