As she releases another hilarious book exploring a young girl’s coming of age. Rod McPhee discovered the serious side of Louise Rennison’s writing.
SHE’S just been through the mill following a visit to a school which saw staff complain to the headteacher about her “topics of conversation”.
“I mean, come on, haven’t they read my books?” says Louise Rennison. “Surely they know what to expect, they know they’re all about boys and snogging and all those experiences. What else am I going to talk about?
“Besides, the girls loved it. It was like a rock concert, all of them in this one assembly room, all asking questions and giving me hugs at the end. But the teachers didn’t approve. They should have known better than to bring so many women together in one space.”
The storm in a teacup controversy did take Rennison back to the early days when she received similar complaints following a trip to a school in Lancashire. It was around the time she released the first book of her adolescent mega-franchise, Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging.
Since it became a huge hit and was transformed into a movie, no one should be unfamiliar with her name or her books’ subject matter.
So far she’s produced three volumes of the adventures of Georgia Nicolson, and she has just released the third in her trilogy of Talullah Casey novels, The Taming of the Tights.
Both characters draw on Rennison’s youth, which was spent in her home city of Leeds, specifically as a pupil at what was then Parklands Girls’ High School in east Leeds.
“The difference is that with Georgia she was the side of me that was always going to get by all right,” she says. “But somehow Tallulah touches much more on the Irish part of me, the bit that feels quite on her own.”
Rennison has always ploughed her own furrow in life. After emigrating to New Zealand with her parents, she fell pregnant and gave her daughter up for adoption. Since then she hasn’t married or had any more children and, in her early 60s, now lives alone in an apartment in London.
But she is kept busy, particularly by her publishers.
“Books go through trends, particularly books for young people,” she says. “So there’s pressure to always be producing work, and work that fits in the with the current ‘in thing.’
“There was that phase when everything was about vampires and there seemed to be the suggestion that I somehow introduce a vampire into my stories!” she laughs. “Next thing they’ll want me to turn one of the teachers in my stories into a zombie or something.”
After writing The Taming of the Tights (which followed Withering Tights and A Midsummer Tights Dream) she now intends to take a year off and revive the character of Georgia for a new selection of stories featuring our boy-obsessed teenager as she starts college.
But she also hopes to reincarnate the stage version of her play, Angus, Thongs and Even More Snogging, which was adapted, alongside writer Mark Catley, for West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds last year.
Rennison says: “We really wanted to take it into the West End but it was so expensive. And risky too. I mean, you’ve got shows like The Spice Girl’s musical Viva Forever closing after a matter of months. There have been a few like that go the same way in the West End. Basically, if you don’t make money within the first few days and weeks then you start losing huge sums of cash.
“What I’m thinking about doing now is staging Angus as more of a pop-up show, perhaps in a theatre just off the West End. And I think I’d like it to be a little different this time, in terms of who it appeals to.
“The version at the Playhouse was brilliant and it got five star reviews, and working with Mark was wonderful, but I’d like the show to appeal to a wider range of audience, perhaps students in their 20s, for example. I think it does have that potential resonance beyond the very young.
“What’s key is that the story is funny and, let’s face it, we’ve all been daft when we were young.
“Funnily enough I went to a gallery opening in London recently and I met a guy who worked in the movie industry and he said he really liked the books and felt the film version should have been more like the musical/film Mamma Mia! or something like that – and I think he was on to something.”
There is a serious side to Rennison’s work too, one which has become more apparent to her in recent years.
“These days there is the proliferation of pornography on the internet,” she says. “Which has always been around – it was around when I was young – but now it is so easy to access and it can often slide off into a much darker place.
“The trouble is that the way women are often treated in these movies is horrendous and it sees women much more as objects – vulnerable and passive.
“It’s as if it sets the clock back 50 years to a time before feminism happened – and feminism mattered, you know, it gave women a sense that they could decide what they wanted, in general life and in terms of their own sexuality.”
So how do the apparently light-hearted exploits of Georgia and Tallulah help?
“My books get young girls talking,” says Rennison. “And they talk about what they like and don’t like, what they want to do and don’t want to do. It’s not left up to other people, particularly men, to decide. “What’s frightening is that a lot of the pornography online could make young guys believe that they are always in control, that they should be. And that’s dangerous and frightening.
“I just think, in general, the world feels a lot more masculine too – you just need to look at the skyline of London and see all these huge tall buildings, they just don’t seem very feminine to me.
“I don’t even think men like the idea of suppressed feminism anyway. I spoke to an ex recently and he pointed out the fact that men often found women attractive when they knew exactly what they wanted, when they weren’t just submissive.”
The author can still recall the world of half a century ago too, a world where the likes of child molester Jimmy Savile were viewed with contempt but not outright disdain. In the Leeds of her youth he was a very real threat too.
“I was actually best mates with Savile’s niece at primary school,” she says. “And my family were always wary of him.
“I remember I hurt myself once and my parents refused to send me to hospital because he worked there. They made up something about him being unhygienic because he’d dyed his hair tartan.
“But I think they all had some idea of what he was like. Trouble was it was a different world back then. The lines of acceptability were blurred.
“With the likes of Savile there was much more tolerance of that sort of thing. I think there was a general attitude of ‘Well, if a girl of 15 looks old enough, then she is probably up for it’ You know?”
After leaving Leeds for London in her late teens she entered the arts world and fought for the feminist cause too. She took a degree in expressive art in Brighton and joined a feminist all-female cabaret group called Women with Beards. Their performances used to blame men for all the ills of society while the audience, largely female, would all cheer in agreement.
These days she takes a more balanced view of the world, and while she sought pure excitement in her youth she now wouldn’t mind heading up north again for a quieter life.
“I recently came back up because my uncle was in a nursing home in North Yorkshire,” she says. “And I’ve always had this idea of going off somewhere and living in a real community somewhere out in the countryside. I think part of the reason why I fancied that part of the world was because I love the countryside but I’m a city girl at heart, so I can be out in the sticks in a few minutes and in the middle of Leeds a few minutes in the other direction.
“I do still think Leeds is a brilliant city and I also think Yorkshire people are very different to anywhere else – brilliant and funny.”
Louise Rennison’s The Taming of the Tights is published by Harper Collins and is out now in hardback priced £10.99.
The ladies in Louise’s life
Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging quickly achieved cult status after its release in 1999. Featuring on the life of Georgia Nicolson and her unique view of the world, specifically her obsession with “The Sex God” – the focus of her affections at school. The beauty of the book is its wry humour and characters such as her interesting family, friends and pet/wildcat, Angus.
Withering Tights, released in 2010, introduced Rennison fans to her new series pivoting on Tallulah Casey, a lanky girl worried about her knees and underdeveloped cleavage who goes off to stay at a drama performance workshop centre in Yorkshire, called Dother Hall. The book went on to scoop the Roald Dahl “funny” literature prize.