Obituary: Carla Lane, sitcom writer

Carla Lane, sitcom writer. Born: 5 August 1928 in Liverpool. Died 31 May 2016 in Liverpool, aged 87

Carla Lane. Picture: Getty Images

Carla Lane wrote three television sitcoms that became classics and established themselves as amongst the most popular ever on the BBC. The Liver Birds, Butterflies and Bread had extremely well crafted scripts and while providing laughs a-plenty Lane invested them all with an under-lying incisive social commentary. A Carla Lane script was never straight forward.

Her first sitcom – The Liver Birds – was firmly rooted in her Liverpudlian origins as was Bread. The latter told of a family of ne’er-do-wells who were dominated by a fanatical mother figure Nellie Boswell (Jean Boht). Butterflies was altogether more gentle and told of a middle-aged wife yearning for sexual freedom and pastures new. Lane provided a script in which Wendy Craig, Geoffrey Palmer and the young Nicholas Lyndhurst revelled.

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Lane was an exceptional wordsmith and had an ability to introduce pathos and realism into comedy scenes. Her writing was never slap-stick but refined and subtle. The one line put-down of Nellie Boswell was invariably bitter but raised a rich laugh.

Carla Lane (nee Romana Barrack) was the daughter of a merchant seaman and had poems published in the local paper but left school at 14 to work in local shops. She married and while bringing up her two young sons she continued to write – mostly at night. She honed her writing skills on short stories and radio scripts.

Lane joined the Liverpool Writers’ Club where she met Myra Taylor. Their vivid imaginations and writing styles jelled together well and they took a zany comedy about a dachshund complaining about pavements being too high to the BBC. The head of comedy was impressed but said: “Give me something I can understand.” Lane can remember leaving the room and thinking, “We have a contract for a series.”

They wrote The Liver Birds which was screened in 1970 but not the expected smash hit. The BBC did not commission a further series and with typical resolve Lane sat down and wrote, on her own, a more gutsy episode. It struck a raw and topical note: Beryl (Polly James) was thrilled as she planned to sleep with her boyfriend and Sandra (Pauline Collins, later to be replaced by Nerys Hughes) was horrified about such loose living. On receipt of the revised script the BBC commissioned a series.

The Liver Birds ran for 87 episodes until 1979 and included a revival in 1996. Lane developed her two Liverpudlian ‘dolly birds’ sharing a flat in Huskisson Street and created magical scenes with comic dialogue such as, “You dancing?’ ‘You asking?’, ‘I’m asking!’, ‘I’m dancing!’ ”

In 1978 Lane followed with Butterflies – in many ways a reflection of her own rather erratic home life. Craig captured the wife’s worried character with a rare sympathy: split between a feeling of loyalty to her husband and family yet searching for an affair and escape from the boredom of her marriage. Lane wrote beautifully judged and finely compassionate scripts admitting that, “I wanted to write a comedy about a woman contemplating adultery.”

In 1981 Lane wrote Solo starring Felicity Kendall who discovers her boyfriend has been playing away. It never quite caught on. Lane did have some other sitcoms which didn’t gain good audiences – notably: No Strings (with Rita Tushingham and Keith Barron) and I Woke Up One Morning about alcoholics.

She returned to form in 1986 with a smash hit sitcom, Bread. The drama was not always viewed kindly in Liverpool – too many stereotypical characters who fiddled the benefits system etc. Jean Boht was wonderful as the central matriarch of the dysfunctional family; but Lane knew just how to balance the life-styles of the wastrel sons and the flamboyant daughter with social comment that had a biting wit.

Indeed, Bread was so controversial that the BBC withdrew a repeat broadcast during the 1987 general election. It was a compliment to the power of Lane’s writing.

Lane’s earthy and realistic scripts captured the pungent wit of the north-west and dealt with social problems head-on. Her strong vibrant characters – usually women - all had an individuality and a zest to preserve their personal identity. Lane’s women all wrestled with their difficult lives and came to terms with depression and loneliness in the family or workplace.

In 1993 Lane converted her substantial house in Sussex into an animal welfare sanctuary. She was passionate about animal preservation all her life and for 15 years ran the sanctuary with a dedicated zeal. Lane, who was a committed vegetarian and teetotaller, returned her OBE to Tony Blair when an animal technician was awarded the CBE. In 2013, the Carla Lane Animals In Need Centre was opened in Merseyside.

Lane, who recently returned to live in Liverpool, dissolved her marriage to Eric Hollins in 1981. She is survived by their two sons.

Alasdair Steven