Story of love and war puts reality of being military wife centre stage

Lucy Bell has written a play about the lives of families of military personel
Lucy Bell has written a play about the lives of families of military personel
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The wife of a Marine turned her experiences into an award winning play debuting in Yorkshire. Nick Ahad spoke to the writer.

In 2003 Lucy Bell was working in TV, a documentary director. Based in Manchester, but travelling all over the country, hers was the sort of life where you had to change your plans at the drop of a hat if a filming job came up. It was exciting, fun – and Lucy was loving it.

At the time all her male friends were “either gay or really complicated sorts of guys”.

Which is why the man she met on a skiing holiday, in 2003, intrigued her.

“He was so straightforward, happy to take the lead, a really decent, no-nonsense guy,” says Lucy.

“He was so different from the sort of men I was used to being around.”

There was a good reason the man she met on the skiing holiday didn’t stand for any nonsense. He was a Marine in the Royal Navy.

“He didn’t tell me until the end of the week what he did for a living” says Lucy.

“It was a complicated time to be in the forces, with the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. With the sort of job I did and world I lived in – let’s just say I never expected to go out with a soldier.”

Lucy was on holiday with her best friend and the marine (whose name we have been asked not to use for operational reasons) was with his best friend and, because they “were the only ones on the holiday under the age of 50” the four of them drifted together.

“They were the only other two there our age, so we just ended up spending the week together. I thought he had a good sense of humour and seemed like a nice guy,” she says.

On her return to England, they stayed in touch sporadically but, as is the way with so many holiday romances, they drifted apart.

Then, in 2005, with her 30th birthday approaching, Lucy’s mother and sister were organising a party for her.

“It wasn’t a birthday I was looking forward to and actually didn’t feel very good about it. My sister suggested I use it to get in touch with some people I’d lost touch with and that I should contact the Marine I met when I was skiing.”

She did, they began dating and in 2008 they got married.

Becoming a Forces wife was a culture shock for Lucy, but it wasn’t the only change in her life. In 2007 she decided to turn her back on TV. She had made a couple of documentaries, one about teenagers and their dogs in Liverpool, screened on Channel Four and was working on the BBC’s Heaven and Earth programme but had grown tired of the lifestyle.

“By this time I had started seeing him, he had been on a tour to Iraq and I was growing weary of always being on the road. It was a really intense lifestyle,” she says.

“What I enjoyed about the job was telling stories and discussing issues, but I was starting to feel uncomfortable about dipping into people’s lives, raiding their stories and then leaving.”

Lucy had begun to write scripts for theatre.

“It meant I could write about the issues I was interested in, just as I did in the documentaries I made, but with fictional people – it was like a victimless crime,” she says.

In 2007 she attended an Arvon Foundation writing Course at Lumb Bank, the former home of Ted Hughes in Heptonstall and retrained as a teacher.

During the year she was training for her PGCE and the following year as a Newly Qualified Teacher, she would wake up at 5am to work on her writing and also put the effort in to make sure the new relationship with the Marine had a chance to blossom.

“It was difficult. Being from quite a liberal background, we had lots of arguments about the Army and about the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Lucy.

“I realise now it’s a misconception that soldiers are either heroes or monsters. They are normal blokes. In fact, I discovered that a lot of soldiers, particularly Marines, have a real feminine side and aren’t afraid to show it. Because they work in such a masculine world, they seem to love nothing more than a sing-a-long to a bit of Abba when they’re off duty.”

All of this – Lucy’s transformation from high-flying TV director to Forces girlfriend, their developing relationship – was adding up to a great story.

In 2008, the pair married and within months Lucy’s new husband was off on a tour of Iraq.

“It is such a difficult thing to negotiate. When we were first together and he went to Iraq I might only hear from him once every fortnight, because that’s how often he was allowed to make a ‘phone call home,” says Lucy,

“Keeping a relationship going with that kind of contact is hard. The last time he went away, there was a discussion on the Jeremy Vine radio show about Iraq and people were ringing in to give their opinions. I sat there shouting at the radio – these people were talking about it as a subject for debate, but I was living through it.”

A first baby was born in 2009 and the couple had another little girl, now seven months-old, last year.

It was while pregnant with her first child, with a new husband away in Iraq, that the reality of being a military wife came home to Lucy.

“By that time I was an art teacher in a secondary school in Portsmouth and we had settled into a military housing estate. I would come home at the end of a day, just wanting to wind down, and I’d put the news on and see reports of more British casualties in Iraq.

“The last image I’d see before going to bed were the pictures of burning wreckage and wonder if he was going to be okay.”

The experiences all went into a play, Jo’s War.

The play tells the story of a pregnant, newly-married Forces wife who moves in with her new husband’s mother.

It explores many of the issues Lucy has discovered exist when you marry into the forces.

The play has been chosen as the inaugural winner of the Ronald Duncan Playwriting Competition, run by Leeds-based company Encore Drama.

“I thought I wasn’t in with a chance, so I was over the moon when I came up to Leeds for a workshop day and was told that my play was chosen as the winner,” says Lucy.

Part of the prize will see Jo’s War produced and staged at Leeds Carriageworks theatre tomorrow and Saturday.

“Hopefully this is the start of a career in writing, but I’m also just really excited that a play talking about this issue is going to be seen by people.”

Jo’s War, Leeds Carriageworks, Jan 27, 28. Ilkley Playhouse, Feb 17, 18. Georgian Theatre, Richmond, Feb 24.