The Last Day of Term

This is a true story from a Drama lesson that took place several years ago, when I taught theatre in a secondary school. I loved my job and it enabled me to do something I really believed in and to have great fun at the same time. I have so many fond memories of so many wonderful people.

I send my best wishes and respect to teachers and students everywhere.

(All names of real people have been changed…)

It was December 21st, the last day of term. The hard bite of the air and the hunched backs against the cold foreshadowed Christmas, as did a few of the dull, beer-fuzzed heads in the staff room, and the broadening grins of the students.

I was teaching Hamlet to a GCSE group; I knew the themes of death and revenge would spark a lively response in the enthusiastic sixteen-year-old students, who had a strong sense of moral justice and loyalty.

The students put on costumes and set the space in the classroom for ‘The Mousetrap,’ the play Hamlet stages in order to expose his Uncle’s guilt. This is the big scene, where Claudius reveals that he has killed Hamlet’s father.

Claudius, played by Danny McCormick, was seated by the full-length window next to his new wife, Gertrude, Cheryl Egan, who gazed at him with disgust – he wasn’t her favourite choice of husband. Danny, however, was kingly material, spreading out his legs and stretching his arms behind his head in a triangle, a perfect praying mantis. Hamlet, Gertrude’s moody son, was Gary Gornall, cast because he displayed a natural condescension in his facial expression. ‘Do I get to kill Danny in this scene, eh, Miss? I mean, I am the boss, like.’

I explained that Hamlet would expose the king’s guilt in front of the entire court and Gary was even happier when I said that he could flirt with Louise Jackson as Ophelia: the idea brought an immediate expression of manly pride to his scowl.

There was a scuffling above us, from the library on the first floor. Friday period one always meant that Gordon Fishwick, tall, bearded and erudite, was teaching 5C in the library. I was used to the noises which occurred during their study time, usually accompanied by a regular booming demand for ‘Silence in my library’. To cover the noise, I used Queen’s song, ‘Another One Bites the Dust,’ as backing music for the mimed ‘dumb show’. The rest of the class, in role as courtiers in the audience, cheered and applauded as the villain killed the player-king and the player-queen’s histrionic gesture sent her falling to the floor in a faint, the villain brandishing a ruler as a prop.

Gary launched loudly into an improvised verbal attack on King Claudius. ‘Hey Uncle -.yer big meff – is there anything you wanna tell me? I know you been wit’ me ma – is there anything’ else you wanna confess though, pal?’

The king rises,’ yelled Ophelia, word-perfect, bang on cue. The class caught its breath as one. Then the singing started above us.

          ‘While shepherds washed their socks at night in front of the TV…’

‘Oh, Miss!’ the entire class sighed and rolled their eyes upwards as the carol singing from the library increased to the volume of a football chant.

‘Shall I go and tell them to shut up?’ offered Hamlet graciously, waving a fist.

The play’s the thing…’ I prompted with a grin, and the action recommenced.

Hamlet leapt towards the indignant Claudius, his face furious.

 ‘Who’s guilty now then, pal?’ he asked, his brows knitted in filial obligation, ready to revenge his father’s foul and most unnatural murder. 

‘Leave your uncle alone, Hamlet.’ screeched Gertrude, suddenly protective. ‘Or I’ll give you a good talking to!’

As if to foreshadow the next piece of action, a loud rumbling sound like thunder came from the library above. We all turned in unison to see books flying past the window, and an erupting groan from 5C above signalled their unanimous disapproval.

‘Hey, Miss – they are ruining our play. We can’t work in conditions like this.’ moaned Hamlet, gesturing in the air with despair.

‘Go and sort them out, Miss.’ Gertrude suggested, folding her arms in annoyance.

‘Let’s carry on,’ suggested Ophelia. ‘The King rises!

What? Frighted with false fire?’ grunted Gary Gornall, now embodying Hamlet in all but school uniform.

‘Oh, no – look at that!’ gasped the loyal Horatio, Billy Beer, as we all saw the library curtains descending from the skies in a flourish of flames.

Lights! Lights! Lights!’ yelled Polonius, his glasses reflecting the leaping conflagration. The class applauded; the spectacle of Shakespearian theatre was alive in the room.

Hamlet was whirling around, full of antic disposition, his face shining.  ‘Marry, this means mischief.’ he told the audience with a wide grin.

