Maureen Lipman is our of one national treasures. An accomplished writer, performer and columnist she has had a busy week in Manchester. A packed audience saw her launch a new exhibition looking back at the relationship between her and her husband, Jack Rosenthal at the Manchester Jewish Museum. Not only that, but she attended rehearsals for “The Best”, an lost Jack Rosenthal script which premieres this week at the Lass O’Gowrie. Maureen kindly took time to sit down with The Fiction Stroker team to talk about this highly anticipated play…
Fiction Stroker: Maureen, thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. To open with, I wondered how you felt about Jack’s works coming back for a new lease of life?
Maureen Lipman: It’s so wonderful to recycle things. One of my favourite publishing companies is called Persephone and they reissue books from the 30’s and 40’s and its just wonderful. To be remembered like that, it’s just fantastic. The truth is good writing works. I’ve just sat there watching The Best which I hadn’t even read until two weeks ago, but now I’m watching it be performed by a group of truly gifted actors. They’ve done a fantastic job. It’s very moving for me of course, it is extremely moving stuff. But also very funny, and very enlightening about the nature of hubris.
You don’t need to be a football fan. It’s about a man struggling against his own demons. It’s really good, I didn’t expect it. Going to see a reading of a play in a pub in Manchester, you don’t expect it turn your heart over, but it did. The play is all about mitigating circumstances. We make sportsmen into heroes and when their wings get singed, we bring them down. For example, Oscar Pistorius – what could be more of a descent from the gods than that? You admire someone so much for shouldering their disability and turning it to their advantage and suddenly, he believes his own mythology. With George, without the education to back him up – although he was a brilliant man – the fame drives you nuts.
I was never ever prepared to see this video of Jack giving a lecture at the new exhibition and he’s just so adorable, attractive and lovely. That takes my breath away. It’s hard, it’s 8 years ago he died and he’s still hovering around. He’d be really, really happy with this. It ticks all the boxes he liked – commitment, playing against the line and telling the story you’ve wonderful and bloody good actors. I was really, very stirred. I laughed, I cried, it was terrific.
FS: I wondered whether you were a Manchester United fan at all?
ML: Whatever people say about the team, there is a magic about Manchester United that is nothing to do with how they play, or the making of the team, but just to do with the words “Manchester United”. It goes back to the Busby Babes, it’s rather spooky sometimes. They’re a magnificent team. The way Fergie has built them up from youngsters instead of buying expensive players. It’s completely the opposite of what Chelsea and Manchester City are doing. So you get soul which you don’t always get in football.
FS: I take it Jack was a big fan as well?
ML: He was Man United from birth; I became Man United from marriage! Jack used to watch it on Teletext because we didn’t have satellite. He said, if he went, they’d lose. The two occasions he went at Wembley, they lost. With our son Adam when they score, he just deeply sighs. He doesn’t cheer, it’s all internalised. Jack called them “the lads”. When I lost my phone, I got this old phone that used to be Jack’s, I put my SIM card in and up came “Away the lads”. It was an extraordinary thing to happen. United is very much part of our lives. I still watch the lads.
FS: I don’t know where they are in the Premier League actually..
ML: Oh darling! What planet are you living on? They’re not just top, but 15 points clear! Real Madrid was just a travesty [United’s Champions League loss on Tuesday night]. That was not even a yellow card, never mind a red one. I sincerely believe, and I’ll go to court for this, that the referee was bribed. Football’s full of it. He couldn’t send someone off for that. He didn’t even look at him! They’ve got to have what they have in cricket and tennis. You’ve got to be able to rewind it and say “Sorry ref, you’re wrong”. Fortunes stand and fall, reputations stand and fall on the opinion of the linesman.
FS: How do you think these dramas compare to television and theatre nowadays?
ML: Oh don’t get me started! [Lass O’Gowrie Producer] Gareth Kavanagh has seen fit to look through Jack’s archive and see what hasn’t been done. It was mental not to have done it as a film. With Jack’s screenplays, even I who knew him so well and delivered his lines so often – until it’s said, you don’t get the power of it. My mother used to say “You can always tell when its Jack’s work, people are always saying ‘Pardon’!” But actually when you say it, it’s like Chekov or Neil Simon, the words fit in the actors mouth perfectly. And all the characters, although there is a overarching style, are completely delineated. And it was a joy to see those actors relishing those lines, because look at what they usually get – Casualty or Holby City. I did a Midsomer Murders, and having said this, I’ll never do another, but I literally could not learn the lines. I went through the first speech a thousand lines, it was rubbish! Nobody speaks like that – only in women’s magazines. I always talk about the scene in Jack’s episode of Coronation Street with the Ogdens from last year. That displays Stan and Hilda’s relationship in only three lines in a way no-one is writing like anymore.”
FS: Is the difference sociological perhaps? That Jack would have been part of a larger extended family, that he was interacting with older people on a daily basis? People who were Annie Walker, Hilda Ogden and Ena Sharples? These people have largely gone from society now.
ML: Or a community, yes. I think you’re right. The main difference is that people aren’t allowed to write plays anymore, or they aren’t commissioned. It’s all series now that they want you to watch on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. There’s none of what the American’s call the ‘water cooler’ moment. I directed and played in Barefoot in the Park last year. It was Jack’s favourite play in that it was well-constructed. That play was on the road for six weeks and in the play was a prop copy of The New York Times. But in fact the prop buyer had put in a 1963 copy of The Telegraph in it. There were no reviews as such back then of course, but I opened it up and there was a column – Jack Rosenthal’s first television play had been on. Now that review had travelled round with us for six weeks and none of us had seen it, but it was like him saying ‘that’s the right thing to do – keep doing it’.
I don’t know how he did what he did. We never saw him doing it, he’d go into a room, come out, stack the dishwasher, take the kids out. He did it by osmosis, it was miraculous. My mother used to think he sat there gazing out the window doing nothing. She bothered him all the time, “Jack, can have a cup of tea?” Eventually he said “Zelma, I am working, so every time you disturb me, my train of thought gets shattered.” “Oh”, she says and goes away. Anyway, twenty minutes later, he’s typing and he feels her stood behind him. After a while he says “What is it? Is it important?” and she replies, “I don’t know. I’m just going to Brent Cross – does this jumper go with this skirt?!
FS: As a slight tangent, I understand you’d lent your name to a campaign to stop your local library from closing. How do you feel about libraries as stepping stones to culture?
ML: This is a tough one. In the same way that post offices cannot do what they used to do, the libraries cannot do what an internet centre does. Of course I understand why they have lost a lot of their credence. What we’re talking about is a room with access to books where parents can take their children, people can keep warm, not be hassled – it’s a community centre basically. You can get funding for a community centre, but not for a library and the library is mostly the place doing the same thing. For me, I would go to the library every week, that’s how I learnt to read. We didn’t have Amazon back then!”
Maureen Lipman, thank you very much.
The Best premieres at The Lass O’Gowrie on 12 March and runs until the 18 March. Tickets available from WeGotTickets.
With thanks to Debbie Manley and Gareth Kavanagh. Photography by Shay Rowan – see more of his outstanding work on his Flickr.