Butterflies is notorious in Cheltenham. Mention it to anyone of my Mother’s generation and they will tell you their own personal tale. My Mother’s is that she used to watch the dashing Nicholas Lyndhurst filming in Pittville Park whilst she pushed me around in my pram. I have many. I know two families which have owned ‘the Butterflies house’. I had my first kiss in Hatherley Park where Ria used to have clandestine meetings with Leonard. Still high up on my bucket list is to own an original red Mini Cooper with an Union Jack on the roof and bonnet. But what I never realised was that through this sitcom, which I loved so much, set in my home town was that Carla Lane was teaching a valuable lesson to women, one I unfortunately had to learn for myself.
Being of a younger generation, I didn’t discover Lane’s sitcoms in chronological order. My first encounter was Bread when I was around 7 or 8. I was too young to take any meaning from this sitcom which very much represented the political landscape of the time (cue Joey Boswell and his hilariously weighted arguments with the lady at the DSS) but I do remember my love for Adrian and his artistic flair and Nelly Boswell, the matriarch and the cog helping everything to turn. She reminded me of my Nan and that need for a matriarch in families is something which has resonated in me and my writing. It is most probably, as an only child, why I felt such a great need to have a large family myself.
I discovered Butterflies at 11, but I will come back to my love for that, and The Liver Birds I discovered at 16 when Britain was in the grip of Brit Pop and a 60s revival. I loved the Liver Birds for its fashion, its feminist independence and a character I could identify with in Nerys Hughes’ Sandra; bewildered about boys and sex. My Mother was of that generation and she was definitely of Sandra’s ilk. She wasn’t ready for me to have a boyfriend, she was dreading it and what I recognised in Lane’s writing, which she co-wrote with Myra Taylor was all that fear, all that prudishness. But life had moved on. It was the late 90s, some nearly 30 years since the Liver Birds had originally aired and Britain was much more relaxed and open minded than my Mother’s generation who would have been where it was frowned upon to leave home without a house and a husband to go to. I can remember looking to Beryl’s character for inspiration of attitude, to find my own way.
Which leads me back to butterflies and more specifically, Ria Parkinson. She is probably my favourite female sitcom character of all time. As a teenager I used to watch repeats of Butterflies and get completely caught up in it. I have always been a daydreamer and it was the first time I recall a character having an inner-monologue. Thinking about what she wanted to do, about her life, whilst getting on with all the day-to-day mundanity. The shopping, cooking the dinner (one way I do differ, I like to think I’m a better cook than Ria!), filling the car with petrol. Carla Lane was giving the teenage me a message, one I chose to ignore; don’t get caught in a trap. So, what did I do? Exactly that. I listened to a Woman’s Hour interview with Carla Lane last week which was recorded ten years ago, when her autobiography ‘Someday I’ll find me’ was published. She spoke of writing Butterflies, on the verge of an affair at the time she began writing it. She said that she honestly wasn’t thinking about her potential adultery at the time she wrote the first series but she did say, ‘Ria was trapped in a marriage which was right and proper but not right for her.’ That was me in my first marriage. It was exactly how I felt. And yet, I couldn’t really identify that unhappiness Carla Lane was portraying until I was in the same situation myself.
Which is why Carla Lane was an exceptional writer, one I can only aspire to one day finally be like. She took everyday life and made it personal to the viewer. Equally as important, she made it funny. She said she had identified early in her career that she had a sense of humour and that she had to use it. That those that have one and don’t find a channel for it are wasting it. I like to think I have a sense of humour. When I wrote Dad’s eulogy I wanted people to laugh. They did and applauded at the end. If that was a test to the standard to my writing, to get people to laugh in the face of death, then hopefully I passed. And if my writing & female characters are even a tenth as memorable as Carla Lane’s, then I know I’m heading in the right direction.