At this point, Mr Fishwick himself made his entrance behind the widow, head first. His glasses slipping down to his brow, his mouth a spherical silent scream, he was being lowered from the gallery to the stalls by his ankles, quickly whisked back up into the air and lowered again, screaming.

The class cheered in unison; Act 3 Scene 2 could not have ended with a better fanfare.

The bell rang. The cast of ‘The Mousetrap’ went off to Geography and I went up to the library to make Gordon Fishwick a cup of chamomile tea and remind him that the Christmas holidays were just a few lessons away.

Plant-based roast with stuffing: recipe and serving ideas

I’ve never been a great fan of ‘imitation meat’, so when I heard about a turkey-style roast, I thought it wouldn’t be something I’d want to make. I’m not keen on the fibrous meaty texture of many plant-based meat replacements, but working with vital wheat gluten means that you can add a variety of flavours to the dish by including savoury and tasty ingredients to the wet mix below, such as brandy, marmite and a variety of mushrooms. 

So last weekend, as an experiment, I made a prototype vital wheat gluten roast and it went down well for Sunday dinner, served with crunchy roasted potatoes, lots of veg and some unctuous mushroom gravy. It wasn’t hard to make either and, although it’s a bit time consuming, it is worth the trouble: the roast is quite big and it lasts for three days. It can be eaten cold in sandwiches and hot, fried and coated in breadcrumbs with mushrooms for breakfast, so it’s versatile and useful. Make it at least a day before you want to eat it.

To make the roast: 

You need to blitz the following wet ingredients in a blender:

1 cup drained chickpeas (half a tin)

Half a cup of dried mushrooms such as  porcini,

Half a cup of white wine.

2 tbsp miso 

2 tbsp maple syrup

One cup plant milk of your choice – I use oat

1 sauteed onion or shallot and 3 sauteed garlic cloves

Half a pack of silken tofu (about 4oz)

Thyme, rosemary, sage. Any herbs you like – onion salt, if you wish, even tarragon or paprika.

Seasoning, as you wish – I use pink salt and white pepper…

Then add the wet ingredients to the dry ones below and mix to a dough:

Two and a half cups of vital wheat gluten

One cup of gram flour

2 tbsp of nutritional yeast.

Method.

Knead the mixture by hand for at least  twelve minutes or put it in a machine with a dough hook. Don’t under-knead or it will cook into a piece of rubber. The dough should be just firm and stretchy. If it’s too wet to handle, add a little more gram flour.

Roll it out on a gram-floured surface by whacking it with a rolling pin, until it’s a half-inch-thick rectangle and then let it rest. Stretch it by hand if it springs back. 

Now make the stuffing – 

Saute a large onion and some garlic, and add to it half a tin of chickpeas, a couple of handfuls of chestnuts, a handful of blitzed breadcrumbs, a handful of chopped dried apricots, cranberries, chopped hazelnuts, a cooked mashed sweet potato, some cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, pepper and a good pinch of thyme. Mash it all up to form the stuffing so that it’s still a bit chunky. Use some white wine if you need it to make it a little softer. Place the stuffing mixture in a  line down the centre of the ‘roast’ rectangle and roll the dough over lengthways so it makes a single roll. Close the ends. Then rub olive oil on the outside and then roll it all in some dried herbs – I use a mixture of parsley, thyme, onion salt and a pinch of cayenne or paprika. If the roast’s too big, you can cut it in half and make two smaller roasts and freeze one after it’s cooked, which is what I did.Wrap the roast in cheesecloth and tie it up with cooking string.

Put the roast in a baking tray containing liquid: some water, white wine, (make it all up to 6 -7 cups,) a bayleaf, rosemary, thyme, sage, some dried mushrooms, a chopped onion, garlic, a bit of celery, carrot, and bake it for two hours, turning after an hour. The liquid will need to be topped up regularly during the cooking process as the roast needs to be steamed and kept moist, or it will burn.

After two hours, take it out of the oven and let the roast cool, then strip off the cheesecloth. 

I rub the surface of the roast with oil and then brush it with maple syrup to glaze it, and maybe sprinkle on more herbs. You can keep the roast, wrapped in foil, in the fridge for a few days.

