An interview with Heidi Thomas
By Harri Sutherland-Kay
Heidi Thomas is snowed in. We arranged to meet in London but our plans were scuppered by the weather, so I called her at home. She assures me she is fine, ‘I think if you can walk to Waitrose you’ve got nothing worth grumbling about’.
Heidi is a scriptwriter for the BBC. Most notably she adapted Ballet Shoes and Cranford for screen. This Boxing Day will see the return of Upstairs Downstairs, a project she is so excited about Heidi keeps forgetting she was the one who wrote it.
The original series of Upstairs Downstairs was a view of 20th Century history, 1903 – 1930 seen through the eyes of one house, but many different classes.
The new series is picked up from 1936 and coloured by the looming threat of fascism in Europe. The Battle of Cable Street will feature heavily in one episode, a well-documented riot but this will be its first dramatisation.
The premise of the programme remains the same, a snapshot of history, how it is seen by different classes within one household and the impact it has upon them.
Heidi comes back to class issues several times throughout the interview, it is obviously as key to her writing as it has been to her development.
Born in Liverpool in 1962 into a working class Conservative family, Heidi says, ‘I never heard the word feminism as I was growing up, but it was lived all around me. It sort of sank into me through my skin. I absorbed something about working class women, what they could become and what they were capable of’.
One of her priorities, and indeed, one of the things she has enjoyed so much about being involved in Upstairs Downstairs, is the celebration of perceptions and experiences of different classes.
Heidi talks about her constant awareness of her own working class roots and how she benefitted from attending both grammar school and university for free. We discuss the importance of a right to high quality, free education, a notion that seems to be fading fast.
Heidi outlines the process by which she begins developing a script, she chooses to approach the plot through the characters, a method which demands that she listens to the voices of those she is writing, paying an equal amount of attention to each, building up their foibles, frailties and strengths, so as to create characters that are well-rounded.
This approach to writing allows the characters to drive the plot through their responses, decisions and choices. It is through intuition and a commitment to equality, as opposed to manipulation that Heidi is able to deliver dramas which hold within them genuine emotional experience.
Heidi tells me that she doesn’t ‘set out to consciously create strong indomitable women, but that is often what comes through’. The first time she realised this was on finding a review of Ballet Shoes (by male TV critic) which read, ‘appropriately, for a drama by Heidi Thomas, this left all the female characters firmly in charge’.
Heidi’s adaptation of Cranford, which brought older women to the fore and is a brilliant example of strong female roles, was an incredibly charming period drama about a group of women who, unusually for what we have come to expect of period dramas, were not looking for love.
The women of Cranford, who were, ‘older, on balance, and actively determining their own fates’ were embraced by the viewing public in a way that was unexpected.
Particularly so, as the staple Jane Austen fare, which Heidi considers to be ‘light on psychology and heavy on manners’, revolves itself around, ‘women who are rewarded for their sexual attractiveness with the ability to buy things,’ and has been increasingly popular over the past ten years.
One of her challenges when writing Cranford was to ensure that the male characters, who were so often absent (Elizabeth Gaskell, author of the books, described the village of Cranford as ‘in the possession of the Amazons’) were fully developed.
She wonders whether male scriptwriters afford the same consideration for the female characters in their work.
Heidi often finds that she is the only woman present at writers meetings and we discuss why there are so few women in the top across all professions. She says that jobs such as scriptwriting cannot be done part-time or as a job-share and they certainly don’t combine well with children due to the erratic, gruelling hours.
‘I think women are encouraged to believe they have choice but in actual fact they don’t,’ she continues, ‘they seem to get corralled into doing things in a certain way and I wish more women had the courage to say, ‘well actually, this is what I think I can do well, this is what sits well with me, this is my version of it,’ and I have to say, although perhaps I would’ve, in principle had a second child, I don’t think I could have had two children and a writing career. To my mind bringing up children is a creative act, you’re drawing from the same well’.
Heidi is constantly busy, with all of her fingers in creative pies, she attributes much of her success to the way she and her husband Steve organise themselves. ‘Marriage should be run along Marxist lines,’ she tells me, ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’.
It is this attitude and Heidi and Steve’s devotion to each other that has ensured a happy private life as well as a successful public one.
Interviewing Heidi Thomas has been an absolute pleasure. She speaks so genuinely of her interest in humanity, her love for her characters and her commitment to pursuing equality through writing. Her dramas are empathetic and display a very positive and humorous outlook on life. Personally, I can’t wait for the brand new Upstairs Downstairs.
Upstairs Downstairs will be on BBC 1 at 9pm on 26th, 27th and 28th of December.