- March 1, 2016
I am writing this having just heard the sad news that my friend Louise Rennison has died. It struck deep, the passing of a friend always hits hard and the idea that she will no longer slip in and out of my life is hard to accept.
Louise was born and raised in Leeds, then in her teens her family emigrated to New Zealand. It was not a move that she embraced but years later it proved to be the inspiration for a rich vein of creativity that saw her conquer the Edinburgh Fringe with her one woman show Stevie Wonder Felt My Face and later, create a string of novels for young adults that made her a cult author on both sides of the Atlantic.
Bill Smith recalls; “I remember her group Women With Beards with Barmy Jane Bassett of Bodger and Badger fame. They were amongst the first female comedy duos and showed the way for the rise of other female comics. There were more women in The Conservative Party than in comedy then and in both the women made the tea – until Louise! She was also a writer on The Latest (when it was The Punter) and she, with others, got theatre going at what was the Pavilion Theatre and was an active person at the start of The Fringe.”
Having come to Brighton to study she made this her home and continued to live here, with escapes to her small London pied a terre for the isolation she needed to write. With her success she became a truly international woman but at her heart, like seaside rock, were the words Leeds & Brighton.
I met her many years ago. A mutual friend took me to see her new show, a weird take on Fellini’s Eight and a Half. It was a ramshackle affair with a lousy set and virtually non-existent production values but despite all that it was addictively funny. She and her then co-writer and performer James Poulter had a strange on-stage presence, call it charisma if you like, it was certainly funny.
A few years further on and our paths crossed again. I had at that point been crowned Alternative Miss Brighton, ask for the pics, and Louise and James got in touch. They had been invited by The Zap Club, at that time was still an active arts centre, to produce an alternative panto. They settled on Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and thought I would make a good Ida. In hindsight I think that Hermione Baddeley and Helen Mirren did a better job, but it was a fun experience and one I am glad I had.
Soon Louise’s one woman shows, would really take off. Stevie Wonder Felt My Face tapped into her childhood in Leeds and in a scarily pre-emptive way touched on a dodgy family acquaintance called uncle Jimmy. This was Mr Saville and Louise, offstage, was less than complimentary about him.
She followed that success with further exploits in a show called Bob Marley’s Gardener Sold My Friend, she loved a long title which for me was a problem as she had asked me to design her posters for the shows that she was taking to Edinburgh.
They were happy days, filled with silliness, and too much wine, and Louise was enjoying her new found success and defying her University of Brighton tutor who advised her to never perform on stage. But on stage Louise was magical, a natural storyteller with a sharp eye for detail and a keen sense of both the tragic and comic. Whether it was tales of being on tour with Led Zeppelin or working in a children’s adventure playground, she was captivatingly funny.
A strong thread in her work was always self-deprecation. She was somewhat obsessed with the size of her nose and it became a running theme (forgive me) throughout much of her work. When she went on to become an author her angst ridden teenage heroine inherited that nose and it became a constant thorn in her side as she straddled puberty and dating.
Again our professional paths crossed and I was invited to design the cover for one of the early Georgia Nicholson novels, which I did with much pleasure and I got as much if not more pleasure from seeing her grow into one of the world’s most respected young adult authors. Georgia was a force of nature that young girls would identify with, riddled with self doubt, bothered by kind parents, kids who have horrid parents have no idea what a problem nice ones are, and of course that nose. Louise invented a fabulous new dictionary of words for your “bits” too, taking euphemisms to a new level.
I read the books, I had to design a cover, and having read one I read them all. Written for teenage girls they were an insightful look into the trials of adolescence. It turns out that I was not alone, the Georgia books were read not just by teenage girls but by boys and adults too. I read them because they were funny and well constructed, but it didn’t take a great mind to see that for any parent they could certainly be instructional.
The success was massive and took her around the world, not easy as Lousie could not fly. On one occasion a jumbo jet had to taxi back from take-off to offload a hysterical Rennison who thereafter would travel to the USA by ocean liner, a mode of travel that suited her well.
Over a few glasses of red wine one night I chatted to Louise about the success of the books and where they would go next. She was frustrated for years by the fact that Hollywood film producers had bought up the rights but were slow to actually make the movie and she was equally worried that big nosed Georgia would end up being a blonde haired, blue eyed teenage starlet and it would be set in a squeaky clean New England “Stepford” like town. In the end she was pleased by the film and delighted that her long time friend Alan Davies had been cast as Georgia’s dad. I saw it at a special screening for her fans in Brighton and sat uncomfortably with a few of her other male friends in a sea of squealing girls, all thrilled to see their heroines, Georgia on screen and Louise in the flesh.
Her other concern was that Georgia could never grow up, or could she, would her readers accept Georgia as an adult, could the character transform from the world of young adult fiction to adult fiction. The truth was that Georgia could remain the same age for ever, eternally teenage.
In that there is a parallel to Louise herself. When I met her she had an air of slightly off kilter sophistication – and she was womanly. It’s not a term that we see used that often as we are all so obsessed with staying young, but Louise was a real woman and somewhat ageless. Over the 30 years that I knew her I never really thought about how old she might be and she never seemed to get any older.
She was a maverick, a real talent, a serious thinker and a lover of great silliness too. She enjoyed her success but seemed little changed by it and I am happy to have been privileged to have known her, worked with her and counted her as a friend. Rest In Peace Louise. X