To cook the roast, put it in a medium oven for 30 minutes. I used a baking tray with a little white wine and water on the bottom and laid it on a few chopped onions so it wouldn’t burn.

It goes really well (cut into not-too-thick slices) served with onion or mushroom gravy, lots of seasonal veg, roast potatoes, red cabbage and plant-based yorkshires. 

Serving ideas.

If you have some roast left over, it’s nice cold in sandwiches with salad, mayo and slices of tomatoes,or fried, coated in breadcrumbs, for breakfast with spinach, tomatoes and a huge chestnut mushroom.

I’ve also used leftover roast to stuff a round, home-baked loaf, with the top cut off and the crumbs hollowed out, then the inside is layered with slices of roast, cranberry sauce, plant-based mozzarella, walnuts, beetroot, a little plant-based mayo, a few breadcrumbs and some home-made pickle.Stuff the inside of the loaf with the layers, replace the lid and wrap it. Later, you can cut it into wedges as an alternative to sandwiches or for a Christmas buffet.

Casting Heading over the Hill as a film

Of all my novels, this one is the easiest to cast as a film. The characters jumped out at me, from the moment I thought ‘now who would play Billy and Dawnie?’ Once you’ve read the book, think about the casting for yourself – you may come up with much better ideas than I have but, for me, the following actors work perfectly.

Dawnie Smith is a really strong character; in her wigs and colourful clothes, she is outgoing, determined and vociferous, with a kind heart. Julie Walters would play her perfectly – Dawnie can’t be suppressed, she is incorrigible and fun but she’s also sensitive, kind to others. Julie Walters would capture her mischief and she’d have a wonderful rapport with Billy, as they are both inseparable and interdependent.

Billy Murphy is Brendan Gleeson: tall, big-hearted, sociable yet his fun-loving character hides a shadowy past, which he rarely mentions. He adores Dawnie. He has a sense of humour and he is a gentle giant who keeps his Harley Davidson in the hallway and plays the drums in the spare bedroom. He is the perfect man for Dawnie; romantic, a good cook, and with a heart of gold, Brendan Gleeson would be a wonderful Billy.

Dilly Stocker is the older woman who lives across the road with her son; she is mischievous, full of fun and she adores action movies. It would be wrong to play this character merely for her stereotypical ‘older woman living disgracefully’ qualities without accentuating her loneliness, her love for her son and her sense of loyalty. Bring out Maureen Lipman here, who’d need good make-up to enable her to look older, but she is absolutely the right actor to capture Dilly’s sense of fun.

Vinnie Stocker is in his fifties, handsome and vulnerable, looking for love, having had his heart broken. Colin Farrell could do this role perfectly; handsome, naive, trusting and kind, Vinnie’s journey from lonely heart to happy man would be wonderfully played by Colin Farrell.

Malcolm from next door. Malcolm doesn’t have many friends. He is a gossip, he’s judgmental, negative and an all-round- unpleasant neighbour. He’d be played by Jim Broadbent. He has the ability to appear sorry for himself but he can be quite petty and difficult. I’d imagine he’d do a fabulous job as Malcolm, enabling an audience to feel pathos as well as animosity towards the character.

Gillian, Malcolm’s long-suffering wife is sad and lonely in an empty marriage; we feel sorry for her and, as is often the case for many characters in this novel, there is more to her than initially meets the eye. I’d choose Imelda Staunton to play Gillian. She’d have to be made to appear dowdy, but she’s such a strong performer and she’d embody the character so well.

Lester Wainwright becomes Billy’s biker friend; he’s an entomologist and an all-round nice guy. He’d be played by Tom Courtney who’d be perfect in the role of the kind man who adores his wonderful wife.

Ursula Wainwright is so warm, friendly and thoughtful, a completely generous person. I struggled to cast this one; I was looking for a German actor who would be in the right age bracket and I couldn’t find one. In the end, I settled for an American who would have the kindly face and potential to appear gentle and magnanimous, so Ursula would be played by Laura Linney.

The seaside setting would add to the British feel of the movie, on location in west Devon, where Billy riding on his Harley along the coast and across the moors would offer a great opportunity for the sense of freedom. The fresh summer sunshine and moonlit nights set the scene  for second chances and new beginnings. I can just imagine Billy and Dawnie’s story being a poignant and joyously feel-good movie.

