Obituary: Alma Cullen, acclaimed drama writer for film, television, radio and theatre

Alma Cullen, writer and playwright. Born: 10 May, 1938 in Liverpool. Died: 7 August, 2021 in Edinburgh, aged 83.

Alma Cullen’s screenwriting credits included Inspector Morse and A Touch of Frost

Alma Cullen, who has died in Edinburgh aged 83 after suffering from cancer, was a subtle, powerful and much-admired writer of drama for film and television, radio and theatre, whose characteristic combination of sharp, ironic humour, deep human understanding, and sheer dramatic skill won her the affection and deep admiration of audiences, friends and colleagues across the UK.

Her screenwriting credits included the 1990s Edinburgh-based legal series The Advocates, episodes of Inspector Morse and A Touch Of Frost, and many single plays and dramas, including a 1982 STV drama Northern Lights – set during the Edinburgh Festival, and starring Judy Parfitt and a young Rik Mayall – which was shortlisted for an Emmy award. Alma Cullen was also a supportive and much-valued mentor to many young writers; and in her private life, she was much loved by friends and colleagues as a tremendously witty, well-informed and hospitable presence in their lives, with a lifelong passion for theatre, music, good books, and good company.

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Alma Cullen was born Alma Fitzpatrick, in Liverpool in 1938, into a working-class family who lived at Page Moss, in one of the city’s large housing estates. Her mother was a shop worker, and her father a factory worker who lost his job after a severe industrial injury; money was short for Alma and her older brother, but Alma did well at school, and in 1949 passed the 11-plus, winning her way into the local grammar school. Like many young people from poorer backgrounds, Alma did not always find the transition to the middle-class world of grammar school easy; and although she longed to go to university, she left school at 16 to work in a bank, hoping that her wages would help the family finances.

During her time at grammar school, though, she had already fallen in love with the world of literature and the arts. As a teenager in the 1950s, she would hitch-hike to see productions at the Edinburgh Festival, and in 1953 saw Richard Burton play Hamlet at the Assembly Hall; it was the beginning a love affair with Edinburgh which lasted until her death. In the late 1950s, in Liverpool, she met James Cullen, another clever “scholarship kid” who had grown up in the same part of Liverpool; he was a gifted amateur musician, and was also studying for a degree in botany. James and Alma were married in 1960, as he began to build a career as an academic botanist; their son Patrick was born in 1961, and their daughter Rose two years later, and the young upwardly-mobile family moved out to the relatively suburban Wirral.

Alma, though, had not given up on her academic and literary ambitions; and with her husband’s support, she went to university in Liverpool in the late 1960s, graduating in 1970 with a degree in English. By that time, she had already had her first play A Glimpse Into The Interior produced by the legendary Leeds-based BBC drama producer Alfred Bradley; and when, in 1972, James Cullen was appointed Assistant Keeper of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, Alma not only welcomed the move to the city she saw as her spiritual home, but also – with the support of her agent Sheila Lemon – speedily built up relationships with drama producers north of the Border.

Her first television play – a 1977 satire set in Edinburgh called The Caledonian Cascade, starring Rikki Fulton and David Robb – was produced by Granada in Manchester. It was for producer Robert Love at STV in Glasgow, though, that she wrote her most successful one-off television plays, including Northern Lights, and Off Peak (1984), which starred David Robb, Annette Crosbie, Isla Blair and Phyllis Logan, and was nominated for a Prix Italia; and it was characteristic of Alma Cullen that many of the professional relationships she struck up at that time became lifelong friendships.

In 1989, James Cullen’s career took the couple to Cambridge, where they lived happily until his death in 2013. Just as James was profoundly supportive of Alma’s work, she also liked to support him in his career; and she enjoyed living close enough to London to see more of friends and family who were based there, including her two oldest grandaughters, Amy and Ellen, born in 1989 and 1995.

"We used to go and stay with our grandparents for holidays,” says Amy Cullen, “and we had a wonderful time. We would do exciting things every day, and generally just have a lot of freedom. Then as I got older, Ma and I – that’s what I called her – would just talk for hours about everything. She was always so well-informed, read all the newspapers, had an opinion on everything; and I suppose I’m like her in that way. So we were very close, right to the end.”

After her husband’s death in 2013, Alma Cullen decided to move back to Edinburgh, which she felt was her home; she settled in Stockbridge, and continued to work and write to the end, with plays staged at A Play, A Pie And A Pint in 2019 and early in 2020. “She really was a complete professional in her work,” says Robert Love; “and her writing was exquisite. And as a friend – well, she was just great fun, and so was James. She was one of those people who always stay in touch; and that continued, right to the end.”

The actress Isla Blair, who knew Alma Cullen for almost 40 years, also remembers the superb quality of her writing, the sheer fun of her company, the glamour of her regular late-1990s Christmas parties at the Dorchester in London, and the pleasure – right to the end of her life – of long lunches or telephone calls, exchanging notes about favourite books or television programmes. And Amy Cullen remembers her grandmother both as “a real writer, who worked every day, and took her job incredibly seriously”; and also as a tremendously positive person, who truly appreciated the life that she and her husband had been able to build for themselves.

“I think she had come so far, from those beginnings in Liverpool,” says Amy Cullen, “and that instead of dwelling on difficult times in her early life, what she mainly felt was gratitude. She greatly valued the life she had had; and she felt grateful for it, every day.” Alma Cullen is survived by her son Patrick and daughter Rose, and by her four much-loved granddaughters; as well as by hundreds of friends and colleagues whose lives were deeply touched by the quality of her writing and of her friendship, and who share her deep sense of gratitude for the woman she was able to become, in the course of a creative life that was both formidably hard-working, and deeply rewarding.

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