Lucy Kaufman from Write On! interviews Gill Adams
Gill Adams has been my Facebook friend for some years now, but we’d never actually ‘met’. Yet, I feel I know her. Partly due to the openness of her posts, and partly because I’ve watched a version of her life in four seasons of the award-winning TV mockumentary Meet The Richardsons. Gill is the real-life — and hilarious on-screen — mum of comedian Lucy Beaumont and mother-in-law of comedian Jon Richardson, whose marriage has been turned into TV gold on the comedy channel Dave.
But Gill is so much more than the mum of Lucy Beaumont. She’s a prolific playwright in her own right, and has written for TV and radio. Her plays have been published and won awards, including the coveted Fringe First at Edinburgh. And she’s done all this against the odds; not least as a working-class woman from Hull.
Gill says she was not destined to be a playwright. As a child she struggled with reading and, when she wrote her first play in her 20s, she had never even seen one. It was someone in a creative writing group who noted how, in Gill’s short stories, her dialogue was taking over, so suggested she write for the stage.
As a struggling, lonely single mum in a bed-sit, with few possessions and no social life, Gill saved up to buy one book a week and two of her first purchases were a book on playwriting and the play Road by Lancashire playwright Jim Cartwright. Reading this, something clicked in Gill:
“It was Jim Cartwright and Morrissey’s lyrics, the combination of those two things.”
She told herself:
“‘I can actually write in my own dialect. Even if I can’t spell, I can write how I speak.’ It changed my whole life; I had something that was a secret. No one knew.”
And write in her own voice she did, setting many of her plays in Hull. So does Gill see herself as a Hull writer, a northern female writer or just a writer, and what impact did being from Hull have on her career?
“Being a Hull writer held me back. No one seemed to care about hearing the accent, let alone in a play. This made me want to champion Hull. There was nobody in Hull writing for theatre.”
Gill’s plays are never autobiographical. Instead, she writes about real people she encounters who she finds more interesting than herself. The woman who typed up her plays became not only “a bizarre mentor” but also inspiration for characters in her plays. “She had been a good-time girl and was blowsy and blonde and busty and she became a lot of my lead characters. Once, we were queuing to get into a nightclub and she said, ‘Ask me if I care? Do I F***’ And that was it. I knew I had a play called Ask Me If I Care.”
When Gill writes, her characters take over. She understands how what they want isn’t what they say, or need. “I start with either injustice or a dilemma and then I’m off. I do a lot of research, if it’s based on a true story. I get under their skin. I physically feel them, mentally see them, and I know if I throw something at them, how they’re going to react. Even sitting on the loo, I know their response.”
However, her characters often surprise her, reacting differently to how she intended. “It’s uncanny. There’s always a dark side in my work. I’m not trying to make them likeable, just trying to understand them. I never write for myself. I write for the characters, to get their story out.”
One of the darker stories Gill told, was in her play Off Out, about prostitution in Hull. She met Hull’s sex-workers and lived alongside them on the streets. It felt important to get these women’s voices heard, to tell their stories. “The underdog, the misfits, I relate to that as a person. I had a difficult childhood. My imagination saved me.”
Off Out won Gill the Fringe First award at Edinburgh, a bitter-sweet experience because, by the time she produced the play there, two of the women had been murdered, with a police investigation underway. It felt strange that these women now only existed in the play.
Gill felt an underdog in the theatre world, kept out for 20 years and never achieving the fame or status achieved by her northern male counterparts Jim Cartwright and John Godber: “Theatre hasn’t been kind to me. It was in the beginning, but then it rebuffed me. It didn’t make any sense. The more success you got, the more they didn’t want you. I’ve got friends now who are actors and they’re actors because they read one of my plays. That makes me sad.”
Gill can only speculate about why she was rebuffed, because it makes no logical sense. “I was putting bums on seats, winning awards and getting the most amazing reviews, serious reviews, by people who got it. I was obviously reliable, because I was finishing stuff and producing stuff.”
Gill found herself sinking financially. She had debts and a daughter going to university. “I reached a point where I thought: ‘It can’t be meant to be. It’s too hard to make a living. How come other people find it easy?’ She wonders, now, even though she was writing comedy, whether her challenges were due to her subject matter. Her answer is tinged with a dark, comic truth characteristic of her writing: “Maybe writing about prostitutes, where two of them get murdered in real life and one gets raped at the end – and she never does get her settee – is a bit heavy.”
