Teen heroine Georgia Nicolson conquered both sides of the Pond, and even made a splash in Hollywood. Now she returns to her spiritual home in Yorkshire, and her creator Louise Rennison talks to Sheena Hastings.
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LOUISE Rennison seems to have survived adulthood with her inner teenager fabulously intact.
She has the ready giggle of the 15-year-old who’s always on the verge of laughter, and her eyes even have that permanent upturn at the outer edge that’s the hallmark of someone who tends to find and appreciate the funny side of life.
Delighted to be told she seems to be trapped in a permanent state of madcap semi-adolescence, she says: “I don’t think anyone actually leaves their teenage years behind them properly. You just get them beaten out of you, being expected not to have a joke all the time.
“There’s an expectation that teenagers have to calm down, isn’t there? But their sense of joy, curiosity, adventure and friendliness towards people is something to hang on to.”
Twelve years ago, the stand-up comedian, radio presenter and actress – then in her late 40s – wrote an article that gave a glimpse of her ability to access the inner workings of the mind of a 14-year-old girl.
A friend pointed out this talent to a publisher pal, and that lucky introduction turned into a series of 10 best-selling, greatly applauded and award-winning books detailing the adventures, crushes, hang-ups and many daily crises in the life of one Georgia Nicolson, an ordinary girl with a much younger sister, embarrassing parents, a larger-than-life cat called Angus and a pack of girlie friends known as The Ace Gang.
Written in diary form, Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging was followed up with such titles as It’s OK, I’m Wearing Really Big Knickers, Knocked Out By My Nunga-Nungas and Then He Ate My Boy Entrancers – much the kind of thing you might expect from a woman whose award-winning autobiographical stand-up show was called Stevie Wonder Felt My Face.
It’s been a couple of years since Rennison (not without a tear or two) left Georgia and her Snogging Scale behind, dating a real live sex god (or two) and continuing to have daily spats with friends, foes and small, irritating sibling.
A generation has grown up on the Georgia books (more than five million sold worldwide to date); meanwhile a new character called Tallulah Casey has sprung from the writer’s hyperactive imagination.
TC lives on the Yorkshire moors, goes to a performing arts school, and has an early teen crush on a brooding, complicated and possibly dangerous boy called Cain Hinchcliffe. The slight parallels with literary greats don’t end there – the first two books having been titled Withering Tights and A Midsummer Tights Dream.
It was during the writing of the second TC book that a long-cherished dream of Rennison’s came true.
“I’d been hoping for a decade that Angus, Thongs…would be made into a stage show at West Yorkshire Playhouse,” says the writer, who was born and raised in a an overcrowded house in Seacroft, Leeds. The family’s Jewish/Irish passions regularly meant sparks flew – all great fodder for a girl who loved drama and would later blithely plunder her own teenage self as the blueprint for Georgia’s diaries.
“Around the same time two things happened: I met the promoter Mick Perrin, who said he’d love to tour a show of Angus, Thongs... then, very soon afterwards, West Yorkshire Playhouse called and said they’d like to co-produce it showing it first in Leeds. I couldn’t believe that this was happening.”
It was agreed that a Rennison would need a co-writer to help turn book to script, and after interviewing others, she knew Mark Catley was the one before he even spoke.
“I was sitting waiting for him in this place in King’s Cross, and saw him through the window, coming down the street. He was unmistakably from Leeds, and had that slightly dour thing about him that I really recognised. He said, straight out: ‘What I can give you, Louise is structure and order. It was so reassuring...”
So Mark Catley, a name not to be sniffed at – with many a successful gritty, funny, northern working class feather in his dramatic cap – got on with climbing inside the heads of Georgia, Jas and the rest of the posse of girlies who talk of little more than make-up, boys, hair, boys... but occasionally diversify into such amusements as devising the Viking Bison Disco Inferno dance.
“He sometimes phoned me, laughing at jokes from the book. The fact that he got the humour gave me confidence that it would work as a show. His wife is a fan, so she translated a lot of it.
