Wartime memories colour a heart-warming drama making its debut in South Shields tonight. BARBARA HODGSON speaks to its 87-year-old author
I CATCH up with Helen Russell in the run-up to the launch of her new wartime drama Keep Calm and Carry On – and life sounds hectic.
Busy preparing for tonight’s opening, the actress and author is looking forward to having her family around her at The Customs House to enjoy the result of three years’ effort in getting the play, her second, to the stage.
“I’m not grumbling!” she insists. “With all the cuts in the arts programme, to get something put on is a real bonus.”
She has reason to be grateful to the South Shields theatre and says her play simply wouldn’t have happened it wasn’t for its executive director, Ray Spencer.
Russell, best known to local audiences for her long-running role in Ed Waugh and Trevor Wood’s comedy success Dirty Dusting, staged her first play, comedy Off The Shelf, there in 2007.
This time she’s written a heartwarming drama set during the London Blitz, about a girl, Mary Robson, who dreams of going on stage and entertaining the troops but whose parents are against the idea.
It’s proved something of an emotional journey for Russell, a grandmother-of-five, as it echoes much of her own early life as a stage-struck Londoner, though she’s quick to point out it’s not based on her experiences.
“It’s not my story. My parents were very supportive – but you’ve got to have conflict in drama haven’t you?” she laughs.
“In those days, you were considered a naughty girl if you wanted to go on stage.”
But for a youngster who would queue at stage doors for autographs from actors such as Sir Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and John Mills, who was out performing from the age of eight, and who turned professional at the age of 14, nothing else would do.
At the time of the Blitz, Russell was already touring with ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) in Scotland and Ireland.
It must, I suggest, have been an exciting time?
“You don’t compare your life to other people’s. You do what you do,” answers Russell. “We didn’t consider it exciting.”
But she now wishes she’d kept a diary of those years before she married and settled with her husband and daughter in Shields.
“Nowadays, people take photographs all the time, but we didn’t then. It was such a different world.”