There cannot be many more pleasant ways to spend a Friday morning than chatting with one of Leeds’ finest ever writers in the wonderful surrounding of the Tile Hall Cafe in Leeds Art Gallery.
Lisa Holdsworth was born in Farsley and still lives there. She was educated at Priesthorpe School and Park Lane College, leaving the City for only three years in order to study Film and Theatre at the University of North London.
The reason for our meeting was that her new play, Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, is about to open in Bradford at the Ambassador pub. It is based on the novel by Adelle Stripe about probably one of Bradford’s best writers, Andrea Dunbar. Before we moved on to that, I wanted to talk about Lisa’s view of the mechanics of writing for various media.
Having started out as a gofer doing odd jobs and making the tea at Yorkshire Television, just to be in the creative environment of the medium, she was given her big break by Kay Mellor when she was asked to contribute to Fat Friends. This led to her writing episodes for several of the biggest shows on TV, such as Call The Midwife, Ackley Bridge, New Tricks, Waterloo Road, Robin Hood – and who could forget the way that Martine McCutcheon met her demise in an episode of Midsomer Murders, written by Lisa. To say that she was cheesed off is an understatement.
Years ago I remember an interview with a writer on the radio or TV when they said that they would throw a hospital pass to the person who had to do the next episode, introducing a seemingly impossible situation to get out of. Lisa said that things have changed and the overall series is mapped out in advance. She did say, however, that writers do like to be given the challenge of a cliff-hanger to work their way out of.
Lisa has written many episodes of Emmerdale over the years, which is a different process altogether, in that the writers and directors have a monthly planning meeting to discuss which storylines should be pursued and what topics might be covered. Because it is imperative that the scripts be rigidly adhered to, the actors are not given very much leeway. Even getting a word wrong in one episode could have repercussions in another a couple of weeks down the line. There are currently seventy-two characters in Emmerdale, so they all have to be on the same page, literally.
Not only does she write herself, but she is also an influential member of the Writers’ Guild, which looks after the interests of those in the profession. Last week, she was at the Houses of Parliament in front of a Select Committee which is looking at the opportunities for working class people in the entertainment industry. The Writers’ Guild, along with the actors’ union Equity and the Musicians’ Union, is recommending the abolition of unpaid internships and giving everyone who contributes a wage. Although now very successful, she has not forgotten the times when she had to work for nothing and it was only the fact that her family supported her financially through this period that she had got where she is today.
It was now time to talk about the theatre, and especially Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile. Adelle Stripe saw the film of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, so she wanted to know more about the woman who had written it. Not being able to find any biographies, she set about writing a novel based on Andrea Dunbar’s life, which ended in a brain haemorrhage in 1990 at the age of just 29. She lived on one of the most deprived and notorious council estates in Bradford, but had an innate talent for writing which she exercised successfully enough to have her first play performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Despite her success, she had her demons, and although moving away from the estate she kept being drawn back.
I wanted to know how the process had worked between novelist Stripe and playwright Holdsworth. Lisa said that when she was chosen to write the play, she collaborated closely with Adelle so as to interpret the story correctly, unlike the film industry where the rights to the book are bought by the studio and then the screenplay writer can take as many liberties as they wish. Freedom Studio has the rights to the book but the studio was keen that there should be collaboration and so the two women have worked hand in hand. I was impressed by the attitude here, as they show the utmost integrity to ensure that the play is a brutally honest account of Andrea’s life whilst also showing sensitivity towards the members of her family who are still alive. She did stress that the book is a novel and not a biography, so some of the characters are fictional whilst others are real, which again needed a special touch.
All the way through our conversation, Lisa was incredibly generous with her praise for the people and organisations she has worked with, especially Kay Mellor, Adelle Stripe and Freedom Studios. I cannot imagine that anyone could not try to help someone with the attitude, integrity and talent of Lisa Holdsworth and I am sure that there are a lot more author’s credits to come. In the immediate future, there is the premiere of the play and the talk of extending the tour to cover more of the small, intimate community spaces where it will be staged.
Feature photograph by Stan Graham.