Jumping to the wake-up call

Motherhood and a spell of serious illness have not slowed down London-Irish writer Bridget O'Connor - in fact, they have galvanised…

Bridget O’Connor. Photograph: Peter Straughan.

Motherhood and a spell of serious illness have not slowed down London-Irish writer Bridget O'Connor - in fact, they have galvanised her, she tells Martin Doyle

The ticking of life's clock has always been prominent in the stories of London-Irish writer Bridget O'Connor. But five years ago when she was 40, and pregnant with her first child, the alarm went off. She found out she had breast cancer.

It's a subject she is naturally sensitive about, but her reluctance to dwell on it has less to do with protecting her privacy than the fear of being pigeonholed and how she will be perceived.

"I don't want to be a breast cancer writer- and also I won't get any work, no one will employ me," she adds, tweaking tragedy by the tail, the hallmark of her temperament and her writing.


Today, Connie-Rose is in her second year at primary school and O'Connor has had a very good prognosis - "I've just got my five-year legs" - so she can afford to dwell on a welcome side-effect of confronting the ultimate deadline: increased productivity.

Having got to her mid-30s with just two fast-paced and blackly funny short story collections to her name, Here Comes John and Tell Her You Love Her, she hit writer's block as she attempted the transition to a novel. But now, with one leap sideways, she finds herself free and rattling off scripts for stage and big screen, both solo and with her partner, Peter Straughan.

Sixty Six, their screenplay about the neglected younger son of a London Jewish family whose bar mitzvah clashes with the World Cup final at Wembley, is just out on DVD.

Mrs Ratcliffe's Revolution, their film about a family of English communists who swap Marks & Spencer for Marx and Engels by emigrating to East Germany in 1968, is due out this summer, starring Catherine Tate. And they've just handed over their version of A Christmas Carol to their production company, Working Title - it's "another black comedy, keeping to the spirit of the Alistair Sim one, which we loved, but more frenetic, with a nastier, lonelier Scrooge, and we have more fun with the ghosts".

She has also just finished adapting for the screen her play, The Lovers, about a blind gigolo passing on the secrets of the trade to a young apprentice. Because the location has shifted from Newcastle to the US, the material is a little racier, edgier. "It's now getting to the stage of thinking, God, I hope Connie doesn't read this, or will she think I'm really like this or just pretending to be like this."

O'Connor believes her harrowing experience galvanised her writing. "It was a double whammy," she says. "Having a daughter as well, everything changed anyway. The same switch went on - oh, I haven't got all day suddenly. God, I'd better do some work, not sit round watching breakfast television any more. I felt a kind of electricity - the day is not as long as I thought it was. Also, being a mother for the first time, I definitely want to be around. I don't know if you would feel that anyway though, if you had a child: suddenly a bit more cautious."

With survival comes a sense of duty, however. "It's a difficult thing to talk about. It's almost as if you're supposed to write better stuff if there's a slight stain on the horizon - and that's not necessarily true. You keep on reading the same rubbish books and watching rubbish television."

AS PART OF her recuperation, Bridget, Connie and Peter moved to Cork for a year (Bridget's parents are from Cork and Limerick) armed with a few commissions. "It was a bit of an odd thing to do in a way because we didn't know anybody," she says. "We ended up in quite a nice little house opposite an industrial park on South Douglas Road, There was a huge dip in the road that filled up with water so we could hardly cross it. Because I'd had Connie and I'd been a bit ill we thought we'd start again somewhere else. It was an excuse to clear out of Hackney.

"We wrote loads, that was the good thing. We were holed up on the top floor. But it rained so much we came back. It poured and poured. It was a very quiet, recovering time."

The couple wrote Mrs Ratcliffe's Revolution there, based on the real-life experience of Maggie Norris, a producer and actor. "She was Mike Baldwin's florist girlfriend in Coronation Street," says O'Connor.

Mr Ratcliffe is an idealistic communist, who shifts his family behind the Iron Curtain, where his wife, inadvertently at first, helps people to escape to the West.

"That's why it's her revolution. It's a black comedy with a twist. It was originally supposed to be quite a dark tale about a woman being quite lonely and isolated. It's about political idealism and the corruption of that, about how you should live your life, finding out about the shabbiness of the DDR, of the secrets. We went to the museums, saw the files; you could see a family pitted against each other in a schoolgirl's notebook."

It took five years and countless rewrites to make the film, as each new director and investor wanted a new draft. Now O'Connor is worried it will be overshadowed by The Lives of Others, the brilliant dissection of East Germany's petty tyranny, and the earlier Goodbye Lenin!.