“Men don’t understand why there’s so much talking about everything among girls. It’s all emotional stuff they (boys) don’t do – falling out with mates, loving mates, sometimes both at once.”
Rennison has the final say on what’s in and what’s out, joke-wise (“...if everyone laughs, then it stays in. Job done”), and according to the writer the girls cast as Georgia and gang are having a ball in rehearsal.
“They started off quite reasonable, and now they’re completely uncontrollable. I just love them, because they really work as a group and the theme of looking for luuurve rings true to them. There’s the odd sad moment in there, too. Even if you love the laughs, you can’t just listen to jokes for an hour and a half. It wouldn’t work.”
A few years ago, Rennison had rather a bruising experience with Hollywood, when she had no say in how the final script would read for Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging.
Tender American sensibilities had a problem with the phrase “full-frontal” apparently, and many of her jokes were replaced with humour that she found lame. She was powerless against the might of the machine, though.
However, Louise Rennison does count among her triumphs the fact that her American publisher agreed not to water down or “translate” Georgia Nicolson’s idiosyncratic, not to say over-the-top, language but instead to supply a glossary of terms at the back of each book.
She seems to have persuaded millions of young Americans that we all talk like Georgia: rating boys according to snognocity and telling each other what brillopads and marvy ideas we’ve had, as well as calling our parents Mutti and Vati.
“I get letters from young girls in American, saying ‘please send us more British words’. They think we all hang about saying ‘bazoomas’ and ‘boynosity’, and have tea parties where they practise ‘speaking British’. I’m proud to say I’m educating the American masses.”
Her US fans include Willow Smith, the singer daughter of A-list actor/comedian Will Smith – who insisted Rennison went to her gig last time she was in London supporting Justin Bieber.
“She ran to me, hugged me and told me how much she loved the books and that she reads them every morning. It’s lovely that they’re about an emotional world she wants to be in. I feel like that about some books. I want to actually be in them.”
If Louise Rennison has perfectly tapped into the teenage mind (and she has), it is a kind of idealised world, where snogging is as far as it goes. Is she nostalgic for a time when teenagers seemed to stay younger for longer – even though there was little fiction aimed at them as a discrete group?
“Sort of... but the thing I’m nostalgic for, in a way, is that today’s children and teenagers have so much technology at their fingertips that they are bombarded with loads of tedious ‘stuff’. You have a phone with loads of names and numbers but you don’t really know people unless you’re standing next to them and going for sleepovers.
“I’m not saying that today’s teens don’t have close friends, but a certain slowness is lost. I use technology as a handy tool but don’t let it use me. When the Blackberry network broke down I actually saw a young bloke in London smashing his Blackberry against a wall as though a close friend had let him down.”
Rennison lived for a long time in Brighton, but now has a flat in London to be closer to her own vital group of female friends, who like nothing better than to practice their dance moves around the living room.
She got pregnant young and gave the baby up for adoption (her daughter Kim came back into her life in her 30s). But she says she’s never short of research subjects – courtesy of friends’ and relatives’ children – when she needs a fix of what’s going on in the lives and heads of teenagers.
“I spent Christmas with my nieces, and had a bed full of them and all their stuff. I had to go to bed myself for a rest after I got home.
“I wouldn’t mind having a houseful of them now, although the responsibility of actually bringing them up is not for me.”
It sounds as though she has a lot more to say about the marvy and fabbity-fab world of girls with attitude. Her young fans will be hoping there’s a lot more of Tallulah coming, even if the covers are closed on Georgia N.
“No, I couldn’t finish with teenagers. They’re far too much fun.” And to anyone who says she should grow up and write something serious, her riposte is instant: “A funny person wouldn’t say that...” in Louise Rennison’s book, that’s withering indeed.
• Angus, Thongs and Even More Snogging is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, from February 10 to March 3. Box office 0113 213 7700.