|Born||Susan Lillian Johnstone
2 April 1946
Leicester, Leicestershire, England, United Kingdom
|Died||10 April 2014
Leicester, Leicestershire, England, United Kingdom
|Occupation||Novelist, playwright, screenwriter, columnist|
|Genre||Drama, fiction, screenplay|
|Notable works||Adrian Mole (books), Captain Christmas and the Evil Adults (play)|
|Spouse||Keith Towsend, Colin Broadway|
|Children||Sean, Daniel, Victoria, Elizabeth|
Susan Lillian "Sue" Townsend, FRSL (2 April 1946 – 10 April 2014) was an English writer and humorist whose work encompasses novels, plays and works of journalism. She was best known for creating the character Adrian Mole.
After writing in secret from the age of 14, Townsend first became known for her plays, her signature character first appearing in a radio drama, but her work soon expanded into other forms. She enjoyed great success in the 1980s, with her Adrian Mole books selling more copies than any other work of fiction in Britain during the decade. This series, which eventually encompassed nine books, takes the form of the character's diaries. The earliest books recount the life of a teenage boy during the Thatcher years, but the sequence eventually depicts Adrian Mole in middle age. The Queen and I (1992), another popular work which was well received, was an outlet for her republican sentiments, although the Royal Family is still rendered with sympathy. Both the earliest Adrian Mole book and The Queen and I were adapted for the stage and enjoyed successful runs in London's West End.
Townsend was poor until well into her thirties, and used her experiences of hardship in her work. In her later years she suffered ill health, in part related to the diabetes she developed in the mid-1980s, and in her last years endured serious sight and mobility problems.
Townsend was born in Leicester, the eldest of five sisters. (Some sources, including the BBC News obituary, have Townsend as the oldest of three daughters). Her father had worked at a factory making jet engines before becoming a postman, while her mother worked in a factory canteen. She attended Glen Hills Primary School, where the school secretary was Mrs. Claricotes, a name she used for the school secretary in the Adrian Mole books. At the age of eight, Townsend contracted mumps, and was obliged to stay at home. Her mother bought a collection of Richmal Crompton's Just William books at a jumble sale which Townsend read avidly. Later, she said the William Brown character was an influence on her best known creation.
After failing her 11-plus exam, Townsend went to the secondary modern South Wigston High School. During her childhood, while up a tree playing with her peers, she witnessed the murder of a fellow schoolgirl, but the children were not believed. Townsend left school at the age of 15 and worked in a variety of jobs including packer for Birds Eye, a petrol station attendant and a receptionist. Working at a petrol station allowed her the chance to read between serving customers.
She married Keith Towsend, a sheet-metal worker at 18; the couple had three children under five by the time Townsend was 23 (Sean, Daniel and Victoria), at which point the marriage ended and she became a single parent. In this position, Townsend and her children endured considerable hardship. In Mr Bevan's Dream: Why Britain Needs Its Welfare State (1989), a short book in the Counterblasts series, she recounts an experience from when her eldest child was five. Because social security were unable to give her 50p to tide them over, she was obliged to feed herself and her children on a tin of peas and an oxo cube as an evening meal.
While employed as a supervisor at an adventure playground she observed a man making canoes nearby and, because he was married, put off talking to him, and it was a year before he asked her for a date. It was at a canoeing course she met her future second husband, Colin Broadway, and the father of her fourth child, Elizabeth. Subsequently, she became pregnant twice more, but underwent abortions. Ultimately, Townsend came to believe that termination is wrong. Ghost Children (1997) is a novel which draws on these experiences.
Transition to a writing career
Her new partner who encouraged her to join a writers' group at the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester, in 1978, when she was in her early thirties. Initially too shy to speak, she did not write anything for six weeks, but was then given a fortnight to write a play. This became the thirty-minute drama Womberang (1979), set in the waiting room of a gynaecology department. At the Phoenix, she became the writer-in-residence.
