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INTERVIEW: Maureen Chadwick talks about writing Bad Girls and her new play The Speed Twins

Writer Maureen Chadwick has been writing bad girls for her whole career, but it's probably her TV show of the same name that brought her work to your attention. She's also the creator and writer of Footballers' Wives and Waterloo Road, as well as having writing credits on soaps like Eastenders and Coronation Street. She's now founded her own production company, Big Broad Productions, where her first project is The Speed Twins, a tale of love, loss and identity.

We spoke to Maureen about lesbian love on stage and TV, and the challenge of writing what you want to see.

RR:The Speed Twins looks at the lives and loves of three gay women; do you think the depiction of homosexuality in British theatres, film and television has had a role in bringing about progress like the legalisation of gay marriage?

MC: I think it’s long had a role in paving the way for legislative change by raising public awareness and shifting perceptions, as evidenced by the liberalising influence back in 1961 of ‘Victim’, the first English language film to use the word ‘homosexual’. And there’s probably more than a coincidental link between the sympathetic portrayal of an increasing number of homosexual characters in tv soaps and drama series and the contemporary swing of majority public opinion in favour of equal marriage. But Queenie, the central character in my play ‘The Speed Twins’, is one of the die-hards: a respectable widow who believes that a same-sex couple going up the aisle will never be on the same social par as a traditional bride and groom. So she’s set to face the challenge of a lifetime when she finds herself trapped in the Gateways club with her own long-buried lesbian desires exposed.

RR: 'The Gateways' in The Speed Twins is named after the lesbian club in The Killing of Sister George- why do you think this was such an influential film?

MC: Before the 1970s, lesbian venues didn’t advertise and the Gateways club was only to be found by word-of-mouth, so when ‘The Killing of Sister George’ came out in 1969, not only featuring a 10 minute sequence shot in a real life lesbian club but also including its actual address and phone number, it had a real life-changing influence on innumerable lesbian wannabes, including me. However, the film itself could hardly be described as a positive depiction of lesbian relationships and the eponymous character ‘George’, portrayed by Beryl Reid, is a drunken old frump in a tweed suit - representing the butch lesbian stereotype that has always repelled Queenie, and who she finds reincarnated as the character ‘Ollie’ to confront her in ‘The Speed Twins’.

RR: Women, particularly older women, still suffer from prejudice and misogyny on a day to day basis- is this something you've consciously aimed to highlight in The Speed Twins- and in shows like Bad Girls and Footballers' Wives?

MC: Absolutely! Everything I write is informed by my feminist politics, but I know polemics make for bad drama so entertainment values have to come first, to engage audience interest with compelling stories about characters they can care about. Bad Girls was the first prime-time tv drama series to feature a lesbian love affair at its core and in order to make that breakthrough into the mainstream it was vital that Helen and Nikki were portrayed as the ‘goodies’, both challenging the prison system’s injustices against women from their separate sides of the bars, inviting all of us to root for them – and their relationship. In Footballers’ Wives, however, many of the principal women characters were deeply flawed, to say the least, but this show intended to highlight issues about misogyny and homophobia by the more outrageously negative means of a social satire. In The Speed Twins I’m going for broke – with three principal characters who are old and lesbian.

RR: Have you seen new Netflix series 'Orange is the New Black' ? There've obviously been comparisons to Bad Girls as it's set in a women's prison. I don't know what the stats are like in the US, but here in the UK first-time women offenders are twice as likely as men to be sent to prison- do you think this kind of injustice is what has led to writers wanting to raise awareness about women and crime?

MC: I've only just managed to get Netflix on my tv, so I haven't had a chance to watch OINTB yet, though I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. And I’m delighted there’s another women’s prison drama raising awareness about the institutionalised injustice towards women within the penal system, many aspects of which I know are the same in the US as here. And it was most definitely a motivator for us in writing Bad Girls, backed up by extensive research and visits to various women’s prisons, and liaising throughout with our inspirational advisor, Chris Tchaikovsky, an ex-prisoner herself and founder of the campaigning charity Women In Prison. Chris said that Bad Girls was worth ten years of conventional campaigning, because fiction could tell the truth about women prisoners’ lives much more vividly than facts and open many more closed doors within the system than a documentary camera.

RR: How much of your own life ends up in your characters?

MC: None at all, until it’s been completely depersonalised and alchemically filtrated to re-emerge via my characters’ own voices – a process which includes the likes of Jim Fenner, much to my own amazement and on-going fascination.

RR: Do you prefer writing for theatre or TV? Where did you start out? And what tips would you give to anyone starting out today?

MC: I started out writing stage plays before I got my break into the more financially viable world of tv script-writing - and I love doing both and making the most of their differences. So ‘The Speed Twins’ tells a story about lost love and last chances in a totally non-televisual style & using the whole box of theatrical tricks, yet is still linked to my tv work by its combination of emotional high stakes, deadly serious shit and camp humour. And my best tip for anyone starting out and trying to get noticed is exactly the same rule I still write by myself as a freelancer – write what you want to see.

RR: You took a huge financial risk setting up SHED PRODUCTIONS which then became so successful that it was taken over by Warner Bros. Was it hard to say goodbye to something you'd built from scratch, or are you just excited to be starting afresh?

MC: The financial stakes in theatreland are much more risky than tv, where you may have to borrow a few mill from the bank to get started but you don’t do that until you’ve got a commission from a broadcaster, then the deal is you will only not get paid if you fail to deliver the product, no matter if it turns out to be an untransmittable pile of crap. Of course that doesn’t diminish the risk of completely trashing your reputation and never getting commissioned again – which was certainly our nagging fear in the first series of Bad Girls when a stash of damning reviews sent our ratings on the dive for the next few episodes, until somehow the show found its loyal fans and the ratings miraculously started climbing back up again to secure a recommission. And it’s entirely thanks to Shed’s success that I’ve been able to set up my own theatre production company and launch a play with such commercially risky subject matter as ‘The Speed Twins’.

 

See The Speed Twins at Riverside Studios until 28th September, with a post show talk on 8th September and a Stonewall Gala Benefit night on 10th September.