Maureen Chadwick, creator and writer of award-winning dramas "Bad Girls", "Footballers' Wives" and "Waterloo Road", writes about her provocative new stage play, "The Speed Twins".
When I was a child, my mother told me if a strange man came up to me and tried to offer me sweets, I should run away and find a nice lady. By the time I was a teenager, without a boyfriend in sight, she had started to worry I might be taking that advice rather too seriously. My problem, however, in common with many a budding sapphist from the sticks, was not knowing where I was supposed to find myself a nice lady. Then, in 1969, a notorious X-rated film called "The Killing of Sister George" came out, featuring scenes set in a real-life lesbian club in Chelsea called "The Gateways", and helpfully including both its address and phone number.
The Gateways launched me on my own lesbian life path, and I'm now about to re-launch it, as the setting for my new play "The Speed Twins". Like the film, it also focuses on a trio of contrasting lesbian characters plunged into a conflict of desires and role-playing rivalries, but the club in my play is situated in a different dimension of time and space - as a last-chance saloon for lost lovers.
The central character is a respectable widow called Queenie, who is astonished and appalled to find herself trapped in a place which, to her, is the very vision of Hell. Her drunken companion, Ollie, couldn't be happier - with Dusty on the jukebox and free booze on tap, she thinks she's died and gone to Dyke Heaven. But they're both thrown into turmoil by the arrival of lovely young Shirley, not looking a day older than she did fifty years ago, and still yearning to live the life she lost back then. As the drink flows, uncomfortable truths are revealed, and Queenie finds herself struggling to justify her life choices and clear her conscience, not only for denying the truth of her own heart's desire but also cruelly rejecting her lesbian daughter.
It's a story inspired by the revelations of several of my friends about their mother/daughter conflicts: a suspicion that their mothers' rejection of their daughters' sexuality might actually be rooted in resentment of their sexual freedom. It also springs from my undimmed anger about lesbian cultural invisibility, and wanting to write a positive portrayal of an uncompromising old butch dyke like Ollie. But "The Speed Twins" is primarily about the revival of a long-lost love between two women, whose true identities were crushed by the rigid social pressures of their time. And inevitably, as women growing up in the male-dominated post-war era of institutionalised gender-stereotyping, their generation's struggle was doubly-compounded by rampant sexism. So the challenge for a strong-willed survivor like Queenie, who rates her successful adaptation to societal norms as a triumph of moral courage, is finally to realise the extent of her self-delusion. But will she dare reject the values of her whole lifetime?
As a writer, I've always set out to create strong roles for women and my motto has been "subversion by seduction" - using entertainment values, rather than polemics, to bring controversial issues into the mainstream. In "Bad Girls", our strategy for getting away with a lesbian romance at the core of a primetime drama series (unprecedented in 1999, but probably even less likely today) was "homo-normatization". Instead of presenting Helen and Nikki's lesbianism as problematic, we emphasised the abnormality of their situation, stuck on opposite sides of the prison bars, to involve audiences in a compelling love story which circumvented conventional prejudices by force of its narrative momentum (not to mention irresistible casting) - such that even my mum would say: "But Helen can't marry that man, she's got to end up with Nikki!"
The Speed Twins, by contrast, is premised on a perception of lesbianism as pathologically deviant, and it revisits the pre-feminist sub-culture of butch and femme role-playing, which had been de rigueur in the Gateways Club since its establishment in 1943 and was still pretty much in full swing when I made my own maiden voyage there in 1971.
I had already picked up a few hints about the butch/femme code of behaviour from reading Maureen Duffy's novel "The Microcosm", which described a club modelled on The Gateways, but I wasn't sure if the characters really were women, since some had male names and "wives" and were referred to as "he". It was all very confusing. And I couldn't understand how or why I had to be one or the other, as a former tomboy turning Women's Libber, bent on running away from "strange men" in any form, but simultaneously reclaiming my own camped-up version of"femininity", accessorised with bra and full make-up. But "The Killing of Sister George" gave me hope that I might find a glamorous Coral Browne rather than a tweed-suited Beryl Reid. If only I had made a note of the Gateways' address...
It took me three attempts before I actually got through the door, each requiring cash for a train ticket up to London and a lie to my parents about why: the first time failing to find it altogether, having been falsely informed it was on the King's Road; the second time successfully arriving at the correct address in Bramerton Street, having conducted lengthy research by means that would baffle the IT generation - only to be told it was "members only" and barred from entry. Finally, membership card applied for by post and mailed to me c/o art college not parental home, I set off to London on a Friday night, wearing what I hoped was a killer combination of black jeans, lilac crepe shirt, chiffon scarf and Susannah York-style makeup. As a complete ingenue, I knew I would have to contrive to get picked up by someone older and sophisticated - and crucially before the club closed at 11pm. So I just stood in the middle of the dance floor, oozing availability but rebuffing undesirables, until a Coral Browne look-a-like finally took the bait. And in the immortal (but totally non-illuminating) words of Radclyffe Hall: "That night they were not divided."
The lesbian scene had changed completely by the late 1970s, and the irony then was that, despite being a committed feminist activist, I would find myself barred from lesbian clubs simply because I was wearing makeup. So hurrah for modern-day diversity! But it was a long, hard road getting there, and we should remember the journey as well as celebrating the arrival.
The Speed Twins runs at Riverside Studios from 29th August to 28th September. Box office: 020 8237 1111
This article was published in Gaze - A Modern Review in August 2013.