Two creative arts course leaders at the University of Central Lancashire appear on a stage in their adopted city soon. MALCOLM WYATT spoke to screenwriter/playwright Bill McCoid and animator/voice actress Sarah Kennedy about The Mallory Monologues and much more...
What links children’s TV favourite Peppa Pig, satirical animated comedy Crapston Villas and bizarrely-quiffed New Romantic pop stars A Flock of Seagulls?
Well, you could argue that it’s The Mallory Monologues, a new play by UCLan screenwriting course leader Bill McCoid and starring the university’s course leader for animation, Sarah Kennedy.
Bill was once in a band who were a stone’s throw from the UK top 40 and whose claims to fame included a headline gig with much-lampooned Liverpudlians A Flock of Seagulls as support.
Meanwhile, Sarah made her name as the creator and writer of Channel 4 cult classic Crapston Villas, but is better known as the voice of Miss Rabbit in Peppa Pig.
Both will be at the Continental in Preston on Tuesday, March 25, for the fourth performance of Bill’s latest play, The Mallory Monologues.
Before then, there are three nights in Greater Manchester, and I put it to Bill that it’s not everyone who gets a world premiere at the King’s Arms in Salford.
But I think he takes it as a bit of a slight.
“It’s a prestigious venue, owned by Paul Heaton (the former Housemartins and Beautiful South lead singer and established solo artist).
“Initially we could only do two nights there, but they liked the idea so much they gave us an extra night, so we’re doing Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (March 19 to 21).”
Bill wrote the play’s first draft about 18 months ago on holiday, and around 10 drafts later was ready to set up and get some help for his Arty Party Theatre Company production.
He’s in the right circles for that, and as well as Sarah, there’s Lloyd Peters, a regular Radio 4 actor and playwright whose TV credits include Boys From The Black Stuff, Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Heartbeat, Last of the Summer Wine, GB and The Bill.
Then there’s Claire Mooney, a singer-songwriter for 25 years, with eight albums behind her; writer/actor Joe O’Byrne (Phoenix Nights, Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Clocking Off, The Royal, Heartbeat); and Mae Brogan, comedy improviser, actor and primary school drama facilitator.
Bill’s CV is also impressive, with various play, feature and short film accolades as well as production work on Granada’s The Time The Place and credits for Dispatches (Channel 4), World In Action (ITV) and Panorama (BBC).
So will it be good working alongside Sarah, who was his predecessor as UCLan course leader for screen-writing ?
“Sarah has an awesome track record. She’s a terrific actress and brings an awful lot to the part. In a way I’m just pleased that people of that quality are happy to do my play.
“That in itself is a nod in the right direction. You’ve only got to read the biogs.
“There are several people on this production, and it’s a bit of a who’s who of North-West talent.”
Are you a regular at The Continental?
“I go there a lot. It’s a great venue. Preston was crying out for A venue like that.”
So how does Bill sum up The Mallory Monologues?
“It’s all about a guy called Mark Mallory. But he never appears on stage.
“What you get is six people who have dealt with and know him very well, and you get their view on him.
“You get a funeral guest, a mobster, a hit-man, his history teacher at school, his girlfriend and his Mum.
“But the story is drip-fed and you only find out what it’s all about at the end.
“I thought about Mark appearing, but in the end felt it would work better if you never saw him.
“Instead, the picture is painted by other people.
“Most of the time the actors are on stage on their own, but at the end two characters meet, for a bit of a reveal.”
There’s also live music, with a sax player involved, quite apt for Bill, originally from Elephant & Castle, London, who made his name with the band The Nice Men
“We were very big in Ormskirk in 1980.
“Outside of Ormskirk, not so big!
“We got a record at No.43 in 1981.
“I have to say I’ve given up on The Nice Men making it.
“I’m not trying to plug the band still!
“That’s a part of my past.
“But we played on the same bill as Everything But The Girl and Wah! Heat and on one occasion A Flock of Seagulls supported us.
“We mixed with a few other bands, such as Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes.
“They would come to gigs of ours at clubs like Eric’s in Liverpool.”