My novel Heading over the Hill and the three stages of marriage.

When I wrote Heading over the Hill, I decided that my main protagonists would be a married couple who arrive in West Devon. Having left their children behind in their former house in Lancashire, they are now looking for a new life, an opportunity to start again.

My protagonists Billy and Dawnie are retired and in their early seventies. They have inherited some money  from Billy’s father and they want to buy a new home. Their children have grown, they have grandchild, great grandchildren, so the opportunity to start again is exciting. They have shared fond memories and they have different views on their newly empty nest, but they are both convinced that they have an ideal opportunity to concentrate on themselves.

Dawnie and Billy’s marriage hasn’t been an easy one. It’s been filled with children and laughter but, for some of the time, Billy has been an absent father. Although loyal to his wife, Billy is far from the perfect husband and Dawnie has had to shoulder much of the responsibility for day-to-day living over the years. Their marriage hasn’t been easy.

Billy and Dawnie aren’t a conventional couple. He keeps his Harley Davidson in the hall and she is outspoken and bold, wearing bright wigs and clothes. Not all the neighbours like them immediately but, as a couple, they are inseparable and fiercely loyal to each other.

Many people will recognise the stages of Billy and Dawnie’s marriage and, although I wanted to focus on the ‘third’ stage, a succinct history of the first two stages was important to establish in order to create a background to their story.

They met in their early twenties, besotted with each other, quickly recognizing their soul mate in the other and, without any careful thought for the future, they married and began a family. The first stage of marriage can be, in many cases, a whirlwind of strong emotions, a belief that the relationship will last forever, that it is idyllic and that true love is everything. Love conquers all! Of course, this doesn’t describe everyone’s first stage of a long-term partnership, but  Dawnie and Billy hurled themselves into marriage believing that it was going to be perfect forever, and much easier than they thought.

The second stage of their marriage was the treadmill stage, the mayhem of bringing up children that Emma Murray writes about so wittily in Time Out. For couples who don’t have children, perhaps it’s a more settled stage although external demands like careers and mortgages usually rear their heads for us all. But when Billy and Dawnie’s two children, Lindy Lou and Buddy, arrive they dominate their parents’ daily existence. With Billy not always present, or with frequent changes unsettling the family regime, life is not easy for Dawnie and, in fairness, Billy has a history which remains with him in the present. The love-conquers-all dream becomes simply about day-to-day survival.

Billy and Dawnie decide it’s time to move to Devon and find the perfect house by the sea. The third stage of their marriage is ‘their time’. The children are no longer dependent and Dawnie and Billy have the opportunity to follow their own path and to choose the life they would prefer. They rent a house in Margot Street, immediately termed ‘Maggot Street’ by Dawnie, in order to search for the dream house.

This third stage of marriage should be the most settled, arguably the easiest and the most deservedly selfish. Billy and Dawnie have earned it. They have come a long way together. Instead, they find themselves in a neighbourhood where not everyone likes each other. They make new friends, an enemy or two, and they discover that the empty nest is still a real issue and that they have to rethink a lot of their settled  beliefs about life and marriage.

Heading over the Hill is Billy and Dawnie’s story, focusing on the stage of marriage after the children have grown, but it is also the story of others’ relationships. There are other characters whose stories may resonate: a widow, a lonely man searching for love; two people stuck in a miserable relationship; a blissfully happy couple or two. It is about people reaching out to each other, about fun, sharing, communities and kindness, but also it is about life being lived at its fullest, enjoying each day as a blessing.

My plant based fish ‘n’ chips recipe… Friday nights won’t be the same again.

I’m not a fan of meals such as fish and chips. I am one of those strange people who don’t like chips, deep- fried or greasy foods, and so I seldom make anything that involves frying. However, I’m so pleased with this recipe, which isn’t greasy at all, that I’ll make it again.

For three people, you’ll need one tin of banana blossoms, which you can find in most supermarkets now. You’ll also need some nori (seaweed) flakes or blitzed-up nori sheets, which impart a ‘fishy’ smell but not too-strong a taste. Again, these ingredients aren’t hard to source. I buy them in supermarkets or local shops.

Also, this dish is ridiculously easy to make from scratch and doesn’t take too long.