During this time she was mentored by several theatre directors including Ian Giles and principally Sue Pomeroy who commissioned and directed a number of her plays including Womberang, Dayroom, Groping For Words and subsequently Ear Nose And Throat. She also was introduced to William Ash, then chairman of the Soho Poly (now Soho Theatre), who likewise played a significant part in shaping her early career. She met writer–director Carole Hayman on the stairs of the Soho Poly theatre and went on to develop many theatre pieces with her for the Royal Court and Joint Stock, including Bazarre and Rummage and The Great Celestial Cow. They later co-wrote two television series, The Refuge and The Spinney.
At the time of writing the first Adrian Mole book, Townsend was living on the Eyres Monsell Estate, near the house in which playwright Joe Orton was brought up. Mole "came into my head when my eldest son said 'Why don't we go to safari parks like other families do?' That's the only real line of dialogue from my family that's in any of the Mole books. It's in because it triggered it. I remembered that kind of whiny, adolescent self-pity, that 'surely these are not my parents.'"
The success of Adrian Mole
The first two published stories appeared in a short-lived arts' journal entitled magazine, in the editing and production of which Townsend was involved, featuring the character then still called Nigel Mole. Actor Nigel Bennett had given her help and encouragement to persist with the work, and sent the script to John Tydeman, the deputy head of BBC Radio Drama. As a single radio play, The Diary of Nigel Mole, Aged 13¼, broadcast by BBC Radio 4 on New Year's Day 1982, the character first came to national awareness.
Someone at the publishers Methuen heard the broadcast and commissioned Townsend to write the first book, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ which came out in September. The change in name was insisted upon by the publisher because of the similarity to Nigel Molesworth, the schoolboy character created by Ronald Searle and Geoffrey Willans. A month after the book's appearance it had topped the best seller list, and had sold a million copies after a year. Adapted as a play, the stage version premiered in Leicester and ran at Wyndham's Theatre for more than two years. The first two books were seen by many as a realistic and humorous treatment of the inner life of an adolescent boy. They also captured something of the zeitgeist of Britain during the Thatcher era.
The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (1984) was reputedly based on her children's experiences at Mary Linwood Comprehensive School in Leicester. Several of the teachers who appear in the book (such as Ms Fossington-Gore and Mr Dock) are based on staff who worked at the school in the early 1980s. When the book was televised, it was mostly filmed at a different school nearby. Mary Linwood Comprehensive was closed in 1997.
These first two books were adapted into a television series, broadcast in 1985 and 1987.
Later life and career
The Queen and I (1992) is a novel imagining that the Royal family have been rehoused in a council estate after a Republican revolution, although it turns out to have been merely the monarch's nightmare. Townsend had become a republican while a child. In an interview for The Independent published in September 1992 she related that after finding the idea of God a ridiculous idea, an argument in favour of the British monarchy also collapsed. "I was frightened that people believed in it all, the whole package, and I must be the only one with these feelings. It was a moment of revelation, but at the same time it would have been wicked ever to mention it." In addition, she was "being taught about infinity, which I found mind-boggling. It made me feel we were all tiny, tiny specks: and if I was, then they - the Royal Family - were, too."
Like the first Mole book, The Queen and I was adapted for the stage with songs by Ian Dury and Mickey Gallagher. Michael Billington writes that Townsend "was ahead of the game" in treating the royal family as a suitable subject for drama. He writes: "Far from seeming like a piece of republican propaganda, the play actually made the royals endearing." A later book in a similar vein, Queen Camilla (2006), was less well received.
On 25 February 2009, Leicester City Council announced that Townsend would be given the Honorary Freedom of Leicester (where she lived). Townsend became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (FRSL) in 1993. Amongst her honours and awards, she received honorary doctorates from the University of Leicester, from Loughborough University and De Montfort University, Leicester.
