Liverpool playwright, BAFTA and International Emmy Award winning screenwriter, Helen Blakeman, shares her story from childhood dreams to international success.
Liverpool is a city of writers, especially for screen. But being a writer is not what I grew up thinking that I could become. In fact, age 5, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I apparently said a ‘tea lady.’ I think there was something on the TV at that time with a woman pushing a tea-trolley around and I quite fancied the idea of it. I had no idea however, that the hours I spent as a child, cutting out pictures from my mum’s Great Universal catalogue, sticking them into scrapbooks to create ‘homes’ for ‘families’ I’d invented and given names to, making up stories about their interactions in my head, was in fact ‘creating worlds’. But it was. And that’s what I do now. I just didn’t realise that someone like me could in fact BE a writer. But that’s what I am. And this is what it took to get me there….
I was born in Liverpool’s Oxford Street maternity hospital just at the back of where the Liverpool Everyman theatre now stands — a fact that has significance to my story too. I grew up in South Liverpool, in various council houses on various estates, until settling into the council house where my mum still lives. A single-parent family, my mum a home-help, the arts weren’t exactly in our blood. But truly, that didn’t matter to me. My mum was brought up on going to the cinema, Saturday morning and matinees, getting lost in that 1950s Hollywood world. It was an escape to her. Not only that, my mum understood that socio-economic constraints did not define us. This was financial poverty, not cerebral. A concept much needed to be understood today.
Therefore, my elder sister, Joy, and I, were quietly educated to see that there was a bigger world out there. My mum would take us to the theatre — from touring plays in community centres in Halewood to pantos and shows put on in Butlin’s when she’d saved up enough to take us on holiday. We were never insular; we never thought, ‘Oh we’re from a council estate therefore we will stay here’. But at the same time, my mum wasn’t saying, ‘be ambitious’. It was more a case of saying be the best you can, do the best you can. And from there, with her gentle guidance, we found our own way, and that was through creative expression.
It was my sister who was the forward guard. Joining the Playhouse Youth Theatre and going to Sherril Parson’s Saturday class at Vernon Johnson on Allerton Road. In fact, the first time I attended was to help ‘our Joy’ carry a trophy that she’d won at a drama festival because the Echo was coming to take her picture. To cut the story short, I stayed. And I loved it. Soon, much to my mum’s surprise and joy, my sister was training at RADA. And I was bitten by the bug too.
At the time, ‘Brookside’ was in its heyday. As Jodie Comer recently commented, it was her inspiration, “and I’m not even messin’”. Well, it was mine too. So much so, I wrote to them. I was fifteen, studying for my GCSE’s — so in proper school-girl fashion, I penned a hand-written CV, underlining the headings in red-ink with a ruler. The next day, the casting department called me. Within a week I’d landed the role of ‘Lou’, a friend of the ‘Rogers’ family, headed up by the matriarch played by Eithne Brown. I spent two years, doing about ten episodes, written by Jimmy McGovern amongst them, whilst also taking my GCSE’s — finishing exams early in order to go and shoot a scene. Somehow, I managed to get the highest GCSE results in the school while I was it. But still, I knew I needed more…
I applied to the Manchester Youth Theatre to do a six-week residential in the summer holidays. It cost, we couldn’t afford it — but I raised the money by writing to trust funds. I also got a job — the first of my ‘full-circle’ events. My employment was as an usher at the Everyman Theatre. And it was there I learnt to fully appreciate theatre, seeing everything from ‘A Winter’s Tale’ to Mick Starke and Draw Schofield’s ‘No Holds Bard’. I also auditioned for the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain — again, I couldn’t afford it, my mum couldn’t afford it… Again, I wrote letters to trust funds and charitable causes and raised the money to attend. I couldn’t have gone if I hadn’t. It was these teenage years that set the tone for what was to come…
After achieving a First-class degree studying Drama at LJMU, I secured a place, and British Council funding, for a place on the prestigious MA in Playwrighting Studies at Birmingham University, I was left shell-shocked when the then Tory Government withdrew such funding only days later. This was before student loans were the norm… So again, without funding, I simply couldn’t afford to go. Again, I wrote letters, hundreds of them. The hustle, plus an evening and weekend job at Barclays in Wavertree, helped me pay for it.