To make the plant-based ‘fish’, put some gram (chick pea) flour, some nori flakes and some garlic powder in a bowl. I haven’t included exact measurements – a cup and a half of gram flour and a tbsp of the other two are a rough guide if you need one. Add a pinch of salt and pepper, and a cup of panko breadcrumbs or your own home-made crumbs from blitzed bread.

Rinse the banana blossoms under water to get rid of the excess brine and keep them as intact as you can. Shake the sieve but keep the banana blossoms damp, then shove them around in the gram flour mixture to coat them. Wrap the end bits around themselves and don’t worry if the pieces aren’t identical or neat. Put the ‘fish’ in the fridge for half an hour or so.

I air fry the chips – I suppose you could deep fat fry them or use oven chips. For me, air-fried chips are crispy, very dry and not fatty.

Then I cooked a couple of cups of frozen peas, drained them, added chopped mint and a couple of tbsp of vegan cream and roughly mashed them, then I added some ground black pepper and a tbsp water to loosen the peas.

I fried the ‘fish’ in 2 inches of sunflower oil in batches of two, flipping them once, until they were brown.

I served the lot with some lemon mayonnaise dressing. You can make your own or dress up a brand mayo with a squidge of lemon juice and some chopped herbs such as parsley or coriander.

This dish is easy to make, very tasty and a crowd pleaser. I’ve never been one for trying to copy conventional meat or fish meals but when it tastes this good, and banana blossom is accessible and relatively cheap, there’s no reason to hold back.

This may become a regular Friday night thing!

Short story

It’s rare that I write about myself. In my novels, characters and situations are imaginary. I rarely bring myself into what I write, although I include what I know and if I don’t, my ideas will be inspired by other people or based on research. Many of my older characters have something of the inspirational men and women I am privileged to know personally, and I rarely allow a character to behave in a certain way without thinking or asking ‘Could *** do that?’ or ‘How would ***** react?’

But here’s a rare thing – a story about an early experience of my own. I wrote it in response to an exercise in a writers’group andf I thought I’d share it. I was about three years old and I remember it vividly.

I hope you enjoy the short story. I haven’t found a title for it yet.

***********************************************************************

The damp stink of decay hangs in the air. Trees surround me, the tangle of spreading roots visible above the earth, and I stand close to a tall oak. I look up at a graze of light sky between boughs.

‘Stay there,’ my father says, his hands lost in the huge pockets of his coat.

He walks away and I do as I am told. My feet are firmly planted, but I don’t feel safe. I stare down at little wellingtons, wet mud squelching around them; at a few sodden twigs, skeletons of leaves. Empty acorns are scattered a few feet away. I watch the line of trees stretch as far as I can see and my father blends in: his coat is the same hard grey as the trunks, then he’s gone.

It’s cold, November. I know I have to stay where I am. A few leaves twirl down, dull orange, tumbling in the wind, spanned hands waving. I listen. The silence holds a breath and I wait. I gaze up again; branches interlocked, a canopy of foliage overhead, squeezing away the light.

I take a step forward and murmur ‘Daddy?’

 A twig snaps beneath my boot then there’s no sound. It’s quiet; then from somewhere in the distance, a wood pigeon coos, a low warning. I wonder if Death lives in the woods and if he is a man wrapped inside a tree, if he’s watching me now.

‘Daddy?’

I hunker close to a trunk, gnarled branches twisting up like knotty fingers, and put out my hand to touch the bark. It is rough, scratchy against my soft-pudding hands. There is a smell of rotting leaves, wet mulch, and I try not to breathe in too much.

A noise makes me jerk, a single crack like a whiplash, then there’s a fluttering of something falling from high, through leaves and twigs. I squeeze my eyes shut and try not to think. Another sound splits the air, exactly the same, a snap from a rifle, then the gentle tumbling.

I open my eyes and he’s striding towards me, feet soundless, tall in his grey coat. Then he’s here; he takes my hand.

‘Good girl.’

I notice my father’s coat hangs differently now; something else fills the inside pockets besides the barrel, something softer, still warm.

We walk back through the forest, with no sound but our feet snapping twigs and the sinking squelch of boots in mud.

My mother will be waiting at home: she’ll have everything ready, and then she’ll make supper.