The couple also wrote a site-specific play, News From the Seventh Floor, which was staged as a promenade play in Clements, the old-fashioned, patriarchal Watford department store on which Are You Being Served? was based. "We even met the funny woman who Mrs Slocombe was based on."

O'Connor also wrote a play, The Flags, a black comedy reminiscent of Martin McDonagh's works, about two unreliable lifeguards on a deserted Irish beach plotting their promotion to lovely Banna Strand. It was staged in Manchester and Dublin and is to return to the Royal Exchange in Manchester in September.

"It went down well in Manchester but got a few mean reviews in Dublin," O'Connor says. "Part of the gag of the play is the Oirishness of it. It's got this slightly Father Ted-ish thing, but really it's a black comedy. I planned it more as a tragic tale, a follow-on from my short- story writing, where I'm interested in friends and relationships, almost psychological, I hope. I was trying to play with the idea of people being slightly monstrous, stuck together in their own world on the edge of the Atlantic."

WHETHER DELIBERATELY OR subconsciously, cancer has always cropped up in her writing. "Oddly enough, it always has. My two collections of short stories are riddled with it," she says. "I always wrote about it even before I had it. I suppose I've always been conscious that my family has a history of cancer.

"In The Flags, which I wrote when I was in Ireland recovering and having bad hair, one of the characters is a cancer survivor. But then every single family seems to have somebody with it - maybe that's why I don't like to go on about it."

Someone once wrote that the pram in the hall is creative death for the artist. But the rattle of new life was O'Connor's second wake-up call.

"Actually, I found having Connie very energising," she says. I was bone idle before. Now I've written more than I ever have, especially in the first couple of years because of where we lived. Before, because I didn't have a commission, I wrote when I felt like it. When I was single my day was my own. Now, with a child, you've got to organise your time. Suddenly the day is very short. Also you need to make money in a way you didn't have to before."

How did she make the transition from short story writer stuck on first novel to successful screenwriter?

"I was writing a third collection, which I still go back to every now and again, but I had to write a novel to sell my stories - that's just the way it was," she says. "I tried to flog a novel, but really I wasn't very good at it. I still would like to write one, but I think I'm really a short story writer. I have a 10-page span and then I collapse under the weight of it. I couldn't maintain the interest in the whole thing myself. I suppose I could have been a different kind of novelist, I could have had multiple narratives, but I never really wanted to do that. I was really interested at the time in fast-talking characters, where the story's over in the blink of an eye and done and dusted. I was also interested in lots of monologues, so that's why I started moving into playwriting. Because I had this long hiatus and I had a child, and because I was with Peter, we started writing films. It was a kind of natural progression."

THEIR CREATIVE PARTNERSHIP is "fairly amicable", she says. It grew out of writing side by side in a tiny flat in Hackney, sharing one computer, taking it in turns to write. "Now we try to do a slightly more sophisticated version of that, where we're not in the same room. One of us will do the first draft, the other will then take it on, have different ideas. We come together to discuss it, but we also wake up talking about it.

"We had disagreements when we were in Ireland because we were in a learning curve, lot of spats and slamming doors, but Peter was slightly more experienced than me. The thing about screenwriting is that if you have a good idea then it doesn't go away, you can reinvent it and slot it in somewhere else. Nothing is set in stone. I didn't know that at the start, so you'd fight for something you didn't have to fight for. Film-making is very collaborative. It's not really your work, everyone has a say, and most of the film gets done in the cutting room anyway. It's an odd relationship - you disown it almost instantly, or you don't own it in the first place."

The team behind Sixty Six were a little worried about it missing its moment, as it was released after the World Cup last year, but it did well.

"The football in it was fantastic," says O'Connor. "There was unseen footage. I think the film worked on quite a few levels: it's not threatening, it's quite warm, family-centred."

There are quite a few films about the Jewish experience in Britain but almost nothing about the Irish in Britain. "That's true," says O'Connor, who once wrote a funny column about an Irish dancer for the Irish Post. "I don't know why that is. I have a half-baked idea about doing something called The Medals about an Irish dancer. I remember in the 1970s going round in coaches doing Irish dancing, part of a troupe almost, at a time when it was not the greatest thing to be Irish.

"I did a radio play ages ago called Becoming the Rose, a stupid comedy about somebody who was desperate to win the Rose of Tralee, a kind of Irish overload where she was force-fed the singing and dancing but really loved it, was really competitive and wanted to win at all costs, including wiping out the opposition. We went to Tralee with a Kodak camera and a microphone and had a great time interviewing beauty queens until they got wise and told us to clear off."