On July 4th 1985, Irene and Vera were born in a handwritten letter left on a kitchen table in Clapham, south west London...
Lou Wakefield and Carole Hayman, two friends who are now older than they ever expected to be, decided to play a game of written improvisation. Just for the fun of it, they would correspond as the sixty-something Irene Spencer and Vera Small, but with one unbreakable rule: they could never discuss it in person.
Irene was first off the mark with a letter to Vera. Her daughter Lesley had recently married, and Irene wrote to thank her new friend for the thank you letter she’d received in response to the wedding, where they had met for the first time. She admits that she’d enjoyed Vera’s company and, since they live so far away from each other, suggests they become penpals.
And that’s where the trouble began...
From her very first letter of reply, Vera threw Irene into a spin by saying that ‘Lesley is a lovely girl, and Keith seems a pleasant chap.’
Irene, and her alter ego, Lou, had thought that Vera was one of Keith’s relations, whereas Vera and Carole knew better - Vee had been staying with a mutual friend, Betty, who Irene had hired to mastermind the catering, so Vera had rolled up her sleeves to help. The Salmon Mousse and the Blue Cheese Quiche had been hers.
This small misunderstanding right at the beginning of their relationship set the tone for years of crossed wires and bitter banter between them.
But so much stood in their way. For a start, shortly after giving birth to them, Lou and Carole got on with their busy separate working lives, and the Ladies languished for two long years with nary a peep from either. But as luck would have it, their first guardian angel came flying to their rescue, in the person of Sue Townsend, creator of Adrian Mole.
A friend of both the writers, Sue read the letters so far and demanded to read more. ‘This is a book!’ she cried, and thus, eventually, it came to pass.
More years flew by than Carole and Lou care to remember, until a second guardian angel came to the Ladies’ rescue, this time bearing a spooky resemblance to Robert Maxwell in his role of publisher and owner of the imprint, Futura. The book, Ladies of Letters, was finally finished, and in 1991 it had rumbled through the printing presses and was about to be launched on the world when two cataclysmic events took place: Maxwell became bankrupt, his businesses going into receivership, his assets seized, and he took a tumble from his boat, The Lady Ghislane, taking Irene and Vera with him to his watery grave, where they remained for six long years.
But the Ladies don’t do death. It’s a thing that happens to other people, not them. Somehow they managed to swim free, and breaking the surface in 1997, they took to the air on Radio 4's Woman’s Hour as a series of six fifteen minute shows, starring Prunella Scales and Patricia Routledge.
The world waited with bated breath for more. And waited.
It took another two years and a dogged determination from you, the Ladies fans, to put pen to paper again and again, and demand their immediate return.
The rest, as they say, is history....
Eleven radio series
The story continues...