A short story about Lockdown:

Here’s a short story I wrote recenty about lockdown. I know a lot of people are by themselves, in flats where they have no access to outdoor spaces. Thinking of what it must be like to be in that situation, I wrote a few lines.

The First Floor Flat

Outside is bleak.

Inside is quiet, except for the soft hum of the laptop. And the silence: silence has a hum all of its own.

I stare through the window again but I’m not sure what I’m hoping to see. There’s no activity below in the street. London is a ghost town. A zombie town. A lockdown town.

I go back to the computer; my next zoom appointment is in half an hour; it’s Carl. I have to talk to him about how he’s tried to find work over the last four weeks. I’m his work coach. It will be a short meeting.

I go over to the old armchair and stare at the mantelpiece. There’s a photo of me with Joanna and the girls from years ago, before the split. I pick it up and run a finger over their faces, over the layer of dust. I haven’t seen Hannah and Daisy since March.

I think about making a cup of tea. I’ll have one later. I sit in the armchair and the sagging cushions arrange themselves around me. I close my eyes, put a thumb and forefinger in the space between them and press hard. It offers no relief.

There’s a scratching sound, spiked claws against the upholstery of the armchair. It’s Bella. She’s revving up to ask for food again.

I bend over and rub the fur between her ears and the softness of it makes me breathe out. I think again that I shouldn’t have brought her home: a kitten confined in a first-floor flat isn’t really fair.

She springs up on my knee and nuzzles my hand, bumps against it with her wet nose, then she rolls over.

It’s the exposed belly that does it: utter trust. The legs lifted wide, the rounded hump, black and white, lightly furred. Her eyes are almost closed; there’s the edge of a fang, the hint of pinkness inside the mouth. I place a hand over her tummy and my palm fits perfectly. She doesn’t move; she is purring, waiting, sure that I will feed her. I press a finger beneath her soft chin and suddenly my face is wet. I swallow the sadness that constricts my throat, the realisation that I haven’t spoken to anyone today, that I haven’t held anyone in my arms for weeks. This small creature waves a leg, curls the tip of her tail: she seems to know.

I wipe my eyes on the sleeve of my jumper and pick her up, holding her against my cheek, then I place her on the threadbare carpet. She’s off, running between my feet, bumping against my ankles as we rush to the kitchen and I throw a few rattling biscuits into a cat bowl. She’s purring again, a little motorized sound of contentment. I decide I’ll make a cup of tea and go back to the computer. Carl will be on the screen soon to tell me how he tried unsuccessfully to get a job at Pret. I’ll need to sound optimistic.                                               

My top five living-life-and-loving-it feel-good films

My novels have often been described as uplifting or feel-good, and I like this epithet very much. While I enjoy a good gothic tale or a thriller as much as anyone else, the idea that my stories entertain and make people feel positive about life is a great compliment.

Recently, I was sent a message on social media from someone who was feeling low: now we’re back in lockdown, the blues had set in and she was searching for films to watch on during the evening to lift her spirit. I recommended something and then wondered what else she might watch.

So I set myself the small task of putting together my top five feel good films to cheer people up. This was much more difficult that I thought it might be: my favourite film in the world, Everything is Illuminated, is uplifting but it also contains scenes of such pathos that I felt the need to re-examine my definition. So, if I mean by ‘feel-good films’ that they will make a person whose mood is low feel more positive about life, then I have to ensure that there is nothing at all in the film that will detract from that fuzzy sensation of warmth, benevolence and uplifting joy.

Let’s be clear: one or two films from the list below wouldn’t necessarily make the list of my top favourite films. I do like a thought-provoking movie, a film that makes me laugh or ones which are cleverly contrived or well-performed, but I’ve made a point of omitting anything that might not be universally perceived to be uplifting, so it’s goodbye for the time being to Inglourious Basterds, Withnail and I and Parasite.

So here goes with my top five:

Number 5. Rocketman

I didn’t expect to like this film. I’m not a great fan of Elton John’s music; Bohemian Rhapsody was just out and achieving great reviews; the musical theatre style of the film seemed an odd choice and the opening scene where Elton attends counselling in full regalia before the film whooshes back to his early life seemed a too-predictable beginning. However, the film really works: I watched the whole thing with an open mind and I loved it. Taron Egerton’s performance takes it to another level and it is an inspiring and moving film.