It was while I was there that I wrote my first play, ‘Caravan’. My writing of letters continued too, inviting agents and directors along to come and see it showcased. Luckily enough, writer and director Terry Johnson came along as a guest of the course and at the end he said, “Do you have a copy of your script?” The next day he took it to the artistic director of the Bush Theatre in London whose birthday it was and said ‘Happy Birthday!’ and he loved it. That must have been July and the show was on in London in November — directed by Gemma Bodinetz. The theatre administrator was Deborah Aydon. It’s how their collaboration for going on to run the Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse was born… So again, another circle complete.
From here, I moved into TV. The personal is always political in my work but it can also be deemed controversial — as I found with my TV writing debut, ‘Pleasureland’. Aired on Channel 4 in 2003, the programme was about teenage sexuality and the pressures of growing up and attached as the centre-piece of Channel 4’s ‘Adult at 14’ debate, about lowering the sexual age of consent. It wasn’t my intention for it to be so controversial, however. I wanted to write a story around how it was for an average girl to grow up and to hear different stories from their peers and not know what’s true because inherently, peer groups tell different things to different people. Despite the controversy however, it was the highest rated show on Channel 4 that year. But to me, that wasn’t its only success. Set in Speke and filmed in Speke, it was directed by Brian Percival (‘Downton Abbey’, ‘The Book Thief’), who is from Speke. It was also ‘street-cast’ — discovering new, young, local talent as its cast. For the audience it was intended for, it had a real effect. It also garnered me a BAFTA and Royal Television Society best newcomer nomination. The day after the shoot ended, also brought another accolade — motherhood.
I was thrust into life as a working mum, when my daughter was two days old and the voiceover for the ‘Pleasureland’ needed writing. I juggled it of course. Once my son was born a couple of years later, I went to work on ‘Hollyoaks’. I wanted stability and a routine, and writing soap brings a lot of that — deadlines, rewrites and teamwork. It was just what I needed — and was another Liverpool-based production.
I wrote a play for the Liverpool Everyman just before he was born too. ‘The Morris’ was performed in 2005. A play about female morris dancing — a tradition peculiar to Liverpool and the North-West — I’ll never forget the sight of morris dancing buses lined up on Hope Street on the first night. I danced as a child, and my mum helped to run a troupe so for me, this was another circle of bringing life to art, and to the Everyman in particular.
TV soon called again. And this time, following on from the success of ‘Pleasureland’, it was the stories of young women in search of their destiny that I was being asked to write. ‘Dustbin Baby’, from the novel by Dame Jacqueline Wilson, was my first TV adaptation. Working with an all-female production team, it was aired on BBC One at Christmas, going on to win an International Emmy Award and a BAFTA for Best Writer at the British Academy Children’s Awards. Jacqueline Wilson herself was so delighted with the adaptation that she gave me free rein to adapt any of her other novels. ‘Hetty Feather’ was the next choice. And now we’ve just finished filming series 6 of the show. It was a long-runner indeed. At the same time, I’ve also written ‘Call the Midwife’, created by Heidi Thomas — another Liverpool screenwriter.
But writing isn’t the only thing that makes me tick. I love giving back too. As chair of the Children’s BAFTA committee, I’ve been lucky enough to work with children’s mental health charity Place2Be, visiting schools, including the lovely Windsor Street primary in Toxteth, with the BAFTA Kids’ Roadshow. In the city, my giving back is, rightly enough via the Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse as a trustee. The place where it all began… It’s so important for me to know that young people have a chance to experience creativity and self-development all in one place, and that’s what the theatres’ YEP programme does so well. It was always a dream of mine growing up to be a member of the Everyman Youth Theatre — but the bus didn’t run that way into town at night and we didn’t have a car so that was out for me. Perhaps I’m re-living the dream now!
Living in Liverpool I feel lucky that there’s so much creativity on my doorstep. In fact, there’s so much of everything. I always say to my kids, if you can’t do it in Liverpool, then you can’t do it anywhere.
Living in Liverpool I feel lucky that there’s so much creativity on my doorstep. In fact, there’s so much of everything. I always say to my kids, if you can’t do it in Liverpool, then you can’t do it anywhere. We’re blessed with colleges and universities and teaching hospitals, and world-class academics. We’re blessed with galleries and theatres and museums, and recording studios. It’s a city of self-development riches — and it is for everyone.
If you want to do something, you can find a way. I’m not saying it’ll be easy — not much is. But you can do it right here and there is support out there. I think for young people these days the most important thing is to realise that being ‘something’ or being ‘someone’ isn’t for other people, it’s for everyone.