So how long has he been working at the university?
“Since 24th January, 2008.
“And I remember that exact date because it was the day the Media Factory, the building where I work, opened, and also my birthday!”
The dad of two, based in Southport, who counts Woody Allen’s Annie Hall as his favourite film, currently has around 90 students, just under 20 in each year.
“I’m very privileged to be part of it.
“The actual teaching is a joy. I’m very lucky. I just want to keep doing stuff.
“And there’s always so much happening here, with students making movies, and so on.”
Sarah’s past screen-writing students included Oscar-nominated writer/director Mark Gill, but she said: “I moved to the animation role, which was more my forte.
“Bill took over and turned it into something amazing, much better than when I was doing it. But we kept in touch and I did other things with him.
“Sometimes his actors would drop out at the last moment so I’d cover, doing read-throughs with the script. When he told me about this play, I thought it would be really good to be involved.”
Crapston Villas proved to be Sarah’s breakthrough, between 1996/98, and from there came the opportunity to write for Hit Entertainment and Peppa Pig.
As well as her Miss Rabbit role, Sarah Kennedy is also the voice of Nanny Plum in Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom and Dolly Pond in Pond Life now.
“I’ve played Miss Rabbit for 10 years now.
“I wrote a couple of episodes early on, so was already doing it when I moved up and got my job at UCLan.
“Miss Rabbit was quite a small part which became a bigger part, a comedy role because she had all those jobs and is everywhere.
“She’s not really very good at anything, but she’s very enthusiastic.”
It’s given her cult status for adults as well as children.
“Parents who have children in that age group know it. But there’s a cut-off point really.
“They won’t necessarily know Ben and Holly, but when I mention Miss Rabbit, they say ‘yes, you are!’ It’s fun.”
How does that go down with your students?
“I think they like it, but because we work them so hard they don’t get much time to think about it. I’m just the woman who says ‘you’ve got to hand this in then and this project to finish by that day’.”
Crapston Villas included the voices of Jane Horrocks, Alistair McGowan, Alison Steadman and Preston’s John Thomson, among others, and proved a springboard for many animators.
“Everyone involved has gone on and done something amazing.
“I watch the credits and see quite a few now at Aardman, some worked on Fantastic Mr Fox, one on Coraline.
“I was very lucky I had this idea they wanted to develop.
“Such a brilliant experience.
“I was very young and thrown into this overwhelming situation.
“I’m not sure you’d get that now. It’s a very different climate.”
Some may think Pixar or Disney is the end-game in animation, but it’s a thriving industry here too.
“In this area animation’s really growing.
“Cosgrove Hall started up again and the producer there worked with us last year, teaching our third years and cherry-picking a few to work there.
“That’s a really great contact.
“All our students tend to get jobs, because it’s such a growing industry, particularly with the BBC move.
“The CBBC creative director came in and all the students pitched to him a couple of weeks ago. A really good exercise for them.
“This tax break for animation companies to pump money back into their series helps, meaning they can afford to carry on making those series in this country.
“There’s lots of work and it’s brilliant for the students leaving.
“Despite technology changing, it’s a very positive time for the animation industry.
“You need the skills before people even take a look at you, and we’ve very good relationships with all the animation companies up here.”
Sarah has BA and MA students, with around 30 BA students this year and 20/25 in others, and says the relatively small numbers help her focus.
“The voice work is a great way of keeping in touch with the industry. But I also love teaching. I feel very lucky.”
So what’s the best animation she wished she had written?
“A piece by Michael Dudok de Wit called Father and Daughter . It’s a beautiful story, but I can’t show it to my students, because it makes me cry!”
Sarah, who was born in London and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon, added that she can do her voice work over school holidays, which is handy as she has a six-year-old daughter.
“My partner’s very supportive and plays a house-husband role. I moved up to Preston thinking I was only coming for a year, but then met my partner, fell in love and stayed!
“I find it very relaxing. You’re only two hours from London by train and near to the Lakes, North Wales and Scotland. It’s brilliant. And I like being in a small city rather than a big city.”
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