Townsend, in a 2009 Guardian interview with Alex Clark, described herself as a "passionate socialist" who had no time for New Labour. "I support the memory and the history of the party and I consider that these lot are interlopers", she told Clark. Despite these comments, Townsend said in 1999 that she had only voted Labour once, and in fact her preference was "Communist, Socialist Workers, or a minority party usually." The journalist Christina Patterson observed of Townsend in 2008: "Her heart, it's clear from her books and a few hours in her company, is still with the people she left behind, the people who go largely unchronicled in literature, the people who are still her friends."
Townsend had suffered ill health for several years. She had TB peritonitis at 23 and suffered a heart attack in her 30s. She developed diabetes in the 1980s. It was a condition she struggled with, believing herself to be the "world’s worst diabetic." The condition led to Townsend being registered blind in 2001, and she wove this theme into her work. After suffering kidney failure, she underwent dialysis and in September 2009 she received a kidney from her son Sean after a two-year wait for a donor. She also had degenerative arthritis, which left her wheelchair-bound. By this time, she was dictating to Sean, her eldest son, who worked as her typist. Surgery was carried out at Leicester General Hospital and Townsend spoke to the BBC about her illness on an appeal for National Kidney Day.
Townsend died at her home on 10 April 2014 following a stroke. Stephen Mangan, who portrayed Adrian Mole in a 2001 television adaptation, stated that he was "greatly upset to hear that Sue Townsend has died. One of the warmest, funniest and wisest people I ever met." Townsend was survived by her husband, four children and ten grandchildren.
|1981||Thames Television Playwright Award for Womberang|
|2007||Two honorary doctorates, one from the University of Leicester and one from Loughborough University|
|2007||James Joyce Award of the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin|
|2012||Specsavers National Book Awards, Audiobook of the Year, The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year narrated by Caroline Quentin|
|2013||Honorary Doctorate of letters from De Montfort University, Leicester |
Adrian Mole series
- The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ (1982), her bestselling book, and the best-selling new British fiction book of the 1980s.
- The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (1984)
- The True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole (1989)
- Adrian Mole: From Minor to Major (1991) is an omnibus of the first three, and includes as a bonus the specially written Adrian Mole and the Small Amphibians.
- Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years (1993)
- Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (1999)
- Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004)
- The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole, 1999–2001 (2008)
- Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years (2009)
- Rebuilding Coventry (1988)
- The Queen and I (1992), a story about the British Royal Family living a "normal" life on an urban housing estate following a republican revolution.
- Ghost Children (1997), a novel treating the issues of bereavement, child abuse and women's self-esteem in relation to body image.
- Number Ten (2002)
- Queen Camilla (2006)
- The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year (2012)
- Womberang (Soho Poly – 1979)
- The Ghost of Daniel Lambert (Leicester Haymarket Theatre, 1981) Theatre closed in January 2006
- Dayroom (Croydon Warehouse Theatre, 1981)
- Captain Christmas and the Evil Adults (Phoenix Arts Theatre, 1982) now known as the Phoenix Arts Centre
- Bazaar and Rummage (Royal Court Theatre, 1982)
- Groping for Words (Croydon Warehouse, 1983)
- The Great Celestial Cow (Royal Court Theatre and tour, 1984)
- The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 133⁄4-The Play (Leicester Phoenix, 1984) now known as Phoenix Arts Centre
- Ear Nose And Throat (National large scale tour Good Company Theatre Productions, 1988)
- Disneyland it Ain't (Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 1989)
- Ten Tiny Fingers, Nine Tiny Toes (Library Theatre, Manchester, 1989)
- The Queen and I (Vaudeville Theatre, 1994; toured Australia in summer 1996 as The Royals Down Under)
- Mr Bevan's Dream: Why Britain Needs Its Welfare State (1989)
- The Public Confessions of a Middle-Aged Woman (2001)
- Marcus Williamson "Sue Townsend obituary: Author whose hapless, brilliantly drawn teenage hero, Adrian Mole, made her the best selling author of the 1980s", The Independent, 11 April 2014
- Kate Kellaway Obituary: Sue Townsend, The Guardian, 11 April 2014
- "Obituary: Sue Townsend", BBC News, 11 April 2014
- Obituary: Sue Townsend, Daily Telegraph, 11 April 2014
- Collier, Kate (18 February 2005). "Leicester's leading ladies". BBC. Retrieved 1 February 2008.