Gill is currently reviving Fish And Leather, a play she wrote 32 years ago. “I was 20s when I wrote it, in my 30s when I directed it and in my 40s and 50s when I played the character Leather and, in it, again, now I’m in my 60s.”
This revival initially came about to earn money. But it’s taken on a life of its own, touring Hull pubs a few nights every month. “After Covid, people wanted to experience pubs and clubs in a new way. This has created a fan-base for us; people came back. They wanted a good laugh and a good time, and something different to think about from the news.”
I’ve seen the publicity and photos from the tour on Facebook and it looks riotous. Gill agrees:
“I’ve never known anything like it. It’s saucy, raunchy, in-your-face unapologetic about the sex element. It’s take-me-or-leave-me, this is how it is. The audience, they get giddy! It gives them licence to be lairy; women are naturally funny in Hull. I don’t see it as theatre. It’s vaudeville. But is it? It’s something new. I can’t even put a label on it. The audience heckle, like they do stand-up. By the end of the play, they know us and we’re all mates.”
It sounds liberating, for Gill and for the audience. She agrees wholeheartedly:
“It is. It’s liberating for us and it releases something in me. It’s a swapping of energy. I used poetry in it and that’s when it goes direct to the soul, like I’m giving a gift, a kiss, a bit of my heart, handing my heart over.”
To me, this is what theatre is, the magic that happens between the writer, actors and audience. Gill agrees, saying she changes the script as they go and, as an actor, improvises on the spot, keeping the content topical. This is another of the pluses of theatre, that it can be immediate and on the pulse. “We take a poke at Queen Camilla and they love it,” Gill says. “Even if they’re royalists. Sometimes we even get a standing ovation.”
I suggest it’s become more about serving the audience than herself.
“I’ve let go of all that ego anyway. I’m at an age where I know what I don’t want and I don’t set myself up for a fall. We all want the same experience: for the audience to love it.”
We discuss how, as playwrights, being in the audience as they experience it (and, in this case, Gill being in the play as well) is valuable for improving the writing. “You know when it doesn’t work, it’s like it hits you in the face and when it works it takes you out of yourself.”
She’s currently writing Fish And Leather 2, so perhaps a further tour is imminent. “When you’ve got a group of people you know you can rely on and who are going to do justice to your work, hang onto them!”
Talking of those she can rely on, I ask Gill about Meet The Richardsons, and what it’s like having such a surprise venture open up to her at her stage of her life, filming a TV show where she and her family play exaggerated versions of themselves. They’ve just finished filming Season five and Gill says it’s been a “surreal” five years.
Gill gets recognised in public and is often asked, “’Are you really Lucy’s mother? Are you really like that?’” She tells them, “’Well, yeah, because a lot is based on truth.’ I love making people laugh. I think I represent the type of woman who’s invisible, normally – the sort of woman you wouldn’t invite round to parties. The outrageousness of women of a certain age.”
If ageing is liberating for Gill, so is her recent diagnosis of austism and ADHD.
“I am liberated. My diagnosis has freed me. I don’t have to apologise. It has to come out in some way and I’m really fortunate the arts have given me that. The arts are my escape. Thank goodness the world has caught up. We know now we’re all different.”
Gill’s positive energy and authentic way of being is liberating and infectious. Just being around her, I feel empowered and inspired to continue writing and putting my stuff out into the world. As Gill says:
“Don’t keep it to yourself. If you want to do it, you will just find yourself doing it and, before you know it, you can’t stop doing it!”
Gill’s words remind me that, even through the tough times, while there are characters whose stories need telling and people who need to hear them, we must keep writing.
Header images (c) George Norris, 2023
You can connect with Gill on Linked in: linkedin.com/in/gill-adams-b647261b/
And find out more about her writing process in this interview on Full Flava TV: youtu.be/j9u6_dTGQR4
This hour-long BBC interview/ fly-on-the-wall follows the updated staging of Fish ‘n Leather, the first play Gill ever wrote in 1991. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0g59njb
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I love making people laugh. I think I represent the type of woman who’s invisible, normally – the sort of woman you wouldn’t invite round to parties. The outrageousness of women of a certain age.