The Big Interview: Deborah McAndrew

At 22 she landed a regular role in Coronation Street. Now, Deborah McAndrew has found a great talent for writing drama. She talks to Sheena Hastings.

Deborah McAndrew, and below with husband, Conrad Nelson
Deborah McAndrew, and below with husband, Conrad Nelson

AS any writer worth their salt will tell you, to understand writing and have any chance of doing it well, you must read, read, read.

Whether the churning of the mental washing machine ever spins and squeezes all those words and notions into new ideas of your own that find life on the written page is down to talent, confidence, opportunity, determination… and some other magical ingredients we may never define.

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As soon as she knew her alphabet, Deborah McAndrew became a voracious reader, and she was still very young when she felt a strong impulse to write. But it was to be decades before her writing properly found its way into the world.

Seeing her first panto (Little Red Riding Hood) at the age of five, she was so skippity-hoppity and enthused by the story, the set, the actors’ gestures and the jokes, that she ran into school the next day and described the whole lot to her teacher in in a froth of excitement.

The beguiled teacher let little Debs stage her 15-minute version of the show – casting and rehearsing her classmates and directing their movements. “I was so thrilled, and it didn’t seem odd to me that I should do it,” she says.

She was the eldest of three sisters, and “definitely the boss”. Each summer the family stayed with friends in Wales who had four children, and this gave her a cast of seven. She wrote the plays and was always the leading man. “Even then I was frustrated that boys got the best parts. I still am a bit. I mean Hamlet’s problems are as much my problems as any man’s, so of course I identify with him.”

She says she never actually meant to act and certainly never had ambitions to be on TV. Huddersfield-born McAndrew took a drama degree at Manchester University after an “ordinary, happy” childhood, during which the family moved first to Ossett near Wakefield, then Leeds.

Along the way her performances in plays, bands and choirs were fun and all part of a learning process – but she always meant to write. She just took a slightly indirect route. A postgraduate teaching certificate turned out to be a mistake and, getting back in touch with her tutors in Manchester, they pointed her towards an agent.

Before she knew it she’d passed an audition for a small part as young designer Angie Freeman on Coronation Street. She saw the short contract as a way of quickly paying off her overdraft, but Angie went down well and McAndrew stayed on. Yet the public scrutiny it brought didn’t sit well with her at all, and Angie left after three years ‘to go travelling’. Apart from a brief return to the Street, she worked constantly in the theatre for the following eight years.

In 1995 she joined Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides company in Halifax, meeting there her husband-to-be the actor, musician and director Conrad Nelson. They now have a 12-year-old daughter and live in Staffordshire. It was motherhood, McAndrew says, that finally, concentrated her mind on what she wanted most. After 12 years as a busy actor she had to see if she had it in her to be a successful writer.

“I really felt that it was time to find out whether all the attempts at a novel, plays and other bits and pieces would come to something if I stayed home, looked after Elizabeth and gave myself time to think. I’d always had a novel or other writing on the go. But something that had always got in my way was that I’d read the classics and was overwhelmed by their greatness.”

One of her particular icons is Anne Brontë. “She has a reputation as churchy and obedient, but I don’t find that in her writing – it’s political and feisty. When you say you’re a Brontë fan, some people – men, mostly – say the books are full of bonkers people, written by women who knew nothing of life. I find that view extraordinary. I felt that by comparison with the great writers I had nothing important to say and wasn’t clever enough.

The cycle was broken when her husband wanted to direct Leopold Lewis’s 1871 play The Bells, a piece about a murderer haunted by the ghost of his victim, which McAndrew knew very well but they agreed was rather dusty in the original. It needed a new treatment to bring it into the contemporary idiom, and after much discussion it was Nelson who suggested that Debs should adapt the play for Northern Broadsides because she had so many good ideas. That was in 2004. After the success of The Bells she went on to adapt Dario Fo’s Accidental Death Of An Anarchist and last year’s adaptation of Gogol’s The Government Inspector was also a hit. Her work is regularly produced elsewhere but the continuing relationship with the Halifax company is, as she describes it, “something special”.

The Grand Gesture – her latest adaptation, of Nikolai Erdman’s black comedy The Suicide, has just opened in Harrogate to great reviews, and is now on tour. The piece was suppressed as subversive by Stalin and never performed in Russia during Erdman’s lifetime. Written and set in the 1920s, it’s now considered to be one of the finest plays of its era.

McAndrew has transposed it to Britain today, set among the Ango-Irish community in the North. It follows the story of Simon Duff, who’s out of work and destitute. He decides to commit suicide, the whole community wants to get involved, and his desperate gesture is hijacked by others for their own ends.

“The play struck me immediately as something great,” says McAndrew. “The particular context is very Russian, very Soviet... but pared back to the basic circumstances it becomes universal. For me the big, universal idea is that of the individual human being as a commodity – something I think we see a great deal of in our society today. It seems like a very macabre subject, and the comedy is very black at times, but ultimately it affirms both the dignity and the worth of every human life.”

McAndrew says the initial fear of “putting myself out there with a script” and learning to take criticism was difficult to overcome. Working with the ideas of great writers of the past but setting them in the context of modern Britain adding her own satire to leven the mix,” is a pure pleasure” she says. She loves the solitude of writing and chuckling at her own gags.

The courage to release her own original ideas to the public gaze finally came to the surface with a series of well-received works including Vacuum (2006) – a satire set in a vacuum repair shop, Flamingoland (2008) and Losing the Plot (2012, about a mutiny among allotment keepers).

Conrad Nelson has directed a number of McAndrew’s works and she says they handle working together “just fine, because we have a similar practical attitude to making theatre. We don’t have a rule about not talking shop at home, because we’re passionate about it.”

She has just set up a small theatre company near home. Claybody Theatre is about to produce her play Ugly Duck, the story of an ordinary bloke who becomes a life model and the making of a work of art. The play expresses her affection for the Potteries and their great industrial and scientific past.

“The area has suffered in recent times. I’m not a politician nor an industrialist; all I can do is apply for funding, put a play on and aim to bring the community together. The message is that the Potteries are more beautiful than people think, and outsiders should not make easy judgements.”

McAndrew took a while to find her mojo as a playwright, but she’s firmly in the groove now. “Part of me can’t understand why I took so long to get going, but the other part sees that I perhaps needed to live a fair amount first. I’m genuinely interested in most things, and over the years have become more and more intrigued by physics – not just because Brian Cox is a bit sexy. I tried to write a play about quantum mechanics, but found it so difficult. I think Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is the only truly successful play I’ve seen about science.”

A forthcoming project that takes her back in time is An August Bank Holiday Lark, a Northern Broadsides/New Vic Theatre Ashton-Under-Lyne production set in an east Lancashire village in 1914. She’d rather read a novel or book about history, science of comparative religion than watch TV.

“I’m embarrassingly ignorant of what’s happening on the box. I’d rather get lost in big ideas that make me feel small and safe. When I feel momentarily ‘big’ it scares me, as I don’t like being the centre of attention. Acting, which I still enjoy (she regularly records radio drama) is not, for me, about being the focus of attention, but about being someone else. It’s a shared experience with an audience, agreeing to engage in a fiction. And the very best thing about making theatre is that I learn from it all the time.”

McAndrew passes on what she’s learned as a visiting professor at Staffordshire University. “I tell the students what I told myself to get going in the end, ‘Don’t sit down and expect – as I used to – to write David Copperfield. Just write a story and tell it well’.”

The Grand Gesture, created in partnership between Northern Broadsides and Harrogate Theatre, will be at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, November 19 to 23. 01723 370541, The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, November 26 to 30. 01422 255266,