 Number 4. Mary and Max

This is a brilliant Australian stop-motion adult animated comedy-drama film written and directed by Adam Elliot. It is a beautiful story of the pen-pal relationship between two very different people, Mary Dinkle, a lonely eight-year-old living in Melbourne and Max Horovitz, a Jewish man who has Asperger’s syndrome and lives in New York. Their correspondence becomes an emotional lifeline for both characters and reveals the details of their unhappy existences. Superbly performed by Toni Collette, Barry Humphries and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Number 3.  The Intouchables

 This film is a French comedy-drama with a powerful rapport between the two main characters. Philippe is a wealthy quadriplegic who employs Driss, a man who has no interest in the role whatsoever, to be his caregiver and driver. It’s an interesting ‘buddy’ film which is funny and poignant. It has been labelled a heart-warming film; it has also been called condescending, and I can understand both responses: it does rely on some racial, social and cultural stereotypes. But it is watchable and, in its purest form, it shows that friendship, love and respect can be found in many places. It’s definitely a feel-good film.

 Number 2. The Commitments

I adore Roddy Doyle’s novels and Alan Parker’s films. The story is set in working-class Dublin in the 1980s, where young music enthusiast Jimmy Rabbit assembles a soul band called the Commitments. Poignant, well-acted and thought-provoking, this film is funny and heartfelt with some belting tunes, brilliantly performed. It takes the viewer on a musical journey full of laughs and yet it remains authentic and thought-provoking.

Number One. The Birdcage

Robin Williams is, as we know, a superb performer who gave the world so much joy with many roles, from Jakob the Liar to Dead Poets’ Society. In The Birdcage, he plays Armand, a gay nightclub owner who pretends to be a straight cultural attaché when his son brings home his fiancée and her traditional parents. Armand lists the help of various people to change his apartment and act out the deception with truly hilarious and heartwarming effect. Highly recommended – it will make you laugh out loud and fall in love with the characters. That’s perhaps, a true definition of feel-good.

If The Old Girls’ Network was a film, who would play the roles…?

Perhaps every writer dreams of seeing her or his work produced on film.  After all, great stories make good theatre and good television, or good movies. I love to imagine who’d play the major roles in my novels if they were made into films. I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of casting and, whenever I’ve directed plays in the past, I was told I was quite good at selecting the right person for the role, both physically and in terms of the ‘energy’ they communicate to an audience.

There are two ways of getting the casting ‘right’: one is to select the obvious choice that ticks all the boxes for most people – think Tom Hardy as James Bond – or, alternatively, we can go with instinct and pick an actor who may not be everyone’s obvious first choice for that role but there is something essentially quirky about them that will make it work – think Heath Ledger as The Joker, Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan or Robert Downey Junior as Chaplin. Instinct and essence are right up there and can often work better than predictability.

When I cast my novels as films, I’m dreaming beyond my wildest dreams, of course – should a TV director come knocking, it would be incredible to have access to a range of the most talented and famous actors, although I’ll gladly concede that there are thousands of brilliant actors out there who, although yet unheard of, are yet to make their name and if they are going to steal a scene, I’d love it to be a scene in one of my books.

Before I reveal my dream choice of cast for The Old Girls’ Network, I have to say that when I’m writing a book, I don’t start with famous actors’ faces or voices in my head. I don’t design a character in a story so that it can be played by a particular personality. Nor do I expect my chosen actors to match the character descriptions, age or background of the ones in my book: it’s the essence of the character I’m looking for, not the exact fit. You’ll see exactly what I mean.

The setting of the book is a Somerset village, and I’d need to create a community dynamic between all the villagers, both in terms of tensions and compatibility. So, let’s start with Barbara – she’s in her late seventies, starchy and difficult at first, but also vulnerable; she’s been hurt in the past and she steels herself against further complications in life by being austere. So, to play Barbara I’d go for the staccato voice, the vulnerable facial expressions and the strong character of Emma Thompson who, although she’s much younger than Barbara, is such a talented actor that she’d interpret perfectly the nuances between crotchety and kind; she’d have the subtext of each moment perfectly played out.

Pauline is a softer character but she’s no pushover; she is strong, independent and yet capable of loyalty and warmth. I’d choose Celia Imrie, whose comic background, poise and CV are impressive. Again, despite being ten years younger than Pauline, Celia would be the perfect actor to interpret her strength of character and her resilience while also showing her softer side.

