YORK actor and drama teacher Ian Giles played his part in the rise of writer Sue Townsend in his days in Leicester.
Now, 72-year-old Ian is to play grumpy old Bert Baxter in Townsend’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ in Pick Me Up Theatre’s musical production at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, from December 8 to 18.
“In the summer of 1977, I was appointed artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester, and one of my innovations was to create a writers’ group for local people,” he recalls.
“The then- unknown Leicester housewife Sue Townsend was among those who came along. She was in her thirties, from a council estate, had worked as a factory worker and shop assistant, and was very shy. She only attended because her partner, Colin [Broadway], told her to give it a go, though she used to love reading the likes of Dostoevsky.”
What happened next, Ian? “The chairman of the group managed to get hold of a manuscript off her for Womberang, and on the strength of that first play, I put Sue up for a Thames Television Writer’s Bursary, and she got it,” he says.
“Michael Billington [the esteemed Guardian theatre critic], who was on the panel, told me it was the funniest thing he had read in years.”
Womberang won the Thames Television Playwright Award, and Townsend was on her way, writing Bazaar And Rummage (1982) and The Great Celestial Cow (1984) for the Royal Court Theatre, Chelsea.
Townsend first penned what became The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ as a one-man show: a workshop production starring Nigel Barnett as Nigel, rather than Adrian, Mole, recounting the diary he had written when he was aged 13 and three quarters.
“We think we then changed it to Adrian, because Nigel Mole sounded too like Nigel Molesworth [the subject of Geoffrey Willans’s series of books about life in English prep school St Custard’s], but the BBC say they changed it!” says Ian.
Either way, Adrian became the name when Sue was invited to convert the play into a novel. “She was a dramatist first and was very happy to write the novel as it meant she could use only one voice, Adrian’s, to tell his story,” says Ian.
“Published by Methuen in 1982, it went stratospheric,” says Ian. So much so, The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ and its 1984 sequel, The Growing Pains Of Adrian Mole, made Townsend the best-selling British author of the 1980s. A further six books in the series took sales worldwide past the 20 million mark.
Inevitably, the books were adapted for the radio, television and theatre. “Sue worked on the first musical version, which was a play with songs, and then came the first West End theatre version,” says Ian.
Robert Readman’s York company, Pick Me Up Theatre, will be presenting the latest musical adaptation by Jake Brunger (book and lyrics) and Pippa Cleary (music and lyrics), premiered at the Leicester Curve in March 2015.
“They’d formed a partnership while studying music and contacted Sue about doing a musical, but sadly she died [on April 10 2014) before the premiere,” says Ian.
Now the story comes full circle for him as he takes to the stage as Sue’s character, the 89-year-old curmudgeon Bert Baxter. “Sue became resident writer at the Phoenix, and I moved on, and now the theatre is called the Sue Townsend Theatre in the place where I worked for four years, when she took her first step into writing plays.”
Pick Me Up Theatre present Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, The Musical, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, December 8 to 18, 7.30pm, except December 11 and 12; 2.30pm matinees, December 11, 12 and 18. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.