Accessible and inspirational, Stephen Lowe’s work has been published and performed throughout the world, but it’s his fascination with Nottingham’s radical history and our famous and forgotten characters that makes him our leading man. This month, Stephen celebrates his 70th birthday. To mark the occasion, we pay tribute to a writer who champions Nottingham at every opportunity.
In February 2013, at Antenna in Nottingham, Stephen Lowe spoke at a launch event for the inaugural Nottingham Festival of Words. During his talk he passionately argued that Nottingham is a city of literature, citing our great writers and contemporary scene, and challenging the audience to name another English city, other than London, that could claim a better literary heritage. The idea for Nottingham to bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature may well have been sparked by that talk. His arguments were compelling but not new. Three years earlier Stephen had appeared on BBC Radio with John Holmes, who takes up the story:
“Just over seven years ago BBC Radio Nottingham asked me to host a Sunday morning feature in which well-known local people choose their favourite music to highlight milestones in their lives. Stephen has been a favourite playwright of mine through the decades so, naturally, he was one of my first choices. Sandwiched between his song requests I asked him about the amazing writing talent in our city and county, past and present. He put out a challenge, ‘Name any city outside of London to beat Notts for our heritage of writers?’ and said: ‘We can boast writers going back to Lord Byron, D. H. Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe, no one can match that depth of writing culture. Manchester can’t, nor Birmingham. There’s nowhere and it should be acknowledged.”
Our permanent UNESCO accreditation has given Nottingham a title it undoubtedly deserves but could such an award have been predicted back when Edinburgh was the only UNESCO City of Literature? In 2006, Stephen gave this prophetic rallying call to LeftLion:
“I want to see this town going for City of Culture, becoming the national City of Literature, with its history of plays, myths, folk tales of Robin Hood, Byron, Lawrence, Sillitoe, and many others. It’s ready to become a scene, as Liverpool was in the sixties. The place is teeming with excellent actors, designers, directors. What it needs is a successful university performance course feeding energy into the scene, a major independent studio space, a central meeting point for writers and actors, workshop developments and support and the whole city to join the celebration. We have such talent, and we should really be nurturing it.”
That same year the Nottingham Writers’ Studio was founded; 2013 brought the creative quarter initiative; and in 2015, with support from our universities, we became officially recognised as a City of Literature, with Stephen named as our President. So what is it about Stephen Lowe’s story that has made him such an ambassador for Nottingham?
Born in Sneinton, the son of a labourer and a machinist, Stephen grew up in a neighbourhood of back-to-back housing before his family moved to the high-rise flats of Manvers Court. A love of the theatre grew from his joining the youth group at the Co-operative Arts Theatre, a place he enjoyed so much he was known to sleep there at weekends. With no books at home his library card became his salvation. One life-changing childhood read was Robert Tressell’s socialist novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, a book he later adapted for the stage. But it was the work of a certain D. H. Lawrence that had the most impact. A working-class lad wanting to be an actor, Stephen saw much of his own life in Paul Morel (the budding artist of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers). Stephen recalls the Lady Chatterley trial and the book’s release (aged 13) but it was reading Sons and Lovers – perhaps the most ‘Nottingham’ and autobiographical of Lawrence’s novels – that convinced him that it was possible to be a writer. He also shares much with the author himself, and this can be seen in their writing, especially the presence of place in their poetic realism.
In his mid-teens Stephen discovered that Lawrence had also written plays. He borrowed them from Central Library and became fascinated, especially by The Daughter-in-law, a kitchen-sink drama written about 50 years before they became popular. At this time the Nottingham Playhouse had opened, a place where Stephen could hang around actors and discuss plays. He worked at the Moulin Rouge cinema which showed, ahem, ‘continental’ films. This job and the filming of his own blue movie are experiences that fuelled his 60s-set comedy-play Glamour.
After leaving Mundella Grammar school Stephen embarked on a BA in English and theatre studies at Birmingham University. His first professional job took him up to Scarborough where he worked as an assistant stage manager for Alan Ayckbourn. It was at this time that he had to change his name, dropping Wright (‘it had always seemed boring and common anyway’) for his mother’s maiden name, Lowe. (Incidentally, the writer Steve Barlow uses his mother’s maiden name as his stage name because his real name, Stephen Lowe, had been taken!)
Stephen’s career as a playwright was aided by the convention-defying Ann Jellico. Having read a play of his, considered too controversial to put on, Jellico had seen enough to employ him as a story reader, at 50p a play. This was the era of Richard Eyre running the Nottingham Playhouse. A champion of new writers, Eyre commissioned Stephen to write a new play. The result was Touched.
Set around the terraces of Sneinton in 1945, during the days between VE Day and VJ Day, Touched focuses on working‑class women living with loss and hope as they experience this extraordinary and changing time. Stephen’s own father had been in the Army during World War II, involved in historic and well-documented events. Touched was a reaction to there being no such recognition for the women that stayed at home, fighting their different battles. The play won a George Devine award and celebrated its 40th anniversary this year with a Nottingham Playhouse production starring Vicky McClure.
