Actress Rita May, who formerly walked Weatherfield’s famous streets as Connie Rathbone, has decided that after a long and successful career on screen, making the jump to writing is an ideal next step. Her first comedy novel, Barry and Bev, follows a community living in the north of England.
Kenthorpe Working Men’s Club in the north of England is in dire financial difficulties. To try and help the situation, the Committee come up with emergency measures, including a top-class act booked for Saturday night concerts.
As word spreads, the number of punters sharply increases. This causes problems for some of the members’ wives, as they can’t get into the club early enough to get a seat. The club’s ‘Men Only’ room is frequented by a few of the older club members, but Rule No. 57, which bars women from the room, still stands from when the club was built in 1932. The women decide to challenge this as seats are always available in the ‘Men Only’ room, which leads to a standoff...
I caught up with Rita this afternoon for a lovely chat about her career and how her new novel came about.
First of all can you tell me a bit more about how you started off as an actor and a performer?
I started out as a singer in the clubs in 1960. I toured round the clubs as “The Glamorous Rita May”. In 1976 Ken Loach was looking to cast people in a television play – he wanted ordinary, real people, not professional actors. He wanted me to be in it but I didn’t want to at first, I didn’t want to act. Ken convinced me to do it and I was in his two episode play “The Price of Coal” playing the lead. I then played the lead in another play for Ken set in Sheffield, The Game Keeper.
Barry and Bev is your first novel. Can you tell me how the idea came about and what it was like to go through the writing process?
Well I had done some writing before but I’ve found myself having my first novel published at the age of nearly 75! It took me two years to write it as I was working in television at the same time. It’s really based on my own experiences of working in the clubs and I think it’s a shame the clubs aren’t there in the same way they were. Kids don’t go to them now, they used to be the hub of the village or the town and it’s where people started out working. The idea for the book came from a true story. I’ve found it helpful to write the book, I enjoyed the process and although I’m still busy working as an actress, it’s been enjoyable to focus on creating the story and the characters.
What was it like to go from acting to professional writer? Had you written other things before Barry and Bev?
I have been writing as long as I've been acting. One day while I was working for him, Ken Loach gave me a lift home and he asked me what I was working on and I mentioned I had been doing some writing. He asked to see it but I didn’t want to show him as I thought he was just being polite.
Anyway I did send it to him, he liked it and it ended up as my first play, One Hundred and Eighty, which was a Play for Today for the BBC. I then wrote another one, England’s Greens and Peasant Land. I was still singing while I was starting to act and write the plays but then I thought I’d just do the acting instead. I also wrote a play for the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield and that’s how I met my second husband.
How important was it for you to base your novel in the North of England?
Very important, I couldn’t write about middle class folk in London or the aristocracy. You have to write about what you know. I’m working class and I know these people and the situations they find themselves in.
I want to ask you a bit about your involvement with Coronation Street. I think you’ve had five different parts in the show. You worked with Bernard Youens and Jean Alexander in an episode back in 1981. What are your memories of working with those two actors?
Oh they were both brilliant. They were such a great double act and really knew what they were doing. I’ve had five different parts in Coronation Street over the years. I remember that episode working with Bernard and Jean. I played Freda, the barmaid at the Legion and Hilda got it into her head that I was having and affair with her Stan! She always thought other women were chasing him! Great fun. I think Liz Dawn and Bill Tarmey (Vera and Jack) came in and took over from the Ogdens, they played the same kind of situations.
Your biggest role was as Connie Rathbone in 2009. What was it like to work with the late great Bill Tarmey?
Bill was a lovely, lovely man and we got on really well. We used to talk about how hard it was to keep learning the lines as you got older. He would be sitting in the Rovers with his lines written on the beer mats! He was a great actor, very good in Coronation Street but he was down to earth, working class and very easy to work with. He gave me all his CDs and I still play them in the car.
Sadly after Bill left the show your character was also written out. Would you have liked to have stayed on in the role?
Yes I would. At the time they said Connie would be kept on but it didn’t work out. I enjoyed being in Coronation Street and think the character worked. I do think they need more older characters in the show now as there’s only really Rita and Ken. Older people aren’t represented any more and when you think of the days when you had Ena, Martha and Minnie in the pub gossiping and causing trouble, it was great. I was thinking of writing to Kieran Roberts (Executive Producer) to suggest they brought Connie back as Tyrone is still in it. I know Kieran as he started out working as a producer on Children’s Ward. They definitely need more older people.
Do you still watch the show?
I don’t really have time to watch any of the soaps nowadays as they are on so often I’m too busy working to keep up with them.
I grew up watching Children’s Ward. I think you appeared in every single episode – what are your memories of that programme?
Oh it was smashing. I was the only actor to be in it from when it started until it ended. I did 12 years. There were so many young actors in it who have done very well. Lots of them went on to do Coronation Street, Jane Danson, who’s excellent in the Street, she started off in Children’s Ward. We still had time to rehearse when we did that series. They don’t have time for that in Coronation Street now which is a shame. When I first did Coronation Street they still had a rehearsal room and they marked out all the sets and we went through every scene as a cast.
You have also appeared in the series Trollied. Did you enjoy making that?
Oh yes, it’s hard work but I love going down to Bristol where it’s filmed. It’s a great series to be a part of and they are a great team to work with. They treat me very well and although it’s harder to learn the lines now I still enjoy doing it all.
Finally, why should people read Barry and Bev?
Why should they read it! People should read it because it’s funny and it’ll make you laugh. There is some serious stuff in it too that’ll make you think. The main character is sort based on me a little bit. I’m really pleased with how it’s ended up and I wouldn’t have had it published if I wasn’t happy with it. I hope you enjoy it.
What’s next for you?
I’m going off to Halifax later today to do some work on a new drama series for Channel 4 called “The ABC”. It’s a six part series set in a Yorkshire Comprehensive School (starring Jo Joyner, Paul Nicholls and Liz White). I’m also booked to go back to Bristol to do another series of Trollied, so that’ll be another nine weeks down there. I’m looking forward to doing more of that.
Thank you to Rita for taking the time to talk to me about her life and work, it was a pleasure. You can enter our Coronation Street Blog competition to win a copy of Rita's new novel here
And you can find out more about Barry and Bev here
You can follow me on Twitter @GraemeN82
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