Exclusive: The Ladies behind "the Letters", pt 1


As the story goes, on July 4, 1985, Irene and Vera were born in a handwritten letter left on a kitchen table in Clapham, south west London…

Book signing HSsm5While it would be easy to say the rest is history, it definitely wasn’t easy. What started out as a simple game of written improvisation from the brilliant minds of writers Lou Wakefield (Irene Spencer) and Carole Hayman (Vera Small), blossomed into four books, ten radio series and now a television series getting ready to enter its’ second season. How could it not have achieved success when it had everything – romance, snobbery and, of course, salmon mousse.

Tellyspotting recently caught up with both Lou and Carole for an exclusive interview, appropriately handled separately and by e-mail. We’ll bring you the entire interview over the next several days. Here, both Lou and Carole discuss how the characters of Irene and Vera were created.

images-4Q: The concept of a comedy duo writing team usually involves the opportunity to bounce ideas off one another and that wasn’t the case when you began creating Ladies of Letters. Why is that and can you describe the process of how it all began and evolved?

A: Lou – I would recommend your readers look at the ‘Genesis’ page on our Ladies of Letters website for the full story. In brief, Carole and I played a game of writing each other letters from two ladies of a certain age called Irene and Vera. The chief and unbreakable rule of the game was that we could not (and still cannot) discuss the narrative. Thus it became a kind of written ‘Consequences’ (do you have that game in the US?), or a written improvisation, if you prefer. So we do bounce off each other’s ideas by the very fact that we respond to each other’s last letter. This keeps it very fresh, and a constant surprise to both of us.

A: Carole – As has been well documented now,  we never discuss ideas or talk about  what will happen. We just set off writing it and let things develop with all their twists and turns, misunderstandings,  family feuds, break ups and make ups. When you’ve got two characters with such force-of-nature wills as Vera and Irene something (probably quite mad) is always going to happen.

images-1Q: Vera and Irene are obviously a labor of love for the both of you. What has drawn you to these characters to endure not only what it took to get things started, but also to keep the synergy going over the years.

A: Lou – Sometimes it seems not what has drawn us to these characters, but what has drawn them to us. They moved in with us 25 years ago, and have consistently refused to move out. I have enquired about getting an Irenectomy, and I believe Carole has often considered an amputation of her Vera, but we are told by top flight medical professionals that neither is possible without loss of life, limb, or – perhaps worst of all – income.

A: Carole – Well,  the fact that they ARE such funny and endlessly fun to write characters, who can reflect so many things which are going on in our present life and times – particularly for older women, living on their own with limited resources. They are a terrific touchstone for all kinds of current issues,  and a litmus test for the attitudes of people (over a certain age) to the increasingly puzzling, fast-moving and in many ways scary modern world. In other words,  they become the ingenuous mouth pieces for many issues that effect the everyday lives of a wide range of people.

imagesQ: Much of comedy writing is based on some first-hand experience. How were both Vera and Irene created, and were they based on any particular person (s) or do they represent an amalgam of people you’ve encountered in your lives?

A: Lou – At first, back in 1985, when the letter writing was just a game for our own amusement, we were gently satirizing our mothers and our shared lower middle class backgrounds. Now we are older, we can only conclude that we are currently satirizing ourselves.

A: Carole – An amalgam of course – but Vera and Irene also owe something to our own Mums, who were both fascinating characters and although widowed had a very feisty ‘can-do’  attitude to life. My partner used to call my Mum “Granny Schumacher” which gives you some idea of where Vera’s driving technique comes from! The cooking thing was also important – my Mum prided herself on being a bit of an ‘exotic’ in the kitchen.  I should add that she was very good cook, whereas I wouldn’t advise trying Vera’s recipes at home!

images-3Q: Like a Hyacinth Bucket, have you found that there is a universal appeal to the series because everyone knows or has a Vera or Irene in their family tree somewhere?

A: Lou – Exactly so, according to our fan mail. And also, several daughters tell us that their mothers have just such a back-biting relationship with their best friends.

A: Carole – Yes, as I say above, there’s something to recognize in it for everyone. Who hasn’t put up with ghastly family rows at Christmas, let’s say, or disappointment in children who don’t love you enough, or refuse to turn out the way you meant?

DVR alert: Ladies of Letters airs Sundays at 11:00pm on KERA Channel 13 in North Texas and on a number of public television stations nationwide. Come back tomorrow for some insights on how both Irene and Vera made the transition from books to radio to television. Who knows, we may even hear from Irene herself in-between tipples of sherry.