Ladies of Letters

Malvern Theatres


It seems staggering, although perhaps not entirely surprising, that the comedy series Ladies of Letters ran on BBC Radio 4 for as many as 13 years.  

Based on a series of books written by a dazzling duo, the superbly accomplished writer, broadcaster, actor and director Carole Hayman (whose earliest book, The Warfleet Chronicles, a murder mystery – part comedy - started in 1998, just two years before she launched Ladies of Letters, she has directed almost a dozen plays and written a clutch of ‘comic and satirical novels.  

Her gifted writing partner for Ladies of Letters is Leicester-born Lou Wakefield, likewise an actor, writer and director, who started much previously, in 1981). Lou has directed both Coronation Street and Brookside, and much else.  

The series, presented on BBC Radio’s Woman’s Hour in 15 minute episodes, was launched, in 1997, by two unforgettable actresses, Patricia Routledge (as Vera) and Prunella Scales (as Irene): a remarkable duo. Hayman and Wakefield went on to devise together many hilarious sequels, including – no wonder the radio series ran on for over a decade – Ladies of More Letters, Ladies of Letters Spring Clean, and – how about this? - Ladies of Letters Go Crackers. It was also turned into a ten part television version for ITV3 in 2009.  


Gwyneth Strong, like her co-star, a veteran of Only Fools and Horses.

 Pictures: Craig Fuller

The adaptation for the stage is by astute playwright Jonathan Harvey, who sticks loyally to the pretty dotty narrative. Harvey has penned some 20 plays, including for the Royal Court, Liverpool Playhouse and Everyman and – impressively – the RNT and Donmar Playhouse, picking up several prestigious awards on the way. His three Musicals include Closer to Heaven and most recently Dusty (Dusty Springfield) and Musik (originally for the Edinburgh Fringe), while his plays Gimme Gimme Gimme and Best Friends both achieved Bafta nominations. Plus 200 episodes of Coronation Street: how does he find the time for anything else?     

Anyway, the Routledge and Scales roles are now being toured by Tessa Peake-Jones (whose appearance on TV with Ian Holm in Iris Murdoch’s The Bell (BBC2, as long ago as 1982) was unforgettable; and Gwyneth Strong (whose powerful films included Cry Freedom) directed by Richard Attenborough, and about the South African campaigner).   

Given that the two roles – Irene and Vera - require such an amazing feat of memory, that alone demands our admiration. The whole story – at least the first half - hangs, as one might anticipate, on an extensive exchange of letters between the two.

We are faced with the suggestion that their dialogue gets somewhat acidic, but although at times sarcastic, by and large they are not so much bitter as probing. ‘As to any confidence, I assure you they’re safe with me.’ ‘Knocking down the M & S on the High Street to make way for a Wetherspoons’. ‘Dear Vera, thank you for your letter, albeit tardy.’ Orgasmic farming’. ‘I now see where Karen gets her depraved behaviour.’  


Tessa Peake-Jones

But there is plenty of comedy, and the massive response and laughter from the Malvern audience showed that every bit of the humour came across (including Irene’s tail-wagging dog, Charlie). They picked up the tiniest detail. They were, in fact, to their credit, a very sophisticated, stirring audience.  

Part of the humour is that both of the pair end up in prison – Irene for ‘obstructing the public highway and wilful damage to a bulldozer’. In this second half, lacking envelopes, they swap a lot of banter. Irene’s daughter has taken off to Australia; both like the idea of a trip to Dubrovnik.   

The glaring neon displays one quite enjoyed; at least up to a point. The music included some 1950s songs of which my delighted lady neighbour clearly remembered all the words. That was rather touching.   

One thing especially stirred one’s appreciation of these two compelling actors. In the second half, the pattern changes to a number of – almost a series of – soliloquies. Peake-Jones launches in with a splendid and vivid solo spiel, which patently held this audience’s concentration, with every word radiant and lucid. Irene has as many as five such solo passages, and all were vivid and highly expressive. Express is a word one could equally apply in her solo sequences to Gwyneth Strong’s sometimes long-suffering Vera. Indeed, in both of their (what we may call) speeches, everything shone. Good stuff.

Roderic Dunnett


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