Bisto is easy to cast and I have to say, I had several contenders for this role and changed my mind a few times. Small of frame, mischievous, intelligent but deeply wounded by his past, Bisto would be played by Colm Meaney who would demonstrate vulnerability, warmth and an ability to appeal to an audience through comedy and pathos. He’d be a heartbreaker.

To play Len Chatfield, the love-struck Romeo farmer who is often rendered speechless and awkward, I would select Bill Nighy. He’s a great comic actor and, although he often plays more verbose characters, I think he has exactly the right measure of pathos and warmth to make Len the audience’s darling. A Gabriel Oak character, Len is strong on the outside and gentle inside: Bill would be a perfect magnet for the audience’s sympathy.

Dizzy, the hairdresser whom Barbara says is named after a potato, would be played brilliantly by Amanda Lawrence, who is an ex-theatre student of mine and was in the film Suffragette several years ago. Check her out. Sparky, funny and adorable, she’d be ideal as Dizzy. Hugo, the man from the manor, would be Rhys Ifans, yes, really – he’d do a great job in a smart suit. Kostas the Greek hunk who cleans windows would be Baris Arduç, a Turkish TV presenter who fits the bill in terms of the physical ability to embody the role.

Jamie Bell would play Len’s son Gary: again, he doesn’t exactly match the physical type from the novel but he can blend a broodiness with a sadness that will make Gary not entirely unlikeable. Chrissie the vicar would be played by Helena Bonham Carter, who would bring a briskness and a bit of glamour to the character. Imagine her wanging that welly!

There are several other characters I would cast and, in my dream world, I’d want to use relatively unknown but up-and-coming actors to take all the other roles. The following are ex-students of mine who work in the industry. James Elston would play Andy; Pierre Roxon would play Fabian; Demelza Randall would take the role of Tilly Hardy, the author of raunchy romance novels. I’d like to stay loyal to actors I’ve worked with whom I know are super-talented and industrious.

Then again, just imagine if Hollywood called me with a huge budget and asked for a completely new setting: what if the whole book had to change location and Winsley Green became somewhere in downtown New York? Then I suppose I’d be auditioning De Niro for Bisto, Samuel L for Len, Streep for Pauline and Streisand for Barbara. Now that’s a whole new and very different fantasy!

About the Arts…

I have worked in schools where Drama, Music, Art , Dance, Writing, Media and Performance thrived. I used to teach theatre. I taught students between the ages of 11 and 18 usually but sometimes I would be invited into primary schools to help smaller children fall in love with Shakespeare, and once in a while I would lead workshops at universities teaching undergraduates about Brecht or Buchner or Bent. Once I went to Guangzhou to teach Hamlet and I worked with a jali on a performance in the Gambia.. I taught GCSE, A level, PGCE students. I directed plays, I wrote scripts, and most importantly I interacted with musicians, film makers, dancers, actors, writers, designers, artists and photographers as a normal part of my daily life. It made me very happy.

Occasionally, I worked in an environment where the arts were considered ‘less’ in some ways. I detected a feeling in some people that studying theatre (and other Arts subjects) was less important than studying mathematics, language, science; that learning about performance and theatre somehow matters less. I am not one for buying into division. I incorporated writing, language and science into theatre. 

The arrival of Coronavirus hasn’t changed our love of the arts: it hasn’t changed the importance of arts subjects. They are still fundamental to learning, to growth, to developing who we are as people. What has changed is our opportunity to share them together. The biggest change is in public accessibility to the arts and in the loss of jobs of those working in the industry.

I’m not sure everyone appreciates how important the arts are, both to individuals and to our personal growth as people. That’s understandable: we can’t all understand everything.  

But it’s important now that those people who make decisions about the future of the arts don’t simply offer a token sum. While the emergency funding package from the government is very welcome, for the cultural and social survival of the arts, we need to consider the importance of accessibility to anyone and everyone, not just to the select few.

That means that we all should have the opportunity to be surrounded by the arts from birth, to be immersed in the arts in schools. Then, throughout life, having access to the arts becomes something we all have a right to, and creative enjoyment becomes something we can choose for ourselves and experience as part of everyday life. It will make us all happier people.