- Ann Donald "To meet one of life's naturals", The Herald, 23 October 1999
- Iain Hollingshead "Sue Townsend: the difficult years", Daily Telegraph, 27 February 2012
- "Interview: Secret passions of a republican mole: Sue Townsend explains why she killed off the Queen Mother in a council house", The Independent, 1 September 1992
- Susan Mansfield "Obituary: Sue Townsend, author", The Scotsman, 12 April 2014
- Sue Townsend "Sue Townsend: how the welfare state left me and my kids scouring the streets for pennies", The Observer, 13 April 2014. Extract from Mr Bevan's Dream, first published in The Observer in 1989.
- Richard Webber "Adrian Mole author Sue Townsend talks money", Sunday Telegraph, 1 July 2012
- "Sky Arts: The Book Show". Skyarts.co.uk. Retrieved 1 February 2008.
- White, Lesley (15 October 2006). "Sue Townsend". The Times (London). Retrieved 1 February 2008.
- Alex Clark "'I didn't know what Adrian Mole looked like – well, not until I saw John Major on the telly'", The Guardian, 7 November 2009
- David Hendy Life on Air: A History of Radio Four, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p.373
- Michael Billington "'Plays poured out of her'", The Guardian, 11 April 2014
- Lawless, Jill (11 April 2014). "Sue Townsend, Creator of Adrian Mole, Dies at 68". ABC News. Associated Press. Retrieved 12 April 2014.
- Alex Clark "The country's gone to the dogs", The Observer, 29 October 2006
- Tom Payne "It's no knockout", Sunday Telegraph, 26 November 2006
- "City honours three of its finest 'ambassadors'". Leicester City Council. 25 February 2009. Retrieved 26 February 2009.
- "Susan (Sue) Townsend - Authorised Biography", Debrett's
- Christina Patterson "Sue Townsend: 'I often write about my faults'", The Independent, 28 November 2008
- "Adrian Mole author Sue Townsend dies". BBC News. 11 April 2014. Retrieved 11 April 2014.
- Kate Kellaway "Sue Townsend: 'I hate it when people call me a national treasure'", The Observer, 1 August 2010
- Anna Metcalfe "Small talk: Sue Townsend", Financial Times, 16 March 2012
- Thomas Quinn "Sue Townsend interview: "I think people are overloaded with information"", The Big Issue, 11 April 2014, originally published in 2012
- "Adrian Mole author Sue Townsend's kidney appeal". BBC. Retrieved 12 April 2014.
- Eady, Piers (11 April 2014). "Adrian Mole author Sue Townsend dies aged 68". Daily Mirror. Retrieved 11 April 2014.
- Thompson, Alan (11 April 2014). "Sue Townsend: The secret writer who became a best-selling author". Leicester Mercury. Retrieved 12 April 2014.
- "Sue Townsend dead: Adrian Mole 'Secret Diary' author dies at her home, aged 68". Retrieved 12 April 2014.
- "Sue Townsend – Woman of the Year Award". BBC. 14 October 2003. Retrieved 1 February 2008.
- "Women of The Year Lunch and Assembly". womenoftheyear.co.uk. Archived from the original on 14 December 2007. Retrieved 1 February 2008.
- "Summer 2007 Oration – Sue Townsend". Loughborough University. 20 July 2007. Retrieved 1 February 2008.
- Alison Flood (5 December 2012). "EL James comes out on top at National Book awards". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 December 2012.
- DMU students (2013-07-11). "Summer Graduations 2013". De Montfort University. Retrieved 2014-04-11.