The original Liver Birds
Carla Lane, the iconic TV comedy writer who died this week, was once my landlady. A friend went to interview her a few years after my stay in her house, and mentioned me as a mutual acquaintance. She looked blank at the name, but did eventually say ‘one of those girls who were camped out like gypsies at the top of the stairs?’ – which was how she liked to refer to me and my flatmate.
She owned a huge house in the suburb of West Derby in Liverpool, a former shipowner’s house, and had installed her highly extended family in one half, while the other half was divided up into flats. We had much the nicest one, with big rooms, high ceilings and tall windows. Carla herself was in London a lot of the time, but would sweep up to Liverpool in a queenly manner to visit the house and her family.
Carla Lane was a trailblazer in TV comedy writing in her day, amazingly successful, in a way that my American readers will find hard to imagine – her programmes didn’t translate to other countries. She wrote about women, about working class characters, and about the sadness and the comedy of people’s lives. Her series The Liver Birds (about flat-sharing young women) meant a whole generation of local females would smile weakly when men thought it was funny to call us that. Her writing was clever and witty and resonated with people – although I, like many people, had reservations about her most successful series, Bread. But you could have nothing but admiration for her and her achievements – she came from nowhere to be a successful writer, without contacts or the ‘right’ background, at a time when women just didn’t do that, and certainly not provincial women with no real qualifications.
Hearing of her death made me think about my time in her house, and I was struck by the idea that it was all somewhat like Love, Nina – the book and now TV series based on a real-life collection of letters by Nina Stibbe, who worked as a nanny for an intellectual family in London in the early 80s. Perhaps all of us have our Love, Nina years, and these were mine. If only I’d written letters at the time.
The family in the other half of the house was the subject of speculation among the tenants – we never knew who exactly was in there (and why should we?), but there were her two sons, partners, sometimes children, there were cars coming and going, and a variety of dogs. Carla’s mother lived there – she was always known as Hive. She rocked glitter heels and a gold turban at all hours of the day, and had a stately manner about her. She’d wander to the end of the road when the nearby school was coming out, be guided across the main road by the lollipop man, and would then try to give him a tip. She must have been in her 70s at least – quite possibly older, but everyone in the household was deliberately vague about ages: Carla seems to have done some creative accounting, and the birthdate and age given now are at variance with what was current then. Questions that pinned ages down were not welcome.
There were businesses being started – hairdressers, a Mexican restaurant (very adventurous for the time), something to do with cars. This was Liverpool in the 1980s, the Thatcher years, a city that was down but still cheerful, and many families had people who were around the house a lot, not out at conventional jobs, though not usually as affluent as Carla’s family. It was – and I know this seems banal – like the family from Bread, though much more upmarket and richer.
We all went about our lives in a friendly enough way most of the time, but there were moments…
Carla Lane has always been famed as an animal rights activist, a subject she took very seriously. On one occasion, she wrote a note to all the tenants, which was pinned up in our communal entrance hall. In it she said that a family of baby animals (I can’t remember what - owls? frogs? rabbits?) was living in the extensive grounds of the house, and that these were such precious little things that it would be nice if we could all be quiet as we went past their home, and perhaps park cars elsewhere so as not to disturb them or run over them, and she knew that we would all share her concern.
There were probably 6 or 8 tenants at the time, and one of them – braver than the rest of us – wrote an open letter back suggesting that Carla’s great concern for the welfare of the animals could do with being extended to the welfare of the tenants, who could never get anything fixed and had no hot water. I remember this as being a terrifically volcanic and controversial event, endlessly discussed on the stairs, but absolutely nothing coming of it: no-one was evicted or victimized, and nothing was fixed, and even the baby animals were unaffected.
The hot water was always a matter of concern. It was included in the rent, and the supply was always dicey. But then, one of Carla’s sons had a hot tub installed – and I cannot tell you how unlikely an event that was in a posh Liverpool suburb in the early 80s – and all our water was diverted to the hot tub. Though the hot tub wasn’t used when Carla was home, so she didn’t know, allegedly…
She absolutely adored being a famous writer, happy to tell us she had her own parking place at the BBC, that she was friends with the McCartneys, and with Richard Adams, author of Watership Down. She loved the big house we all lived in – she said she used to walk past it as a young mother, pushing a pram, thinking ‘I’d like to live there one day’ – and now she owned it, and she loved the fact that it was filled with her family, including the grownup boy she had pushed in the pram. And perhaps she even liked giving a home to the tenants, though you wouldn’t be convinced.
One detail in an obituary caught my attention: that she had wanted to be a gypsy as a child, with a silk scarf and a tambourine. I stared – did this change everything? Was ‘those gypsy girls’ a compliment? Did she like me more than she seemed to?
No, probably not. But living in her house was never less than an entertainment.