A year after Touched first opened Richard Eyre produced another of Stephen’s Sneinton-set plays. This time it was an early screenplay for the BBC. Set and filmed in Sneinton Market – a stone’s throw from the current City of Literature offices – Cries from the Watchtower was inspired by a friend’s father, a Mormon who had a stall at which he’d repair watches amid the bustling crowd. This was the kind of Nottingham scene Stephen observed from a young age, developing his ear for dialogue. He recalls the stallholders’ comedic banter that would inform his future writing.
Stephen’s childhood was revisited again for Moving Pictures, a 1981 production at London’s Royal Court Theatre. In particular, how his father returned from war, difficult, angry and in poor health. More than fifty plays and screenplays followed, some with a more exotic setting than Nottingham, but his endless fascination with the city and its characters seeped through, most obviously in Ice Dance about young kids trying to emulate Torville and Dean, and The Spirit of the Man, featuring Colin Tarrant as Brian Clough. The latter packed out the Playhouse, bringing in many theatre virgins. The play opens in heaven, with Old Big ‘Ead in a sauna with William Booth, Lord Byron and D. H. Lawrence.
Lawrence directly inspired many of Stephen’s plays. His Lawrence trilogy started with The Fox … and the Little Vixen, an adaptation of Lawrence’s 1923 novella The Fox, and includes Empty Bed Blues, a domestic drama which drew from letters and diaries recounting the Lawrences’ painful 1929 visit to publisher the Crosbys’ French mill.
Stephen’s ability to mine humour and emotion from the mundane is evident in his writing for television. For Coronation Street he’s penned more than one hundred episodes, such classics as Bet Lynch’s farewell, the Deirdre and Samir storyline, and gnomegate with Mavis and Derek. Other televisual hits include Scarlet and Black with Ewan McGregor and Rachel Weisz, the BAFTA-nominated thriller Tell-Tale Hearts, Dalziel and Pascoe and the BBC2 film Flea-Bites starring Nigel Hawthorne which focused on the show people at Goose Fair and the mystery of a flea-circus.
Along with his wife, the actress Tanya Myers, he is an artistic director of Meeting Ground Theatre. The couple founded the Nottingham based experimental company in the mid-80s and they continue to develop regional talent, touring nationally and abroad. It was at this time that Stephen retuned to Nottingham having been in London. This was great news for Nottingham, as his fellow playwright and scriptwriter, Michael Eaton, pointed out with this birthday message:
“It was a good day when Stephen Lowe returned to his home town – a good day for Nottingham and a good day for me. For if he had stayed in the seething metropolis – the great wen of London to which so many talented East Midlanders were so often centrifugally drawn – Nottingham would never have experienced the quotidian benefits of having such a great writer walking our streets, a mover and shaker who was to pilot our successful bid to gain the status of a UNESCO City of Literature. And, far more significantly, I would never have known the pleasure of such a valued and trusted friendship these past thirty years (!).
What has been even more important to me is that this comradeship has led to such closeness with Stephen’s lovely talented family: Tanya, herself a fine dramatist as well as a celebrated actress; Tom, theatrical director and (so I’m informed) these days a motivational speaker (could do with some of that now and again); Lily, poet, performer, masseuse and Martha, so nearly born in our own gaff on Dog End Alley, who will without doubt attain the anthropological aspirations I never managed to fulfil myself.
My life would have been so diminished had I not known and loved you all. So Happy Birthday, dear Stephen. The recent challenges to your health have rarely dampened your spirits and your infectious joie de vivre. And, if there any eccentric multi-millionaires out there they could no worse than invest in a terrific screenplay we so enjoyed collaborating upon and which, shamefully, yet awaits production.”
That terrific screenplay is The Band Apart, about the legendary Bonnot Gang, a criminal anarchist group from the early 20th Century”.
Investment in culture is one area that Stephen keenly promotes. A former chair of Art Council East Midlands, Stephen sees culture as a force for good. His philosophy, based on the ‘politics of the Imagination’, carries into the countless writers’ workshops he runs and encouragement he offers to local creatives. He takes real pride when our writers break through. One such playwright to have cracked the mainstream is Amanda Whittington, who offers this message:
“As an aspiring playwright in the 1990s, I knew Stephen Lowe as the author of Touched and also as part of the Coronation Street writing team in its halcyon days. The mighty Bet Lynch and her cohort were cultural icons, their wit and wisdom beamed into millions of homes every week. Such clever and complex working-class women inspired my writing as much as great literature, probably more. So when Stephen came to my shows, it was special and still is. Thank you Stephen for your friendship, your generous support, your very own wit and wisdom – and your wonderful work. Happy Birthday to you.”
In 2011 Stephen received an honorary doctorate from the University of Nottingham where he is an honorary lecturer in their School of English. A further honour was bestowed in 2015 when NET named one of their new trams after him. As one of its favourite sons reaches the age of seventy, Nottingham continues to celebrate his achievements, as he continues to achieve. Stephen Lowe’s new musical Changing Fashion tours in 2018.
“As an actor you usually get only one part in a play but as a playwright you can pretend to be all the characters, and still be in the bar at 7.30.” Stephen Lowe.